John Greenleaf Whittier

“The worth of the man blending with the worth of the life he portrayed, independent of all considerations of art, has won for him the admiration and affection of the common people.”

The time has come to pay that tribute of farewell, which is fitting in these pages, upon the occasion of the death of Whittier. The popular instinct which long ago adopted him as the poet of New England is one of those sure arbiters, superior to all academic judgments upon the literary works of a man, which confer a rightful fame in life, and justify the expectation of a long remembrance. Whittier was distinctly a local poet, a New Englander; but to acknowledge this does not diminish his honor, nor is he thereby set in a secondary place. His locality, if one may use the expression, was a country by itself; its inhabitants were a peculiar people, with a strongly marked social and moral character, with a landscape and an atmosphere, with historical traditions, legends often romantic, and with strong vitalizing ideas. There was something more than a literary fancy in the naturalness with which Whittier sought a kind of fellowship with Burns; there was a true resemblance in their situation as the poets of their own kin and soil, in their reliance upon the strength of the people of whom they were born, and in their cherished attachment to the places and scenes where they grew. New England, moreover, had this advantage, that it was destined to set the stamp of its character upon the larger nation in which it was an element; so that if Whittier be regarded, as he sometimes is, as a representative American poet, it is not without justice. He is really national so far as the spirit of New England has passed into the nation at large; and that vast body of Western settlers who bore New England to the frontier, and yet look back to the old homestead, find in him the sentiment of their past. There can be little question, too, that he is representative of a far larger portion of the American people than any other of the elder poets. His lack of the culture of the schools has here been in his favor, and has brought him closer to the common life; he is more democratic than he otherwise might have been; and the people, recognizing in him their own strain, have accepted him with a judgment as valid as that with which cultivated critics accept the work of the man of genius who is also an artist. One calls him a local poet rather to define his qualities than to characterize his range.

The New England which Whittier represents has now become historical. The length of his life carried him beyond his times. 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. That his early poetic career fell in with the antislavery movement was not a misfortune for his Muse; the man fed upon it, and drew therefrom an iron strength for the moral nature which was the better half of his endowment. He was, too, one who was destined to develop, to reach his powers, more by exercising than by cultivating his poetic gift; and in the events of the agitation for the abolition of slavery he had subjects that drew out his moral emotions with most eloquent heat, and exalted his spirit to its utmost of sympathy, indignation, and heroic trust. The antislavery movement was his education, — in a true sense, the gymnastic of his genius; but in the whole body of his work it was no more than an incident, although the most stirring and most noble, in his literary career, just as it was no more in the career of New England.

The great events with which a man deals, and part of which he is, obscure the other portions of his life; but it should not be forgotten that Whittier began as a poet, and not as a reformer, and it may be added that the poet in him was, in the long run, more than the reformer. He did not resort to verse as an expedient in propagandism; rather, wearing the laurel, — to use the good old phrase, — he descended into the field just as he was. He had begun with those old Indian legends in lines which still echoed with Byron’s tales, and he had with them much the same success that attended other aboriginal poetry. It seems, as one reads the hundred weary epics, from which Whittier’s are hardly to be distinguished, that the curse of extinction resting on the doomed race clung also to the Muse that so vainly attempted to recompense it with immortality in the white man’s verse. These were Whittier’s juvenile trials. He came early, nevertheless, to his mature form in the ballad and the occasional piece; his versification was fixed; his manner determined, and thenceforth there was no radical change.

This is less remarkable inasmuch as it is a commonplace to say that he owed nothing to art; the strength of his native genius was all his secret, and when he had freed a way for its expression the task of his novitiate was done. He had now a mould in which to run his metal, and it satisfied him because he was not exacting of perfect form or high finish; probably he had no sense for them. This indifference to the artistic workmanship, which a later day prizes so much as to require it, allowed him to indulge his natural facility, and the very simplicity of his metres was in itself a temptation to diffuseness. The consequence was that he wrote much, and not always well, unevenness being usually characteristic of poets who rely on the energy of their genius for the excellence of their work. To the artist his art serves often as a conscience, and forces him to a standard below which he is not content to fall. Whittier, however, experienced the compensations which are everywhere to be found in life, and gained in fullness, perhaps, more than he lost in other ways. The free flow of his thought, the simplicity of his structure, the willingness not to select with too nice a sense, but to tell the whole, all helped to that frankness of the man which is the great charm of his works, taken together, and assisted him in making his expression of old New England life complete. No man could have written Snow-Bound who remembered Theocritus. In Whittier, Nature reminds us, as she is wont to do from time to time, that the die which she casts exceeds the diploma of the schools. Art may lift an inferior talent to higher estimation, but genius makes a very little art go a long way. This was Whittier’s case. The poetic spark was inborn in him, living in his life; and when academic criticism has said its last word, he remains a poet, removed by a broad and not doubtful line from all stringers of couplets and filers of verses.

