Lesson #193: ‘A Song of Harvest’: Some Observations on Whittier’s Poem

🌳 I am sharing a poem with you today from my 110-year-old volume of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poems (published in 1894 and this edition dating from 1911)! Anyone who knows me knows of my love of books, and especially any old copies I can find. What makes the acquisition (the fact of owning or getting) even more special is when I can find an old book from an author I admire and love. I can honestly say of John Greenleaf Whittier that I love his poetry very much!

John Greenleaf Whittier was an American poet with Quaker (Society of Friends) heritage. His poems cover so many topics, including some American history or folklore. Yet nearly every poem has a quiet Christian undertone – even if God is not mentioned directly, there will be a theme of gratitude or reverence for goodness flowing through his verses.

💮🌼🏵️

I thought that as we have ‘travelled’ so far with our lessons to date, it would be nice to take stock of where we are at and appreciate our progress with his 1838 poem, ‘A Song of Harvest’. I wonder what you will make of this poem, how you will interpret its meaning, by the time we finish this Lesson!

You will find here some vocabulary and observations after each one of its eight stanzas to help you appreciate his words even more. The poem can also be found here.

📜 STANZA 1

This day, two hundred years ago,
The wild grape by the river’s side,
And tasteless groundnut trailing low,
The table of the woods supplied.

📝 OBSERVATIONS

As you can see, Whittier’s first stanza is in fact one sentence, and the main verb is the very last word of it all. This is more common in poetry than in speech. If we rearrange the word order to match the usual subject + verb + object + complement format, we would rewrite it as follows:

✒️ The table of the woods [SUBJECT] + supplied [MAIN VERB FORM] + the wild grape by the river’s side and tasteless groundnut trailing low [OBJECT] + this day, two hundred years ago [COMPLEMENT].

..

📜 STANZA 2

Unknown the apple’s red and gold,
The blushing tint of peach and pear;
The mirror of the Powow told
No tale of orchards ripe and rare.

📚 VOCABULARY

tint: the shade or variety of a colour

Powow [usually spelled powwow]: (originally) a Native American meeting for the purpose of a ceremony or feast. It can also be used informally to refer to a meeting for discussion between friends or colleagues.

📝 OBSERVATIONS

‘Unknown the apple’s red and gold …’: This might be read wrongly as ‘unknown the apples red and gold’ with the ‘apples’ taken as plural. Instead, the text simply describes how ‘the apple’s red and gold’ are ‘unknown’ (or alternatively, ‘the unknown apple is red and gold’). An usually wording, to be sure, but poetic all the same!

‘The mirror of the Powow told / No tale of orchards ripe and rare’: Whittier is remembering how two hundred years before his time, the Americas were peopled by Native American tribes who did not plant orchards (fruit tree gardens) but instead enjoyed only the fruits found in the wild.

..

📜 STANZA 3

Wild as the fruits he scorned to till,
These vales the idle Indian trod;
Nor knew the glad, creative skill,
The joy of him who toils with God.

📚 VOCABULARY

scorned: < scorn: to show or feel contempt or disdain for something/someone

till: to cultivate [plants] in soil by digging, weeding, etc.

vales: (poetic) valleys

‘the idle Indian trod’: Here ‘idle’ doesn’t necessarily mean lazy but rather not interested in the work of tilling the soil, in the way that New Englander Americans farmed. So ‘the idle Indian trod’ might be said to mean ‘the Indian, wild as the fruits that he refused to farm, trod or walked through these valleys …’

toils: < toil: to work very hard and labouriously; to work with effort and ‘sweat’ at something

📝 OBSERVATION

‘Nor knew the glad, creative skill, / The joy of him who toils with God’: This is Whittier’s commentary that the Indian never knew or experienced ‘the glad, creative skill’ of tilling the soil, ‘the joy of him who toils with God’ or the joy of a man who believes his honest hard work (farming work) is blessed by God.

..

📜 STANZA 4

O Painter of the fruits and flowers!
We thank Thee for thy wise design
Whereby these human hands of ours
In Nature’s garden work with Thine.

📚 VOCABULARY

Thee: (archaic or old-fashioned) You

thy: (archaic) your

whereby: by which

thine: yours

📝 OBSERVATIONS

Whittier wrote many poems that became hymns (praise songs of worship to God) later on. This stanza reflects his religious perspective, being addressed to God (✍️ whenever you see a noun beginning with a capital letter, like ‘Painter’ here, it may well refer to God or else to some majestic person).

‘Whereby these human hands of ours / In Nature’s garden work with Thine.’ The poem’s narrator is thanking God for his wise design by which human hands can work with him (in his purpose) in Nature’s garden.

..

📜 STANZA 5

And thanks that from our daily need
The joy of simple faith is born;
That he who smites the summer weed,
May trust Thee for the autumn corn.

📚 VOCABULARY

smites: < smite: to beat; (in this context) to harvest or thresh or beat out the summer weeds or wheat.

corn: While it can refer to the yellow plant/vegetable (corn on the cob), it can also refer (as it does here) to wheat and other grains for making flour and bread. Put simply: basic food!

📝 OBSERVATION

‘That he who smites the summer weed, / May trust Thee for the autumn corn.’ That the person who works hard in the summer can trust in God to provide for the autumn corn or harvest.

..

📜 STANZA 6

Give fools their gold, and knaves their power;
Let fortune’s bubbles rise and fall;
Who sows a field, or trains a flower,
Or plants a tree, is more than all.

📚 VOCABULARY

knaves: people who are dishonest or unscrupulous (without a conscience)

📝 OBSERVATION

In this stanza, Whittier is emphasising that the person who ‘sows a field, or trains a flower, / Or plants a tree’ – in other words, a farmer or gardener – is in a way greater than the ‘fool’ who has money (gold) or the ruthless, dishonest person who has power. They will experience fortunes that rise and fall, but the farmer will have a more lasting legacy in what he cultivates for himself and other people.

..

📜 STANZA 7

For he who blesses most is blest;
And God and man shall own his worth
Who toils to leave as his bequest
An added beauty to the earth.

📚 VOCABULARY

own: In this context, it means more than ‘to have something in one’s possession’. Instead, it means to acknowledge or admit something.

bequest: legacy; what is left after death as an inheritance to others

📝 OBSERVATION

I will paraphrase simply the beautiful lines of Whittier here:

✒️ For the person who blesses most is blessed (think here of the farmer compared in the stanza before with the selfish fools and knaves). And God and mankind / humanity acknowledge that person’s worth – the person who works very hard to leave at his death an extra beauty to the world.

..

📜 STANZA 8

And, soon or late, to all that sow,
The time of harvest shall be given;
The flower shall bloom, the fruit shall grow,
If not on earth, at last in heaven.

📚 VOCABULARY

sow: to plant seeds

📝 OBSERVATIONS

Again, I will paraphrase the stanza in my own words:

✒️ And sooner or later, to everyone who sows, they will be given the time of harvest (the chance to see the fruits of their work). The flower shall bloom, the fruit shall grow, if not on this earth, at least in heaven at last.

No words compare with Whittier’s!

I highly recommend that you search online for more of his poems – this one was just a taster or an appetiser – and find one that you can relate with personally and in a memorable way.

Some of my own favourites are ‘Barbara Fritchie‘, ‘In School Days‘, and ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind‘. Enjoy!

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by Joyce E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2021)