Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"Oh! Rouse Ye, Ere the Storm Comes Forth": Prophecy and the Jeremiad in John Greenleaf Whittier's Antislavery Poetry

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"Oh! Rouse Ye, Ere the Storm Comes Forth": Prophecy and the Jeremiad in John Greenleaf Whittier's Antislavery Poetry

Article excerpt

THE purpose of this brief article is to discuss the prophetic role of the jeremiad, as John Greenleaf Whittier used William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, to respond publicly to the Christian church and entire nation for sinful actions or indifferent inaction regarding the institution of American slavery. In order to better understand Whittier's poetry, I will contextualize Whittier within Quaker theology and Quaker notions of prophecy. Secondly, I will briefly discuss the differences between the nineteenth-century jeremiad and its Puritan predecessors. Ultimately, I will use this context to help readers better understand the prophetic power of Whittier's antislavery poetry and his relationship to the jeremiad. I define jeremiad here as a socio-politically charged narrative with religious implications. Colloquially, the jeremiad is the narrative space where the town hall and the church become synonymous. In this way I also hope to reintroduce an important American literary figure to an audience that has forgotten him.

Some scholars deny any artistic quality in literature that centers on social causes and political ideologies; therefore, they tend to condemn Whittier's socially conscious poems as inartistic and unworthy of public attention. Edmund Wilson represents this school of thought, applauding Whittier's efforts as a public citizen but denouncing his efforts as a poet: "he was nothing if not an earnest evangel; but today [his poetry] has become repellent, for it is bigoted and as full of cliches about Freedom and Massachusetts and God as any collection of political speeches" (471). However, seminal Whittier articles written by John B. Pickard and Robert Penn Warren suggest otherwise. Although both men criticize Whittier's earlier poetry as trite and imitative, they assert that his move to social reform also changed his poetry. In a positive evaluation of "Massachusetts to Virginia," Pickard notes, "Rarely does propaganda serve the ends of art or can conflicting attitudes be harmonized ... an openly religious tone and sense of moral indignation help purge their [Whittier's poems] topical and journalistic nature" (107, 109). Responding to Whittier's early poetry, Warren concludes that it lacks the element of propaganda necessary to raise it above the level of "random vituperation": "it has to make a point and the point has to be held in view from the start; the piece has to show some sense of organization and control" (25). What Warren finds in Whittier's later abolitionist poetry is the organization, tone, and style needed for effective persuasion.

Although Whittier scholars are quite familiar with his introduction to the 1894 collection of his work, Whittier's admission of his antislavery poetry's purpose is worth noting as an introduction:

   Of their defects from an artistic point of view it is not necessary
   to speak. They were the earnest and often vehement expression of
   the writer's thought and feeling at critical periods in the great
   conflict between Freedom and Slavery. They were written with no
   expectation that they would survive the occasions which called them
   forth: they were protests, alarm signals, trumpet-calls to action,
   words wrung from the writer's heart, forged at white heat, and of
   course lacking the finish and careful word-selection which
   reflection and patient brooding over them might have given.
   (xxi-xxii)

The remainder of this essay will argue that Whittier's pragmatism and his unyielding desperation to use his poetry as an agent of reconciliation in a broken world ruled by slavery is as artful and worthy of study as any other poetry that stands merely on its aesthetic.

To understand Whittier's jeremiads against slavery, it will be useful to outline the role that Quaker theology played in the poet's thinking. In some ways, Transcendentalism and twenty-first-century Quaker churches have done a disservice to how many readers today view and interpret nineteenth-century Quaker theology, namely the notion of the "Inner Light. …

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