Chapter 12: Whittier the poetIn passing from the domain of love poetry and considering Whittier's more general claims as a poet, we must accept Lord Bacon's fine definition of poetry that “It hath something divine in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do.” In this noble discrimination,--which one wonders not to have been cited among the rather inadequate arguments to prove that Lord Bacon was the real Shakespeare,--we have the key, so far as there is any, for the change from the boy Whittier, with his commonplace early rhymes, into the man who reached the sublime anthem of “My soul and I. ” He also was “hurried into sublimity.” In the case of Holmes, it is a very common remark that his prose, especially “The Autocrat of the breakfast table,” will outlast his poems, except perhaps “The Chambered Nautilus.” No one can make any similar suggestion in regard to Whittier, whose best poetry wholly surpasses his best prose, in respect to grasp and permanence. It is, indeed, rather surprising to see how much of his prose he has thought it best to preserve, and by how little literary distinction it is marked. Earnestness and sound sense, it always  has; and it always throws its stress on the side of manly sympathy and human progress, but more than this cannot be said. His few attempts at fiction are without marked life, and the little poems interspersed in them are better than the prose, which is rarely the case with authors. Much of this prose is simply in the line of reformatory journalism, and does not bear the test of the bound volume. Even in his narratives of real experience there is nothing to be compared with Lowell's “Moosehead Journal,” or in general literary merit with his “On a certain Condescension in Foreigners.” On the other hand, Whittier escapes the pitfalls or tiresome side-paths into which both Lowell and Holmes were sometimes tempted; he may be prosaic, but never through levity, as sometimes happened to Lowell, or through some scientific whim, as in case of Holmes; and though his prose never has, on the literary side, the affluence of “Hyperion,” it never shows the comparative poverty of “Kavanagh.” It is, nevertheless, as a whole, so far inferior to his poems, that it is best at this day to give our chief attention to these. No one can dwell much on Whittier without recognising him as the distinctively American poet of familiar life. More than any other he reaches the actual existence of the people, up to the time of his death. He could say of himself what Lowell said dramatically only, “We draw our lineage from the oppressed.” Compared with him Longfellow, Holmes, and even Lowell, seem the poets of a class; Whittier alone is near the people; setting apart Emerson, who inhabited a world of his own, “so near and yet so far.” His whole position was indeed characteristic of American  society; had he lived in England, he would always have been, at his highest, in the position of some Corn-Law Rhymer, some Poet of the People; or at best, in the often degrading position of his favourite Burns himself, whereas in his own country this external difference was practically forgotten. Having gone thus far in fitting out this modest poet, nature gave to him, more directly than to either of the others, the lyric gift — a naturalness of song and flow, increasing with years and reaching where neither of the others attained. A few of Longfellow's poems have this, but Whittier it pervades; and beginning like Burns, with the very simplest form, the verse of four short lines, he gradually trained himself, like Burns, to more varied or at least to statelier measures. Burns was undoubtedly his literary master in verse and Milton in prose. He said of Burns to Mrs. Fields, “He lives, next to Shakespeare, in the heart of humanity.” Fields's Whittier, p. 51. His contentment in simple measures was undoubtedly a bequest from this poet and was carried even farther, while his efforts were more continuous in execution and higher in tone. On the other hand, he drew from Milton his long prose sentences and his tendency to the florid rather than the terse. His conversation was terse enough, but not his written style. He said to Mrs. Fields: “Milton's prose has long been my favourite reading. My whole life has felt the influence of his writings.” Fields's Whittier, p. 41. He once wrote to Fields that Allingham, after Tennyson, was his favourite among modern British poets. I do not remember him as  quoting Browning or speaking of him. This may, however, have been an accident. One of the very ablest of New England critics, a man hindered only by prolonged ill-health from taking a conspicuous leadership, David Atwood Wasson, himself the author of that noble poem with its seventeenth-century flavour, “All's well,” wrote in 1864 in the Atlantic Monthly what is doubtless the profoundest study of Whittier's temperament and genius. From this I gladly quote some passages:-- “It was some ten years ago,” he writes,
