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John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry

John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection

Robert Penn Warren
Copyright Date: 1971
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry
    Book Description:

    In this volume Robert Warren Penn, the noted critic, poet, and novelist, provides a major new appraisal of the once enormously popular New England port, John Greenleaf Whittier, along with his selection of 36 of Whittier’s poems. Through Warren’s perceptive and illuminating discussion, the significance of Whittier as a writer for our time becomes clear. In his introduction Warren shows that Whittier’s deep commitment to his fellowman, especially his devotion to the cause of abolition, profoundly influenced his writing. In his estimate of Whittier’s place in literature, Warren invokes the questions What does the past mean to an American? and in this context he compares Whittier with Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Faulkner. He finds that Whittier’s “star belongs in their constellation. If it is less commanding than any of theirs it yet shines with a clear and authentic light.”

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6486-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Biographical Summary
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. John Greenleaf Whittier: Poetry as Experience
    (pp. 3-61)

    The first Whittier, Thomas, arrived in Massachusets in 1638. He was a man of moral force, as is attested by the fact that, a generation before the family had any connection with Quakers, he took grave risks in protesting against their persecution.* Despite his espousal of a dangerously unpopular cause, he still had influence in his little world, and was a holder of office. He was, too, a physical giant and, at the age of sixty-eight, still vigorous enough to hew the oak timbers for a new house, the solid two-story structure in Haverhill where, on December 17, 1807, the...

    (pp. 62-64)
  6. Massachusetts to Virginia
    (pp. 65-70)

    Written on reading an account of the proceedings of the citizens of Norfolk, Va., in reference to George Latimer, the alleged fugitive slave, who was seized in Boston without warrant at the request of James B. Grey, of Norfolk, claiming to be his master. The case caused great excitement North and South, and led to the presentation of a petition to Congress, signed by more than fifty thousand citizens of Massachusetts, calling for such laws and proposed amendments to the Constitution as should relieve the Commonwealth from all further participation in the crime of oppression. George Latimer himself was finally...

  7. Song of Slaves in the Desert
    (pp. 71-72)

    “Sebah, Oasis of Fezzan, 10th March,1846. — This evening the female slaves were unusually excited in singing, and I had the curiosity to ask my negro servant, Said, what they were singing about. As many of them were natives of his own country, he had no difficulty in translating the Mandara or Bornou language. I had often asked the Moors to translate their songs for me, but got no satisfactory account from them. Said at first said, ‘Oh, they sing ofRubee’(God). ‘What do you mean?’ I replied, impatiently. ‘Oh, don’t you know?’ he continued, ‘they asked God to...

  8. Randolph of Roanoke
    (pp. 73-76)

    O Mother Earth! upon thy lap

    Thy weary ones receiving,

    And o’er them, silent as a dream,

    Thy grassy mantle weaving,

    Fold softly in thy long embrace

    That heart so worn and broken,

    And cool its pulse of fire beneath

    Thy shadows old and oaken.

    Shut out from him the bitter word

    And serpent hiss of scorning;

    Nor let the storms of yesterday

    Disturb his quiet morning.

    Breathe over him forgetfulness

    Of all save deeds of kindness,

    And, save to smiles of grateful eyes,

    Press down his lids in blindness.

    There, where with living ear and eye

    He heard Potomac’s...

  9. To My Sister
    (pp. 77-78)

    The work referred to was a series of papers under this title, contributed to theDemocratic Reviewand afterward collected into a volume, in which I noted some of the superstitions and folklore prevalent in New England. The volume has not been kept in print, but most of its contents are distributed in myLiterary Recreations and Miscellanies.

    Dear Sister! while the wise and sage

    Turn coldly from my playful page,

    And count it strange that ripened age

    Should stoop to boyhood’s folly;

    I know that thou wilt judge aright

    Of all which makes the heart more light,

    Or lends...