Whittier had, in addition to this clear native genius, character; his subject, too, New England, had character; and the worth of the man blending with the worth of the life he portrayed, independent of all considerations of art, has won for him the admiration and affection of the common people, who know the substance of virtue, and always see it shining with its own light. They felt that Whittier wrote as they would have written, had they been gifted with the miraculous tongues; and this feeling is a true criterion to discover whether a poet has expressed the people rather than himself. They might choose to write like the great artists of letters; they know they never could do so; but Whittier is one of themselves.

The secret of his vogue with the plain people is his own plainness. He appeals directly to the heart, as much in his lesser poems as in those which touch the sense of right and wrong in men with stinging keenness, or in those which warm faith to its ardor. He has the popular love of a story, and tells it more nearly in the way of the old ballad-makers. He does not require a tragedy, or a plot, or any unusual action. An incident, if it only have some glamour of fancy, or a touch of pathos, or the likeness of old romance, is enough for him; he will take it and sing it merely as something that happened. He was familiar with the legendary lore and historical anecdote of his own county of Essex, and he enjoyed these traditions less as history than as poetry; he came to them on their picturesque and human side, and cared for them because of the emotions they could still awake. It is to be acknowledged, too, that the material for these romances was just such as delights the popular imagination. The tales of the witches, notwithstanding the melancholy of the delusion, have something of the eeriness that is inseparable from the thought of the supernatural, and stir the dormant sense of some evil fascination; and the legends of spectral shapes that haunted every sea-coast in old times, and of which New England had its share, have a similar quality. Whether they are told by credulous Mather or the make-believing poet, they have the same power to cast a spell. When to this sort of interest Whittier adds, as he often does, the sights of religious persecution, or some Lochinvar love-making, or the expression of his faith in heaven, his success as a story-teller is assured. In reality, he has managed the ballad form with more skill than other measures; but it is because he loves a story and tells it for its own sake, with the ease of one who sits by the fireside, and with a childish confidence that it will interest, that he succeeds so well in pleasing. In his sea-stories, and generally in what he writes about the ocean, it is observable that he shows himself to be an inland-dweller, whose acquaintance with the waves is by distant glimpses and vacation days. He is not a poet of the sea, but this does not invalidate the human truth of his tales of voyaging, which is the element he cared for. Perhaps the poetic quality of his genius is most clear in these ballads; there is a freer fancy; there are often verses about woman’s eyes and hair and cheeks, all with similes from sky and gold and roses, in the old fashion, but not with less naturalness on that account; there is a more absorbing appeal to the imagination both in the characters and the incidents. If these cannot be called his most vigorous work, they are at least most attractive to the purely poetic taste.