that we first met John Greenleaf Whittier, the poet of the moral sentiment and of the heart and faith of the people of America. It chanced that we had been making notes, with much interest, upon the genius of the Semitic nations. That peculiar simplicity, centrality, and intensity which caused them to originate Monotheism from two independent centres, the only systems of pure Monotheism which have had power in history, while the same characteristics made their poetry always lyrical, never epic or dramatic, and their most vigorous thought a perpetual sacrifice on the altars of the will, this had strongly impressed us; and we seemed to find in it a striking contrast to the characteristic genius of the Aryan or Indo-Germanic nations, with their imaginative interpretations of the religious sentiment, with their epic and dramatic expansions, and their taste for breadth and variety. Somewhat warm with these notions we came to a meeting with our poet, and the first thought on seeing him was-- “The head of a Hebrew prophet!” It is not Hebrew — Saracen rather — the Jewish type is heavier, more material; but it corresponded strikingly to the conceptions we had formed of the Southern Semitic crania, and the whole make of the man was of the same character. The high cranium, so lofty, especially in the dome — the slight and symmetrical backward slope of the whole head — the powerful level brows, and beneath these the dark, deep eyes, so full of shadowed fire — the Arabian complexion — the sharp-cut, intense lines  of the face — the light, tall, erect stature — the quick axial poise of the movement — all these answered with singular accuracy to the picture of those preacher-races which had been shaping itself in our imagination. Indeed the impression was so strong as to induce some little feeling of embarrassment. It seemed slightly awkward and insipid to be meeting a prophet here in a parlour and in a spruce masquerade of modern costume, shaking hands, and saying, “Happy to meet you!” after the fashion of our feeble civilities. All this came vividly to remembrance on taking up, the other day, Whittier's last book of poems-“ In Wartime” --a volume that has been welcomed all over the land with enthusiastic delight. Had it been no more, however, than a mere personal reminiscence, it should, at present, have remained private. But have we not here a key to Whittier's genius? Is not this Semitic centrality and simplicity, this prophetic depth, reality, and vigour, without great lateral and intellectual range, its especial characteristic? He has not the liberated, light-winged Greek imagination-imagination not involved and included in the religious sentiment, but playing in epic freedom and with various interpretation between religion and intellect-he has not the flowing, Protean, imaginative sympathy, the power of instant self-identification, with all forms of character and life which culminated in Shakespeare; but that imaginative vitality which lurks in faith and conscience, producing what we may call ideal force of heart. This he has eminently; and it is this central, invisible, Semitic heat which makes him a poet. Imagination exists in him, not as a separable faculty, but as a pure vital suffusion. Hence he is an inevitable poet. There is no drop of his blood, there is no fibre of his brain, which does not crave poetical expression. ...Mr. Edmund Clarence Stedman, a recognised authority on American poetry, says admirably of Whittier:--
. . . His imperfections were those of his time and class. He never learned compression, and still  is  troubled more with fatal fluency than our other poets of equal rank,--by an inability to reject poor stanzas and to stop at the right place. But there came a period when his verse was composed with poetic intent, and after a less careless fashion. ... “Cassandra Southwick,” alone, showed where his strength lay; of all our poets he is the most natural balladist. . . . And as a bucolic poet of his own section, rendering its pastoral life and aspect, Whittier surpasses all rivals.. . . Longfellow's rural pieces were done by a skilled workman, who could regard his themes objectively and put them to good use. Lowell delights in out-door life, and his Yankee studies are perfect; still we feel that he is intellectually and socially miles above the people of the vales. Whittier is of their blood, and always the boy-poet of the Essex farm, however advanced in years and fame. They are won by the sincerity and ingenuousness of his verse, rooted in the soil and nature as the fern and wildrose of the wayside. ... He himself despises a sham pastoral. There is good criticism, a clear sense of what is needed, in his paper on Robert Dinsmore, the old Scotch bard of his childhood. He says of rural poetry that “ the mere dilettante and the amateur ruralist may as well keep their hands off. The prize is not for them. He who would successfully strive for it must be himself the thing he sings, one who has added to his book-lore the large experience of an active participation in the rugged toil, the hearty amusements, the trials and pleasures he describes.”“ Whittier's origin and early life,” writes Stedman,
