Poetry: John Greenleaf Whittier

God is, and all is well.
— John Greenleaf Whittier, a Fireside Poet

  They were the first group of American poets to rival British poets in popularity in either country and at one time, it was de rigeur that students grew up memorizing their poetry; my Mum sure did and even 60 years later could remembers bits and pieces because unlike me she had to memorize them by heart.
Here is an online magazine about them.
The group consisted mainly of  New Englanders:  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant.

Many many years ago, down in The Strand in Greenwich Village in New York City, I found several of their volumes and got them.  I brought one home, and she picked up the Whittier volume and told me that he was her favorite.  I had never heard that and I read from the book, and she from memory this one.

We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.
–from Snow-bound,   John Greenleaf Whittier

I liked Mum’s pick Whittier’s Snow-bound for us to read together, because I had spent time in her hometown of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, knew of the rigours of a New England nor’easter.  They are wonderful things to watch and be safe inside and warm.  A horrible thing though to get trapped in.

The Old Ironsides USS Constitution
Old Ironsides i.e. the USS Constitution

Oliver Wendell Holmes, another one of the set, penned   “Old Ironsides” which remained in popular imagination up  & including the  television series with Raymond Burr.  It is harbored up in Charlestown, Boston, Massachusetts and from a corner window in my cousin Ophelia’s apartment you could catch a shot of it.

                     The frigate Old Ironsides

The frigate has figured valiantly in the history of the United States navy, and had won the famous sea-fight with the English ship Guerriere (Warrior)  in the War of 1812 and  popularly called Old Ironsides, for the affections Americans haad for the warrior.¹
On September 14, 1830, the Boston Patriot, a newspaper reported that Secretary of the Navy had recommended that the Constitution be broken up, as it was longer fit for service.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, just twenty-one  wrote  Old Ironsides,  to stop this and it appeared two days later and became the battle-cry for saving her.  Holmes was a brilliant polymath and later US Supreme Court Justice.

                                               The poems of Longfellow

At the peak of his career, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s popularity rivaled Tennyson’s in England.  He was a noted translator and scholar in several languages and  the first American poet to be honored with a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The Song of Hiawatha  draws not only upon the East Coast Leni Lenape language for its rhythmic underpinning, but also echoes the Kalevala, the great national Finnish epic and like the former, it lasts forever.

Lowell and Whittier were both outspoken liberals and abolitionists & known for their journalism at the fledgling Atlantic Monthly.

After the Civil War, and until his death  Whittier wrote of religion, nature, and rural life; and became the most popular Fireside poet.  In 1866 he published his most popular work the aforementioned  Snow-Bound, which sold 20,000 copies. For Whittier’s seventieth birthday dinner in 1877, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells attended.

Whittier died at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on September 7, 1892 and when I founded my chicken farm, I named it Greenleaf in his honor.

Channeling Longfellow (forbes.com)

1. The poem Old Ironsides

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;–
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;–
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!