  10. Ichabod
    (pp. 79-80)

    This poem was the outcome of the surprise and grief and forecast of evil consequences which I felt on reading the seventh of March speech of Daniel Webster in support of the “compromise,” and the Fugitive Slave Law. No partisan or personal enmity dictated it. On the contrary my admiration of the splendid personality and intellectual power f the great Senator was never stronger than when I laid down his speech, and, in one of the saddest moments of my life penned my protest. I saw, as I wrote, with painful clearness its sure results, — the Slave Power arrogant and...

  11. To My Old Schoolmaster An Epistle Not After the Manner of Horace.
    (pp. 81-86)

    These lines were addressed to my worthy friend Joshua Coffin, teacher, historian, and antiquarian. He was one of the twelve persons who with William Lloyd Garrison formed the first anti-slavery society in New England.

    Old friend, kind friend! lightly down

    Drop time’s snow-flakes on thy crown!

    Never be thy shadow less,

    Never fail thy cheerfulness;

    Care, that kills the cat, may plough

    Wrinkles in the miser’s brow,

    Deepen envy’s spiteful frown,

    Draw the mouths of bigots down,

    Plague ambition’s dream, and sit

    Heavy on the hypocrite,

    Haunt the rich man’s door, and ride

    In the gilded coach of pride; —


  12. First-Day Thoughts
    (pp. 87-87)

    In calm and cool and silence, once again

    I find my old accustomed place among

    My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue

    Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung,

    Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung,

    Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane!

    There, syllabled by silence, let me hear

    The still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear;

    Read in my heart a still diviner law

    Than Israel’s leader on his tables saw!

    There let me strive with each besetting sin,

    Recall my wandering fancies, and restrain

    The sore disquiet of a restless brain;

    And, as the...

  13. Trust
    (pp. 88-88)

    The same old baffling questions! O my friend,

    I cannot answer them. In vain I send

    My soul into the dark, where never burn

    The lamps of science, nor the natural light

    Of Reason’s sun and stars! I cannot learn

    Their great and solemn meanings, nor discern

    The awful secrets of the eyes which turn

    Evermore on us through the day and night

    With silent challenge and a dumb demand,

    Proffering the riddles of the dread unknown,

    Like the calm Sphinxes, with their eyes of stone,

    Questioning the centuries from their veils

    of sand!

    I have no answer for myself...

  14. Maud Muller
    (pp. 89-93)

    The recollection of some descendants of a Hessian deserter in the Revolutionary war bearing the name of Muiler doubtless suggested the somewhat infelicitous title of a New England idyl. The poem had no real foundation in fact, though a hint of it may have been found in recalling an incident, trivial in itself, of a journey on the picturesque Maine seaboard with my sister some years before it was written. We had stopped to rest our tired horse under the shade of an apple tree, and refresh him with water from a little brook which rippled through the stone wall...

  15. Letter
    (pp. 94-96)

    Last week — the Lord be praised for all

    His mercies

    To His unworthy servant! — I arrived

    Safe at the Mission,viaWestport; where

    I tarried over night, to aid in forming

    A Vigilance Committee, to send back,

    In shirts of tar, and feather-doublets quilted

    With forty stripes save one, all Yankee comers,

    Uncircumcised and Gentile, aliens from

    The Commonwealth of Israel, who despise

    The prize of the high calling of the saints,

    Who plant amidst this heathen wilderness

    Pure gospel institutions, sanctified

    By patriarchal use. The meeting opened

    With prayer, as was most fitting. Half an hour,

    Or thereaway, I...

  16. The Barefoot Boy
    (pp. 97-99)

    Blessings on thee, little man,

    Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!

    With thy turned-up pantaloons,

    And thy merry whistled tunes;

    With thy red lip, redder still

    Kissed by strawberries on the hill;

    With the sunshine on thy face,

    Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;

    From my heart I give thee joy,—

    I was once a barefoot boy!

    Prince thou art, — the grown-up man

    Only is republican.

    Let the million-dollared ride!

    Barefoot, trudging at his side,

    Thou hast more than he can buy

    In the reach of ear and eye, —

    Outward sunshine, inward joy:

    Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!

