John Greenleaf Whittier's Civil War.
Since he is possibly best known as an Abolitionist, it can come as a surprise to learn that during the Civil War years and their immediate aftermath, Whittier, in his maturity as both a man and a poet, is no longer writing the fiery verse propaganda in support of the cause that marked much of his earlier career, but has for some time been composing out of deeper inspiration and greater poetic resonance. His other poetic subjects apart from slavery--legend, history, nature, the past, and especially the spiritual life--come more to the fore, and even the poems he does write on the events of the day are often more skillful and fashioned with a broader scope.
Whittier was born of Quaker background in December 1807 on a farm near Haverhill, Massachusetts. He became an avid reader and, inspired by the work of Robert Burns, began to write poetry. He received only a little formal education, however, before embarking on a career in journalism. He edited newspapers in Boston, Haverhill, and Hartford, while continuing to write poems on a variety of subjects. In 1833 he became prominent in William Lloyd Garrison's Abolitionist movement, and participated in the first National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia. In the ensuing years, Whittier edited an Abolitionist newspaper, The Pennsylvania Freeman, served a term in the Massachusetts legislature, wrote many anti-slavery poems, and gave speeches for the cause.
In 1840, he returned to his native state to live in Amesbury, not far from Haverhill, with his mother, Abigail, and his younger sister, Elizabeth. In 1842, believing that slavery could be ended through the political process, he broke with William Lloyd Garrison's radicalism and began writing more expansively. During the years 1857-1863, Abigail, Elizabeth, and Whittier's older sister Mary all died. This added to his reflectiveness, and the experience of loss and the potential for recovery and redemption become prominent in his poetry.
Whittier never regretted his part in the Abolitionist movement, and remarked later in his life in a letter to E.L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, "that I cannot be sufficiently grateful to the Divine Providence that so early called my attention to the great interests of humanity, saving me from the poor ambitions and miserable jealousies of a selfish pursuit of literary reputation." Nevertheless, his maturation as a poet came as he turned away from the "war on wrong," as he calls it in the preface to his collection The Tent on the Beach (1867), toward poetry built more on experience and inspiration. He describes his earlier work deprecatingly in that same preface as the result of having "left the Muses' haunts to turn/The crank of an opinion-mill," although, admittedly, it was for the purpose of "turn[ing] the soil for truth to spring and grow."
Home Ballads, Poems, and Lyrics, published in 1860, was comprised mostly of poems written during the previous decade, and scarcely touches on contemporary issues. Thus the most recent volume of Whittier's that readers had in hand at the time of the crisis precipitated by the election of Abraham Lincoln presented Whittier more as the "folk poet of New England," as Gay Wilson Allen calls him, than as the anti-slavery agitator of old. Many of the poems in this volume are based on the legends and history of New England. "The Double Headed Snake of Newbury," for example, comes from seventeenth-century Puritan writer Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, as the poem itself reveals, and uses a folk tale about a snake with two heads to make a humorous comment on marriage. "The Prophecy of Samuel Sewall" also comes from Mather. The widely anthologized "Skipper Ireson's Ride" is based on a true-life incident, but an author's note that prefaces the poem confesses that it is not historically accurate, inasmuch as the poet did not have all the facts at the time of the writing.
Nevertheless, "Skipper Ireson's Ride" bears the marks of a historical tale. Set in the New England seaboard town of Marblehead, seasoned with lines in local dialect, written in ballad form ideal for reading aloud, it tells the story of one Floyd Ireson, a sea captain who has been tarred and feathered by the women of Marblehead for sailing away from a sinking ship and abandoning its crew--"his own town's-people"--to the waves. The enraged women are the sisters, mothers, and wives of the drowned sailers. In Whittier's hand, the tale becomes one of vengeance, remorse, and, finally, forgiveness. The poem was judged "by long odds the best of modern ballads" by James Russell Lowell, another of New England's notable nineteenth-century poets and a friend of Whittier's.