In the ballads, nevertheless, one feels the strong undertow of the moral sense dragging the mind back to serious realities. It is probably true of all the English stock, as it certainly is of New England people, that they do not object to a moral, in a poem or anywhere else. Whittier’s moral hold upon his readers is doubtless greater than his poetic hold. He appeals habitually to that capacity for moral feeling which is the genius of New England in its public life, and the explanation of its extraordinary influence. No one ever appeals to it in vain; and with such a cause as Whittier took up to champion, he could ring out a challenge that was sure to rank the conscience of his people upon his side. His Quaker blood, of which he was proud, pleaded strongly in his own veins. He was the inheritor of suffering for conscience’s sake; he was bred in the faith of equality, of the right of every man to private judgment, and the duty of every man to follow it in public action; and he was well grounded in the doctrines of political liberty which are the foundation of the commonwealth. It is more likely, however, that his enthusiasm for the slave did not proceed from that love of freedom which is the breath of New England. It arose from his humanity, in the broad sense; from his belief, sincerely held and practiced, in the brotherhood of men; from the strong conviction that slavery was wrong. It was a matter of conscience more than of reason, of compassion and sympathy more than of theoretical ideas. These were the sources of his moral feeling; his attitude was the same whether he was dealing with Quaker outrages in the past or with negro wrongs in the present. In expressing himself upon the great topic of his time, he was thus able to make the same direct appeal to the heart that was natural to his temperament. The people either felt as he did, or were so circumstanced that they would respond to the same springs which had been touched in him, if a way could be found to them. Outside of the reserves of political expediency, the movement for abolition was harmonious with the moral nature of New England. Yet Whittier’s occasional verses upon this theme made him only the poet of his party. In themselves they have great vigor of feeling, and frequently force of language; they have necessarily the defects, judged from the artistic standpoint, of poems upon a painful subject, in which it was desirable not to soften, but to bring out the tragedy most harshly. The pain, however, is entirely in the facts presented; the poetry lies in the indignation, the eloquence, the fine appeal. These verses, indeed, are nearer to a prose level than the rest of his work, in the sense of partaking of the character of eloquence rather than of poetry. Their method is less through the imagination than by rhetoric. They are declamatory. But rhetoric of the balanced and concise kind natural to short metrical stanzas is especially well adapted to arrest popular attention and to hold it. Just as he told a story in the ballad with a true popular feeling, so he pleaded the cause of the abolitionists in a rhetoric most effective with the popular taste. In the war time, he rose, under the stress of the great struggle, to finer poetic work; the softer feelings of pity, together with a solemn religious trust, made the verses of those battle-summers different in quality from those of the literary conflict of the earlier years. He never surpassed, on the lower level of rhetoric, the lines which bade farewell to Webster’s greatness, nor did he ever equal in intensity those rallying-cries of defiance to the South, in which the free spirit of the North seemed to speak before its time. In these he is urging on to the conflict, — a moral and peaceful one, he thought, but not less real and hard; in the war pieces, he seems rather to be waiting for the decision of Providence, while the fight has rolled on far in the van of where he stands. The power of all these poems, their reality to those times, is undeniable. Their fitness for declamation perhaps spread his reputation. Longfellow is distinctly the children’s poet; but Whittier had a part of their suffrages, and it was by such stirring occasional verses that he gained them. In those years of patriotism he was to many of them the first poet whom they knew. At that time his reputation in ways like these became established. If he had not then done his best work, he had at times reached the highest level he was to attain, and he had already given full expression to his nature. His place as the poet of the antislavery movement was fixed. It is observable that he did not champion other causes after that of abolition was won, and in this he differed from most of his companions. The only other cause that roused him to the point of poetic expression was that of the Italian patriots. Some of his most indignant and sharpest invective was directed against Pope Pius IX., who stood to Whittier as the very type of that Christian obstructiveness to the work of Christ which in a lesser degree he had seen in his own country, and had seen always only to express the heartfelt scorn which descended to him with his Quaker birthright.

It would be unfitting to leave this part of the subject without reference to the numerous personal tributes, often full of grace, of tender feeling, and of true honor paid to the humble, which he was accustomed to lay as his votive wreath on the graves of his companions. One is struck once more by the reflection how large a part those who are now forgotten had in advancing the cause, how many modest but earnest lives entered into the work, and what a feeling of comradery there was among those engaged in philanthropic service in all lands. The verses to Garrison and Sumner naturally stand first in fervor and range as well as in interest, but nearly all these mementos of the dead have some touch of nobility.

The victory of the Northern ideas left to Whittier a freer field for the later exercise of his talent. It was natural that he should have been among the first to speak words of conciliation to the defeated South, and to offer to forget. He was a man of peace, of pardons, of all kinds of catholic inclusions; and in this temperament with regard to the future of the whole country, fortunately, the people agreed with him. With the coming of the years of reconciliation his reputation steadily gained. His representative quality as a New Englander was recognized. It was seen that from the beginning the real spirit of New England had been truly with him, and, the cause being now won and the past a great one, his countrymen were proud of him for having been a part of it. At this happy moment he produced a work free from any entanglement with things disputed, remarkable for its truth to life, and exemplifying the character of New England at its fireside in the way which comes home to all men. It is not without perfect justice that Snow-Bound takes rank with The Cotter’s Saturday Night and The Deserted Village; it belongs in this group as a faithful picture of humble life. It is perfect in its conception and complete in its execution; it is the New England home, entire, with its characteristic scene, its incidents of household life, its Christian virtues. Perhaps many of us look back to it as Horace did to the Sabine farm; but there are more who can still remember it as a reality, and to them this winter idyl is the poetry of their own lives. It is, in a peculiar sense, the one poem of New England, — so completely indigenous that the soil has fairly created it, so genuine as to be better than history. It is by virtue of this poem that Whittier must be most highly rated, because he is here most impersonal, and has succeeded in expressing the common life with most directness. All his affection for the soil on which he was born went into it; and no one ever felt more deeply that attachment to the region of his birth which is the great spring of patriotism. In his other poems he had told the legends of the country, and winnowed its history for what was most heroic or romantic; he had often dwelt, with a reiteration which only emphasized his fondness, upon its scenery in every season, by all its mountains and capes and lakes and rivers, as if fearful lest he should offend some local divinity of the field or flood; 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; but here he came to the heart of the matter, and by fitly describing the homestead, which was the unit and centre of New England life, he set the seal upon his work, and entered into all New England homes as a perpetual guest.

