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About this poet

An American poet and editor, John Greenleaf Whittier was born December 17, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The son of two devout Quakers, he grew up on the family farm and had little formal schooling. His first published poem, "The Exile's Departure," was published in William Lloyd Garrison's Newburyport Free Press in 1826. He then attended Haverhill Academy from 1827 to 1828, supporting himself as a shoemaker and schoolteacher. By the time he was twenty, he had published enough verse to bring him to the attention of editors and readers in the antislavery cause. A Quaker devoted to social causes and reform, Whittier worked passionately for a series of abolitionist newspapers and magazines. In Boston, he edited American Manufacturer and Essex Gazette before becoming editor of the important New England Weekly Review. Whittier was active in his support of National Republican candidates; he was a delegate in 1831 to the national Republican Convention in support of Henry Clay, and he himself ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.

His first book, Legends of New England in Prose and Verse, was published in 1831; from then until the Civil War, he wrote essays and articles as well as poems, almost all of which were concerned with abolition. In 1833 he wrote Justice and Expedience urging immediate abolition. In 1834 he was elected as a Whig for one term to the Massachusetts legislature; mobbed and stoned in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1835. He moved in 1836 to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where he worked for the American Anti-Slavery Society. During his tenure as editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, in May 1838, the paper's offices burned to the ground and were sacked during the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall by a mob.

Whittier founded the antislavery Liberty party in 1840 and ran for Congress in 1842. In the mid-1850s he began to work for the formation of the Republican party; he supported presidential candidacy of John C. Frémont in 1856. He helped to found Atlantic Monthly in 1857. Although Whittier was close friends with Elizabeth Lloyd Howell and considered marrying her, in 1859 he decided against it.

While Whittier's critics never considered him to be a great poet, they thought him a nobel and kind man whose verse gave unique expression to ideas they valued. The Civil War inspired the famous poem, "Barbara Frietchie," but the important change in his work came after the war. From 1865 until his death in 1892, Whittier wrote of religion, nature, and rural life; he became the most popular Fireside poets.

In 1866 he published his most popular work, Snow-Bound, which sold 20,000 copies. In the early 1880s, he formed close friendships with Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields. For his seventieth birthday dinner in 1877, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells attended. He died at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on September 7, 1892.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Legends of New England in Prose and Verse (1831)
Moll Pitcher (1832)
Justice and Expediency (1833)
Poems (1838)
Lays of My Home (1843)
The Panorama (1846)
Voices of Freedom (1846)
Poems by John G. Whittier (1849)
Songs of Labor (1850)
The Chapel of the Hermits (1853)
Poetical Works (1857)
Home Ballads (1860)
In War Time (1864)
Snow-Bound (1866)
The Tent on the Beach (1867)
Among the Hills (1869)
Miriam and Other Poems (1871)
Hazel-Blossoms (1875)
The Vision of Echard (1878)
St. Gregory's Guest (1886)
At Sundown (1890)
The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (1894)

Prose

Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal (1849)
Old Portraits and Modern Sketches (1850)
Literary Recreations and Miscellanies (1854)

The Watchers

Beside a stricken field I stood;
On the torn turf, on grass and wood,
Hung heavily the dew of blood.

Still in their fresh mounds lay the slain,
But all the air was quick with pain
And gusty sighs and tearful rain.

Two angels, each with drooping head
And folded wings and noiseless treads,
Watched by that valley of the dead.

The one, with forehead saintly bland
And lips of blessing, not command,
Leaned, weeping, on her olive wand.

The other’s brows were scarred and knit,
His restless eyes were watch-fires lit,
His hands for battle-gauntlets fit.

“How long!”—I knew the voice of Peace,
“Is there no respite? no release?
When shall the hopeless quarrel cease?

“O Lord, how long! One human soul
Is more than any parchment scroll,
Or any flag thy winds unroll.

“What price was Ellsworth’s, young and brave?
How weigh the gift that Lyon gave,
Or count the cost of Winthrop’s grave?

“O brother! if thine eye can see,
Tell how and when the end shall be,
What hope remains for thee and me.”

Then Freedom sternly said: “I shun
No strife nor pang beneath the sun,
When human rights are staked and won.

“I knelt with Ziska’s hunted flock,
I watched in Toussaint’s cell of rock,
I walked with Sidney to the block.

“The moor of Marston felt my tread,
Through Jersey snows the march I led,
My voice Magenta’s charges sped.

“But now, through weary day and night,
I watch a vague and aimless fight
For leave to strike one blow aright.

“On either side my foe they own:
One guards through love his ghastly throne,
And one through fear to reverence grown.

“Why wait we longer, mocked, betrayed,
By open foes, or those afraid
To speed thy coming through my aid?

“Why watch to see who win or fall?
I shake the dust against them all,
I leave them to their senseless brawl.”

“Nay,” Peace implored: “yet longer wait;
The doom is near, the stake is great:
God knoweth if it be too late.

“Still wait and watch; the way prepare
Where I with folded wings of prayer
May follow, weaponless and bare.”

“Too late!” the stern, sad voice replied,
“Too late!” its mournful echo sighed,
In low lament the answer died.

A rustling as of wings in flight,
An upward gleam of lessening white,
So passed the vision, sound and sight.

But round me, like a silver bell
Rung down the listening sky to tell
Of holy help, a sweet voice fell.

“Still hope and trust,” it sang; “the rod
Must fall, the wine-press must be trod,
But all is possible with God!”

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier

An American poet and editor, John Greenleaf Whittier was born December 17, 1807

by this poet

poem

Olor Iscanus queries: “Why should we
Vex at the land’s ridiculous miserie?”
So on his Usk banks, in the blood-red dawn
Of England’s civil strife, did careless Vaughan
Bemock his times. O friends of many years!
Though faith and trust are stronger than our fears,
And the signs promise

poem
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of
poem

The flags of war like storm-birds fly,
     The charging trumpets blow;
Yet rolls no thunder in the sky,
     No earthquake strives below.

And, calm and patient, Nature keeps
     Her ancient promise well,
Though o’er her bloom and greenness sweeps
     The battle’s breath