were auspicious for one who was to become a poet of the people. His muse shielded him from the relaxing influence of luxury and superfine culture. These could not reach the primitive homestead in the beautiful Merrimac Valley, five miles out from the market-town of Haverhill, where all things were elementary and of the plainest cast. The training of the Friends made his boyhood more simple, otherwise it mattered little whether he derived from Puritan or Quaker sources. Still it was much, in one respect, to be descended from Quakers and Huguenots used to suffer and be strong for conscience’ sake. It placed him years in advance of the  comfortable Brahmin class, with its blunted sense of right and wrong, and, to use his own words, turned him “so early away from what Roger Williams calls the world's great trinity, pleasure, profit, and honour, to take side with the poor and oppressed.” . . . Whittier's Quaker strain yielded him wholly to the “intellectual passion.” That transcendentalism aroused, and still keeps him obedient to the Inward Light. And it made him a poet militant, a crusader, whose moral weapons, since he must disown the carnal, were keen of edge and seldom in their scabbards. The fire of his deep-set eyes, whether betokening, like that of his kinsman Webster, the Batchelder blood, or inherited from some old Feuillevert, strangely contrasts with the benign expression of his mouth, --that firm serenity which by transmitted habitude dwells upon the lips of the sons and daughters of peace. There was no affectation in the rusticity of his youth. It was the real thing, the neat and saving homeliness of the eastern farm. ... Of our leading poets he was almost the only one who learned Nature by working with her at all seasons, under the sky and in the wood. ... But the mission of his life now came upon him. It was no personal ambition that made him the psalmist of the new movement. His verses, crude as they were, had gained favour; he already had a name, and a career was predicted for him. He now doomed himself to years of retardation and disfavour, and had no reason to foresee the honours they would bring him in the end. What he tells us is the truth: “For twenty years my name would have injured the circulation of any of the literary or political journals of the country.” . . . Bryant, many years later, pointed out that in recent times the road of others to literary success had been made smooth by antislavery opinions, adding that in Whittier's case the reverse of that was true; that he made himself the champion of the slave, “when to say aught against the national curse was to draw upon one's self the bitterest hatred, loathing, and contempt, of the great majority of men throughout the land.” Unquestionably, Whittier's ambition, during his novitiate, had been to do something as a poet and a man of letters. Not that he had learned what few in fact  at that time realised, that the highest art aims at creative beauty, and that devotion, repose, and calm, are essential to the mastery of an ideal. . . . We measure poetry at its worth, not at the worth of the maker. This is the law; yet in Whittier's record, if ever, there is an appeal to the higher law that takes note of exceptions. Some of his verse, as a pattern for verse hereafter, is not what it might have been if he had consecrated himself to poetry as an art; but it is memorably connected with historic times, and his rudest shafts of song were shot true and far and tipped with flame. . . . His songs touched the hearts of his people. It was the generation which listened in childhood to the “ Voices of Freedom,” that fulfilled their prophecies .... After the war, Garrison, at last crowned with honour, and rejoicing in the consummation of his work, was seldom heard. Whittier, in his hermitage, the resort of many pilgrims, as steadily renewed his song.The poem in which Stedman finds the highest claim to have been made by Whittier as a natural balladist is the following:--
