John Greenleaf Whittier: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Benjamin Gaines

Benjamin has his master's degree in literature and has taught writing in and out of academia.

John Greenleaf Whittier was a nineteenth century American poet, journalist, and political activist. Read about his experiences opposing slavery and growing into one of the most popular poets of his day.

Early Life

John Greenleaf Whittier was born December 17, 1807. He grew up on his parents' rural New England farm and had little early schooling. He did, however, read his father's Quaker literature and collections of British poetry. These early readings heavily influenced both his religious and poetic sensibilities throughout his life.

Whittier's first published poem, 'The Exile's Departure,' appeared in the Newburyport Free Press in 1826. His poem drew the attention of the paper's editor, William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was an abolitionist, someone who believed that the institution of slavery should be abolished. Whittier shared Garrison's views, and the two became friends.

Portrait of John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier Portrait

With Garrison's encouragement, Whittier went to Haverhill Academy from 1827 to 1828. To afford tuition, he worked as a shoemaker and later a teacher in a small schoolhouse. During this time, Whittier submitted poems to local newspapers. Over eighty were published.

After graduation, he worked as an editor for a series of newspapers, including the New England Weekly Review. The strain of editorship wore heavily on Whittier, and he eventually resigned.

During this time, Whittier's abolitionist views began appearing in print. He published a pamphlet called 'Justice and Expediency,' which called for an immediate end to slavery. He wrote a series of poems exploring the injustice of slavery and his commitment to lend his pen to the cause.

Whittier's adventures in politics led him to join the Anti-Slavery Party and participate in a series of conventions and meetings. He served one term in the Massachusetts state legislature. He also traveled New England giving anti-slavery speeches. His abolitionist views were not always welcome, resulting in an angry mob pelting him with stones in Concord, New Hampshire.

Whittier took over the abolitionist newspaper The Pennsylvania Freeman in 1838, only to have the headquarters burned down the same year. Despite this, he continued writing and speaking out against slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Life after Abolition

With the end of the Civil War and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery was officially outlawed. This marked the end of his life's great struggle and the beginning of a new chapter in Whittier's life.

Cover of Snow-Bound
Snow-Bound Cover

With his biggest political dreams fulfilled, Whittier turned his gaze towards his memories of childhood. He began focusing more heavily on pastoral poetry, poems about the charm of simple country life.

His most successful poem was Snow-Bound, a Winter Idyl. Published in 1866, this lengthy pastoral poem sold over 10,000 copies, affording Whittier both literary fame and a good deal of money.

Over the next thirty years, Whittier would become one of the most popular Fireside Poets. These poets wrote poetry as a form of popular entertainment, the kind that could be read by a family around a fireplace. As a result, he became a household name.

Whittier enjoyed success and popularity for the rest of his life. He died on September 7, 1892 at the age of 84.

Literary Influence

Whittier's early poetry was heavily influenced by British poets like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Whittier felt that this early poetry was an embarrassment, and its success was due to the absence of serious critics and the limited number of people writing at that point.

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