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An Easter Flower Gift
by John Greenleaf Whittier
O dearest bloom the seasons know,
Flowers of the Resurrection blow,
Our hope and faith restore;
And through the bitterness of death
And loss and sorrow, breathe and breath
Of life forevermore!
The thought of Love Immortal blends
With fond rememberances of friends;
In you, O sacred flowers,
By human love made doubly sweet,
The heavenly and the earthly meet,
The heart of Christ is ours!
This is a twelve line poem, consisting of two six line stanzas, with no consistent meter from line to line, and an AABCCB rhyme scheme for each stanza.
In the first stanza, we are given a description of the Easter Flowers mentioned in the poem’s title. Through the Speaker’s use of “seasons” and “blow” in lines 1 and 2, we can assume that the Easter Flowers described are the flowers which bloom in early spring -a period of time which typically coincides with the celebration of the Easter holiday. The Speaker thus connections the renewal of life, demonstrated by the flowering plants and trees, with the Resurrection of Jesus, which is celebrated at the same time.
In the second stanza, the Speaker also connects the flowers, and the Resurrection, with “fond rememberances of friends.” The Easter celebration, in many communities, often includes the decoration of graves with flowers. As a result, then, the flowers can both simultaneously symbolize Resurrection and also rememberance. The Speaker concludes that this is “doubly sweet” because this dual purpose is a means by which “the heavenly and the earthly meet” – just, as Christians believe, was the case with Jesus Christ.
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.
Whittier’s first two published books were Legends of New England (1831) and the poem Moll Pitcher (1832). In 1833 he published The Song of the Vermonters, 1779, which he had anonymously inserted in The New England Magazine. The poem was erroneously attributed to Ethan Allen for nearly sixty years. This use of poetry in the service of his political beliefs is illustrated by his book Poems Written during the Progress of the Abolition Question.
Highly regarded in his lifetime and for a period thereafter, he is now largely remembered for his anti-slavery writings and his poems Barbara Frietchie, “The Barefoot Boy“, “Maud Muller” and Snow-Bound.
A number of his poems have been turned into hymns, including Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, taken from his poem “The Brewing of Soma“. The latter part of the poem was set in 1924 by Dr. George Gilbert Stocks to the tune of Repton by English composer Hubert Parry from the 1888 oratorio Judith. It is also sung as the hymn Rest by Frederick Maker, and Charles Ives also set a part of it to music in his song “Serenity”.
Whittier’s Quakerism is better illustrated, however, by the hymn that begins:
O Brother Man, fold to thy heart thy brother:
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
His sometimes contrasting sense of the need for strong action against injustice can be seen in his poem “To Rönge” in honor of Johannes Ronge, the German religious figure and rebel leader of the 1848 rebellion in Germany:
Thy work is to hew down. In God’s name then:
Put nerve into thy task. Let other men;
Plant, as they may, that better tree whose fruit,
The wounded bosom of the Church shall heal.
Whittier’s poem “At Port Royal 1861” describes the experience of Northern abolitionists arriving at Port Royal, South Carolina, as teachers and missionaries for the slaves who had been left behind when their owners fled because the Union Navy would arrive to blockade the coast. The poem includes the “Song of the Negro Boatmen,” written in dialect:
Oh, praise an’ tanks! De Lord he come
To set de people free;
An’ massa tink it day ob doom,
An’ we ob jubilee.
De Lord dat heap de Red Sea waves
He jus’ as ‘trong as den;
He say de word: we las’ night slaves;
To-day, de Lord’s freemen.
De yam will grow, de cotton blow,
We’ll hab de rice an’ corn:
Oh, nebber you fear, if nebber you hear
De driver blow his horn!
Of all the poetry inspired by the Civil War, the “Song of the Negro Boatmen” was one of the most widely printed, and though Whittier never actually visited Port Royal, an abolitionist working there described his “Song of the Negro Boatmen” as “wonderfully applicable as we were being rowed across Hilton Head Harbor among United States gunboats.”