The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIII. Whittier

§ 12. Standing

In the history of English literature in the larger sense, Whittier is probably no more than a poet of the third rank. His native endowment was rich, but it was supplemented by neither the technical training nor the discipline required for the development of the artist. He was extremely careless about his rhymes—“good Yankee rhymes, but out of New England they would be cashiered,” he once said of them. The construction of his stanzas was diffuse and often slovenly. The organ voice and the lyric cry were not, except at rare moments, his to command. But no American who lived in the shadow of slavery and internecine strife, none who grew to manhood in the generation succeeding those epic days, would dream of measuring his love and veneration for Whittier by the scale of absolute art. Whittier’s verse is so inwrought with the nation’s passion during that period of heightened consciousness that preserved the Union and redeemed it from the curse of slavery that it cannot be coldly and critically considered by any one who has had a vital sense of the agonies and exaltations of that critical time. To such, the invocation of Stedman’s Ad Vatem will always be a truer expression of their feeling than any critical judgment, for they can never forget their debt to him for

  • righteous anger, burning scorn
  • Of the oppressor, love to humankind,
  • Sweet fealty to country and to home,
  • Peace, stainless purity, high thoughts of heaven,
  • And the clear, natural music of [his] song.
  • Fifty years ago, the verdict of thoughtful Americans acclaimed Whittier as the foremost American poet, with the possible exception of Longfellow, and while now there would be more dissentients from that judgment than there were then, his fame still rests upon a very solid basis of acceptance and esteem. And especially to those who have sprung from the soil of New England, he will always be the incomparable poet of their childhood home, of its landscape, its legendry, and the spiritual essence of its history.