by John Greenleaf Whittier
So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn Which once he wore! The glory from his gray hairs gone Forevermore! Revile him not—the Tempter hath A snare for all; And pitying tears, not scorn and wrath, Befit his fall! Oh! dumb be passion's stormy rage, When he who might Have lighted up and led his age, Falls back in night.
Scorn! would the angels laugh, to mark A bright soul driven, Fiend-goaded, down the endless dark, From hope and heaven! Let not the land, once proud of him, Insult him now, Nor brand with deeper shame his dim, Dishonored brow.
But let its humbled sons, instead, From sea to lake, A long lament, as for the dead, In sadness make.
Of all we loved and honored, nought Save power remains— A fallen angel's pride of thought, Still strong in chains.
All else is gone; from those great eyes The soul has fled: When faith is lost, when honor dies, The man is dead! Then, pay the reverence of old days To his dead fame; Walk backward, with averted gaze, And hide the shame!
Ichabod! is a thirty-six line poem, divided into nine, four-line stanzas, with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef ghgh ijij klkl mnmn opop qrqr.
The poem is written about The Compromise of 1850 and specifically The Fugitive Slave Bill therein.
The Compromise of 1850 was made up of five bills that attempted to resolve disputes over slavery in new territories added to the United States in the wake of the Mexican-American War (1846-48). It admitted California as a free state, left Utah and New Mexico to decide for themselves whether to be a slave state or a free state, defined a new Texas-New Mexico boundary, and made it easier for slaveowners to recover runways under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 was the mastermind of Whig senator Henry Clay and Democratic senator Stephan Douglas. Lingering resentment over its provisions contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Despite the Bill largely being a product of the work of Clay and Douglas, the subject of Whittier’s ire in this poem is Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. The Senator was opposed to the practice of slavery. However, he supported this bill as he viewed the threat of Civil War a greater threat and he hoped that the Bill could avert that threat. The Abolitionist supporters of Webster were furious for what they perceived to be a betrayal, Whittier among them.
Interestingly, Clay and Webster both died within two years of the passage of this bill. It was one of the last major accomplishments for either man. Douglas, one of the other chief architects of the legislation, died in 1861 at the age of only forty-eight. Douglas coincidentally (or perhaps not if you view a Divine hand in this) died on the same day as the Battle of Phillipi, the first skirmish of the American Civil War.
The surrounding history here is important because this poem is something akin to a 19th century “diss track.”
Who/what is Ichabod?
Ichabod (Hebrew: אִיכָבוֹד ʼīyḵāḇōḏ, – without glory, or “where is the glory?“) is mentioned in the first Book of Samuel as the son of Phinehas, a malicious priest at the biblical shrine of Shiloh, who was born on the day that the Israelites‘ Ark of God was taken into Philistine captivity. His mother went into labour due to the shock of hearing that her husband and Eli, her father-in-law, had died and that the Ark had been captured. He is also named later as the brother of Ahitub.
In the Book of 1 Samuel (4:21-22), his name is given to him by his mother because the glory has departed from Israel, because of the loss of the Ark to the Philistines, and perhaps also because of the deaths of Eli and Phinehas. She repeats the phrase “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured”, to show her piety, and that the public and spiritual loss lay heavier upon her spirit than her personal or domestic calamity. Yairah Amit suggests that his name indicates “the fate of this newborn child who would have no parents, no grandfather and not even God, because even the glory has departed from the place”.
According to biblical commentator Donald Spence Jones, “the meaning of the term I-chabod is much disputed, owing to the doubt which hangs over the first syllable, “I”, followed by “chabod”. It is usually taken to mean a simple negative: “not”: chabod signifying “glory”, I-chabod thus represents “not glory”, i.e., there is no glory. Others render the “I” syllable as a rhetorical question, “Where?”, “Where is the glory?”, the answer, of course, being, “It is nowhere”. But it is also possible to read the syllable “I” as an exclamation of bitter sorrow, “Alas!”: the name then could be translated, “Alas! the glory”.
