It is tempting to pigeonhole “Barbara Frietchie” as a dated historical piece, its labored rhythm and insistent rhyming distracting to the modern ear, its sentimentality and unabashed defense of the Union non-involving to a contemporary audience. Clearly, the poem does not demand sophisticated analysis as much as public recitation. It further presumes a public role for the poet that in the contemporary era poets seldom perform. Yet “Barbara Frietchie” is more than recitable propaganda. For a contemporary reader the poem is a passionate assertion of the conservative virtue of order that dominated British neoclassical thought in the eighteenth century—indeed, Frietchie’s formidable age grounds her in the earlier century.
To make its point the poem juxtaposes three emblems. Unlike symbols, which invite interpretive, often creative analysis, emblems are vivid pictorial images that directly correspond to a clear abstract principle and are intended for instruction. Here Whittier deploys the natural world itself, emblem of the universal principle of order; the flag, emblem not only of the social and political construct called the Union but also of the same universal principle of order as expressed by human endeavor; and the guns of the rebel army, the emblem of disorder, the dangerous assertion of anarchy that, in neoclassical thought, has represented since Lucifer’s rebellion a dire threat to order. The Civil War then is not merely a political, military, economic, or cultural act—it is also a moral act, specifically a violation of a universal principle of order.
Thus, in the temerity of Frietchie’s action, Whittier, a Quaker and a pacifist, is not sanctioning the Union fight. He was deeply disturbed by the violence of the war. This poem is no stirring call to arms and is strikingly nonviolent, centering as it does on shots...
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“Barbara Frietchie” is styled as a traditional folk ballad, a compact, rhythmic verse narrative, told impersonally by an omniscient voice, which recounts the courage of common people in a crisis. Whittier, who mastered the form by reading the poetry of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, self-consciously draws on that style to give this contemporary event importance and historic largeness. Because ballads were originally composed as songs intended for public performance for (at best) a semi-literate audience, the conventions are deliberately accessible: The setting is recognizable and realistic, the characters act without complex psychological depth, the centering tension is unambiguously drawn between right and wrong, the dialogue is theatrical and heightens the suspense, and the lines are uncluttered by elevated diction or suggestive symbols. The story is related primarily for its dramatic appeal and its inspirational impact. Its steady four-beat-per-line rhythm, suggesting the heavy cadence of the marching soldiers, creates an unrelenting, irresistible forward movement.
Whittier draws heavily on established, largely British poetic conventions to create his ballad’s sonic effects. Hence, the poem has a clear respect for the rules of composition. It provides expected rhythms and anticipated beats (iambic tetrameter) and maintains a patterned rhyme scheme. It further deploys traditional language devices for manipulating the poem’s aural impact, including assonance, consonance, alliteration, the repetition of critical phrasing, inverted syntactical sequencing to create dramatic emphasis (particularly displacing prepositional phrases to enhance suspense), and synecdoche (using part of an image to represent the whole—for instance, the phrase “horse and foot” to represent the soldiers or Frietchie’s telling the soldiers to shoot “this old gray head”). Apart from such traditional devices, the poetic line is uncluttered by figurative language and is deliberately straightforward, reflecting both the ballad genre and Whittier’s own preference, drawn from his Quaker background, for unadorned diction.