Thursday, September 11, 2008

John Greenleaf Whittier

I am working on a project that uses lines from the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. I was helped extraordinarily by the Project Gutenberg where I found a huge amount of his poetry online. He was prolific. He is best known for his poem Snowbound which was a bestseller and made him financially comfortable for the first time in his life at age fifty-nine.I was particularly interested in poems about nature. While some of the poems feel dated and less relevant today, there is much to enjoy. What impressed me was how freely poetry seemed to flow from him. In addition to longer narrative poems and antislavery poetry, he wrote many eulogies in verse, hymns, and poems as thank yous for gifts, my favorite being To A.K. on Receiving a Basket of Sea Mosses.

I visited the John Greenleaf Whittier home in Amesbury, MA where he lived from 1836 until his death in 1892 after two days of reading his poetry. Immersed in his words, I found the tour to be a moving experience. The house contains much original furniture and pictures and his spirit as well.

I liked this poem written on the dedication of the Haverhill Library in because it describes some of the earlier forms of books.


Sung at the opening of the Haverhill Library, November 11, 1875.

"Let there be light!" God spake of old,
And over chaos dark and cold,
And through the dead and formless frame
Of nature, life and order came.

Faint was the light at first that shone
On giant fern and mastodon,
On half-formed plant and beast of prey,
And man as rude and wild as they.

Age after age, like waves, o'erran
The earth, uplifting brute and man;
And mind, at length, in symbols dark
Its meanings traced on stone and bark.

On leaf of palm, on sedge-wrought roll,
On plastic clay and leathern scroll,
Man wrote his thoughts; the ages passed,
And to! the Press was found at last!

Then dead souls woke; the thoughts of men
Whose bones were dust revived again;
The cloister's silence found a tongue,
Old prophets spake, old poets sung.

And here, to-day, the dead look down,
The kings of mind again we crown;
We hear the voices lost so long,
The sage's word, the sibyl's song.

Here Greek and Roman find themselves
Alive along these crowded shelves;
And Shakespeare treads again his stage,
And Chaucer paints anew his age.

As if some Pantheon's marbles broke
Their stony trance, and lived and spoke,
Life thrills along the alcoved hall,
The lords of thought await our call!

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