The Septuagint states that his name was a complaint: Uaebarchaboth, woe to the glory of Israel. The Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 also refers to him as ouai barchaboth, i.e. as I Bar Chabod – I, son of Chabod or No, son of Glory. According to textual scholars, this section of the Book of Samuel, the sanctuaries source, derives from a fairly late source compared with other parts, and hence this justification of his name may simply be a folk etymology.
While Ichabod is barely mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the fact that Ahitub is elsewhere referred to as the brother of Ichabod, rather than as son of Phinehas (or of anyone else), has led textual scholars to suspect that Ichabod was considered a significant individual in the days of Samuel.
The reference here, in the title of the poem, means that the subject of the poem has lost his glory.
So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn
Which once he wore!
The glory from his gray hairs gone
Here in the first stanza, we see why understanding the context and history surround this poem is so important. The Speaker – addressing Webster though not by name – is declaring that his subject is fallen with God’s light withdrawn from him. He tells us that the fall is irreversible in line for by saying “Forevermore!”
Revile him not—the Tempter hath
A snare for all;
And pitying tears, not scorn and wrath,
Befit his fall!
In this stanza, the Speaker is encouraging the Reader not to hate Webster. Instead, he says Webster should be wept over and pitied. He uses the word “fall” here again but paints Webster as something of a tragic victim of the Tempter (i.e. the devil.) In framing the situation thusly, the Speaker makes it clear that he views this legislation as something evil and from Satan.
Oh! dumb be passion’s stormy rage,
When he who might
Have lighted up and led his age,
Falls back in night.
The Speaker again evokes imagery of a fall. Thematically, the Speaker also returns to the metaphor of withdrawn light or loss of light. He means that Webster has turned away from an opportunity to provide morality and reason to his generation and has instead voted to continue an evil. From a technical standpoint, Whittier uses enjambment here in lines 10 and 11.
Scorn! would the angels laugh, to mark
A bright soul driven,
Fiend-goaded, down the endless dark,
From hope and heaven!
Stanza four does not use a direct derivation of the world “fall” however the Speaker describes Webster as “driven.. down the endless dark.” The imagery throughout by stanza four makes it clear that the Speaker is drawing a parallel between Webster’s fall and Lucifer’s fall. In Lines 15 and 16, the Speaker says Webster (not named specifically) went “down the endless dark, From hope and heaven!”
Who else made a great Fall into endless dark from heaven? The poet here is all but calling Webster the devil.
Let not the land, once proud of him,
Insult him now,
Nor brand with deeper shame his dim,
There is something of an irony in this stanza. The Speaker is calling for Readers not to insult Webster, all the while drawing a thinly veiled comparison between Webster and the devil. Lines 19 and 20 go so far as to say that Webster’s “brow” (i.e. his personhood) is dim and dishonored.
But let its humbled sons, instead,
From sea to lake,
A long lament, as for the dead,
In sadness make.
This stanza tells the Reader how they should react to Webster. Rather than insulting him, “lament” him instead. The Speaker’s message is to mourn him as though he were dead.
Of all we loved and honored, nought
Save power remains—
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.
The Speaker says that nothing of Webster that the Readers once loved remains except his power. The Speaker returns to the word “fallen” once more and uses it as a prefix for angel. The comparison between Webster and the devil is no longer subtle (it was never really that subtle anyway) in Line 27.
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
The pile-on continues. The Speaker says that Webster is soulless, faithless, without honor, and as far as he is concerned… dead (err, “dead!”)
Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!
We conclude here with the Speaker exclaiming that Webster is so irreversibly shamed that Readers should treat him the way they might treat someone who died in shame.
Who is John Greenleaf Whittier?
John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) was an American Quaker poet and advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Frequently listed as one of the fireside poets, he was influenced by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Whittier is remembered particularly for his anti-slavery writings, as well as his 1866 book Snow-Bound.