Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trembling, I listened - there's at least one Whittier masterpiece

John Greenleaf Whittier makes a good punching bag. Even in a short collection like the Robert Penn Warren edition that I'm reading, just 143 pages of poems, there are some duds shocking enough to almost make me morbidly curious about the contents of Whittier's seven volumes of collected poems. And plenty of other poems have fine lines or passages, but falter.

Whittier began publishing poems in 1926, at the age of 19. He was poetically gifted, without a doubt. Neither Warren or Brenda Wineapple, who edited the short Library of America Whittier, thinks he wrote a decent poem for twenty years or more ("Song of Slaves in the Desert" (1847), that's the first good one). Both editors essentially skip the entire period.

Reading Whittier's lesser poems perhaps softens my judgment, but it was once again a shock to turn to "Telling the Bees" (1858), which looks and sounds to me like a genuinely great poem.

Here is the place; right over the hill
  Runs the path I took;
You can see the gap in the old wall still,
  And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.

It is not a linguistically complicated poem, and the single effect is hardly unique to this poem. The narrator returns to his girlfriend's house after a month's absence. As he approaches, he looks at this, he looks at that. Almost nothing has changed.

Just the same as a month before,--
  The house and the trees,
The barn's brown gable, the vine by the door,--
  Nothing changed but the hives of bees.

Before them, under the garden wall,
  Forward and back,
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
  Draping each hive with a shred of black.

Whittier tells us, in a header, of the rural New England custom of telling the bees of any death, and of dressing the hives in mourning.

Trembling, I listened: the summer sun
  Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
  Gone on the journey we all must go!

Then I said to myself, "My Mary weeps
  For the dead to-day:
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
  The fret and the pain of his age away."

Two stanzas left. I'll bet you can guess the ending, and if not the surprise will be appreciated. The bee custom adds a sense of mystery or sublimity to what might be a cloying scene. The nostalgic tone, which seems to be Whittier's primary late career mode, is undercut by real loss. The lines are not necessarily individually perfect, but I can't hear any clinkers.

The pace, which I have butchered, is well-measured. The second line of each stanza, the five beat line, really works, whether reading silently or aloud:

Heavy and slow;
To love, a year;
The house and the trees,
Forward and back,

Very simple, looking at them on their own. Simple in language, not in metrical effect. A little touch of poetical magic there.

An odd feature of poetry is that a poet can occasionally remain well-known ("immortal") for a single poem. I think "Telling the Bees" will keep Whittier in those American poetry anthologies.


  1. "An odd feature of poetry is that a poet can occasionally remain well-known ("immortal") for a single poem."

    So Whitter may be sort of the Lulu or Right Said Fred of the 19th century poetry scene. :-) I have a really hard time with Romantic or sentimental poetry - I read in many genres, but often, for poems in this mode, I just can't put aside the schmaltz factor, even for the Great Works (like, Wordsworth's "Ruined Cottage"? God, I was rolling my eyes like an annoying teenager through the entire thing). Still, "Telling the Bees" seems understated enough to be more effective than most. I'm enjoying your posts on Whittier, since I know almost nothing about him.

  2. The one-hit-wonder analogy does not work for Whittier. He had many, many hits. He was Very Important.

    Whittier is more like, let's see, Carl Perkins, who had many fine songs and hits, but for some reason seems to have been reduced to "Blue Suede Shoes." Or the Marvelettes, the amazing Marvelettes. "Please Mr. Postman" is a middling quality Marvelettes song.

    This model may work for other poems - see Robert Southwell, "The Burning Babe."

    I just glanced at "The Ruined Cottage." I see what you mean. Although the first thing that struck we was Wordsworth's almost terrifying mastery of blank verse.