Poetry: John Greenleaf Whittier


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

The Fireside Poets y got their name from this poem by Whittier but to be honest their name, is lost to the more derogatory “schoolroom”  or “household” poets namely because they were American, very religious and wrote in traditional lyric verse with strict metre.  

 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.  The group consisted of 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 the Village in New York City, I found several of their volumes and got them. I loved them all,  and I was amazed when my Mum knew most of the poems by heart.  I did not grew up having to memorize poetry for school; it’s a shame actually as it brings such joy and comfort to know verse.

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 preferred Whittier’s Snow-bound, maybe because it was something I had never heard, or just because it was a nature theme. Hard to say honestly, but I do tend towards the latter while she went more for the patriotic and historical. Still I had to admit that Longfellow could write a could line, and a very good one at that. Of course there was Holmes’s “Old Ironsides” which remained in popular imagination up to and including the television series with Raymond Burr, but I think that Lowell’s anti-slavery poem are gone from memory and no one knows why he wrote the poem much less anything about the Merrimack that inspired it.

At the peak of his career, Poets.org says that Longfellow’s popularity rivaled Tennyson’s in England as well as in America, and he was a noted translator and scholar in several languages– he was the first American poet to be honored with a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. Hiawatha itself draws not only on Native American languages for its rhythmic underpinning, but also echoes the Kalevala, the great national Finnish epic. Lowell and Whittier, both outspoken liberals and abolitionists, were known for their journalism and work with the fledgling Atlantic Monthly as well.

After the Civil War, and until his death in 1892, Whittier wrote of religion, nature, and rural life; and so he became the most popular Fireside poet, my mother knew his poems but not him and in 1866 he published his most popular work, Snow-Bound, which sold 20,000 copies. 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. Whittier died at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on September 7, 1892.

 Channeling Longfellow (forbes.com)

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