Poem of the Day: ‘Barbara Frietchie’ by John Greenleaf Whittier

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Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I wrote about the patriotic myth of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” recounted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous 1861 poem.

Longfellow’s fellow Atlantic founder John Greenleaf Whittier put a similar, though less historically accurate, myth to paper in “Barbara Frietchie,” from our October 1863 issue. The poem—inspired, like Longfellow’s, by the abolitionist cause—tells the story of an elderly woman who refused to lower her American flag when Confederate forces marched through her Maryland town:

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic-window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Shortly after Whittier died in 1892, literary critic George Edward Woodberry celebrated him as an American myth-maker for the ages:

The length of his life carried him beyond his time. It is plainer now than it was at an earlier day that his poems are one of the living records of a past which will be of perennial interest and ever held in honor. …

In his … poems he had told the legends of the country, and winnowed its history for what was most heroic or romantic. … He had shared in the great moral passion of his people in peace and war, and had become its voice and been adopted as one of its memorable leaders.

In another eulogy, Atlantic co-founder Oliver Wendell Holmes had similarly effusive praise for Whittier’s moral impact:

Peaceful thy message, yet for struggling right, —
When Slavery’s gauntlet in our face was flung, —
While timid weaklings watched the dubious fight
No herald’s challenge more defiant rung. …

In the brave records of our earlier time
A hero’s deed thy generous soul inspired,
And many a legend, told in ringing rhyme
The youthful soul with high resolve has fired.

It’s strange reading through these old pieces now, because until I started digging into The Atlantic archives this year I had never heard of Barbara Frietchie, or of Whittier. Unlike “Paul Revere’s Ride,” this myth of American heroism never reached me, no matter how much Woodberry believed Whittier’s works would “be of perennial interest and ever held in honor.”

In 1999, parsing American verse for a sense of national identity, then poet-laureate Robert Pinsky noted the country’s lack of a common cultural foundation:

The nation developed with a relative scarcity of unifying folk culture—a single web of rhymes, songs, peasant tales, and superstitions passed down by grandparents. What we lacked in unity of that kind we made up for with richness and variety.

I’ve definitely heard a variety of stories, poems, and songs about American history—from the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree to “Paul Revere’s Ride” to, more recently, the musicalized life of Alexander Hamilton. And as I’ve moved from state to state and read deeper into the country’s history, I’ve constantly stumbled across new ones. Like “Barbara Frietchie.”

Though it’s disconcerting to see how the work Woodberry and Holmes believed to be so important and enduring could disappear into America’s web of cultural myths over time, Pinsky saw value in this variable understanding of our national past:

The greatness of our nation, then, may consist partly in its ability to thrive, to endure, and to evolve without certain marks of peoplehood. Indeed, a major, traditional American proposition has been that our greatness consists precisely in the fact that we are making it up as we go along—that we are perpetually in the process of devising ourselves as a people.

But he also asserted that “the supposed American lack of historical sense is itself in part a national myth or delusion,” because our culture is linked to a continuous thread of American memory.

“Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are,” Pinsky concluded. This month I’m looking back on poetry I love in our archives. And today, for the first time, I’m taking a moment to remember Whittier and Barbara Frietchie.

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Update from a reader, Marc:

Like you, I was completely unaware of this poem until today—but I've known Barbara Frietchie's name since I was quite small, because my parents were fans of Ogden Nash. Buried in one of our several collections of his verse (I won't call it “poetry” exactly), perhaps in “The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery,” was this bit of fun from Nash’s “The Scratch”:

I am greatly attached
To Barbara Frietchie—
I bet she scratched
When she was itchy.