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Of all American poets, there is none who is so genuinely loved as John Greenleaf Whittier. A man of the people, a true American, and full of the milk of human kindness, Whittier’s poetry reflects so much of his own character that it will never lose its singular charm and beauty.

Whittier’s life is a story of struggle. He was born of humble Quaker parents at Haverhill, Mass., December 17, 1807. Instead of receiving the advantages of an education, he knew of nothing but drudgery and hard work throughout his childhood. But the poetic spark was in him even as a child. One day, when a small boy, he sat before the kitchen fire and wrote on his slate:

And must I always swing the flail

And help to fill the milking pail?

I wish to go away to school;

I do not wish to be a fool.

No doubt it was the memory of these childhood experiences that later inspired him to write with such depth of feeling and understanding the lines of “The Barefoot Boy”:

Blessings on thee, little man,

Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!

With thy turned-up pantaloons,

And thy merry whistled tunes;


With thy red lips, redder still

Kissed by strawberries on the hill;

With the sunshine on thy face,

Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace:

From my heart I give thee joy—

I was once a barefoot boy!

Through hard work he managed to save enough to attend Haverhill academy two seasons. Though this was the extent of his scholastic training, he never ceased to be a student.

A wandering Scotchman who chanced to visit the quiet Quaker home and sang such rollicking (!) lyrics as “Bonny Doon,” “Highland Mary,” and “Auld Lang Syne” kindled the boy’s imagination. He immediately borrowed a copy of Burns’ poems from the village schoolmaster, and now for the first time he seriously began to think of becoming a poet.

When he was only twenty-five years old he had already begun to attract attention by his poetry. He had also achieved some success in politics and was planning to run for Congress. Soon, however, came the call of the Abolition movement, and Whittier, always true to his Quaker conception of “the inner voice,” determined to sacrifice all of his political ambitions to become a champion of the slaves.

It was not long before he was recognized as preëminently the poet of anti-slavery, as Phillips was its orator, Mrs. Stowe its novelist, and Sumner its statesman. The fervor with which he threw himself into the cause may be seen reflected in the stirring lines of his poems written in those days, notably “The Star of Bethlehem.” However, since his anti-slavery poems are more vehement than inspiring, and as the events which suggested them were temporary, they will be read with constantly waning interest.


The vigor with which he espoused the Abolition cause stirred up deep resentment among his enemies. At Philadelphia, where he published “The Pennsylvania Free-man,” the office of the paper was attacked by a mob and burned. But Whittier was not dismayed. When Daniel Webster in 1850 made his notable defense of the Fugitive Slave law in the United States senate, Whittier wrote “Ichabod” in reply.

At a time when the Abolition movement seemed to be losing, rather than gaining, ground, the poet gave expression to his faith in God in the beautiful poem, “Seed-Time and Harvest.” His duty, as he saw it, was to sow the seed; God would take care of the harvest.

Because the Quakers do not sing in their services, Whittier knew little of music. However, he once wrote: “A good hymn is the best use to which poetry can be devoted, but I do not claim that I have succeeded in composing one.”

And yet, the poems of Whittier, notably “Our Master” and “The Eternal Goodness,” have been the source of some of the finest hymns in the English language. There are at least seventy-five hymns now in use that bear his name. Practically all of them are extracts from longer poems. “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,” “I bow my forehead to the dust,” and “We need not climb the heavenly steeps” are among the best loved of Whittier’s hymns. Probably his most famous poem is “Snowbound.”

Whittier died in 1892. His last words were, “Love—love to all the world.” A friend bent over the dying man and whispered the words of his poem, “At Last.”

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