Skip to main content

John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" and Bret Harte’s "Mrs. Judge Jenkins"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1961.

John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier

Introduction and Text of "Maud Muller"

John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" narrates a contemplative reflection in 55 rimed couplets. The title character is a young, country girl who often looks toward town and wonders how much better her life would be if she could partake of city residence.

The narration dramatizes the theme of the melancholy of choice, somewhat along the lines of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." As the speaker in Frost's poem shows regret, the characters in "Maud Miller" also demonstrate regret about their choices.

But the Maud Muller characters experience less evenmindedness vis-à-vis their choices than the Frost speaker, who accepts the fact that no matter what decision he makes he will regret the fact that he could not do both.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Maud Muller

Maud Muller, on a summer's day,
Raked the meadow sweet with hay.

Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.

Singing, she wrought, and her merry glee
The mock-bird echoed from his tree.

But when she glanced to the far-off town,
White from its hill-slope looking down,

The sweet song died, and a vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast,—

A wish that she hardly dared to own,
For something better than she had known.

The Judge rode slowly down the lane,

Smoothing his horse's chestnut mane.

He drew his bridle in the shade
Of the apple-trees to greet the maid,

And ask a draught from the spring that flowed
Through the meadow across the road.

She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,
And filled for him her small tin cup,

And blushed as she gave it, looking down
On her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.

"Thanks!" said the Judge; "a sweeter draught
From a fairer hand was never quaffed."

He spoke of the grass and flowers and trees,
Of the singing birds and the humming bees;

Then talked of the haying, and wondered whether
The cloud in the west would bring foul weather.

And Maud forgot her brier-torn gown
And her graceful ankles bare and brown;

And listened, while a pleased surprise
Looked from her long-lashed hazel eyes.

At last, like one who for delay
Seeks a vain excuse, he rode away.

Maud Muller looked and sighed: "Ah me!
That I the Judge's bride might be!

"He would dress me up in silks so fine,
And praise and toast me at his wine.

"My father should wear a broadcloth coat;
My brother should sail a pointed boat.

"I'd dress my mother so grand and gay,
And the baby should have a new toy each day.

"And I'd feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
And all should bless me who left our door."

The Judge looked back as he climbed the hill,
And saw Maud Muller standing still.

"A form more fair, a face more sweet,
Ne'er hath it been my lot to meet.

"And her modest answer and graceful air
Show her wise and good as she is fair.

"Would she were mine, and I to-day,
Like her, a harvester of hay.

"No doubtful balance of rights and wrongs,
Nor weary lawyers with endless tongues,

"But low of cattle and song of birds,
And health and quiet and loving words."

But he thought of his sisters, proud and cold,
And his mother, vain of her rank and gold.

So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,
And Maud was left in the field alone.

But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;

And the young girl mused beside the well
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.

He wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.

Yet oft, in his marble hearth's bright glow,
He watched a picture come and go;

And sweet Maud Muller's hazel eyes
Looked out in their innocent surprise.

Oft, when the wine in his glass was red,
He longed for the wayside well instead;

And closed his eyes on his garnished rooms
To dream of meadows and clover-blooms.

And the proud man sighed, and with a secret pain,
"Ah, that I were free again!

"Free as when I rode that day,
Where the barefoot maiden raked her hay."

She wedded a man unlearned and poor,
And many children played round her door.

But care and sorrow, and childbirth pain,
Left their traces on heart and brain.

And oft, when the summer sun shone hot
On the new-mown hay in the meadow lot,

And she heard the little spring brook fall
Over the roadside, through a wall,

In the shade of the apple-tree again
She saw a rider draw his rein;

And, gazing down with timid grace,
She felt his pleased eyes read her face.

Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls
Stretched away into stately halls;

The weary wheel to a spinet turned,
The tallow candle an astral burned,

And for him who sat by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o'er pipe and mug,

A manly form at her side she saw,
And joy was duty and love was law.

Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, "It might have been."

Alas for the maiden, alas for the Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!

God pity them both and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;

And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!

Reading of "Maud Muller"

Commentary on "Maud Muller"

Because we human beings cannot do everything, we have to make choices. Sometimes the choice renders the heart and mind up to the melancholy notion that things might have been better had one made a different decision back when the making was taking place.

