Sunday, December 17, 2017

Library Way: The Proem of John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier born December 17, 1807.

Proem was written to introduce the first general collection of poems by John Greenleaf Whittier in 1874. It is the first of seven stanzas that is immortalized on Library Way.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) was inducted into the American Poets' Corner in 1996 — a class that also included Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway. The New England poet was also an ardent abolitionist. Born one week before Christmas in 1807, Whittier had a predilection for holiday poems as well. His poems of Thanksgiving and Christmas have been featured in these pages over the years.


I love the old melodious lays   
Which softly melt the ages through,   
The songs of Spenser’s golden days,   
Arcadian Sidney’s silvery phrase,   
Sprinkling our noon of time with freshest morning dew.           

Yet, vainly in my quiet hours   
To breathe their marvelous notes I try;   
I feel them, as the leaves and flowers   
In silence feel the dewy showers,   
And drink with glad, still lips the blessing of the sky.          

The rigor of a frozen clime,   
The harshness of an untaught ear,   
The jarring words of one whose rhyme   
Beat often Labor’s hurried time,   
Or Duty’s rugged march through storm and strife, are here.           

Of mystic beauty, dreamy grace,   
No rounded art the lack supplies;   
Unskilled the subtle lines to trace,   
Or softer shades of Nature’s face,   
I view her common forms with unanointed eyes.           

Nor mine the seer-like power to show   
The secrets of the heart and mind;   
To drop the plummet-line below   
Our common world of joy and woe,   
A more intense despair or brighter hope to find.           

Yet here at least an earnest sense   
Of human right and weal is shown;   
A hate of tyranny intense,   
And hearty in its vehemence,   
As if my brother’s pain and sorrow were my own.           

O Freedom! if to me belong   
Nor mighty Milton’s gift divine,   
Nor Marvell’s wit and graceful song,   
Still with a love as deep and strong   
As theirs, I lay, like them, my best gifts on thy shrine!   

— John Greenleaf Whittier

In 1996, the New York Public Library, the Grand Central Partnership and the New Yorker Magazine convened a panel of esteemed lovers of the written word and came up with a collection of quotations from the never-ending oeuvre of literature.

These quotes were cast in bronze by New York sculptor Gregg LeFevre and then laid out as sidewalk plaques on E 41st Street in 1998. In 2003, the stretch of E 41st Street from the New York Public Library entrance on Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue was renamed Library Way.

Today, we celebrate the life and poetry of John Greenleaf Whitier. Whether it be a birthday, anniversary or publication date of a seminal work, the Bar None Group will revisit these 40+ quotations from time to time — quotations that inspire one to write, read, explore and embrace literature. We last visited Emily Dickinson.

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