Thursday, December 17, 2015

John Greenleaf Whittier

December 17  is the birthday of Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, born in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  His childhood was spent working on the family farm and he was largely self-educated.  Later influenced by the poetry of Robert Burns, he took to writing his own verses, and was first published by editor William Lloyd Garrison in the Newburyport Free Press in 1825.  Garrison sought out Whittier and encouraged him to pursue a career in journalism, and the two men would later share a strong commitment to abolition and other social causes.  Whittier edited several newspapers and journals and eventually became one of the foremost American poets of his day.

Despite Whittier's claim of rarely writing verse for congregational singing, hymnal editors from his time to the present have frequently adapted sections of his longer poems into hymns.  Today's text comes from his poem The Eternal Goodness which was in twenty-two stanzas.  Various combinations of stanzas from this poem have appeared in hymnals for the last century and a half, and this is one more arrangement.

Within the maddening maze of things,
When tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
I know that God is good!

And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed God will not break,
But strengthen and sustain.

No offering of my own I have,
Nor works my faith to prove;
I can but give the gifts God gave,
And plead that love for love.

And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from God can come to me
On ocean or on shore.

I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
God's mercy underlies.

John Greenleaf Whittier, 1867; alt.
John S. Camp, c.1905

I think there's something about this text which speaks to the stress and activity that can overcome us at this time of year.

Composer John Spencer Camp (1858-1946) was a church musician in Hartford, Connecticut and probably wrote more tunes than this one, though it's the only one available at the Cyber Hymnal site.

Seven Years Ago: John Greenleaf Whittier

Five Years Ago: John Greenleaf Whittier 

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