Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Rice Carpenter (1863–1909)
FULL appreciation of Whittier’s work depends to an unusual degree on an understanding of his life and character. The verse of his equally celebrated contemporary, Longfellow, for example, needs little explanation; Longfellow’s career was that of the student, the traveler, the genial professor. His tastes, his sympathies, his ambitions, were not widely separated from those of men of letters throughout the world. With Whittier the case was entirely different. He was born of simple farming folk; his formal education was merely that of the district school and the country academy; the experience of travel was denied him. He sprang from the soil of New England, showing to the full the virtues and defects of his ancestry and environment; and his singular merit is that he represents, with extraordinary success, the most winning side of country life in his native district,—its faith, its theocratic conception of the State, its indignation at injustice, its stalwart upholding of the dignity of labor, its old content in simple joys and simple duties. Not only has Whittier expressed in his verse emotions peculiar in many ways to America, and common to a large body of Americans, but there is no other one of our poets, of the body of whose work this could be said. That he was able thus to hold fast to old ideals, and to depict with sympathy native life and country ways,—that he did not desert his homely subjects and homely style for the more European matter and diction of his contemporaries,—was due to circumstances that isolated him from city life and the foreign influences that are so plainly revealed in their work.  1
  John Greenleaf Whittier was born December 17th, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, of a family that had been permanently settled in that immediate vicinity since the early days of the seventeenth century. Until he was nearly twenty, he had no educational advantages besides those afforded by the ordinary district school. In 1827 and 1828, however, he attended the Haverhill Academy. For a year he was in the employ of a Boston printing-house, where he edited a Protectionist paper and a temperance journal. For another year he was the editor of the New England Weekly Review in Hartford, in which he succeeded George D. Prentice. In 1833 he signed the National Anti-Slavery Declaration as one of the delegates from Massachusetts; in 1835 he was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature; in 1837 he was for a few months in New York as one of the secretaries of the American Anti-Slavery Society; and from 1837 to 1840 he was editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, a Philadelphia abolitionist journal. With the exception of the absences occasioned by these duties, Whittier’s long life was almost entirely spent in Essex County, Massachusetts; either in Haverhill, Amesbury, or Danvers. He died in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, September 8th, 1892.  2
  Thomas Whittier, the emigrant founder of the family, is said to have been a Huguenot. His immense energy and unflinching devotion to moral aims made him a typical Puritan: but he showed a vein of unusual toleration in religious matters, by taking the side of some persecuted members of the Society of Friends; and during his lifetime his son married a Quaker. The wife’s influence prevailed; and henceforth, with few exceptions, the family followed her simple and noble faith. Whittier’s own father was an active, taciturn man, the type of independent conservatism and of the virtuous and industrious freeman on whom the commonwealth rests. His mother was an equally fine type of the Quaker matron, whose religion found expression in an ideally beautiful character. His early life was that of the ordinary country lad,—full of effort and discipline, free from affectation,—a circumscribed life, in which the outer world of cities is unrealized, and the attention is rarely called beyond the limits of the township and the county. The Whittiers were small farmers; and their means and the Quaker creed alike discouraged special efforts for worldly education. The boy performed, year in, year out, his simple country tasks, acquiring the scant learning of the district school, and retaining it with a firmness of grasp that was stimulated by lack of wide opportunity. His native tongue he knew as only a country boy of his time could know it, drawing deep from the homely language of the people, which clung closer to the idioms of the great centuries than did the diction of the lettered world,—a language ennobled by the pioneer’s close contact with life and nature, and chastened by the constant influence of the Bible. He was early a rhymester; and some lines sent to a local paper brought him to the attention of a larger circle of friends and led to wider opportunities. His facile, boyish verse dealt often with national history and public interests, and his trend of mind led him to journalism and politics. By 1832 he had won a name for himself in both fields, and seemed likely to represent his district in Congress.  3
