John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie"

Updated on May 16, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Source

Introduction and Text of "Barbara Frietchie"

John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie," a twenty couplet narrative poem, is based on a legend that made its rounds during and after the Civil War. Differing accounts exist regarding the facts of Mrs. Frietchie's action.

About the genesis of the poem, Whittier has explained that he did not create the story; he had read it in reports from newspapers that he considered trustworthy sources. He also says that the story had been widely spread throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., long before he penned his poem about it.

Barbara Frietchie

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Reading of "Barbara Frietchie"

Commentary

Whittier's speaker of "Barbara Frietchie" offers a tribute to the patriotism of an elderly woman.

First Movement: A Beautiful September Morning

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

The speaker describes a beautiful cool September morning with "meadows rich with corn" surrounding the "clustered spires of Frederick," a Maryland town that would soon be invaded by troops of the rebel army of General Robert E. Lee, led by General Stonewall Jackson.

Forty Confederate troops came marching into town when apples and pears were hanging full in the fruit trees. The rebels were hungry, and they came to acquire food for their starving warriors. The Confederates invaded with their flags proudly displayed, but by noon they had pulled down their banners.

Second Movement: Recovering the Flag

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Barbara Frietchie was a ninety-year old patriot of the Union. She recovered the flag of the Union which had been brought down by the Confederates. Frietchie supposedly displayed the flag in the window of her attic for all to see. She especially wanted the invading throng of rebels to see that the town had at least one patriot still loyal to the Union cause. As the forty troops were marching past Barbara Frietchie's house, Stonewall Jackson got a glimpse of that flag, and thus he commanded his soldiers to fire at the banner.

Third Movement: Protecting the Flag

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

But Barbara Frietchie grabbed the banner, leaned out the window, and yelled at the troops to shoot her if they felt they had to, but she commanded them not to shoot the flag, which she called, "your country's flag." Barbara Frietchie was professing her loyalty to her country and also insisted that that same country still belonged even to the misguided rebels.

Stonewall Jackson's reaction demonstrates that in his heart he felt the old woman was correct; the general's face took on a "blush of shame" and a "shade of sadness." His natural nobility was moved to reveal itself at the "woman's deed and word," and the leader barked the command, "Who touches a hair of yon gray head / Dies like a dog! March on!"

Fourth Movement: Flag Remains Visible

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

As the soldiers marched through the streets of Frederick, Barbara Frietchie's flag continued to remain visible over the heads of the rebel host. They obeyed Jackson's order not to assault the old woman and her flag, which remained safe well into the night.

Fifth Movement: Tribute to the Aged Woman

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

In the final movement of Whittier's poem, a tribute to Barbara's patriotism is offered, as well as to General Jackson's brave ability to appreciate and accept the ninety-year-old patriot's loyal sentiments toward her country.

The speaker describes a peaceful town with the war long over. The flag that Barbara Frietchie loved and honored now stands over her grave, and Barbara Frietchie and the Frederick, Maryland, town patriots have become stars themselves for their brave patriotism.

Questions & Answers

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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