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

§ 8. Anti-Slavery Poems

The most considerable section of Whittier’s verse in point of volume is that in which the poet voices the burning indignation fanned in his breast by the curse of negro slavery in America. His fellow-poets—Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, and Emerson—were all enlisted in the warfare against this monstrous evil, and did yeoman service in the cause of freedom, but Whittier alone gave himself heart and soul to the crusade, from early manhood until the cause was won, from the time of his first association with Garrison to the time when his jubilant Laus Deo acclaimed the writing into the fundamental law of the republic of the ban upon slavery throughout the extent of its domain. Every step in the history of the conflict, which is the history of the United States for the period of a full generation, was seized upon by Whittier as a pretext for poetical expression—the terrorizing of the pioneer abolitionists, the war which the annexation of Texas made inevitable, the efforts of Clay and Webster to heal the wounds of dissension by compromise, the outrage of the Fugitive Slave Law, the struggle for freedom in the Territory of Kansas, the growth of the modern Republican party, and the holocaust of the Civil War. The majority of the poems occasioned by these themes are too entirely of and for the moment to have any lasting value, but their immediate effect was potent in strengthening the mighty moral resolve of the nation, and they made Whittier perhaps the best beloved of contemporary American poets. When this mass of work is sifted by criticism, only a few pieces seem to preserve much of the fire which made them so effective at the time of their publication. We may still be stirred by the stanzas of Le Marais du Cygne and the marching-song of The Kansas Emigrants:

  • We cross the prairies as of old
  • The pilgrims crossed the sea,
  • To make the West, as they the East,
  • The homestead of the free!
  • The ballad of Barbara Frietchie still has power to thrill its readers, and the terrible Ichabod, occasioned by Webster’s willingness to make terms with the abhorred evil of slavery, has lost little or none of its original force. “It is a fearful thing,” says Swinburne, paraphrasing the Scriptures in praise of Victor Hugo, “for a malefactor to fall into the hands of an ever-living poet.” And nowhere in the Châtiments of the French poet is there to be found a greater finality of condemnation than that with which Whittier stamped the subject of this truly great poem.