John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
Elaine Sargent Apthorp
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students may be put off by various features of the poetry, such as:
the regularity of meter (which can impress the twentieth-century ear as
tedious--generally we don't "hear" ballads well anymore unless
they are set to music); conventional phrasing and alliteration; place-names
in "Massachusetts to Virginia"; effect of stereotyping from a
clumsy effort to render black dialect in "At Port Royal."
I think we can take clues from such responses and turn the questions
around, asking why, in what context, and for what audience such poetry
would be successful. Consider reasons why one might want to give his verses
such regular meter, such round and musically comfortable phrasing; consider
the message of the verses, the political protest the poet is making--and
the mass action he is trying to stimulate through his poetry. This could
lead to a discussion of topical poetry, the poetry of political agitation/protest,
as a genre--and of Whittier's work as a contribution to that tradition.
Some activities that can bring this home to the students include (1)
having students commit a few stanzas to memory and give a dramatic recitation
of them to the class (when one has fallen out of one's chair shouting defiantly,
"No fetters on the Bay State! No slave upon our land!" one knows
in one's own body why declamatory poetry is composed as it is), and (2)
comparing samples of topical poetry and song by other authors (e.g., poetry
of the Harlem Renaissance; the evolutions of "John Brown's Body,"
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "Solidarity Forever";
union ballads ["The Internationale"] and protest songs of the
Great Depression [Woody Guthrie's "Deportees," for example],
and contemporary popular songs of protest, like Michael Jackson's recording
of "Man in the Mirror," Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is,"
One can use the same general strategy in discussing other thorny elements
in the students' experience of the poetry, i.e., asking why a person working
from Whittier's assumptions and toward his objectives would choose to compose
as he did. What might the effect of all those place-names be on an audience
of folk who came from all of those places? How do we respond to a song
that mentions our home town? Which praises it for producing us? Which associates
us, as representatives of our town, with other towns and their worthy representatives?
Assuming that the poet did not mean to convey disrespect to the speakers
of the dialect he sought to represent in "At Port Royal," we
could ask why he would try to represent the dialect of the enslaved. (Even
without recourse to evidence of Whittier's views on African-Americans,
this is easy enough to demonstrate: summon up some Paul
Laurence Dunbar or Robert Burns or Mark
Twain and consider briefly the difficulties writers face in trying
to represent on paper the elements of speech that are uniquely oral--inflexion,
When you talk in class about these poems as instruments in abolition
agitation, students may want to know how blacks responded to Whittier's
poetry (Douglass applauded
Whittier as "the slave's poet"); whether Whittier read aloud
to audiences; whether readers committed the poetry to memory and passed
it on to others (including nonliterate others) by recitation.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Naturally one would have to speak about the abolition movement, as these
poems were written to express and to further that cause.
Specific to understanding Whittier as an abolitionist, it would be good
to point out that the first abolition society was founded by Quakers (a
few words about Woolman
and about the Quaker beliefs that led so many of them to labor against
slavery--inward light, reverence for all souls, etc.).
Specific to understanding some of the appeals Whittier makes in "Massachusetts
to Virginia," one should remind the student of the Revolutionary and
democratic heritage of Massachusetts--the state's role in the Revolutionary
War, its founding by religious dissenters, its tradition of the town meeting,
and so forth.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Aside from the issue of topical poetry, it would be appropriate to talk
a little bit about the "fireside poetry" that was popular throughout
the century in the United States--the characteristics of poetry of sentiment,
the kind of audience to which it appealed, and the expectations of that
audience. In a way this was the most democratic poetry the nation has produced,
in that it was both effectively popular and written expressly to appeal
to and communicate with a wide audience. To speak of it as popular rather
than elite culture might be useful if one is scrupulous to define these
as terms indicating the work's objectives and function rather than its
aesthetic "quality" or absolute "value." The artists
worked from different assumptions about the function of poetry than those
that informed the modernist and postmodern poets of the twentieth century.
