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

§ 6. Ballads

In the classification of Whittier’s work, the narrative poems are the first to call for consideration. “Of all our poets he is the most natural balladist,” says E. C. Stedman, and throughout his entire life he was always ready to turn from the strenuous exactions of the causes which claimed his most ardent sympathies to the delightful relaxation of story-telling. From childhood he was steeped in the legendry of New England, its tales of Indian raids, of Quaker persecutions, of picturesque pioneers, and of romantic adventure; while the wide reading which made Whittier in later life a cultivated man fed his narrative faculty with old-world themes, ranging all the way from the Norse to the Oriental. The grim tragic economy of the folk-ballad, as it sprang from the heart of the people in England, Denmark, or Germany, never imparted its secret to him, although in The Sisters he came near to plucking the heart out of that mystery; but the ballad was to him the occasion for a rambling narration, diffuse in its unfolding and unrestrained in its form, often with decorative illustrations drawn from quite unexpected sources, and usually shaped to the point of a rather obtrusive moral. Such pieces as Maud Muller and Barclay of Ury would doubtless have been better poems without the moralizing tags which conclude them, but probably they would also have been less popular. Whittier’s public expected a certain element of sermonizing in his verse and the America of his time paid scant heed to the cry that “art for art’s sake” should be the guiding principle of poetic practice. The best of Whittier’s ballads, nevertheless, are comparatively unburdened with didacticism. Among these may be mentioned Pentucket, with its memories of old-time Indian raids along the Merrimac; Cassandra Southwick, a tale of the Quaker persecutions; The Angels of Buena Vista, an echo from the battle-fields of the Mexican War; The Garrison of Cape Ann, which tells how the New Englander of old vanquished the powers of darkness; Skipper Ireson’s Ride, a spirited song of the vengeance wrought by the women of Marblehead upon a sea-captain thought to have abandoned the crew of a sinking ship; Mabel Martin, an idyl of the days of witchcraft, and Amy Wentworth, a dainty romance of the old colonial time. Upon these ballads, and many others, New England childhood has been nurtured for a century, gaining from them its special sense of a heritage of no mean spiritual content, rich also in picturesque associations and romantic memories.