It was a natural result of his reticent habit and retired life that his maturer poems impress us, as we dwell upon them, with more sense of surprise as to their origin and shaping than exists in the case of any of his compeers, save only the almost equally reticent Emerson. In Longfellow's memoirs, in Lowell's letters, we see them discussing their purposes with friends, accepting suggestion and correction, while Whittier's poems come always with surprise, and even Mr. Pickard's careful labours add little to our knowledge. Mrs. Claflin and Mrs. Fields give us little as to the actual origins of his poems. I have never felt this deficiency more than in sitting in his house, once or twice, since his death, and observing the scantiness of even his library. Occasional glimpses in his notes help us a very little, as for instance what he says in the preface to his “Child life in prose,” published in 1873, as to his early sources of inspiration:--
It is possible that the language and thought of some portions of the book may be considered beyond the comprehension of the class for which it is intended. Admitting that there may be truth in the objection, I believe, with Coventry Patmore in his preface to a child's book, that the charm of such a volume is increased rather than lessened by the surmised existence of an unknown element of power, meaning, and beauty. I well remember how, at a very early age, the solemn organ-roll of Gray's “Elegy” and the lyric sweep and pathos of Cowper's “ Lament for the Royal George” moved and fascinated me with a sense of mystery and power felt rather than understood. “A spirit passed before my face, but the form thereof was not discerned.” Freighted with unguessed meanings, these poems spake to me, in an unknown  tongue, indeed, but like the wind in the pines or the waves on the beach, awakening faint echoes and responses, and vaguely prophesying of wonders yet to be revealed.He was the Tyrtaeus or leading bard of the greatest moral movement of the age; and he probably gained in all ways from the strong tonic of the antislavery agitation. This gave a training in directness, simplicity, genuineness; it taught him to shorten his sword and to produce strong effects by common means. It made him permanently high-minded also, and placed him, as he himself always said, above the perils and temptations of a merely literary career. Though always careful in his work, and a good critic of the work of others, he usually talked by preference upon subjects not literary-politics, social science, the rights of labour. He would speak at times, if skilfully led up to it, about his poems, and was sometimes, though rarely, known to repeat them aloud; but his own personality was never a favourite theme with him, and one could easily fancy him as going to sleep, like La Fontaine, at the performance of his own opera. In his antislavery poetry he was always simple, always free from that excess or over-elaborateness of metaphor to be seen sometimes in Lowell. On the other hand he does not equal Lowell in the occasional condensation of vigorous thought into great general maxims. Lowell's “Verses suggested by the present Crisis” followed not long after Whittier's “Massachusetts to Virginia,” and, being printed anonymously, was at first attributed to the same author. Whittier's poems had even more lyric fire and produced an immediate impression even greater, but it touched  universal principles less broadly, and is therefore now rarely quoted, while Lowell's
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne,is immortal on the lips of successive orators. Brought up at a period when Friends disapproved of music, Whittier had no early training in this direction, and perhaps no natural endowment. He wrote in a letter of 1882,--“I don't know anything of music, not one tune from another.” This at once defined the limits of his verse, and restricted him to the very simplest strains. He wrote mostly in the four-line ballad metre, which he often made not only very effective, but actually melodious. That he had a certain amount of natural ear is shown by his use of proper names, in which, after his early period of Indian experiments had passed, he rarely erred. In one of his very best poems, “My Playmate,” a large part of the effectiveness comes from the name of the locality:--
The dark pines sing on Ramoth hillHe felt his own deficiency in regard to music, and had little faith in his own ear, the result being that even if he made a happy stroke in the way of sound, he was apt to distrust it at the suggestion of some prosaic friend with a foot rule, who convinced him that he was taking a dangerous liberty. Thus, in “The New wife and the old,” in describing the night sounds, he finally closed with-
The slow song of the sea.
And the great sea waves below,This “pulse oa the midnight” was an unusual rhythmic  felicity for him, but, on somebody's counting the syllables, he tamely submitted, substituting
Pulse oa the midnight beating slow.