The audience for poetry in America was as literate as primary education
in "blab" schools and drilling in recitation from McGuffey's
readers could make it. Good poetry was something you could memorize and
recite for pleasure when the book was not in hand, and it was something
that stimulated your emotions in the act of reading/reciting, recalling
to a harried and overworked people the things they did not see much in
their day's labor and the values and feelings an increasingly commercial
and competitive society obscured.
It would also be useful to point out that the audience Whittier sought
to cultivate were northern whites who had no firsthand experience of conditions
in slave states, whose attitude toward blacks was typically shaped more
by what they had been told than by personal encounters with black Americans,
free or slave. To get such an audience to commit itself to agitation on
behalf of American blacks--when that entailed conflict with southern whites,
and might imperil free white labor in the North (if masses of freed blacks
migrated to northern cities to compete for wage-labor)--was a task and
a half. He would have to draw his audience to this banner by identifying
his cause with that audience's deepest beliefs and values (such as their
Christian faith, their concern for their families and for the sanctity
of the family bond, their democratic principles and reverence for the rights
of man, their Revolutionary heritage, etc.).
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
These poems work well in tandem with other topical/protest poetry and
song and/or with another abolition piece. One could compare the effects
of Whittier's poetry with the effects of a speech or essay by Frederick
Phillips, Henry Highland
Garnet, Theodore Weld, the Grimké
sisters, William Lloyd
1. I would alert the class in advance to the function these poems were
designed to fulfill, i.e., to stir northern listeners and readers--many
of them white--to outrage on behalf of slaves and to action defying slave-holding
states. How do you get an audience to care for people who are not related
to them, not outwardly "like" them (skin color, dialect, experiences,
etc.), nor a source of profit by association or alliance? How do you persuade
strangers to risk life, prosperity, and the cooperation of other powerful
Americans whose products they depend upon, to liberate what Southerners
defined as property--perhaps violating the Constitution in doing so?
It might be fruitful to ask that they compare Whittier's topical/protest
poetry to the work of a poet like Dickinson
--asking that they bracket for the moment questions of which they prefer
to read and why, in order to focus instead on the different relationship
established between poet and audience. How does Dickinson seem to perceive
her calling/duty as a poet? How does Whittier perceive his calling/duty
as a poet? To what extent does Dickinson challenge/disrupt the expectations
and the shared assumptions of her culture? For what purpose? Toward what
effect? Does Whittier engage in this or not? Why (given his objectives)?
2. This is a very challenging assignment, but it really stimulates an
appreciation of Whittier's achievement and is a hands-on introduction to
topical poetry--to the effort to employ the aesthetic as a tool for persuasion
and political action.
Have students compose a short poem designed (1) to awaken audience to
concern for an issue or for the plight of a neglected, abused, disenfranchised,
or otherwise suffering group, and (2) to stimulate assent in the broadest
possible audience--agitating as many as possible while offending as few
as possible. Then have the students report on the experience: What problems
did they have in composing? How did they opt to solve those problems? Why
did they choose the approach and the language they chose? Compare their
solutions to Whittier's. At stake would be the quality of the students'
analyses of their own creative processes, not so much the instructor's
or class's opinion of the poem's effectiveness (though such reader response
might form part of the "material" the students would consider
as they analyzed and evaluated the task of composing this kind of poetry).
Instructors in search of materials on the poet may start with Karl Keller's
bibliographical essay on Whittier studies in Fifteen American Authors
Before 1900 (Robert Rees, editor. Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press, 1984) which can direct instructors to studies that explore a variety
of questions about the poet's life and work.
Two studies I have found useful for their emphasis on Whittier as abolitionist
poet/political activist are: (1) Albert Mordell's Quaker Militant, John
Greenleaf Whittier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933) and (2) Edward
Charles Wagenknecht's John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1967). In Wagenknecht I would refer
the reader to the chapters "A Side to Face the World With" and
"Power and Love."
John Pickard's introduction to Whittier, John Greenleaf Whittier:
An Introduction and Interpretation (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961)
provides a good tight chapter on Whittier's abolition activities (ch. 3).