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John Greenleaf Whittier Biography | Poet

Photo of John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) was an American Quaker poet and forceful advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States.

He was born to John and Abigail (Hussey) Whittier at the rural Whittier homestead in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He grew up on the farm in a household with his parents, a brother and two sisters, a maternal aunt and paternal uncle, and a constant flow of visitors and hired hands for the farm. During the winter term, he attended the district school, and was first introduced to poetry by a teacher. He remained an active Quaker all his life, although there is no record of him ever speaking in meeting, and, unlike some others who were Orthodox, he found time to engage in politics and championed abolitionism. Whittier became editor of a number of newspapers in Boston and Haverhill, as well as the New England Weekly Review in Hartford, Connecticut, the most influential Whig journal in New England. In 1838, a mob burned Whittier out of his offices in the antislavery center of Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia.

Highly regarded in his lifetime and for a period thereafter (several New England states had holidays in his honor, and Whittier, California, was named for him), he is now remembered largely for the patriotic poem Barbara Frietchie, as well as for a number of poems turned into hymns, some of which remain exceedingly popular. Although clearly Victorian in style, and capable of being sentimental, his hymns exhibit both imagination and universalism of spirit that set them beyond ordinary 19th century hymnody. Best known is probably Dear Lord and Father of Mankind taken from his poem The Brewing of Soma, but Whittier's Quaker thought is better illustrated by the hymn that begins:

O Brother Man, fold to thy heart thy brother:
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly word a prayer.

It also shows in his poem "To Rönge" in honour of Johannes von Rönge the German Religious figure and Protestant rebel leader of the 1848 rebelion in Germany:

Thy work is to hew down. In God's name then:
Put nerve into thy task. Let other men;
Plant, as they may, that better tree whose fruit,
The wounded bosom of the Church shall heal.

His words still reverberate today, particularly through his poem "Maud Muller" with its famous line: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"

Whittier died at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, and is buried in Amesbury, Massachusetts. His birthplace, the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead in Haverhill, is now a museum open to the public, as is the John Greenleaf Whittier Home in Amesbury, his residence for 56 years. Cheese was said to be his favorite food, along with applesauce and beer.

A bridge named for Whittier, built in the style of the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges spanning Cape Cod Canal, carries Interstate 95 from Amesbury to Newburyport over the Merrimack River. The city of Whittier, California and the town of Greenleaf, Idaho were named in his honor. Both Whittier College and Whittier Law School are also named in his honor.

John Greenleaf Whittier: Poems | Best Poems | Short Poems | Quotes

Book: Reflection on the Important Things