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Monday, October 24, 2011

Number 289: John Greenleaf Whittier "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 comes 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!

--John Greenleaf Whittier

Hap Notes: John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) is remembered for his staunch abolitionist writings as much, or more, than for his poetry now. He was an editor, writer and poet and he used the pen to forward the cause of freedom. He was born and raised a Quaker and took the principles of the Quakers to heart.

Folks who went to school in the first half of the 20th century, were often assigned to memorize a Whittier poem or two, most notably "Barbara Frietchie" ("Shoot if you must this old gray head but spare your country's flag," she said") and "Maud Muller" ("For of all sad words of tongue or pen/ The saddest are these: "It might have been.") and "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind." Here is the poem, set to music and now a somewhat familiar hymn, being sung in Westminster Abbey:

In today's poem, Whittier likens the leaves of the pumpkin to the plant that grew over the head of the reluctant biblical prophet Jonah. (Quick recap for the Bible impaired: Jonah was asked by God to go to Ninevah and tell the people to repent or deal with the Lord's anger. Jonah didn't want to go- we aren't sure why until the end of the story- and tries to escape on a boat. God makes the sea to churn, Jonah gets tossed off the boat - he tells the crew to do it, he knows it's God's wrath at him that is causing it. He gets swallowed by a whale which he lives inside for three days until he tells God he will go to Ninevah and do as he is asked. He gets there, tells the people to repent or else God will send down a can of whupass. Immediately the people repent. Disgruntled, Jonah goes out to the city gates and sits there. He tells God, "This is exactly why I didn't want to come here- I knew they'd repent and you would spare them- what a waste of time." A vine grows up alongside him and shades him in the hot sun. The next day as he sits there the vine is destroyed by a worm. This vexes Jonah and when God asks him what is the matter, Jonah expresses his anger over the destruction of his shade plant. God says, "So, nu, you have compassion for a plant but not the thousands of people in Nineveh?")

The fairy tale he is talking about in the poem is Cinderella. Mostly, though, Whittier is extolling the virtues of Fall and the delicious memories and taste of pumpkin pie. He compares the pride of the Spaniard growing pumpkins (which are not really as round or orange as American ones) with the Yankee farmer's. He also talks about the American Jack-o-lantern and the candle's glow inside the carved out orange squash. (In England and Ireland they do the same with turnips or beets.) Pumpkins can be grown, FYI, on every continent except Antarctica.

Pumpkins are thought to have originated in North America.

Here's a good Whittier quote: "You don't always win your battles, but it's good to know you fought."

You can find more Whittier here:

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