First Movement: Musical Couplets

The musicality of Whittier's poem becomes evident with the beginning couplet, which sets the tone of season and Maud Muller's character. The perfect riming effect along with the meter intones the loveliness of the character as well as her penchant for performing useful service.

The young, healthy, but poor girl who lives the rustic life is featured and centered as the character study progresses. As Maud works, she sings and seems to be happy with her lot, but when she stops and looks toward "the far-off town," she starts to ponder "a nameless longing" for "something better."

Then the second character enters the scene: "The Judge rode slowly down the lane, / Smoothing his horse's chestnut mane." The judge stops and asks Maud for a drink of water "from the spring that flowed / Through the meadow across the road.” Maud immediately complies, fills him a cup, and shyly hands it to him.

The judge thanks Maud, compliments her beauty, and then remarks about the loveliness of the countryside. They chat a bit, and then he suddenly leaves, finding no further excuse to stay. Then Maud begins to daydream about being the judge's wife. She imagines all sorts of fancy and rich living for herself and her family.

Second Movement: Contrasting Dreams

The judge, unknown to Maud of course, has his own daydream but instead of making her a rich city wife, he imagined himself joining her rustic life and living happily without the bother of having to balance "rights and wrongs."

Third Movement: Living as Expected

The judge then marries a girl of his own station; and Maud a boy from hers, and they live the lives to be expected of each class.

Fourth Movement: Looking Back and Remembering

From time to time, through the busy life of raising children and tending the farm, Maud would remember the day the rich judge stopped for a drink.

Fifth Movement: The Regret of What If?

The judge would also think back to the rustic maid whose life he so envied. But they would each go back to their own life, while wondering what their lives would be like if they had spent them in difference circumstances.

Delivering Hope

The couplet, "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: 'It might have been!’," has become a famous adage, which reflects the nature of the human heart that allows itself to engage in futile melancholy.

And the importance of this poem is well-summarized in the two final couplets: "Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies / Deeply buried from human eyes / / And, in the hereafter, angels may / Roll the stone from the grave away!"

Whittier understood that the unreality of this earthly existence causes human beings to fail to realize their true nature: the soul's goal is to find unity with its Creator, not to languish in useless dreams and regrets about whether it lives in a city or the country or as a judge or as a farmer.

The soul's nature is already rich because it is a spark of its Divine Creator. That fact, unfortunately, is "buried from human eyes," especially from those supercilious characters who think themselves most intelligent, but there is "some sweet hope" that "in the hereafter, angels may" deliver that hope, and the blind will finally see.

Introduction and Text of "Mrs. Judge Jenkins"

Bret Harte attempts to mock the wisdom of a far superior poet. Whittier’s “Maud Muller” remains a masterpiece. Harte’s "Mrs. Judge Jenkins" is an embarrassment. Harte’s parody fails in the fires of his burning straw man, always an ugly sight in world of rhetoric.

The literary parody is generally employed to deride the original work, and Bret Harte attempts such an employment in his take-off of "Whittier's "Maud Muller" in his piece, "Mrs. Judge Jenkins."

As an exercise in dramatizing a "what if" scenario in which Maud and the judge actually do marry and then having their marriage bitterly disappoint them both, Harte’s poem offers a clever, even comically interesting piece of work.

However, by inserting the issue of what should or should not have happened as a logical philosophical stance, Harte diminishes the force of his creative dramatic response to Whittier’s poem.

Therefore, unfortunately, Harte succeeds only in demonstrating his contempt for Whittier, the subject of the Whittier poem, and the truth about human nature that Whittier so eloquently captures.

Harte’s parody, "Mrs. Judge Jenkins," features 24 rimed couplets. In Harte’s version, the judge does return to Maud’s rustic farm, and they do marry. The reader, however, is treated only to the judge’s viewpoint, and it is not a pretty sight.

Mrs. Judge Jenkins

Maud Muller all that summer day
Raked the meadow sweet with hay;

Yet, looking down the distant lane,
She hoped the Judge would come again.

But when he came, with smile and bow,
Maud only blushed, and stammered, 'Ha-ow?'

And spoke of her 'pa,' and wondered whether
He'd give consent they should wed together.

Old Muller burst in tears, and then
Begged that the Judge would lend him 'ten;'

For trade was dull, and wages low,
And the 'craps,' this year, were somewhat slow.

And ere the languid summer died,
Sweet Maud became the Judge's bride.

