Whittier’s middle name is the English version of Feuillevert, his Huguenot ancestor. The poem, “A Name: To Greenleaf Whittier Pickard,” begins:
The name the Gallic exile bore,
St. Malo! from thy ancient mart,
Became upon our Western shore
Greenleaf for Feuillevert.
He asks his namesake “like the stout Huguenot of old” to keep the faith “unswerved by cross or crown.”
Whittier’s own zeal for social and civic reform has been traced by some writers to his Huguenot blood. Certainly he worked for oppressed classes in our nation from Indians to African slaves, and the day laborers to whom he is drawn closely, both by his own experiences and his innate sympathy and sense of justice.
Bom in a Merrimac valley in a farmhouse near Haverhill, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1807, Whittier was brought up in the best tradition of the Friends; and to their beliefs as well as to their dress and speech he always adhered. He began writing verses in his teens, stimulated by the poems of Robert Burns whose themes of the commonplace and the innate dignity of man were to be Whittier’s also.
Early high points in his career include the publication of one of his poems in 1826 in William Lloyd Garrison’s Newburyport Free Press, which started the friendship between the two reformers; enrollment in Haverhill Academy for two terms (1827–28) where he worked his way by shoemaking and schoolteaching; editing of a number of papers—The American Manufacturer, Haverhill Gazette, the influential New England Review—from 1829 to 1832; publication of his first book, Legends of New England. After resigning his editorship, he worked steadily for the Anti-Slavery party which he joined in 1833 on Garrison’s urging. Before 1836 when he moved to Amesbury, his home-place until his death on September 7, 1892, Whittier had been chosen as a delegate to the National Republican Convention, served as a member of the Massachusetts legislature and had written the prose work Justice and Expediency; he had composed the first of his many Abolitionist verses and acted as a delegate to the American Anti-Slavery Convention. In 1844–45 he was the editor of the Middlesex Standard in Lowell, and in 1846 he published Voices of Freedom. In the decade beginning in 1847 he published most of his poetry and prose in the National Era for which he was corresponding editor. His Songs of Labor in 1850 made him “the poet of the commonplace,” and with the founding of the Atlantic in 1857 he was assured of a wide readership; by 1866 he not only gained financial security with the enormous success of Snow-Bound but was to be given best-seller status for his later works. In 1886 Harvard gave him the honorary title, LL.D., which Whittier called his “nickname.” Years earlier, he had become what a modern biographer termed an object of veneration and awe in a class with Mount Vernon and the American flag. His birthday became a national holiday; and he was highly acclaimed by his contemporary poets, Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, and others, including the younger writers Howells and Mark Twain. Oliver Wendell Holmes was expressing the views of many readers when he wrote Whittier that “I never rise from any of your poems without feeling the refreshment of their free and sweet atmosphere.…” His last book At Sundown appeared in 1890.
Self-educated for the most part as he was, and slow in gaining recognition, the unsought success of the last four decades of his life found him the same honest and humble man he had always been. Neither the poverty of his younger years nor the ill-health he endured so long with such heroic patience left him bitter in any way or stood in the path of high achievement. Both his life and writings in the words of a contemporary were of a man who was “thoroughly and terribly in earnest” in his Christian faith and works. On the ABC Evening News, February 14, 1977, Harry Reasoner read a long passage from Whittier’s timeless Snow-Bound, illustrating the reading with pictures of current snow scenes in that worst of winters.
Whittier, whose watchword like Thoreau’s was “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” had, in his own words, composed many of his poems with no expectations that they would survive the occasions that called them forth: “They were protests, alarm signals, trumpet calls to action, words wrung from the writer’s heart, forged at white heat, and of course lacking the finish which reflection and patient brooding over them might have given.”