"The Garrison of Cape Ann," based on a marvelous supernatural incident related in Mather, also reflects Whittier's belief in the power of spirit to heal and bless human life. The soldiers of the garrison are harassed by spectral apparitions. They turn to prayer, however, and find that the ghosts have vanished. This poem also reflects on the uses of the past, one of Whittier's major preoccupations. "I love the old melodious lays," Whittier had written in 1847 in the "Proem" that he chose to preface the Riverside edition of his collected works in 1888 and that is often anthologized today. And in "The Garrison of Cape Ann" he renders an evocatively dramatic sense of the presentness of the past:
The great eventful Present hides the Past; but through the din Of its loud life hints and echoes from the life behind steal in; And the lore of home and fireside, and the legendary rhyme, Make the task of duty lighter which the true man owes his time.
Home Ballads features a number of lyrics in which Whittier gives voice to his sense of loss at the deaths in his family, but even this more personal sense is often set against a wider backdrop of landscape, legend, or the simple past. "Telling the Bees," judged by Robert Penn Warren to be "a little masterpiece," was written in response to the death of the poet's mother, although the deceased of the poem has been transformed into the speaker's beloved "Mary." The poem is a lyric of restrained grief, evoking the rural New England custom of dressing the hives in black at the death of a member of the family in order to keep the bees from migrating to a new home. The speaker describes the farm where Mary lived with great specificity--indeed it is recognizable as the farm on which Whittier grew up--and lets the landscape itself convey his sense of loss a year after his beloved's death.
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. A year has gone, as the tortoise goes, Heavy and slow; And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows, And the same brook sings of a year ago.
"My Playmate" is another poem on the "lost girl" theme. Here the speaker travels even further back into the past, into his childhood, to recover a memory of boyhood affection and to lament the changes that brought it to an end.
But in "My Psalm," Whittier shows himself surmounting his sense of loss through deep religious faith as he declares, "I mourn no more my vanished years" and finds
That all the jarring notes of life Seem blending in a psalm, And all the angles of its strife Slow rounding into calm.
And indeed, Home Ballads contains one of the poems that in adapted form has become a staple of many Protestant hymnals, "The Shadow and the Light," with its gentle Quaker sense of the inner light: "Truth, which the sage and prophet saw,/ Long sought without, but found within."
Although such blissful inner calm will increasingly mark Whittier's journey as a man, as a poet, and as a Quaker, he was by no means oblivious to the war. In 1863 he published In War Time, and a number of its poems directly address the conflict, its causes, its purpose, and its bloody execution. As a Quaker and pacifist Whittier had hoped that the slavery question would be resolved without violence, although he seemed not to be aware of how even his brand of non-violent Abolition could arouse extreme passion. Once the war broke out, however, he understood that it would have to be fought to resolution, and he even encouraged his fellow Quakers to join the effort in noncombatant roles.
True to form, as a devout Quaker, Whittier saw the conflict in moral, spiritual, and religious terms, as in the poem from In War Time, "Ein feste Burgist unser Gott," set to Luther's hymn and written at the outbreak of the war:
We wait beneath the furnace-blast The pangs of transformation; Not painlessly doth God recast And mould anew the nation.
The hymn was considered incendiary enough to be banned by General George B. McClellan from concerts given in Union camps. A performance by the famous Hutchinson Family Singers had resulted in their being forcibly ejected by the soldiers, who understood themselves to be fighting only for union, and not to eliminate slavery. Lincoln overturned the ban, however, remarking at a cabinet meeting that the poem's sentiments were just the kind of thing he wanted the Union Army to hear. This was in late 1862, shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation began to alter the meaning of the war. The poem portrays both North and South as equally the victims of the "demon" of slavery, and exclaims, "Can ye not cry,/'Let slavery die!'/And union find in freedom?"
Whittier had not always been concerned with the importance of preserving the union. His first response to the secession was "A Word for the Hour," also among the poems of In War Time. Its dramatic opening lines seem a lament: "The firmament breaks up. In black eclipse/Light after light goes out." But the import of that poem is to question the need to bring back the seceding slave states. Rather, the poet says,
... Let us press The golden cluster on our brave old flag In closer union, and, if numbering less, Brighter shall shine the stars which still remain.
Once the war had broken out, however, Whittier came to endorse Lincoln's determination that freedom and union were inextricably bound together. This is suggested in another of the In War Time poems, "Barbara Frietchie," which does not touch on the subject of slavery but focuses on simple patriotism and loyalty to the flag of the United States as symbol of freedom for all.
