Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Taste of Pumpkin This Thanksgiving: John Greenleaf Whittier


The Pumpkin

By John Greenleaf Whittier

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 come 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!

The Poet

John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) was an American Quaker poet and advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. He lived in New England, and he was a part of a small group of poets called the Fireside poets which also included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. They were so named because people would read their poetry while gathered together by the fireplace. They were the popular poets of the day who wrote about everyday life, nature and politics.

The poem above is Whittier's tribute to the pumpkin, “the fruit loved of his boyhood.” It was first published in the Boston Chronotype in 1846, and available in his 1849 Poems. Perhaps the verse reminds the reader of some favorite food or dish of his or her own childhood still served at gatherings to help honor such rich traditions.

The Poem – A Gourd of Distinction

The poem itself establishes the growing cycle of the pumpkin along with some symbolic and historical understanding.
  • Note: Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans by natives of America. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the "Three Sisters" tradition.
  • In Colonial America, the pumpkin, or pompion as it was called, got more respect. An important food source, pumpkins were crucial to colonials' survival through the hungry winter months.
In the first stanza, the speaker speaks of the beautiful pumpkin plant with its “leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold.” The pumpkin vines grow large and their tangled mass puts the speaker in mind of the prophet of Nineveh. The Nineveh allusion in the first stanza 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.

In the second stanza, the speaker further extols the value of the pumpkin. It is cherished by a young Spanish girl, who waits on the Xenil River bank and by Creole Indians in Cuba who “laugh out” to behold the growth of those beautiful the “broad spheres of gold.”

Then, the speaker brings the celebration to his own American shores and the Yankee harvest “where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines/ And the sun of September melts down on his vines.”

With references to both Halloween and Thanksgiving, the speaker employs the gourd to revive pleasant memories of these seasonal American holidays. With this reference, the poet solidifies the importance of the pumpkin in celebration and national lore.

So eventually, the speaker completes the journey of the pumpkin – from the fruit of the vine to becoming a rich and flavorful pumpkin pie sure to delight the entire family. In this delicious fruit is an enduring symbol of traditional hearth and thanksgiving.

With a grateful voice, the speaker compares the sweetness in his own life with the “rich pumpkin pie.” And, in his heart, he holds a prayer of blessed life. Even with a mouth full of this delight, 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, the speaker 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!"

"The Pumpkin" -- what a fitting reflection for Thanksgiving. May each of us have a pumpkin pie memory  this holiday. A simple food or a simple dish represents so much. Whittier lovingly reminds us of this. With humble reflection, we too can find a familiar taste to be a wonderful reward.

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