    Oh for...

  17. The Panorama
    (pp. 100-113)

    Through the long hall the shuttered windows shed

    A dubious light on every upturned head;

    On locks like those of Absalom the fair,

    On the bald apex ringed with scanty hair,

    On blank indifference and on curious stare;

    On the pale Showman reading from his stage

    The hieroglyphics of that facial page;

    Half sad, half scornful, listening to the bruit

    Of restless cane-tap and impatient foot,

    And the shrill call, across the general din,

    “Roll up your curtain! Let the show begin!”

    At length a murmur like the winds that break

    Into green waves the prairie’s grassy lake,

    Deepened and...

  18. Mary Garvin
    (pp. 114-119)

    From the heart of Waumbek Methna, from the

    lake that never fails,

    Falls the Saco in the green lap of Conway’s intervales;

    There, in wild and virgin freshness, its waters

    foam and flow,

    As when Darby Field first saw them, two hundred

    years ago.

    But, vexed in all its seaward course with bridges,

    dams, and mills,

    How changed is Saco’s stream, how lost its

    freedom of the hills,

    Since travelled Jocelyn, factor Vines, and stately


    Heard on its banks the gray wolf’s howl, the

    trumpet of the loon!

    With smoking axle hot with speed, with steeds

    of fire and...

  19. The Last Walk in Autumn
    (pp. 120-127)

    O’er the bare woods, whose outstretched hands

    Plead with the leaden heavens in vain,

    I see, beyond the valley lands,

    The sea’s long level dim with rain.

    Around me all things, stark and dumb,

    Seem praying for the snows to come,

    And, for the summer bloom and greenness gone,

    With winter’s sunset lights and dazzling morn


    Along the river’s summer walk,

    The withered tufts of asters nod;

    And trembles on its arid stalk

    The hoar plume of the golden-rod.

    And on a ground of sombre fir,

    And azure-studded juniper,

    The silver birch its buds of purple shows,

    And scarlet...

  20. The Garrison of Cape Ann
    (pp. 128-133)

    From the hills of home forth looking, far beneath

    the tent-like span

    Of the sky, I see the white gleam of the headland

    of Cape Ann.

    Well I know its coves and beaches to the ebb-tide

    glimmering down,

    And the white-walled hamlet children of its ancient


    Long has passed the summer morning, and its

    memory waxes old,

    When along yon breezy headlands with a pleasant

    friend I strolled.

    Ah! the autumn sun is shining, and the ocean

    wind blows cool,

    And the golden-rod and aster bloom around thy

    grave, Rantoul!

    With the memory of that morning by the summer...

  21. Skipper Ireson’s Ride
    (pp. 134-137)

    Of all the rides since the birth of time,

    Told in story or sung in rhyme, —

    On Apuleius’s Golden Ass,

    Or one-eyed Calendar’s horse of bráss,

    Witch astride of a human back,

    Islam’s prophet on Al-Borák, —

    The strangest ride that ever was sped

    Was Ireson’s, out from Marblehead!

    Old Floyd Ireson, for his hard heart,

    Tarred and feathered and carried in a cart

    By the women of Marblehead!

    Body of turkey, head of owl,

    Wings a-droop like a rained-on fowl,

    Feathered and ruffled in every part,

    Skipper Ireson stood in the cart.

    Scores of women, old and young,

    Strong of,...

  22. Telling the Bees
    (pp. 138-139)

    A remarkable custom, brought from the Old Country, formerly prevailed in the rural districts of New England. On the death of a member of the family, the bees were at once informed of the event, and their hives dressed in mourning. This ceremonial was supposed to be necessary to prevent the swarms from leaving their hives and seeking a new home.

    Here is the place; right over the hill

    Runs the path I took;

    You can see the gap in the old wall still,

    And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.

    There is the house, with the gate red-barred,


  23. The Pipes at Lucknow An incident of the Sepoy mutiny.
    (pp. 140-142)

    Pipes of the misty moorlands,

    Voice of the glens and hills;

    The droning of the torrents,

    The treble of the rills!