"Barbara Frietchie" is based on what Whittier thought was a true story, but turned out to be only tangentially related to fact. Once again, however, Whittier evokes a sense of historical time and place. Rendered in rhymed couplets with a rhythmic martial beat suited to its subject, "Barbara Frietchie" became a grammar school staple and perhaps Whittier's most famous poem. Old Barbara Frietchie, though "Bowed with her four score years and ten," not only saves a tattered Union flag from the Confederate guns when the rebels march into "Frederick town," but chastens the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson in those famous lines, "Shoot if you must this old gray head,/But spare your country's flag, she said." The designation of the flag of the United States as belonging even to Stonewall Jackson indicates Whittier's agreement with Lincoln's view that there was only one country in the war, not two, fighting to preserve itself. And lines near the close of the poem tie the courageous old dame's action to the larger cause as the poet cries: "Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,/Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!" (On one of his visits to the United States, Winston Churchill recited this poem from memory as he and FDR motored past Frederick, Maryland.)
In addition to his devotion to union, Whittier never forgot the absolute, apodictical imperative to abolish slavery, nor its spiritual implications for all involved, including those enslaved. "The Proclamation," from In War Time, written in response to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, encourages forgiveness on the part of the former slaves and exhorts them as only a Christian could, "To bless the land whereon in bitter pain/Ye toiled at first,/And heal with freedom what your slavery cursed."
When the war had ended and Whittier heard the bells announcing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, he wrote a poem, "Laus Deo," couched in powerful biblical imagery:
For the Lord On the whirlwind is abroad; In the earthquake He has spoken; He has smitten with His thunder The iron walls asunder, And the gates of brass are broken!
Whittier's major part in the cause had been played out many years before, back in the 1830s, when he helped to foment the issue in the public consciousness, and it always remained of paramount importance to him. Now to see its final triumph contributed to the ever increasing serenity of his post-war work that many critics have noted.
Whittier's next major effort is thus a warm reflection on his boyhood and a tender recreation of the past. Snow-Bound, published in 1866, and considered by some critics to be his best work, is a poem of over 750 lines that became a great popular success and made the poet modestly wealthy for the first time in his life. Robert Penn Warren argues that its popularity was due to the need of America, having undergone the cataclysm of war and poised on the brink of a new identity as a nation of industry, business, and finance, to look back to simpler, more innocent times. Once the first flush of victory had worn off, Whittier acknowledged that Emancipation alone was not to create the world for which he and religious idealists like him had hoped, and he therefore saw a need to reconnect with what was good and virtuous in the past. Unlike present-day reformers who often disdain any positive reference to the past, before their reforms were enacted, Whittier is able to see his country whole, and to find what was good in pre-Civil War America.
Snow-bound is Whittier's tribute to his boyhood, his family, his home, as well as to the sense of place and the particular history that created him, and that created, by extension, the America that many of his readers remembered. It takes place over a week's time, in which the snowed-in household lives in a kind of magical suspension which allows the poet to recreate the life of his boyhood. Whittier had loved the Haverhill farm of his youth, although not the backbreaking work (he was a somewhat frail young man), but in this poem he brings out all the good of the childhood world he knew. The landscape, the weather, the homestead, the books, the games and pastimes of the household, and above all the people of his past--his mother, father, brother, two sisters, aunt, uncle, boarder, and a visitor--are all brought to life, lovingly, yet realistically.
After he has completed his sketches of his cherished boyhood life, what he calls his "Flemish pictures," in an iambic tetrameter reminiscent of the twentieth-century New England poet, Robert Frost, Whittier offers his poem to future readers. They too, perhaps weary of "throngful city ways," may wish to recall the past and to "Sit with me by the homestead hearth,/And stretch the hands of memory forth/To warm them at the woods-fire blaze." And in the incomparable last lines, he suggests a kind of anonymous transcendent unity with these unknown readers grateful for the sweetness of such moments of memory and the link they provide to the shared experience of the better part of an older America. With this sense of communion across time he emerges into the morning after the storm and "takes with forehead bare/The benediction of the air."
