Poetry Wednesday: John Greenleaf Whittier

This week, I’m sharing my favorite Thanksgiving poem.

It’s about pumpkin pie.

Anyone surprised?  Didn’t think so.

Naturally, John Greenleaf Whittier had a bit more on his mind than pie when he wrote this—he was a Quaker, after all, and an accomplished poet, whose first work,  “The Exile’s Departure,” was published before he was twenty* by William Lloyd Garrison—but you have to admire a man who’s willing to tie family, friends, loving memories, and a content future to a round, orange vegetable.

This poem isn’t one of his best known—his abolition poems and “The Song of the Vermonters, 1779” were more popular —but I think it should be.  Mr. Whittier is  considered one of the 19th Century Fireside Poets** who helped prove that Americans could actually write poetry.

And in my opinion, this poem proves that Mr. Whittier’s inclusion is not a mistake:

The Pumpkin
(John Greenleaf Whittier, 1850)

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin, — our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!

And to think that all this lush, warm, rich imagery was written by a man who was colorblind . . .


*According to what I’ve read, his sister sent it to the Newburyport Free Press  without John’s permission.  His reaction to this, which was probably mixed, appears to be lost to history.  But since Garrison gave him his first editor’s position with a small paper, which led to the editorship of the New England Weekly Review, I’m sure he forgave her eventually.  Sisters—sheesh.

**Along with William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Longfellow, himself—pretty spiffy company.