Like the night's pulse, beating slow,which is spondaic and heavy; but he afterward restored the better line. In the same way, when he sang of the shoemakers in the very best of his “Songs of labour,” he originally wrote:--
Thy songs, Hans Sachs, are living yet,Under similar pressure of criticism he was induced to substitute
In strong and hearty German,
And Canning's craft and Gifford's wit,
And the rare good sense of Sherman.
And patriot fame of Sherman,and this time he did not repent. It is painful to think what would have become of the liquid measure of Coleridge's “Christabel” had some tiresome acquaintance, possibly “a person on business from Porlock,” insisted on thus putting that poem in the stocks. It shows the essential breadth which lay beneath the religious training of the Society of Friends, even in its most conservative wing, that Whittier, not knowing a note of music, should have contributed more hymns to the hymn-book than any other poet of his time, although this is in many cases through the manipulation of others, which furnished results quite unexpected to him. In a collection of sixty-six hymns prepared for the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893, more were taken from Whittier's poems than from any other author, these being nine in all. The volume edited by Longfellow and Johnson, called “Hymns of the  spirit” (1864), has twenty-two from Whittier; the “Unitarian hymn and tune book” of 1868, has seven, and Dr. Martineau's “Hymns of praise” has seven. As has elsewhere been stated, Mr.Mead and Mrs. Edwin D. Mead reported, after attending many popular meetings in England, in 1901, that they heard Whittier and Longfellow quoted and sung more freely than any other poets. It is especially to be noticed that in Whittier's poems of the sea there is a salt breath, a vigorous companionship-perhaps because he was born and bred near it — not to be found in either of his companion authors. There is doubtless a dramatic movement, an onward sweep in Longfellow's “Wreck of the Hesperus” and “Sir Humphrey Gilbert” such as Whittier never quite attained, and the same may be true of the quiet, emotional touch in Longfellow's “The fire of Driftwood” ; nor was there ever produced in America, perhaps, any merely meditative poem of the sea so thoughtful and so perfect in execution as Holmes's “The Chambered Nautilus.” Among American poets less known, Brownlee Brown's “Thalatta” and Helen Jackson's “Spoken” were respectively beyond him in their different directions. But for the daily atmosphere and life, not so much of the sea as of the seaside, for the companionship of the sailor, the touch that makes the ocean like a larger and more sympathetic human being to those who dwell within its very sound, Whittier stands before them all; he is simply a companion to the sailor, as he is to the farmer and the hunter; and he weaves out of the life of each a poetry such as its actual child hardly knows. The “Tent on the beach” will always keep  us nearer to the actual life of salt water than can anything by Whittier's companion poets. Probably no poet was ever more surprised by the success of a new book than was Whittier by that of this poem about which, as he wrote to a friend, he had great misgivings, as it was prepared under especial disadvantages. He was amazed when he saw in the Boston Transcript that a first edition of ten thousand copies had been printed, and thought it “an awful swindle” upon the public that a thousand copies a day should have been sold. This made more striking the fact that he put into it, perhaps, the best bit of self-delineation he ever accomplished in the following lines:--
And one there was, a dreamer born,The uncertainty of an author's judgment of his own books was never better illustrated than by the fact that Whittier's poem “Mabel Martin” first published under the name of “The witch's daughter” in the National Era for 1857-erroneously described by Mr. Pickard as first published in 1866--was his greatest immediate financial success. It was somewhat enlarged as “Mabel Martin” in 1877, and he received for it $1000 at the first annual payment. Mr. Pickard pronounces it “charming,” but I suspect that it is rarely copied, and hardly ever quoted — perhaps because the threeline measure is unfavourable to Whittier's style or to the public tastes. The absence of rhyme from one line in each three-line verse is not compensated by any advantage, while the four-line verse of the dedication of the whole work to the memory of his mother is very attractive. He has defects of execution which are easily