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John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller"

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 1962.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Introduction and Excerpt from "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.")

Excerpt from "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. . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit “Maud Muller” at Bartleby.com.

Reading of "Maud Muller"

Commentary

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 necessary.

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 city or country or as judge or 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," but there is "some sweet hope" that "in the hereafter, angels may" deliver that hope, and the blind will finally see.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Life Sketch of John Greenleaf Whittier

Born on December 17, 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, John Greenleaf Whittier became a crusader against slavery as well as a noted and celebrated poet. He enjoyed the works of Robert Burns and was inspired to emulate Burns.

At age nineteen, Whittier published his first poem in the Newburyport Free Press, edited by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Whittier and Garrison became life-long friends. Whittier’s early work reflected his love for the country life, including nature and family.

Founding Member of the Republican Party

Despite the pastoral and at times sentimental style of his early poetry, Whittier became an ardent abolitionist, publishing pamphlets against slavery. In 1835 he and fellow crusader George Thompson narrowly escaped with their lives, driving through a barrage of bullets while on a lecture campaign in Concord, New Hampshire.

Whittier served as a member of the legislature of Massachusetts from 1834–35; he also ran for the US Congress on the Liberty ticket in 1842 and was a founding member of the Republican Party in 1854.

The poet published steadily throughout the 1840s and 1850s, and after the Civil War devoted himself exclusively to his art. He was one of the founders of The Atlantic Monthly.

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