Genius, and other essays/Whittier

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IT would be unjust to consider Whittier's genius from an academic point of view. British lovers of poetry,—except John Bright and others of like faith or spirit,—have been slow to comprehend his distinctive rank. As a poet he was essentially a balladist, with the faults of his qualities; and his ballads, in their freedom, naïvetée, even in their undue length, are among our few modern examples of unsophisticated verse. He returned again and again to their production, seldom laboring on sonnets and lyrics of the Victorian mould. His ear for melody was inferior to his sense of time, but that his over-facility and structural defects were due less to lack of taste than to early habit, Georgian models, disassociation from the schools, is indicated by his work as a writer of prose. In Margaret Smith's Journal an artistic, though suppositive, Colonial style is well maintained. Whittier became very sensible of his shortcomings; and, when at leisure to devote himself to his art, he greatly bettered it, giving much of his later verse all the polish that it required. In extended composition, as when he followed Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn with his own The Tent on the Beach, he often failed to rival his graceful brother poet. In American balladry he was pre-eminent; such pieces as "The Swan Song of Parson Avery," "Marguerite," "Barclay of Ury," "Skipper Ireson's Ride," "In the 'Old South,'" hold their place in literature. It is necessary above all to consider the relation of a people's years of growth and ferment to the song which represents them; for in the strains of Whittier, more than in those of any other nineteenth-century lyrist, the saying of Fletcher of Saltoun, as to the ballads and laws of a nation, finds historic illustration. He was the national bard of justice, humanity, and reform, whose voice went up as a trumpet until the victory was won. Its lapses resembled those of Mrs. Browning, who was of his own breed in her fervor and exaltation. To the last it was uncertain whether a poem by Whittier would "turn out a sang" or "perhaps turn out a sermon"; if the latter, it had deep sincerity and was as close to his soul as the other. He began as a liberator, but various causes employed his pen; his heart was with the people; he loved a worker, and the Songs of Labor convey the zest of the artisan and pioneer. From 1832 to 1863 no occasion escaped him for inspiring the assailants of slavery, or chanting pæans of their martyrdom or triumph. No crusade ever had a truer laureate than the author of "The Virginia Slave Mother," "The Pastoral Letter"—one of his stinging ballads against a time-serving Church, "A Sabbath Scene," and "The Slaves of Martinique." "Randolph of Roanoke" is one of the most pathetic and elevated of memorial tributes. "Ichabod" and "The Lost Occasion," both evoked by the attitude of Webster, are Roman in their condemnation and "wild with all regret."

The green rusticity of Whittier's farm and village life imparted a bucolic charm to such lyrics as "In School Days," "The Barefoot Boy," "Telling the Bees," "Maud Muller," and "My Schoolmate." His idyllic masterpiece is the sustained transcript of winter scenery and home-life, Snow-Bound, which has had no equal except Longfellow's "Evangeline" in American favor, but, in fact, nothing of its class since "The Cottar's Saturday Night" can justly be compared with it. Along with the Quaker poet's homing sense and passion for liberty of body and soul, religion and patriotism are the dominant notes of his song. His conception of a citizen's prerogative and duty, as set forth in "The Eve of Election," certainly is not that of one whose legend is "our country, right or wrong." Faith, hope, and boundless charity pervade the "Questions of Life," "Invocation," and "The Two Angels," and are exquisitely blended in "The Eternal Goodness," perhaps the most enduring of his lyrical poems. "We can do without a Church," he wrote in a letter, "we cannot do without God; and of him we are sure." The inward voice was his inspiration, and of all American poets he was the one whose song was most like a prayer. A knightly celibate, his stainless life, his ardor, caused him to be termed a Yankee Galahad; a pure and simple heart was laid bare to those who loved him in "My Psalm," "My Triumph," and "An Autograph." The spiritual habit abated no whit of his inborn sagacity, and it is said that in his later years political leaders found no shrewder sage with whom to take counsel. When the question of primacy among American poets was canvassed by a group of the public men of Lincoln's time, the vote was for Whittier; he was at least one whom they understood, and who expressed their feeling and convictions. Parkman called him "The poet of New England," but as the North and West then were charged with the spirit of the New England states, the two verdicts were much the same. The facts remain that no other poet has sounded more native notes, or covered so much of the American legendary, and that Whittier's name, among the patriotic, clean and true, was one with which to conjure. He was revered by the people cleaving to their altars and their fires, and his birthdays were calendared as festivals, on which greetings were sent to him by young and old.

  1. From the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Tenth and the Eleventh Editions.