    Not the braes of broom and heather,

    Nor the mountains dark with rain,

    Nor maiden bower, nor border tower,

    Have heard your sweetest strain!

    Dear to the Lowland reaper,

    And plaided mountaineer, —

    To the cottage and the castle

    The Scottish pipes are dear; —

    Sweet sounds the ancient pibroch

    O’er mountain, loch, and glade;

    But the sweetest of all music

    The pipes at Lucknow played.

    Day by day the Indian tiger

    Louder yelled, and nearer crept;

    Round and round the...

  24. The Prophecy of Samuel Sewall
    (pp. 143-147)

    The prose version of this prophecy is to be found in Sewall’sThe New Heaven upon the New Earth,1697, quoted in Joshua Coffin’sHistory of Newbury.Judge Sewall’s father, Henry Sewall, was one of the pioneers of Newbury.

    Up and down the village streets

    Strange are the forms my fancy meets,

    For the thoughts and things of to-day are hid,

    And through the veil of a closëd lid

    The ancient worthies I see again:

    I hear the tap of the elder’s cane,

    And his awful periwig I see,

    And the silver buckles of shoe and knee.

    Stately and slow,...

  25. The Double-Headed Snake of Newbury
    (pp. 148-150)

    Far away in the twilight time

    Of every people, in every clime,

    Dragons and griffins and monsters dire,

    Born of water, and air, and fire,

    Or nursed, like the Python, in the mud

    And ooze of the old Deucalion flood,

    Crawl and wriggle and foam with rage,

    Through dusk tradition and ballad age.

    So from the childhood of Newbury town

    And its time of fable the tale comes down

    Of a terror which haunted bush and brake,

    The Amphisbaena, the Double Snake!

    Thou who makest the tale thy mirth,

    Consider that strip of Christian earth

    On the desolate shore of...

  26. My Playmate
    (pp. 151-153)

    The pines were dark on Ramoth hill,

    Their song was soft and low;

    The blossoms in the sweet May wind

    Were falling like the snow.

    The blossoms drifted at our feet,

    The orchard birds sang clear;

    The sweetest and the saddest day

    It seemed of all the year.

    For, more to me than birds or flowers,

    My playmate left her home,

    And took with her the laughing spring,

    The music and the bloom.

    She kissed the lips of kith and kin,

    She laid her hand in mine:

    What more could ask the bashful boy

    Who fed her father’s kine?


  27. “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott”
    (pp. 154-156)

    We wait beneath the furnace-blast

    The pangs of transformation;

    Not painlessly doth God recast

    And mould anew the nation.

    Hot burns the fire

    Where wrongs expire;

    Nor spares the hand

    That from the land

    Uproots the ancient evil.

    The hand-breadth cloud the sages feared

    Its bloody rain is dropping;

    The poison plant the fathers spared

    All else is overtopping.

    East, West, South, North,

    It curses the earth;

    All justice dies,

    And fraud and lies

    Live only in its shadow.

    What gives the wheat-field blades of steel?

    What points the rebel cannon?

    What sets the roaring rabble’s heel

    On the old...

  28. Monadnoch from Wachuset from Mountain Pictures
    (pp. 157-158)

    I would I were a painter, for the sake

    Of a sweet picture, and of her who led,

    A fitting guide, with reverential tread,

    Into that mountain mystery. First a lake

    Tinted with sunset; next the wavy lines

    Of far receding hills; and yet more far,

    Monadnock lifting from his night of pines

    His rosy forehead to the evening star.

    Beside us, purple-zoned, Wachuset laid

    His head against the West, whose warm light made

    His aureole; and o’er him, sharp and clear,

    Like a shaft of lightning in mid-launching stayed,

    A single level cloud-line, shone upon

    By the fierce glances...

