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John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller"

Updated on October 6, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Maud Muller"

John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" narrates a contemplative reflection in 55 rimed couplets. The title character is a young, country girl who often looks toward town and wonders how much better her life would be if she could partake of city residence.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The narration dramatizes the theme of the melancholy of choice, somewhat along the lines of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." As the speaker in Frost's poem shows regret, the characters in "Maud Miller" also demonstrate regret about their choices, but the Maud Muller characters experience less evenmindedness vis-a-vis their choices than the Frost speaker, who accepts the fact that no matter what decision he makes he will regret the fact that he could not do both.

Maud Muller

Maud Muller on a summer's day
Raked the meadow sweet with hay.

Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.

Singing, she wrought, and her merry glee
The mock-bird echoed from his tree.

But when she glanced to the far-off town
White from its hill-slope looking down,

The sweet song died, and a vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast,-

A wish that she hardly dared to own,
For something better than she had known.

The Judge rode slowly down the lane,
Smoothing his horse's chestnut mane.

He drew his bridle in the shade
Of the apple-trees, to greet the maid,

And asked a draught from the spring that flowed
Through the meadow across the road.

She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,
And filled for him her small tin cup,

And blushed as she gave it, looking down
On her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.

"Thanks!" said the Judge; "a sweeter draught
From a fairer hand was never quaffed."

He spoke of the grass and flowers and trees,
Of the singing birds and the humming bees;

Then talked of the haying, and wondered whether
The cloud in the west would bring foul weather.

And Maud forgot her brier-torn gown
And her graceful ankles bare and brown;

And listened, while a pleased surprise
Looked from her long-lashed hazel eyes.

At last, like one who for delay
Seeks a vain excuse, he rode away.

Maud Muller looked and sighed: "Ah me!
That I the Judge's bride might be!

"He would dress me up in silks so fine,
And praise and toast me at his wine.

"My father should wear a broadcloth coat;
My brother should sail a pointed boat.

"I'd dress my mother so grand and gay,
And the baby should have a new toy each day.

"And I'd feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
And all should bless me who left our door."

The Judge looked back as he climbed the hill,
And saw Maud Muller standing still.

"A form more fair, a face more sweet,
Ne'er hath it been my lot to meet.

"And her modest answer and graceful air
Show her wise and good as she is fair.

"Would she were mine, and I to-day,
Like her, a harvester of hay.

"No doubtful balance of rights and wrongs,
Nor weary lawyers with endless tongues,

"But low of cattle and song of birds,
And health and quiet and loving words."

But he thought of his sisters, proud and cold,
And his mother, vain of her rank and gold.

So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,
And Maud was left in the field alone.

But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;

And the young girl mused beside the well
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.

He wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.

Yet oft, in his marble hearth's bright glow,
He watched a picture come and go;

And sweet Maud Muller's hazel eyes
Looked out in their innocent surprise.

Oft, when the wine in his glass was red,
He longed for the wayside well instead;

And closed his eyes on his garnished rooms
To dream of meadows and clover-blooms.

And the proud man sighed, and with a secret pain,
"Ah, that I were free again!

"Free as when I rode that day,
Where the barefoot maiden raked her hay."

She wedded a man unlearned and poor,
And many children played round her door.

But care and sorrow, and childbirth pain,
Left their traces on heart and brain.

And oft, when the summer sun shone hot
On the new-mown hay in the meadow lot,

And she heard the little spring brook fall
Over the roadside, through a wall,

In the shade of the apple-tree again
She saw a rider draw his rein;

And, gazing down with timid grace,
She felt his pleased eyes read her face.

Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls
Stretched away into stately halls;

The weary wheel to a spinet turned,
The tallow candle an astral burned,

And for him who sat by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o'er pipe and mug,

A manly form at her side she saw,
And joy was duty and love was law.

Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, "It might have been."

Alas for the maiden, alas for the Judge,
For rich repiner and househole drudge!

God pity them both and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;

And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!

Reading of Whittier's "Maud Muller"

Commentary

First Movement: "Maud Muller, on a summer's day"

The musicality of Whittier's poem becomes evident with the beginning couplet: "Maud Muller, on a summer's day, / Raked the meadow sweet with hay," and continues as it describes Maud, "Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth / Of simple beauty and rustic health."

The young, healthy, but poor girl who lives the rustic life is featured and centered as the character study progresses. As Maud works, she sings and seems to be happy with her lot, but when she stops and looks toward "the far-off town," she starts to ponder "a nameless longing" for "something better."

Then the second character enters the scene: "The Judge rode slowly down the lane, / Smoothing his horse's chestnut mane." The judge stops and asks Maud for a drink of water "from the spring that flowed / Through the meadow across the road."

Maud immediately complies, fills him a cup, and shyly hands it to him. The judge thanks Maud, compliments her beauty, and then remarks about the loveliness of the countryside.

They chat a bit, and then he suddenly leaves, finding no further excuse to stay. Then Maud begins to daydream about being the judge's wife. She imagines all sorts of fancy and rich living for herself and her family.

Second Movement: "I'd dress my mother so grand and gay"

The judge, unknown to Maud of course, has his own daydream but instead of making her a rich city wife, he imagined himself joining her rustic life and living happily without the bother of having to balance "rights and wrongs."

Third Movement: "But the lawyers smiled that afternoon"

The judge then marries a girl of his own station; and Maud a boy from hers, and they live the lives to be expected of each class.

Fourth Movement: "But care and sorrow, and childbirth pain"

From time to time, through the busy life of raising children and tending the farm, Maud would remember the day the rich judge stopped for a drink.

Fifth Movement: "Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls"

The judge would also think back to the rustic maid whose life he so envied. But they would each go back to their own life, while wondering what their lives would be like if they had spent them in difference circumstances.

Final Comment

The couplet, "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" has become a famous adage, which reflects the nature of the human heart that allows itself to engage in futile melancholy.

And the importance of this poem is well-summarized in the two final couplets: "Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies / Deeply buried from human eyes / / And, in the hereafter, angels may / Roll the stone from the grave away!"

Whittier understood that the unreality of this earthly existence causes human beings to fail to realize their true nature: the soul's goal is to find unity with its Creator, not to languish in useless dreams and regrets about whether it lives in city or country or as judge or farmer.

The soul's nature is already rich because it is a spark of its Divine Creator. That fact, unfortunately, is "buried from human eyes," but there is "some sweet hope" that "in the hereafter, angels may" deliver that hope, and the blind will finally see.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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