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Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier

Whittier was once considered a national treasure; his birthday was a holiday in many states, and his verse memorized by schoolchildren.

Whittier's poetry is out of fashion today, but many of his poems on Quaker themes can still be read with pleasure and value, especially by Friends or those interested in Quaker faith and history. That's why this selection of his poetry is being posted here.

A brief autobiography of John Greenleaf Whittier can be found here.

Contents

THE KING'S MISSIVE

1661

Under the great hill sloping bare
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man, who knew no peer,
In the Pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.

He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag and cloven the may-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.

His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
"Woe's me," he murmured: "at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy's seed of sin.

"Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did:
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!"

The door swung open, and Rawson the clerk
Entered, and whispered under breath,
"There waits below for the hangman's work
A fellow banished on pain of death--
Shattuck, of Salem, unhealed of the whip,
Brought over in Master Goldsmith's ship
At anchor here in a Christian port,
With freight of the devil and all his sort!"

Twice and thrice on the chamber floor
Striding fiercely from wall to wall,
"The Lord do so to me and more,"
The Governor cried, "if I hang not all!"
Bring hither the Quaker." Calm, sedate,
With the look of a man at ease with fate,

Into that presence, grim and dread, Came Samuel Shattuck, with hat on head.

"Off with the knave's hat!" An angry hand
Smote down the offence; but the wearer said,
With a quiet smile, "By the king's command
I bear his message and stand in his stead."
In the Governor's hand a missive he laid
With the royal arms on its seal displayed,
And the proud man spake as he gazed thereat,
Uncovering, "Give Mr. Shattuck his hat."

He turned to the Quaker, bowing low,--
"The king commandeth your friends' release;
Doubt not he shall be obeyed, although
To his subjects' sorrow and sin's increase.
What he here enjoineth, John Endicott,
His loyal servant, questioneth not.
You are free! God grant the spirit you own
May take you from us, to parts unknown."

So the door of the jail was open cast,
And like Daniel out of the lion's den
Tender youth and girlhood passed,
With age-bowed women and gray-locked men.
And the voice of one appointed to die
Was lifted in praise and thanks on high.

Broad in the sunshine stretched away
With its capes and islands, the turquoise bay...
But as they who see not, the Quakers saw
The world about them; they only thought
With deep thanksgiving and pious awe
On the great deliverance God had wrought.
Through lane and alley the gazing town
Noisily followed them up and down;
Some with scoffing and brutal jeer,
Some with pity and words of cheer.

So passed the Quakers through Boston town,
Whose painful ministers sighed to see
The walls of their sheep-fold falling down,
And wolves of heresy prowling free.
But the years went on and brought no wrong;
With milder counsel the State grew strong,
As outward Letter and inward Light
Kept the balance of truth aright.