Whittier’s 214th Birthday: The Peace-loving Quaker War Poet

It’s Whittier’s birthday.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) is now mostly thought of as a very old-fashioned conventional poet, who can be dispensed with in light of modern notions of verse and literary values.

But I think such a dismissal misses a big point which should give us pause today:

Whittier was also a very public Quaker  who lived through the years when American democracy fell apart in the cultural conflict over slavery, and was only salvaged after four long and extremely bloody years of civil war, with an  aftermath not yet  concluded.

And while Whittier did not take up arms in the war, he was still active and vocal throughout, as he had been for years before the fighting began.

The weapon he took up was his poet’s pen. That’s what he was: a poet. And poets can go to war in their own way, like others.

He wrote poems, many of which were widely circulated, in service of the cause of abolition, for which the war ultimately was fought. So whatever the lasting literary value of his work, it remains an example of turning one’s gift and calling to work in one’s times.

So  for his birthday, when deep cultural strife haunts the land again, here are three of his poems, which might, if we can see past our pedantic prejudices, be useful for reflection and encouragement in facing our own time of trials.

One: A Fiery Prelude
A sketch of Pennsylvania hall, afire.

Written for and read at the dedication of Pennsylvania Hall, Philadelphia, May 15, 1838. The building was financed by donations, and erected after most churches and halls in Philadelphia refused to host abolition meetings. Whittier said it was built so  “that the citizens of Philadelphia should possess a room wherein the principles of Liberty, and Equality of Civil Rights, could be freely discussed, and the evils of slavery fearlessly portrayed.”

While the poem imagines a distant future time when slavery was banished, Pennsylvania Hall’s future was extremely short: On May 17th, two nights after the poem was read there, it was burned by a mob, Whittier said, “destroying the office of the Pennsylvania Freeman, of which I was editor, and with it my books and papers.” Lucretia Mott, another supporter, had also spoken there and was pursued by (but escaped from) a proslavery mob.

Pennsylvania Hall (excerpts)

And fitting is it that this Hall should stand
Where Pennsylvania’s Founder led his band,.
From thy blue waters, Delaware!— to press
The virgin verdure of the wilderness.

Here, where all Europe with amazement saw
The soul’s high freedom trammelled by no law;
Here, where the fierce and warlike forest-men
Gathered, in peace, around the home of Penn,
Awed by the weapons Love alone had given
Drawn from the holy armory of Heaven;

Where Nature’s voice against the bondman’s wrong
First found an earnest and indignant tongue;
Where Lay’s bold message to the proud was borne;
And Keith’s rebuke, and Franklin’s manly scorn!

Fitting it is that here, where Freedom first
From her fair feet shook off the Old World’s dust,
Spread her white pinions to our Western blast,
And her free tresses to our sunshine cast,
One Hall should rise redeemed from Slavery’s ban,
One Temple sacred to the Rights of Man!

Oh! if the spirits of the parted come,
Visiting angels, to their olden home;
If the dead fathers of the land look forth
From their fair dwellings, to the things of earth,
Is it a dream, that with their eyes of love,
They gaze now on us from the bowers above?

Lay’s ardent soul, and Benezet the mild,
Steadfast in faith, yet gentle as a child,
Meek-hearted Woolman, and that brother-band,
The sorrowing exiles from their “Father land,”
Leaving their homes in Krieshiem’s bowers of vine,
And the blue beauty of their glorious Rhine,

To seek amidst our solemn depths of wood
Freedom from man, and holy peace with God;
Who first of all their testimonial gave
Against the oppressor, for the outcast slave,
Is it a dream that such as these look down,
And with their blessing our rejoicings crown?

Let us rejoice, that while the pulpit’s door
Is barred against the pleaders for the poor;
While the Church, wrangling upon points of faith,
Forgets her bondsmen suffering unto death;
While crafty Traffic and the lust of Gain
Unite to forge Oppression’s triple chain,

One door is open, and one Temple free,
As a resting-place for hunted Liberty!
Where men may speak, unshackled and unawed,
High words of Truth, for Freedom and for God.

And when that truth its perfect work hath done,
And rich with blessings o’er our land hath gone;
When not a slave beneath his yoke shall pine,
From broad Potomac to the far Sabine . . .

Then, though this Hall be crumbling in decay,
Its strong walls blending with the common clay,
Yet, round the ruins of its strength shall stand
The best and noblest of a ransomed land —
Pilgrims, like these who throng around the shrine
Of Mecca, or of holy Palestine!

A prouder glory shall that ruin own
Than that which lingers round the Parthenon.
Here shall the child of after years be taught
The works of Freedom which his fathers wrought;
Told of the trials of the present hour,
Our weary strife with prejudice and power;

How the high errand quickened woman’s soul,
And touched her lip as with a living coal;
How Freedom’s martyrs kept their lofty faith
True and unwavering, unto bonds and death;
The pencil’s art shall sketch the ruined Hall,
The Muses’ garland crown its aged wall,
And History’s pen for after times record
Its consecration unto Freedom’s God!

