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
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:
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.