apparent. His poems, even to the latest, are apt to be too long, and to be laden with a superfluous moral, and come dangerously near. to meriting the criticism of D'Alembert on Richardson's long-winded words, once so lauded: “Nature is a good thing, but do not bore us with it (non pas a l'ennui).” Whittier did not actually reach the point of ennui, but came very near it. As for his rhymes, though not so bad as those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they were, in his early years, bad enough. Mr. Linton, from the English point of view, or from any other, was justified in  protesting against such rhymes as worn and turn, joins and pines, faults and revolts, flood and Hood, even and Devon, heaven and forgiven.1 We can easily find in addition, mateless and greatness, pearl and marl, women and trimming, scamper and Hampshire; some of all this list, it must be remembered, being mere archaisms or localisms, and all tending in Whittier's case, as in Mrs. Browning's, to entire disappearance after middle life. No one complains of the rhymes in “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Even when Whittier uses a mispronunciation or makes a slip in grammar, it has the effect of oversight or of whim, rather than of ignorance. Thus he commonly accents the word “romance” on the first syllable, as in-
Who, with a mission to fulfil,
Had left the Muses' haunts to turn
The crank of an opinion mill,
Making his rustic reed of song
A weapon in the war with Wrong,
Yoking his fancy to the breaking plough
That beam-deep turned the soil for truth to spring and grow.
Too quiet seemed the man to ride
The winged Hippogriff, Reform;
Was his a voice from side to side
To pierce the tumult of the storm?
A silent, shy, peace-loving man,
He seemed no fiery partisan
To hold his way against the public frown,
The ban of Church and State, the fierce mob's hounding down.
For while he wrought with strenuous will
The work his hands had found to do,
He heard the fitful music still
Of winds that out of dreadland blew; 
The din about him could not drown
What the strange voices whispered down;
Along his task-field weird processions swept,
The visionary pomp of stately phantoms stepped.
Young Romance raised his dreamy eyes;while at other times he places the stress more correctly on the last, as where he writes--
The only very conspicuous translation from Whittier into French, so far as I know, is one of his earliest poems called “The Vaudois Teacher” --first attributed to Mrs. Hemans--which was adopted as a local poem among the Waldenses, who did not know its origin until 1875, when the Rev. J. C. Fletcher communicated the fact to the Moderator of the Waldensian Synod, having himself heard the poem sung by students of D'Aubigneas seminary at Geneva. On Mr. Fletcher's return to Italy, in 1875, he caused the fact of authorship to be conveyed to the Synod, whose members rose  and cheered and caused the Moderator to write a letter, of which the following is a translation — the letter being dated from Torre Pellice, Piemont, Italie, September 13, 1875:--
Where Tasso sang, let young Romance and Love.Poetical works, IV. 38.
Mr. Whittier's reply, dated Amesbury, 10th mo., 21st, 1875, is in these words:--
In summing up the results of Whittier's twin career as poet and as file-leader, it may be safely said that his early career of reformer made him permanently high-minded, and placed him above the perils and temptations of a merely literary career. This he himself recognised from the first, and wrote it clearly and musically in a poem printed at the very height of conflict (1847), more than ten years before the Civil War. He took this poem as the prelude to a volume published ten years later, and again while revising his poems for a permanent edition in 1892. Unlike many of his earlier compositions, it is reprinted by him without the change of a syllable.
It is well to close this chapter with these words he wrote, at the Asquam House, in 1882, on the death of Longfellow, in a copy of the latter's poems, belonging to my sister:--
Hushed now the sweet consoling tongue
Of him whose lyre the Muses strung;
His last low swan-song had been sung!
His last! And ours, dear friend, is near;
As clouds that rake the mountains here,
We too shall pass and disappear, 
Yet howsoever changed or tost,
Not even a wreath of mist is lost,
No atom can itself exhaust.
So shall the soul's superior force
Live on and run its endless course
In God's unlimited universe.
And we, whose brief reflections seem
To fade like clouds from lake and stream,
Shall brighten in a holier beam.