Two: A Campaign song from 1860

Whittier was a political abolitionist and a supporter of the new, antislavery Republican party. In fact, as the presidential campaigns peaked in the 1860 election, he penned a shamelessly partisan campaign lyric, celebrating favorable political news from Pennsylvania.

The song was written for a Republican mass meeting held in Newburyport, Mass., October 11, 1860.

The Quakers Are Out

NOT vainly we waited and counted the hours,
The buds of our hope have all burst into flowers.
No room for misgiving—no loop-hole of doubt,—
We’ve heard from the Keystone! The Quakers are out.

The plot has exploded—we’ve found out the trick,
The bribe goes a-begging; the fusion won’t stick
When the Wide-awake lanterns are shining about,
The rogues stay at home, and the true men are out!

The good State has broken the cords for her spun;
Her oil-springs and water won’t fuse into one;

The Dutchman has seasoned with Freedom his kraut,
And slow, late, but certain, the Quakers are out!

Give the flags to the winds! set the hills all aflame!
Make way for the man with the Patriarch’s name!
Away with misgiving—away with all doubt,

For Lincoln goes in, when the Quakers are out!

Three: A Ballad of war

With Lincoln’s election, war soon followed. Then, in 1863, Whittier heard a tale about an alleged confrontation in Frederick, Maryland, when a large Confederate rebel force passed through a Maryland town enroute to a major battle nearby. He spun it into stanzas that “went viral” on the new telegraphic internet, and were long repeated after the war had ended:

Barbara Frietchie
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick 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 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.
Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.
“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Largely forgotten now, the poem’s fame endured long enough that when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the house in 1943 with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Churchill is said to have recited all 30 couplets by heart.

13 thoughts on “Whittier’s 214th Birthday: The Peace-loving Quaker War Poet”

  1. Thank you for this timely reminder that we can all live for justice in our own ways, using the gifts we have. Thanks, also, for including Barbara Frietchie. Like Churchill, my mother loved the poem and recited it by heart.

  2. Just a personal note: I remember clearly that we read and discussed Barbara Frietchie in my 7th grade English class in public school in Northeastern Ohio ca. 1970. I hadn’t fully realized that the poem is “largely forgotten now,” but I can see that this is the case.

  3. 4th paragraph civil war. The most potent line in there is “With an aftermath not yet concluded” 150 plus years later it would be nice to conclude this.

  4. “Barbara Fritchie” was still being taught on Long Island in the 1960s. Along with the rest of my class, I wrote (selected lines) into my notebook during the eighth grade at Garden City Junior High School.

    1. This is a puzzle. I thought I grew up in the USA in the 1950s, going to “regular” schools, but I never even heard of Barbara Frietchie til way after I was grown up, and I don’t even recall quite where.

      1. Perhaps Barbara Frietchie was more popular in places like Long Island and in Northeastern Ohio than in other parts of the US.

    2. The problem with anecdotes is that you don’t know how much to make of them. The teacher, “G,” even for the 1960s, was a throwback to a different era. He was philosophically opposed to homework, so he had all the students write in class, in their notebooks. Occasionally we would hand them in, so he could look at them and return them. The desks were the old-fashioned kind, with inkwells (which we didn’t use), in a room that more resembled a garret than the other sixties-era classroom. We students absolutely loved him. He was attuned to popular culture, and one assignment was to ask students to write about their favorite TV commercial, and why they liked it. (I can’t recall any other teacher doing that.) By the way, all of the students called him “G” — except for me, as I refused to relinquish the formality with which we addressed the other teachers. I always called him “Mr. Goodwin,” and while he addressed all the other students by their first names, he always addressed me as “Mr. Angell.” One time I slipped, and trying to get his attention as he faced away from me, I called him “G.” He instantly wheeled around to face me: “What?” he said, in a voice of mock alarm. “What did you say?” I didn’t ever slip again.

      1. I recall those empty inkwells. And it struck me, even in my impetuous elementary years, that keeping them empty was a very prudent policy. Who knows what mischievous ideas might have occurred to me — or even to thee, uh, Mr. Angell . . . .

  5. Whittier brought me to Quakers. I liked his poems of abolition<
    New England legends and early rural chhild hood, but got to reading poems of Quaker spirituality while volunteering at the Birthplace's Snowbound Weekend (sleeping in Aunt Mercy's bed.)—Clarence Burley, Worcester (MA) Friends Meetting, NEYM..

  6. I love Whittier, and when we did the hymnal i looked carefully at his life and writings, discovered he was certainly a feminist, and we felt very comfortable offering alternative line to Dear lord and father of mankind… creator of all humankind… ok, 😋could be even more inclusive beyond humans…. but this was in early 90s… 😁

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