  29. Barbara Frietchie
    (pp. 159-161)

    This poem was written in strict conformity to the account of the incident as I had it from respectable and trustworthy sources. It has since been the subject of a good deal of conflicting testimony, and the story was probably incorrect in some of its details. It is admitted by all that Barbara Frietehie was no myth, but a worthy and highly esteemed gentlewoman, intensely loyal and a hater of the Slavery Rebellion, holding her Union flag sacred and keeping it with her Bible; that when the Confederates halted before her house, and entered her dooryard, she denounced them in...

  30. The Vanishers
    (pp. 162-163)

    Sweetest of all childlike dreams

    In the simple Indian lore

    Still to me the legend seems

    Of the shapes who flit before.

    Flitting, passing, seen and gone,

    Never reached nor found at rest,

    Baffling search, but beckoning on

    To the Sunset of the Blest.

    From the clefts of mountain rocks,

    Through the dark of lowland firs,

    Flash the eyes and flow the locks

    Of the mystic Vanishers!

    And the fisher in his skiff,

    And the hunter on the moss,

    Hear their call from cape and cliff,

    See their hands the birch-leaves toss.

    Wistful, longing, through the green

    Twilight of the...

  31. Laus Deo!
    (pp. 164-166)

    On hearing the bells ring on the passage of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The resolution was adopted by Congress, January 31, 1865. The ratification by the requisite number of States was announced December 18, 1865.

    It is done!

    Clang of bell and roar of gun

    Send the tidings up and down.

    How the belfries rock and reel!

    How the great guns, peal on peal,

    Fling the joy from town to town!

    Ring, 0 bells!

    Every stroke exulting tells

    Of the burial hour of crime.

    Loud and long, that all may hear,

    Ring for every listening ear

    Of Eternity and...

  32. Snow-Bound
    (pp. 167-187)

    The inmates of the family at the Whittier homestead who are referred to in the poem were my father, mother, my brother and two sisters, and my uncle and aunt both unmarried. In addition, there was the district school-master who boarded with us. The “not unfeared, halfwelcome guest” was Harriet Livermore, daughter of Judge Lavermore, of New Hampshire, a young woman of fine natural ability, enthusiastic, eccentric, with slight control over her violent temper, which sometimes made her religious profession doubtful. She was equally ready to exhort in school-house prayer-meetings and dance in a Washington ball-room, while her father was...

  33. Abraham Davenport
    (pp. 188-190)

    The famous Dark Day of New England, May 19, 1780, was a physical puzzle for many years to our ancestors, but its occurrence brought something more than philosophical speculation into the minds of those who passed through it. The incident of Colonel Abraham Davenport’s sturdy protest is a matter of history.

    In the old days (a custom laid aside

    With breeches and cocked hats) the people sent

    Their wisest men to make the public laws.

    And so, from a brown homestead, where the Sound

    Drinks the small tribute of the Mianas,

    Waved over by the woods of Rippowams,

    And hallowed...

  34. The Hive at Gettysburg
    (pp. 191-191)

    In the old Hebrew myth the lion’s frame,

    So terrible alive,

    Bleached by the desert’s sun and wind, became

    The wandering wild bees’ hive;

    And he who, lone and naked-handed, tore

    Those jaws of death apart,

    In after time drew forth their honeyed store

    To strengthen his strong heart.

    Dead seemed the legend: but it only slept

    To wake beneath our sky;

    Just on the spot whence ravening Treason crept

    Back to its lair to die,

    Bleeding and torn from Freedom’s mountain


    A stained and shattered drum

    Is now the hive where, on their flowery rounds,

    The wild bees...

  35. Prelude (from Among the Hills)
    (pp. 192-195)

    This poem, when originally published, was dedicated to Annie Fields, wife of the distinguished publisher, James T. Fields, of Boston, in grateful acknowledgment of the strength and inspiration I have found in her friendship and sympathy.

    The poem in its first form was entitledThe Wife: an Idyl of Bearcamp Water,and appeared inThe Atlantic Monthlyfor January, 1868. When I published the volumeAmong the Hills,in December of the same year, I expanded the Prelude and filled out also the outlines of the story.

