Whittier The Puritan Singer

( Originally Published 1916 )


WHITTIER is a poet who appeals far more to Americans than to Europeans because he appealed with special force to all of New England strain. His life was a complete contradiction to his natural traits. Born a Quaker, with a strong bias in favor of peace, he was thrown from early youth into the fierce turmoil of the anti-slavery agitation, and he contributed many poems that served to hearten the small faction in New England that labored for the freedom of the slave. Seldom traveling more than a few miles from his birthplace in Massachusetts and never visiting Europe, he yet rivals Longfellow in his references to foreign scenes and historical events. Whittier had fewer ad-vantages and less regular education than any other American writer of prominence; he was also handicapped from early youth by ailments that would have converted a man of, less will power into a chronic, peevish invalid. That he educated him-self and that he did work in verse which has given him a foremost place among American poets was as great an achievement as was the literary work of Robert Louis Stevenson, accomplished often while he was ill in bed and suffering acute pain. This triumph of the mind and the spirit over weakness of the flesh gave power to much of Whittier's work; it touched his words with flame; it fused into the white heat of passion many of his battle hymns during the long anti-slavery struggle that preceded the Civil War.

Many have forgotten the important part which Whittier played in arousing popular sentiment throughout the Northern states in favor of the rights of the slaves in the South. But it is easy to see what he accomplished when one reads the poems on the wrongs of the slave which he poured forth. One short poem alone roused all Thou too hast heard
Voices and melodies from beyond the gates,
And speakest only when thy soul is stirred!

Whittier is one of the few American poets who sings of life on the farm with real enthusiasm. He was born on a farm at Haverhill, Massachusetts, and, despite his bodily weakness, he knew what farm labor was as well as the sports in which country boys delight. Born December 17, 1807, he was nineteen when his first poem was published in the Newburyport FREE PRESS. The editor of that paper was William Lloyd Garrison, afterward the great anti-slavery leader. So impressed was Garrison with the ability of the writer of this poem and another which followed it, that he visited Whittier's home and urged him to attend the neighboring academy. Whittier's father was a hard working Quaker farmer, who did not believe in anything but the virtues of labor and thrift, but the editor of the Haverhill GAZETTE having promised to give the boy a home in his family, the father yielded and the lad was permitted to take up the making of cheap slippers in order to earn enough money to carry him through one term at the academy. School teaching and bookkeeping furnished the funds for a second term, which made up all Whittier's regular education.

Like all great writers, Whittier had read widely and, after his brief school life, he entered a Haverhill newspaper office, one of the best of training schools. There and in Boston he continued to edit newspapers and to write poems. His first published work was Legends of New England, issued in 1831.

As a youth Whittier had taken the keenest interest in the anti-slavery cause, and it was in recognition of his services that he was appointed a delegate to the National Anti-Slavery Society. He served terms in the Massachusetts State Senate and Legislature, and in 1836 moved to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where he made his home as long as he lived. He was extremely active in the anti-slavery cause for the next four years. Then he began writing for the NATIONAL ERA in Washington. One of his early books was Voices of Freedom, issued in 1849. He had the distinction of contributing a poem to the first number of the ATLANTIC MONTHLY in 1857 and in the same year the well-known Blue and Gold Edition of his poems was published. Then came the Civil War, which called out some fine poems, the most noteworthy of which is Law Deo, celebrating the pas-sage of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. It was one year before the war ended that Whittier lost the beloved sister whose death he commemorated a year after in the exquisite lines in Snow-Bound. In Whittier's last years his heart was warmed by the great public appreciation of his poetical work. He was asked to write the Centennial hymn for the Philadelphia Exposition, and his seventieth birthday was marked by a great banquet given by his publishers in his honor to the contributors to the ATLANTIC MONTHLY. The speeches and the letters which this called out showed the high place which Whittier occupied in public regard. The poet died in 1892, full of years and honors.

It is needless to look for great dramatic force or unusual passion in Whittier's work. His poems reflect the calm of his life, which was broken only in his youth by the storm and stress of anti-slavery agitation. Had it not been for his Quaker training he would have been found in the ranks of the early volunteers fighting for the cause which he had aided with his pen. The anti-slavery poems, most of them suggested by events of the day, fill nearly one hundred double-column pages in his complete works. They begin with tributes to Toussaint L'Ouverture and to Garrison, and they range from fiery denunciation of the holders of slaves to songs of rejoicing over the spread of the cause of freedom, Of all these poems the one which appealed most powerfully to the public fancy was Barbara Frietchie, which is known to every American child in the public schools. Many fine poems are included in this collection of wartime lyrics, among which may be named What the Birds Said, After the War, TO Englishmen and The Watchers. These are all instinct with the finest spirit of poetry while they sound the ringing battle-cry of freedom that still has power to stir the blood like the blast of a trumpet.

Of all Whittier's work Snow-Bound reaches the highest level of inspiration. It is a picture of New England home life in midwinter, of the family fireside painted with the truth and dignity of a Dutch genre artist, and of the tales told about the chimney corner when the wind roared about the roof-tree and the sleet beat upon the window panes. The sketches of his parents, his beloved sister and of the other persons in the household are fine examples of Whittier's skill in portraiture; but the lines that lift this poem to the highest plane of inspiration are those in lament over the sister who passed from life and thought only a year before. These are words that bring tears to the eyes of all readers who have lost one near and dear. John Bright, the most eloquent of English parliamentary speakers of the last century, declared this tribute to be the finest he had ever read. The prelude to Among the Hills rises to rare flights in its pitture of what American country life should be. In The Tent on the Beach Whittier produced a poem that reveals some of his best work. It is a collection of short poems demonstrating Whittier's easy mastery of many forms of verse.

Many other poems of Whittier's deserve mention here, but if anyone will read the poems named in this article, he will be pretty sure to keep Whittier on his book shelf as a constant companion. From no other books of verse can one get surer light on the blessings that come from unselfish love and kindly thoughts of others, or a better guide to the beauties of nature that keep the heart young and the mind open to all the sweet influences of the birds and the trees and all growing things.

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