  Two influences intervened to prevent Whittier’s being drawn into the vortex of the city and under the sway of its alien ideals, and attached him permanently to the rural life of his boyhood. His delicate health made impossible for him the activity and anxiety of a journalist’s career; and his spirit, which was that of the reformer, bound him to what then seemed the lost cause of the abolition movement. To support oneself in the field of letters was then scarcely possible; especially for an abolitionist, who was by no means a welcome contributor to any periodical which sought a wide and tolerant circulation. Debarred, therefore, from the professional pursuit of letters, journalism, and politics, Whittier resigned himself to the quiet life of the countryman. Until he was past middle age his copyrights were valueless: but he was for many years a paid contributor to the most important abolitionist journal, the Washington National Era, in which ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ appeared as a serial; his habits were frugal and his wants few. When the success of his political ideals was assured, when his voice was recognized throughout the North as that of the poet of freedom, and the popularity of his verse had put him beyond the reach of want, he still lived in the homely fashion of his ancestors, shunning the jostle and jar of cities and crowded resorts. An honored friend of the great and the learned, he consistently held himself aloof from all entanglements that would disturb the Quaker simplicity and Puritan strenuousness of his life, always in perfect sympathy with the old New England ideals and traditions.  4
  Whittier’s spirit was that of the reformer. As a boy he wrote that he would rather have “the memory of a Howard, a Wilberforce, or a Clarkson, than the undying fame of a Byron.” As editor for a time of an antislavery journal, and by his pamphlets and poems, he was one of the foremost in advancing the claims of his despised but rapidly growing party. In practical politics his services were equally strenuous and even more effective. He was the friend and adviser of statesmen; he was, on occasion, a shrewd lobbyist in the Massachusetts Legislature; and in his own district he was the recognized head of a party that held the balance of power, and was accustomed cannily to pledge the candidate whom it honored with its vote. But whatever were his secret services in the direction of public affairs, Whittier first won his reputation by a remarkable series of antislavery poems, which arrested attention and molded public opinion. Beyond any other American poet, he had the power of expressing, in a striking way, the latent thought of plain people. His ‘Kansas Emigrants’ became actually the song of those who
  “—crossed the prairie, as of old
The Pilgrims crossed the sea.”
“We wait beneath the furnace blast,” were the words of every noble Northern heart during the years of the great trial; and other verses of far inferior quality, now forgotten, were not without a strong influence on all ranks of society, from the President and his Cabinet to the lowest soldier and taxpayer. The best of these political tracts in verse had in them the genuine singing quality of Whittier’s best work. They were all efficacious; but they were militant in quality, instruments in a transient struggle, the product of discord and sectional feeling, and hence hardly destined to live in the national memory. One ballad alone of this sort, ‘Barbara Frietchie,’ is thoroughly familiar to the younger generation, and will long survive as a tribute to Northern bravery and Southern chivalry.
  Whittier’s religious verse is much more national in character. Here the progress of the century has worked as plainly for the permanence of his fame as it has worked against that of his political verse. His political verse tended to perpetuate differences of opinion that were soon settled forever. His religious verse, on the other hand, steadily prefigured a unity of feeling to which gentle souls of all creeds aspire. For many decades all the Protestant sects in America have been moving slowly toward the Quaker standpoint,—tending to acknowledge that always, by the mouths of prophets, poets, priests, and philosophers, God hath revealed himself; and that the living spirit of God, acting upon the hearts of men, is the great guide in matters of conduct and belief. Whittier’s Quaker tolerance, his life of moral earnestness, his leisure for meditation, his own gentle, unspotted character, and his simple way of taking the world,—all these made him a fitting spokesman in verse of the most liberal religious feeling of his day. The main motives of his creed are always the “eternal goodness” of God, and faith in immortality,—truths so deeply rooted historically in the conceptions of our race that denial of them has the air of painful novelty, as of some new city notion that troubles but for an instant the abiding peace of the ancestral and rural faith.  6
  It is, however, by his verses on country life, rather than by his political or religious poetry, that Whittier will be remembered. It must be kept in mind that almost the whole of his long life was spent in a single county of a single State. This district that Whittier knew so well is richly dowered by nature; and except for the absence of mountains, is thoroughly typical of New England. It is well populated, and yet is free from large cities; it has a wild seacoast and sandy beaches, hills, dales, meadows, and forests, farming villages and fishing towns,—an epitome, so it chanced, of the diversified scenery and occupations of a whole group of States. Here Whittier—a bachelor and an invalid, not bound by the ties and the labors that commonly blind men to wider thoughts than society and fortune, following pursuits that gave ample leisure for meditation—lived, with Quaker and Puritan frugality, a life full of reminiscence of boyhood days, and of sympathy with the country ways that had never ceased to be his. And this reminiscence and this sympathy became in his verse the voice of a whole multitude, East and West, that still toiled in the fields, or looked gladly back from city counting-houses to the orchards and brooks of their early years.  7
