John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Pumpkin"
John Greenleaf Whittier
Introduction: Prayers and Pumpkin Pie
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.
First Stanza: Growing Green in the Sun
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
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
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
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
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!"
Reading of Whittier's "Pumpkin"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes