John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller"
John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier's "Maud Muller" dramatizes the melancholy caused by the human heart's proclivity for suffering over the thought of "what might have been."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reading of Whittier's "Maud Muller"
The Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier: A Readers' Edition
The volume includes "Maud Muller"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes
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