John Greenleaf Whittier was born to a Quaker family in 1807 on a farm in Massachusetts. His Quaker upbringing not only caused him to feel different from other New Englanders, but it also barred him from non-Quaker literature growing up. However, at fourteen years old, he discovered the Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose poems deeply inspired Whittier and influenced him to write poetry that used regional dialects, homely subjects and demonstrated a democratic conscience. His first published poem was in a local newspaper in 1826 run by William Lloyd Garrison, who introduced Whittier to the antislavery movement and encouraged him to become a writer. In 1833, Whittier’s life changed drastically when he became fully committed to the abolitionist movement, publishing pamphlets, helping to found the American Anti-Slavery Society, and publishing over 100 anti-slavery poems. This cause him to face numerous dangers, including being stonned and mobbed, as well as having his office ransacked and burned. In the 1850’s, however, abolitionism became popular in the north and his reputation as a social figure and poet improved.
“To William Lloyd Garrison” (1832)
Champion of those who groan beneath
Oppression’s iron hand
In view of penury, hate, and death,
I see thee fearless stand.
Still bearing up thy lofty brow,
In the steadfast strength of truth,
In manhood sealing well the vow
And promise of thy youth.
Go on, for thou hast chosen well;
On in the strength of God!
Long as one human heart shall swell
Beneath the tyrant’s rod.
Speak in a slumbering nation’s ear,
As thou hast ever spoken,
Until the dead in sin shall hear,
The fetter’s link be broken!
I love thee with a brother’s love,
I feel my pulses thrill,
To mark thy spirit soar above
The cloud of human ill.
My heart hath leaped to answer thine,
And echo back thy words,
As leaps the warrior’s at the shine
And flash of kindred swords!
They tell me thou art rash and vain,
A searcher after fame;
That thou art striving but to gain
A long-enduring name;
That thou hast nerved the Afric’s hand
And steeled the Afric’s heart,
To shake aloft his vengeful brand,
And rend his chain apart.
Have I not known thee well, and read
Thy mighty purpose long?
And watched the trials which have made
Thy human spirit strong?
And shall the slanderer’s demon breath
Avail with one like me,
To dim the sunshine of my faith
And earnest trust in thee?
Go on, the dagger’s point may glare
Amid thy pathway’s gloom;
The fate which sternly threatens there
Is glorious martyrdom
Then onward with a martyr’s zeal;
And wait thy sure reward
When man to man no more shall kneel,
And God alone be Lord!
In this poem, Whittier recognizes and highlights the immense influence that William Lloyd Garrison had on his personal and professional life. In particular, he highlights Garrison’s commitment to the anti-slavery movement and uses religious imagery to further heighten Garrison’s heroic status, as well as position the anti-slavery movement as a Godly task.
“The Slave-Ships” (1834)
Read the poem here.
This poem works within the gothic mode to recount a true account from 1819 of a French slaving ship, Le Rodeur, that was infected with a disease that caused blindness. Whittier places two passages detailing the true event prior to his poem. Eventually, after the ship’s crew discovered that the disease was spreading amongst their slave cargo, the captain ordered thirty-six slaves to be “thrown into the sea and drowned.” The disease, however, continued to spread, until only one member of the crew remained unharmed. They spy a Spanish slave ship coming towards them, but only to discover that the ship was also completely infected by the same disease, so they were unable to help each other or to use one of the ships as a quarantine. After Le Rodeur reached Guadaloupe, the only man who did not have the disease caught it three days after its arrival. Whittier takes this true story and twists it into a gothic tale in which the repressed evils (seen in the inhumane way that the crew tosses the slaves to the sharks) return to destroy the slaver’s crew. Whittier uses “blackness” as the color of sin (see Goddu for more on darkness and the American gothic) and writes that the final crew member, once infected in Guadaloupe, “O’er a world of light and beauty/ Fell the blackness of his crime.” It is a sort of gothic veil (used in Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”) that separates the crew from all that is good and beautiful in the world. Their sin has drastically changed them, not only physically in making them blind, but spiritually as well.
“Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl” (1866)
Read the poem here.
After the death of his younger sister Elizabeth in 1865, Whittier began writing “Snow-Bound.” It was particularly well-received in the after-math of the Civil War when the nation was in mourning. The poem deals with the nostalgic evocation of his family home in New England and depicts an American lifestyle that was quickly fading. He became one of the nation’s most beloved poets and earned over $10,000 in sales of “Snow-Bound.”