In western civilization, poetry has long been considered the most artful form of the written word. As classical educators, there’s very little we can do that deepens our appreciation of words and their power more than dedication to great poetry and poets. The “Know Your Poets” series will tell the life story of various poets while also introducing the nature and themes of their work.
The Traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.Snow-Bound
In American literary history, many critics consider John Greenleaf Whittier to be one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century, second only to Henry W. Longfellow. Whittier, however, unlike other authors like Longfellow, Lowell, or Holmes, grew up in relative poverty and away from the educated class. He lived on a farm helping his family to raise livestock and participating in other common chores, like cobbling shoes. Whitter’s background explains, in part, his legacy. He is remembered as a poet of the people and for the oppressed.
Born in Haverhill, Massachusetts December 17, 1807, Whittier’s parents were devout Quakers who lived on the edge of common society. In his formative years, he interacted with many Quakers who met at a meeting place near his home. “The Society of Friends,” as the Quakers were sometimes called in those days, deeply impacted Whittier’s religious convictions, and their influence had a profound impact on his poetry.
The simplicity of Whittier’s upbringing is also illustrated by his love for Robert Burns. The Scottish poet impressed Whittier as a child, and just as Burns used lyricism and predictable rhyming schemes to charm his Scottish readers, Whittier also successfully employed four-foot iambic lines and rhymed successive or alternate lines.
Despite his lack of a rigorous literary education, Whittier began writing poetry as a child. Some of his poetry he sent to a local journal called The Free Press. The publisher of that paper happened to be the notable abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who immediately took notice of Whittier’s ability. Garrison offered to take Whittier in as an apprentice, but his parents had practical concerns about the financial stability of a literary career. Ultimately, Whittier did join Garrison which launched his career as both a writer and an abolitionist.
For the next few years, Whittier edited an assortment of different publications as he struggled to find his voice. In 1831, he wrote his first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-four, called “Legends of New England,” but it enjoyed little success. In fact, his early poetry didn’t reflect any of the eloquence that would later develop in his poetry.
Shortly after he published his first volume of poetry, Whittier wrote his fiery and influential abolitionist pamphlet, Justice and Expediency. Whittier’s decision to publish the pamphlet emphatically sided him with the abolitionists, and even in the North, he faced much opposition as a result. On three separate occasions, he was even attacked by anti-abolitionist mobs.
In 1833, he served as a secretary at the Philadelphia Convention for the formation of the American Anti-slavery society. This society formed a committee with Garrison as chairman and Whittier as member to draw up a declaration of principles. As Whittier’s political involvement increased, he increasingly incorporated abolitionist themes into his poetry.
Whittier and Garrison did not always agree on their approach to the issue of slavery. Garrison encouraged the anti-slavery proponents to view the United States as an illegitimate government. He saw political action as an immoral compromise with slaveholders and said the only legitimate political act would be for the North to secede from the South. While Whittier’s conviction concerning the issue of slavery could not be questioned, he doubted the expediency of Garrison’s approach. Whittier and others banded together to form a political party which was staunchly abolitionist, but politically engaged. This party became known as The Liberty Party and its formation laid the groundwork for the later Republican party.
Whittier remained politically active throughout the course of his life serving in the Massachusetts state legislature, in the electoral college, and as a member of the Board of Overseers at Harvard College. But in Whittier’s later life, he turned his attention more seriously to writing poetry.
In 1850, he published a book of poems called “Songs of Labor” which was his first successful writing not strictly concerned with slavery. His poetry contained two major themes. First, even though his poetry at times was far less political than it once had been, many of his poems still expressed his zeal for the oppressed. In one of these poems, “Cassandra Southwick,” Whittier tells the story of the only white person in the United States to ever be put up at a slave auction. In the seventeenth century, the Southwicks were arrested by the Puritan authorities for not attending church. They refused to attend, however, because they were Quakers. The Southwicks could not pay the fine, so the court ordered that they be sold into slavery. For Whittier, this story resonated with him and inspired his masterful poem because it illustrated the travesty of injustice against his precious Quaker principles.
The other theme prevalent in Whittier’s later successful poetry is the celebration of beauty in life, and specifically, New England life. “Snow Bound” arguably Whittier’s most famous poem, and a great example of this theme, sold more than ten thousand copies within the first year. In that poem, Whittier commemorated the life of his recently deceased sister by reflecting on his childhood. The long narrative poem describes a raging winter storm outside and the peace of family life in their quaint family home. The poem, published in 1866, resonated with a war weary country who wanted to forget the carnage and grief outside inflicted by the Civil War and to latch onto the beauty of daily life.
Whittier’s genuine love for beauty epitomizes much of the American romantic spirit, and furthermore, Whittier embodied several of the most important attributes of the American tradition: He rose to greatness from humble beginnings, he passionately defended the oppressed, and he firmly championed his religious beliefs.