  This body of country verse falls naturally into several distinct parts, the least important of which is that dealing with labor. Whittier had wrought with his own hands, and had known in his own soul the primal curse,—the unrelenting toil, the brutal weariness, the mere pittance of gain; and though he prized the feeling of self-reliance, the consciousness of physical strength and independence, that are in some degree the farmer’s blessing, his poetry happily lacks the mistaken ardor of the professor’s pastoral rhyme or the rant of the walking delegate’s harangue. He turned more gladly to the gentler side of farm life,—the evening by the hearth, the old-fashioned frolics of the husking; more gladly yet, in song and ballad, to the quaint and stirring romance of New England’s history. This, Longfellow also treated, but not quite in native fashion; laboring to give to familiar traditions the flavor of the Continental idyls he knew too well. Whittier was not forced to cram himself with strange, antiquarian learning. He wrote of his own townspeople of the earlier centuries,—the German cobbler, the mad Irishman who planted the sycamores, the shipwrecked sailor who dug the well; of the traditions of his country,—of the Salem witchcraft, the ride of Skipper Ireson, the haunted garrison of Cape Ann, the prophecy of Samuel Sewell, the swan-song of Parson Avery; of the persecuted progenitors of his own creed. Whatever be the deficiencies of these verses, they are not literary exercises, but spontaneous expressions of genuine feeling and interest. The days of the fine old ballads are over long ago, but these are of their very kin.  8
  Three themes, favorites of Whittier’s, deserve special mention: the joys of childhood in the country; the equality, before the power of love, of rich and poor, laborer and aristocrat; and the lost opportunities of country life, where the mistakes of youth are more irreparable than in a society less pliable. The first is most completely handled in the ‘Barefoot Boy’ and ‘Snow-Bound’; the second in ‘Amy Wentworth’; the third—less common, as if too intimate for public expression—in ‘Maud Muller.’ In the treatment in verse of such themes, so close to the hearts of the people, Whittier has not been equaled among us. Of the modern child in the modern city, with his gloves, his idleness, and his precocious knowledge of guile, Whittier could not have written. But with the country boy, his acquaintance was intimate; and as long as we exist whose unshod feet have trodden the lanes and byways, as long as there be those that turn back the wheel of memory to the days of the pastures, the woods, and the hills, with a lingering touch of genuine sentiment for the curls of our first rosy-cheeked sweethearts, his verse will serve to awaken recollections that are of the very essence of poetry.  9
  That love should mate where it will, the second of Whittier’s favorite themes, is not often now a topic of narrative in the East, though in the West it reappears triumphantly in Mr. Hamlin Garland’s charming and democratic stories. The doctrine—to wit, that all brave and honest hearts, of whatever sect or station, may fairly love and marry—is almost as classic as that of the Declaration of Independence; and is essentially American in principle and practice. In other fields of literature the theme is still common: in tragedy and comedy we note the many exceptions to the rule; in the novel we discuss the problem in all its bearings. In Whittier’s verse alone is the doctrine stated with lyric feeling, in types to which the fresh breezes of the meadows or the sea give undying youth, so that the heart yields the assent that the judgment might withhold. The third theme, “It might have been,” though less rarely touched on, even in Whittier’s verse, is one peculiarly appropriate in a land where the opportunity for good fortune seems to come at least once to nearly all; and especially in the country, where lost opportunity is so well-nigh irretrievable. Many a broken man or weary woman, in grinding poverty or misery, has repeated as his own the “saddest words” of Whittier’s now hackneyed couplet.  10
  Whittier’s fame has not proved worldwide. Even in other English-speaking lands his verse is little known, and beyond the limits of our language it has scarcely reached. The ways of other nations are not ours; our history, our traditions, are not theirs. Whittier’s metre often halts; his rhymes sometimes grate on the punctilious ear, though he followed accurately the local speech of his district. His measures, often smooth, are almost always monotonous; and except in his rhymed couplets, he is at his best when he is nearest the old fours and threes of the psalm tunes. His verse deals only with simple things, uncomplicated and sincere emotions: the justice and mercy of God; the freedom of man; the nobility of independence; the beauty of love, before which all are equal; the dear memories of early life and early affection. But ours is a new, and to a large extent, a pastoral nation. The great majority of the native-born are still at the plowtail or fresh from it; and to all of us, what Whittier sings is dear. For he sings. The tune is simple; but the notes are fresh and clear, the melody has the thrill of the robin’s and the wood-thrush’s songs, the feeling is that of the genuine lyric that comes from the heart and therefore goes to it. We have not yet had world-poets in America, but Whittier’s verse is that to which the American born and bred responds most naturally. We must look elsewhere for learning, for philosophy, for exotic beauty. Whittier’s was the voice that more than a generation ago proclaimed most clearly the duty of man, and that now calls us most sweetly to thoughts of olden days.  11

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