John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

    Contributing Editor:
    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," etc.).

    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, accent, etc.)

    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.

    Original Audience

    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 Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Henry Highland Garnet, Theodore Weld, the Grimké sisters, William Lloyd Garrison, etc.

    Original Audience

    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).