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John Greenleaf Whittier

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), born at Haver-hill, Massachusetts, was not only the chief Quaker poet, but the clearest voice of New England country life. Bred on a farm, he found his first poetic inspiration in reading the poems of the inspired Scotch ploughman, Robert Burns. At the age of twenty he had earned enough by farm chores and shoe-making to secure some instruction at Haverhill Academy, and then became a district school teacher. He contributed verse to the "Free Press," and found a lasting friend in the editor, William Lloyd Garrison, who enlisted 'him in the anti-slavery crusade. In 1835 Whittier was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature. From 1837 to 1839 he edited the "Pennsylvania Freeman," at Philadelphia, where his office was sacked and burnt by a mob. His delicate health obliged him to return to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where with his sister, he led a frugal life, contributing chiefly to the "National Era," published in Washington. Gradually his books of poems made their way, and when the struggle for Kansas came, in 1856, he was recognized as the poet of freedom. These militant poems of a peace-loving Quaker helped to prepare the Northern people for the Civil War. When the "Atlantic Monthly" was founded Whittier was a frequent contributor. His verse celebrated there the emancipation of the slaves, but in his ballad of "Barbara Frietchie," he told effectively the story of the old woman of Frederick, Maryland, who waved the Union flag over the troops of Stonewall Jackson, and was gallantly spared by him. This tribute to Northern loyalty and Southern chivalry has become a national classic. In some of his New England poems Whittier told of the persecution of the early Quakers, in others he simply exhibited the homely features of farming life. His "Songs of Labor" appealed to the multitude as combined for general welfare. He revived the legends of his neighborhood. Especially famous is his "Skipper Ireson's Ride," the story of a skipper who, for his neglect to rescue a perishing crew, was tarred and feathered and carried in a cart by the women of Marble-head. And yet more famous is the simple ballad of "Maud Muller" and its dreams of what might have been. The "Tent on the Beach" is an idyl of summer life by the sea, in which Bayard Taylor and James T. Fields listen to a group of tales told by the poet. "Snow-Bound" is the poet's masterpiece, telling of a New England family shut in by a snow-storm for three days. The family was that of the poet's father. After the death of his sister in 1864, his niece took charge of his house till her marriage, then for twenty years he lived alone. Whittier became the most popular American poet, next to Longfellow. This is due to the simple dignity of his character, the homeliness and universal interest of his themes. His anti-slavery lyrics are forgotten, but his pictures of New England life are treasured in the heart.

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