Whittier’s lifelong insistence that he was a man not a mere verse-maker is reiterated in a timely study of this poet-patriot by John B. Pickard, professor of English, Rice University. The writer (a grandson of Whittier’s official biographer, Samuel Pickard, and his wife Elizabeth Whittier Pickard, the poet’s niece and companion of his last years) set out to show in his volume in the American Authors and Critics Series, John Greenleaf Whittier (Barnes and Noble, 1961) that the poet was not only a man of his age—a militant humanitarian and reformer—but in the light of modern critical techniques a poet whose finest works are well worth preserving beyond their author’s marked historical and cultural interests. Most of this era’s biographies have dealt with Whittier as a patriot rather than a poet; but Pickard has shown us how successfully he was both; and though many commentators have held it unjust to consider his enormous output of verse from an academic standpoint, the analyses of his ballads show a number in the best tradition of this difficult art-form: original, realistic, direct in their portrayal of native folklore and New England legends. The poet’s Quaker background, his humanitarianism, and sense of the beauty of the commonplaces of everyday rural life combine with a genuine psychological insight into the lives of his countrymen to make his name one to conjure with; indeed no other American poet covered so much purely legendary lore as did Whittier.
His inspiration from first to last had been consciously that of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, the author of the Britannica (fourteenth edition) account states that of all American poets Whittier’s song was most like a prayer. The admiring Encyclopedia writer goes on to say that his stainless life and his ardor caused him to be termed a Yankee Galahad, whose pure and simple heart was bared to all who loved him in “My Psalm,” “My Triumph,” and “An Autograph.”
“It was one of the secrets of his great religious influence” wrote Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in a memorial to Whittier in 1893 “that he sang only of the simple essentials of faith—God, Christ, and immortality.” She said truly that “this poet, being dedicated, has done more to hold the faith of the American people to the God of their fathers than any other one man in our nation.” Phelps opened her essay this way.
“In a remarkably literal sense of the word, Whittier exemplified the ‘given name’ of the religious sect to which he was born. He was essentially, enthusiastically, and conscientiously a Friend. Friendship was his ideal, his comfort, and, in a measure, his occupation.… He spent himself on the great needs of humanity and the great heart of humanity answered him.… The people loved him because he loved the people. It was his honor that he loved them nobly” (The Century Magazine).
Speaking of the masterpieces of his later years as “artless art,” the essayist said of the development of Whittier’s genius that it came only after “the freed slave and the saved country gave an interval of rest to that uncompromising New England conscience.” Referring to the exquisite realistic sketching of the snow-covered landscape, the family group about the fire, the New England interiors, the “Flemish pictures of old days” in Snow-Bound, Phelps asks whether it is any of these features of the poem that gives “its eternal hold upon our admiration and affections.” She answers: “Ah, no, no … It is the comfort offered to the broken heart”: “The truth, to flesh and sense unknown,/That Life is ever Lord of death,/And Love can never lose its own.”
That comfort to the broken heart sings with deep effect in his religious lyrics, which stand as testimonies to his sure simple belief. In “Worship,” for example, we find the great message of the poet-patriot: “O brother man! fold to thy heart thy brother;/Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;/To worship rightly is to love each other,/Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.” Though few of his songs were written expressly for that purpose, he has been called America’s greatest hymn-writer. The well-known “Eternal Goodness” expressing God’s personal interest in each human being shows throughout its twenty-two stanzas the contrast of that Goodness with worldly evil. Pickard, analyzing this poem as typical of Whittier’s religious lyrics, and one that perfectly fulfills the requirements for hymnal use, pointed out that the emphasis on the word “know” in the middle section reveals Whittier’s complete mental and emotional acceptance, “a knowing that transcends mere logic”: “To one fixed trust my spirit clings;/I know that God is good!” The lyric beauty of the conclusion appearing in the twin quatrains preceding the closing two stanzas is echoed in the hushed vowel sounds and assonances of the actual words as they carry the poet’s quiet conviction:
And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
Another popular hymn is drawn from “Our Master,” a poem of thirty-eight, stanzas, exalting Christ as the incarnation of Immortal Love. (“Immortal Love, forever full,/Forever flowing free, Forever shared, forever whole,/A never ebbing sea!”) “The Brewing of Soma” with its warning against man’s inveterate temptation to forms of pagan worship ends with that most famous hymn beginning “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,/Forgive our foolish ways!” In “At Last” (1882) God the Father is asked for “Some humble door among Thy many mansions …,” a sheltering home by “the river of Thy peace.” As a patriot, the poet went beyond his own America to people everywhere; and as a poet he sang of the patria of the human spirit where all might rest in God’s “Immortal love and Fatherhood,/And trust Him as His children should.”
M. Whitcomb Hess is a free-lance writer living in Athens, Ohio.
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