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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

Among the Hills

  • This poem, when originally published, was dedicated to Annie Fields, wife of the distinguished publisher, James T. Fields, of Boston, in grateful acknowledgment of the strength and inspiration I have found in her friendship and sympathy.
  • The poem in its first form was entitled The Wife: an Idyl of Bearcamp Water, and appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for January, 1868. When I published the volume Among the Hills, in December of the same year, I expanded the Prelude and filled out also the outlines of the story.

  • ALONG the roadside, like the flowers of gold

    That tawny Incas for their gardens wrought,

    Heavy with sunshine droops the golden-rod,

    And the red pennons of the cardinal-flowers

    Hang motionless upon their upright staves.

    The sky is hot and hazy, and the wind,

    Wing-weary with its long flight from the south,

    Unfelt; yet, closely scanned, yon maple leaf

    With faintest motion, as one stirs in dreams,

    Confesses it. The locust by the wall

    Stabs the noon-silence with his sharp alarm.

    A single hay-cart down the dusty road

    Creaks slowly, with its driver fast asleep

    On the load’s top. Against the neighboring hill,

    Huddled along the stone wall’s shady side,

    The sheep show white, as if a snowdrift still

    Defied the dog-star. Through the open door

    A drowsy smell of flowers—gray heliotrope,

    And white sweet clover, and shy mignonette—

    Comes faintly in, and silent chorus lends

    To the pervading symphony of peace.

    No time is this for hands long over-worn

    To task their strength: and (unto Him be praise

    Who giveth quietness!) the stress and strain

    Of years that did the work of centuries

    Have ceased, and we can draw our breath once more

    Freely and full. So, as yon harvesters

    Make glad their nooning underneath the elms

    With tale and riddle and old snatch of song,

    I lay aside grave themes, and idly turn

    The leaves of memory’s sketch-book, dreaming o’er

    Old summer pictures of the quiet hills,

    And human life, as quiet, at their feet.

    And yet not idly all. A farmer’s son,

    Proud of field-lore and harvest craft, and feeling

    All their fine possibilities, how rich

    And restful even poverty and toil

    Become when beauty, harmony, and love

    Sit at their humble hearth as angels sat

    At evening in the patriarch’s tent, when man

    Makes labor noble, and his farmer’s frock

    The symbol of a Christian chivalry

    Tender and just and generous to her

    Who clothes with grace all duty; still, I know

    Too well the picture has another side,—

    How wearily the grind of toil goes on

    Where love is wanting, how the eye and ear

    And heart are starved amidst the plenitude

    Of nature, and how hard and colorless

    Is life without an atmosphere. I look

    Across the lapse of half a century,

    And call to mind old homesteads, where no flower

    Told that the spring had come, but evil weeds,

    Nightshade and rough-leaved burdock in the place

    Of the sweet doorway greeting of the rose

    And honeysuckle, where the house walls seemed

    Blistering in sun, without a tree or vine

    To cast the tremulous shadow of its leaves

    Across the curtainless windows, from whose panes

    Fluttered the signal rags of shiftlessness.

    Within, the cluttered kitchen-floor, unwashed

    (Broom-clean I think they called it); the best room

    Stifling with cellar damp, shut from the air

    In hot midsummer, bookless, pictureless

    Save the inevitable sampler hung

    Over the fireplace, or a mourning piece,

    A green-haired woman, peony-cheeked, beneath

    Impossible willows; the wide-throated hearth

    Bristling with faded pine-boughs half concealing

    The piled-up rubbish at the chimney’s back;

    And, in sad keeping with all things about them,

    Shrill, querulous women, sour and sullen men,

    Untidy, loveless, old before their time,

    With scarce a human interest save their own

    Monotonous round of small economies,

    Or the poor scandal of the neighborhood;

    Blind to the beauty everywhere revealed,

    Treading the May-flowers with regardless feet;

    For them the song-sparrow and the bobolink

    Sang not, nor winds made music in the leaves;

    For them in vain October’s holocaust

    Burned, gold and crimson, over all the hills,

    The sacramental mystery of the woods.

    Church-goers, fearful of the unseen Powers,

    But grumbling over pulpit-tax and pew-rent,

    Saving, as shrewd economists, their souls

    And winter pork with the least possible outlay

    Of salt and sanctity; in daily life

    Showing as little actual comprehension

    Of Christian charity and love and duty,

    As if the Sermon on the Mount had been

    Outdated like a last year’s almanac:

    Rich in broad woodlands and in half-tilled fields,

    And yet so pinched and bare and comfortless,

    The veriest straggler limping on his rounds,

    The sun and air his sole inheritance,

    Laughed at a poverty that paid its taxes,

    And hugged his rags in self-complacency!

    Not such should be the homesteads of a land

    Where whoso wisely wills and acts may dwell

    As king and lawgiver, in broad-acred state,

    With beauty, art, taste, culture, books, to make

    His hour of leisure richer than a life

    Of fourscore to the barons of old time,

    Our yeoman should be equal to his home

    Set in the fair, green valleys, purple walled,

    A man to match his mountains, not to creep

    Dwarfed and abased below them. I would fain

    In this light way (of which I needs must own

    With the knife-grinder of whom Canning sings.

    “Story, God bless you! I have none to tell you!”)

    Invite the eye to see and heart to feel

    The beauty and the joy within their reach,—

    Home, and home loves, and the beatitudes

    Of nature free to all. Haply in years

    That wait to take the places of our own,

    Heard where some breezy balcony looks down

    On happy homes, or where the lake in the moon

    Sleeps dreaming of the mountains, fair as Ruth,

    In the old Hebrew pastoral, at the feet

    Of Boaz, even this simple lay of mine

    May seem the burden of a prophecy,

    Finding its late fulfilment in a change

    Slow as the oak’s growth, lifting manhood up

    Through broader culture, finer manners, love,

    And reverence, to the level of the hills.

    O Golden Age, whose light is of the dawn,

    And not of sunset, forward, not behind,

    Flood the new heavens and earth, and with thee bring

    All the old virtues, whatsoever things

    Are pure and honest and of good repute,

    But add thereto whatever bard has sung

    Or seer has told of when in trance and dream

    They saw the Happy Isles of prophecy!

    Let Justice hold her scale, and Truth divide

    Between the right and wrong; but give the heart

    The freedom of its fair inheritance;

    Let the poor prisoner, cramped and starved so long,

    At Nature’s table feast his ear and eye

    With joy and wonder; let all harmonies

    Of sound, form, color, motion, wait upon

    The princely guest, whether in soft attire

    Of leisure clad, or the coarse frock of toil,

    And, lending life to the dead form of faith,

    Give human nature reverence for the sake

    Of One who bore it, making it divine

    With the ineffable tenderness of God;

    Let common need, the brotherhood of prayer,

    The heirship of an unknown destiny,

    The unsolved mystery round about us, make

    A man more precious than the gold of Ophir.

    Sacred, inviolate, unto whom all things

    Should minister, as outward types and signs

    Of the eternal beauty which fulfils

    The one great purpose of creation, Love,

    The sole necessity of Earth and Heaven!