1866 also saw the publication of a two-volume edition of Whittier's prose pieces, and of "Our Master," which became the basis for several hymns still sung in churches today. The following year brought The Tent on the Beach, another hugely popular bestseller. This was a collection of poems previously published in the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine founded in 1857 with a liberal, anti-slavery philosophy that featured many prominent New England writers.
Tent is not generally considered among Whittier's better works. It offers more New England lore, such as "The Wreck of Rivermouth," a poetic retelling of the story of a New England fishing vessel that went down off the coast of New Hampshire in colonial times. The one poem in this collection which is sometimes singled out for praise and has become something of a readers' favorite is "Abraham Davenport." It tells the true story of the famous Dark Day of New England, May 19, 1780, when the afternoon blackened inexplicably into night, a phenomenon since attributed to natural causes, but at the time seen by those descendents of Puritans as the onset of Judgment Day. The Connecticut state legislators, trembling in fear, are about to adjourn their regular session when the representative from Stamford, the stalwart Abraham Davenport, staunchly declares that "at the post/Where He hath set me in His providence,/I choose, for one, to meet Him face to face." The session that ensues is portrayed in a gently humorous way--Abraham reciting budget figures while the other worthies listen for the trumpet sounds of doom. The poem's narrator remarks approvingly "That simple duty hath no fear."
Whittier's career reached a peak with Snow-Bound followed by the success of The Tent on the Beach, and he would thereafter be a literary eminence, much in demand and much honored. He was to write many more poems but not, according to most of his critics, to develop much beyond the aesthetic achievements of these years. Still, his own increasing spiritual sense inspires many of these later works.
This is not to say that he ignored life's hardships. For example, his love of New England did not blind him to the darker side of its rural life, and the "Prelude" to Among the Hills, published in 1868, is often praised for its unflinching realism in acknowledging the kind of shrinkage of soul that the grind of struggle for sheer survival in a harsh landscape can produce. Still, the poet chides those who fail to see the opportunity for love and sweetness in a country so blessed with abundance of all kinds. He invites his readers to see and feel "The beauty and the joy within their reach,--/Home, and home loves, and the beatitudes/Of nature free to all."
Though such didacticism is considered to have marred many of Whittier's poems, this impulse is characteristic of the folk poet. In his love of nature, he perhaps comes closest to uniting truth and beauty, inasmuch as to his Protestant soul, the beauty of the natural world is a source of spiritual exaltation. For example, "The Pageant," a poem written in 1868, finds in the glories of nature a foretaste of heaven. "The Clear Vision," also from 1868, recounts the poet's nearly ecstatic experience of seeing the marvels of the wintry landscape as if for the first time--"I never knew/What charms our sternest season wore./Was never yet the sky so blue,/Was never earth so white before." He connects this new vision to a spiritual sense of freshness in his own advancing winter years:
As Thou hast made thy world without, Make Thou more fair my world within; Shine through its lingering clouds of doubt; Rebuke its haunting shapes of sin; Fill, brief or long, my granted span Of life with love to thee and man; Strike when thou wilt the hour of rest, But let my last days be my best!
In 1870 Whittier, still the folk poet, collected some of his earlier poems under the title Ballads of New England, and also wrote "My Triumph," which provides a fitting end point for this account of the decade. In this poem he feels his connection to the past and also to the future, to the "dear ones gone above me" and to the "joy of unborn peoples."
I feel the earth move sunward, I join the great march onward, And take, by faith, while living, My freehold of thanksgiving.
The champion of Abolition became the champion of Freedom in a spiritual sense, of freedom from fear and doubt and regret and discontent. He rooted his themes not in abstractions, however, but in the local, the natural, the pre-political ties of family, friends, home, community, and faith. In works such as the poems of Home Ballads, he kept alive the ways of peace even within the horrors of war. After the war, especially in Snow-Bound, he helped forge the ties to the American past that could offer a sense of unity and peace. He appeals directly, earnestly, and straightforwardly to the minds and hearts of his readers, and with all his poetic shortcomings, he will never be excluded from the roster of American poets.
CAROL IANNONE is Editor-at-Large for Academic Questions. This article is dedicated to the memory of Kenny Jackson Williams (1928-2003), friend, scholar, lover of literature.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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