John Greenleaf Whittier

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Author: Ernest D. Lee
Editor: Laurie Lanzen Harris
Date: 1985
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,489 words

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[In this overview of Whittier's work, Lee attributes to Whittier the homely dignity as well as the faults of a genuine native poet.]

Few poets afford a more striking illustration of the untrust-worthiness of contemporary fame than Whittier. At the close of the American Civil War his countrymen unanimously assigned him the foremost place among American poets. To-day he ranks below Longfellow, Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emerson. Yet it is in his very limitations that we must seek for the explanation of his influence.... His talent was a genuine product of American soil, and his verse is instinct with the spirit of American life and American nature. “These painted autumn woods,” says young Mr. Jordan to Margaret Smith [in “Margaret Smith's Journal”], “and this sunset light, and yonder clouds of gold and purple, do seem to me better fitted to provoke devotional thoughts and to awaken a becoming reverence and love for the Creator, than the stained windows and lofty arched roofs of old minsters.” Here we have the key to the judgment of his contemporaries. Whittier was essentially a national poet; Longfellow was too fond of worshipping in the old minsters. (p. 78)

[Whittier] was a journalist and politician first, and a poet afterwards. He regarded the abolition of slavery as his lifework and verse but as a ready means of heightening his appeal to Northern sentiment. His anti-slavery poems are for the most part hasty impromptus, written in a white heat of passion for immediate publication. Their chief merit is their absolute sincerity. But they are frankly emotional; they make no appeal to the intellect, and are full of glaring technical defects. Yet they stirred men's pulses and swayed men's hearts. Much of their power is due to the tone of deep religious earnestness that underlies them. But it is the power of the popular preacher rather than of the poet; witness these lines from the third stanza of “Expostulation”:—

What ho! Our countrymen in chains!  The whip on woman's shrinking flesh! Our soil yet reddening with the stains  Caught from her scourging, warm and fresh! What! Mothers from their children riven!  What! God's own image bought and sold! Americans to market driven,  And bartered as the brute for gold!

Such verse is not poetry; its realism is too intense; nothing is left to the imagination. But it is very effective rhetoric, and its impassioned indignation went straight to the hearts of its readers; line after line striking home like a rapier-thrust. Equally effective is the pathos of “The Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother to her Daughters Sold into Foreign Bondage.” It is an eloquent picture of a mother's despair, and of the horrors of a Southern rice-swamp.... But its pathos is entirely due to its descriptive power; the mother has no individuality; her feeling is purely objective; we never get a glimpse into her heart. The poem lacks the inspired ideality and woman's intuition of Mrs. Browning's “Runaway Slave.” (pp. 79-80)

The cause of humanity...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420021078