But on the day that they were mated,
Maud's brother Bob was intoxicated;

And Maud's relations, twelve in all,
Were very drunk at the Judge's hall.

And when the summer came again,
The young bride bore him babies twain;

And the Judge was blest, but thought it strange
That bearing children made such a change;

For Maud grew broad and red and stout,
And the waist that his arm once clasped about

Was more than he now could span; and he
Sighed as he pondered, ruefully,

How that which in Maud was native grace
In Mrs. Jenkins was out of place;

And thought of the twins, and wished that they
Looked less like the men who raked the hay

On Muller's farm, and dreamed with pain
Of the day he wandered down the lane.

And looking down that dreary track,
He half regretted that he came back;

For, had he waited, he might have wed
Some maiden fair and thoroughbred;

For there be women fair as she,
Whose verbs and nouns do more agree.

Alas for maiden! alas for judge!
And the sentimental,--that's one-half "fudge;"

For Maud soon thought the Judge a bore,
With all his learning and all his lore;

And the Judge would have bartered Maud's fair face
For more refinement and social grace.

If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, "It might have been,"

More sad are these we daily see:
"It is, but hadn't ought to be."

Commentary on "Mrs. Judge Jenkins"

The literary parody is generally employed to deride the original work, but Bret Harte’s failed parody goes off the rails when he adds an issue that the original did not address. The straw man is always an ugly character who burns up in the fire of the builder’s own inflammatory ignorance.

Couplets 1-6: Inauspicious Beginning

Harte begins his travesty by merely offering a near word for word couplet from Whittier: "Maud Muller, all that summer day, / Raked the meadow sweet with hay." But he rapidly recovers by adding that Maud was looking for the judge to return.

And then the judge does return, and Maud’s dopy, hick expression replaces the charm and grace of Whittier’s Maud. All this bumbling rube can muster in response to the judges "smile and bow" is a blush and "Ha-ow."

She then wonders if her "Pa" will let her marry the judge, and quickly the reader learns that Pa is overjoyed, and bums ten dollars from the judge, "For trade was dull, and wages low, / And the ‘craps,’ this year, were somewhat slow."

The reader is alerted that these country folk are nothing more than bottom feeders; Maud is inarticulate; her father a money-grubber ready to sell his daughter, and the father also proves to be a gambler. This scene sharply contrasts with what the judge had envisioned about these country folk.

Couplets 7-12: They Marry

The judge and Maud marry and all of Maud’s relatives, including her brother Bob became "very drunk." By the next year, Maud has twins and becomes obese, which disgusts the poor judge, who can no longer get his arms around his wife.

Couplets 13-18: Regrets

Not only is his wife’s body grossly transformed, making the judge wish for her former slender shape, but he also wishes his twins "Looked less like the man who raked the hay." The judge regrets that he came back to the farm, and now dreams of marrying a "maiden fair and thoroughbred."

Couplets 19-24: More Regrets

The judge now wishes he had a woman with an education, someone "Whose verbs and nouns do more agree." And Maud also thinks the "judge a bore"; this fact is all the reader learns from Maud’s point of view.

Harte's Failed Parody

Harte’s two final couplets hold up a weak contrast to Whittier’s: "If, of all words of tongue and pen, / The saddest are, ‘It might have been,’ / / More sad are these we daily see: ‘It is, but hadn't ought to be’."

Trying to out-clever Whittier, Harte says that if the human heart regrets the absence of what might have been, then it should regret even more what should not have been. However, Whittier’s drama does not address the issue of what "should" have been.

Whittier’s characters simply dream of what "might" have been in contrast to what was. Harte’s insertion of the issue of what "should" have been is tantamount to erecting a straw man so he can ridicule Whittier’s observation.

But it is not possible to regret what "should" have been or what "should" not have been because there is no way of knowing how things would have turned out if the couple had actually married.

Harte’s greatest flaw is his failure to address Whittier’s important realization about the human soul. Addressing that issue would have caused Harte’s house of cards to come tumbling down.

Harte’s characters remain hide-bound, gross, and pitiful, and Harte has nothing to offer them, but Whittier offers the satisfaction of the soul’s ultimate realization of "sweet hope."

Questions & Answers

Question: What conflict does Whittier's "Maud Muller" address?

Answer: John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" addresses the issue of humanity's penchant for looking back into the past with regret for choices made in the past, very similar to Robert Frost's "The Road Not Traveled."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes