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John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Pumpkin"

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 Text of "The Pumpkin"

John Greenleaf Whittier's poem, "The Pumpkin," features many light-hearted lines, yet it employs a highly charged allusion that renders the poem so much more than mere whimsy.

Consisting of five stanzas, the poem is written in couplets. Stanzas 1-4 have eight lines, while stanza 5 has ten lines. The speaker seems to alternately address his listeners and the pumpkin itself. The poem beautifully celebrates the autumn season, the Thanksgiving holiday, and the pumpkin.

The Pumpkin

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 come 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!

Reading of Whittier's "Pumpkin"

Commentary

This poem is light-hearted, yet it uses a highly charged allusion to make the poem more than mere whimsy.

First Stanza: Growing Green in the Sun

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.

In the first stanza of "The Pumpkin," the speaker describes the pumpkin's vine growing in areas where there is abundant sunshine. The pumpkin vines grow large and their tangled mass puts the speaker in mind of the prophet of Nineveh who was protected from the sun by those pumpkin vines. The Nineveh allusion refers to Jonah, whom God sent to Nineveh in order to warn the people to mend their evil behavior, else the city would be destroyed.

As the prophet waited outside the city walls, the giant pumpkin grew to protect him from the scorching sun. The speaker describes the pumpkin plant as having wide leaves that are green and gold. He reports that they look similar to the plants that once shaded the Nineveh profit. (For the full story of Jonah, please see Jonah, chapters 1-4 in the King James Version of the Old Testament.)

Second Stanza: A Dark Hispanic Maid Waits on the River Bank

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.

In the second stanza, the speaker dramatizes the pumpkin being cherished by a young Spanish girl, who waits on the Xenil River bank, and Creole Indians in Cuba become jovial upon finding the large pumpkin fruits that are all golden and shiny.

Then the speaker brings the celebration to his own place and time. The Yankee lad looks forward to seeing all the different varieties squash, including the crook-necks that coil and boast a bright yellow shade as the September sunlight "melts down" on the tender fruit, its leaves, and vines.

Third Stanza: Thanksgiving Day is Arriving over All the Land

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South come 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?

The speaker continues the celebration in New England and refers to the favorite holiday known as Thanksgiving Day. The reader recognizes the American custom: relatives traveling, sometimes at great distances to unite with beloved family to celebrate the holiday of gratitude.

In this stanza, the speaker completes the journey of the pumpkin: from resting majestically on the tangled vines to becoming a pie, rich and flavorful that will delight the whole family.

Fourth Stanza: Nostalgic Boyhood Days and Pumpkins

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!

In the fourth stanza, the speaker looks back to his boyhood and dramatizes the fall season; it was a time when nuts fell from the trees, and grapes were getting ripe. The speaker remembers carving the pumpkin to make a jack-o-lantern; he recalls the "wild, ugly faces" that they carved into the belly of the pumpkin, and how the eyes of the face peered out into the darkness from the light of the candle set inside the big fruit.

The speaker further remembers how he and his friends sat on pumpkins laughing all together bunched around a big pile of corn. He also recalls hearing a story that included a fairylike character whose journey was similar to steam, as her pumpkin shell of a coach was pulled by two large rats.

Fifth Stanza: Gratitude for All the Blessings Past and Present

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!

The speaker then addresses his listeners to wish them a happy Thanksgiving holiday. He wishes them sweetness in life and that their hearts be filled with gratitude. In the speaker's own heart, he holds a prayer: Even with a mouth full of delicious pumpkin pie, the speaker senses that his mind and heart are also full with gratitude for all the blessings he experiences and enjoys. Ending on a serious yet whimsical note, he prays further that his listeners' lives be sweet and that their final days be filled with golden moments that remain as sweet as "Pumpkin pie!"

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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