There remains one part of his work, and that, in some respects, the loftiest, which is in no sense local. The Christian faith which he expressed is not to be limited as distinctly characteristic of New England. No one would make the claim. It was descended from the Quaker faith only as Emerson’s was derived from that of the Puritan. Whittier belongs with those few who arise in all parts of the Christian world and out of the bosom of all sects, who are lovers of the spirit. They illustrate the purest teachings of Christ, they express the simplest aspirations of man; and this is their religious life. They do not trouble themselves except to do good, to be sincere, to walk in the sight of the higher powers with humbleness, and if not without doubt, yet with undiminished trust. The optimism of Whittier is one with theirs. It is indissolubly connected with his humanity to men. In his religious as in his moral nature there was the same simplicity, the same entire coherency. His expression of the religious feeling is always noble and impressive. He is one of the very few whose poems, under the fervor of religious emotion, have taken a higher range and become true hymns. Several of these are already adopted into the books of praise. But independently of these few most complete expressions of trust and worship, wherever Whittier touches upon the problems of the spiritual life he evinces the qualities of a great and liberal nature; indeed, the traits which are most deeply impressed upon us, in his character, are those which are seen most clearly in his religious verse. It is impossible to think of him and forget that he is a Christian. It is not rash to say that it is probable that his religious poems have reached many more hearts than his antislavery pieces, and have had a profounder influence to quiet, to console, and to refine. Yet he was not distinctly a poet of religion, as Herbert was. He was a man in whom religion was vital, just as affection for his home and indignation at wrong doing were vital. He gave expression to his manhood, and consequently to the religious life he led. There are in these revelations of his nature the same frankness and the same reality as in his most heated polemics with the oppressors of the weak; one cannot avoid feeling that it is less the poet than the man who is speaking, and that in his words he is giving himself to his fellow-men. This sense that Whittier belongs to that class of writers in whom the man is larger than his work is a just one. Over and above his natural genius was his character. At every step of the analysis, it is not with art, but with matter, not with the literature of taste, but with that of life, not with a poet’s skill, but with a man’s soul, that we find ourselves dealing; in a word, it is with character almost solely: and it is this which has made him the poet of his people, as the highest art might have failed to do, because he has put his New England birth and breeding, the common inheritance of her freedom-loving, humane, and religious people which he shared, into plain living, yet on such a level of distinction that his virtues have honored the land.

The simplicity and dignity of Whittier’s later years, and his fine modesty in respect to his literary work, have fitly closed his career. He has received in the fullest measure from the younger generation the rewards of honor which belong to such a life. In his retirement these unsought tributes of an almost affectionate veneration have followed him; and in the struggle about us for other prizes than those he aimed at, in the crush for wealth and notoriety, men have been pleased to remember him, the plain citizen, uncheapened by riches and unsolicitous for fame, ending his life with the same habits with which he began it, in the same spirit in which he led it, without any compromise with the world. The Quaker aloofness which has always seemed to characterize him, his difference from other men, has never been sufficient to break the bonds which unite him with the people, but it has helped to secure for him the feeling with which the poet is always regarded as a man apart; the religious element in his nature has had the same effect to win for him a peculiar regard akin to that which was felt in old times for the sacred office; to the imagination he has been, especially in these closing years, a man of peace and of God. No one of his contemporaries has been more silently beloved and more sincerely honored. If it be true that in him the man was more than the poet, it is happily not true, as in such cases it too often is, that the life was less than it should have been. The life of Whittier affects us rather as singularly fortunate in the completeness with which he was able to do his whole duty, to possess his soul, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. He was fortunate in his humble birth and the virtues which were about his cradle; he was fortunate in the great cause for which he suffered and labored in his prime, exactly fitted as it was to develop his nature to its highest moral reach, and lift him to real greatness of soul; he was fortunate in his old age, in the mellowness of his humanity, the repose of his faith, the fame which, more truly than can usually be said, was “love disguised.” Lovers of New England will cherish his memory as that of a man in whom the virtues of this soil, both for public and for private life, shine most purely. On the roll of American poets we know not how he may be ranked hereafter, but among the honored names of the New England past his place is secure.