    Along the roadside, like the flowers of gold

    That tawny Incas for their...

  36. In School-Days
    (pp. 196-197)

    Still sits the school-house by the road,

    A ragged beggar sleeping;

    And it still the sumachs grow,

    And blackberry-vines are creeping.

    Within, the master’s desk is seen,

    Deep scarred by raps official;

    The warping floor, the battered seats,

    The jack-knife’s carved initial;

    The charcoal frescos on its wall;

    Its door’s worn sill, betraying

    The feet that, creeping slow to school,

    Went storming out to playing!

    Long years ago a winter sun

    Shown over it at setting;

    Lit up its western window-panes,

    And low eaves’ icy fretting.

    It touched the tangled golden curls,

    And brown eyes full of grieving,

    Of one...

  37. The Pressed Gentian
    (pp. 198-198)

    The time of gifts has come again,

    And, on my northern window-pane,

    Outlined against the day’s brief light,

    A Christmas token hangs in sight.

    The wayside travellers, as they pass,

    Mark the gray disk of clouded glass;

    And the dull blankness seems, perchance,

    Folly to their wise ignorance.

    They cannot from their outlook see

    The perfect grace it hath for me;

    For there the flower, whose fringes through

    The frosty breath of autumn blew,

    Turns from without its face of bloom

    To the warm tropic of my room,

    As fair as when beside its brook

    The hue of bending skies...

  38. Conductor Bradley
    (pp. 199-200)

    A railway conductor who lost his life in an accident on a Connecticut railway, May 9, 1873.

    Conductor Bradley, (always may his name

    Be said with reverence!) as the swift doom came,

    Smitten to death, a crushed and mangled frame,

    Sank, with the brake he grasped just where

    he stood

    To do the utmost that a brave man could,

    And die, if needful, as a true man should.

    Men stooped above him; women dropped their


    On that poor wreck beyond all hopes or fears,

    Lost in the strength and glory of his years.

    What heard they? Lo! the ghastly...

  39. At Last
    (pp. 201-201)

    When on my day of life the night is falling,

    And, in the winds from unsunned spaces blown,

    I hear far voices out of darkness calling

    My feet to paths unknown,

    Thou who hast made my home of life so pleasant,

    Leave not its tenant when its walls decay;

    O Love Divine, O Helper ever present,

    Be Thou my strength and stay!

    Be near me when all else is from me drifting:

    Earth, sky, home’s pictures, days of shade and


    And kindly faces to my own uplifting

    The love which answers mine.

    I have but Thee, my Father! let...

  40. Abram Morrison
    (pp. 202-205)

    ’Midst the men and things which will

    Haunt an old man’s memory still,

    Drollest, quaintest of them all,

    With a boy’s laugh I recall

    Good old Abram Morrison.

    When the Grist and Rolling Mill

    Ground and rumbled by Po Hill,

    And the old red school-house stood

    Midway in the Powow’s flood,

    Here dwelt Abram Morrison.

    From the Beach to far beyond

    Bear-Hill, Lion’s Mouth and Pond,

    Marvellous to our tough old stock,

    Chips o’ the Anglo-Saxon block,

    Seemed the Celtic Morrison.

    Mudknock, Balmawhistle, all

    Only knew the Yankee drawl,

    Never brogue was heard till when,

    Foremost of his countrymen,


  41. On the Big Horn
    (pp. 206-208)

    In the disastrous battle on the Big Horn River, in which General Custer and his entire force were slain, the chief Rain-in-the-Face was one of the fiercest leaders of the Indians. In Longfellow’s poem on the massacre, these lines will be remembered:—

    “Revenge!” cried Rain-in-the-Face,

    “Revenge upon all the race

    Of the White Chief with yellow hair!”

    And the mountains dark and high

    From their crags reëchoed the cry

    Of his anger and despair.

    He is now a man of peace; and the agent at Standing Rock, Dakota, writes, September 28, 1886: “Rain-in-the-Face is very anxious to go to Hampton....