Whittier as Quaker

Questions of Life

John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead in 1848In the spring of 1852 Whittier was unwell and spring was very late. The long period of isolation gave him one of the few periods of questioning he was to experience. He read the classics, Eastern literature, and wrote a poem about his questioning: “Questions of Life.” He begins by assuring his reader that he doesn't want to shake anyone else's faith.

A bending staff I would not break,
A feeble faith I would not shake,
Nor even rashly pluck away
The error which some truth may stay,
Whose loss might leave the soul without
A shield against the shafts of doubt.

Whittier goes on to ask such questions:

I am: how little more I know!
Whence came I?  Whither do I go?


Of all I see, in earth and sky,--
Star, flower, beast, bird,--what part have I?
This conscious life,--is it the same
Which thrills the universal frame…?

Do bird and blossom feel, like me,
Life's many-folded mystery--
The wonder which it is to be?
Or stand I severed and distinct,
From Nature’s chain of life unlinked?
Allied to all, yet not the less
Prisoned in separate consciousness,
Alone o'erburdened with a sense
Of life, and cause, and consequence?


Whitter first turns to nature for answers:

Fernside Brook, Whittier Birthplace, Haverhill, MAWhat sings the brook? What oracle
Is in the pine-tree's organ swell?
What may the wind's low burden be?
The meaning of the moaning sea?


I vainly ask, for mocks my skill
The trick of Nature's cipher still.


Next Whittier looks for answers in books:

Whittier's Home, The Garden Room, Amesbury, MA After the addition of 1848, Whittier used the Garden Room for writing. The desk is that on which he composed Snowbound.

I turn from Nature unto men,
I ask the stylus and the pen;
What sang the bards of old? What mean
The prophets of the Orient?


But Whittier doesn't get the answers in the ancients:

Alas! The dead retain their trust;
Dust hath no answer from the dust.


Whittier finally gives up his search

Here let me pause, my quest forego;
Enough for me to feel and know
That He in whom the cause and end,


Moves not alone the heavenly quires,
But waves the spring-time's grassy spires,


To Him, from wanderings long and wild,
I come, an over-wearied child,
In cool and shade His peace to find,
Like dew-fall settling on my mind.


Whittier has turned

From vain philosophies, that try
The sevenfold gates of mystery,
And, baffled ever, babble still,
Word-prodigal of fate and will;
From Nature, and her mockery, Art,
And book and speech of men apart,
To the still witness of my heart:
With reverence waiting to behold
His Avatar of love untold,
The Eternal Beauty new and old!

Full text of "Questions of Life"

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