Thursday, September 4, 2014

He lives to learn, in life's hard school...

John Greenleaf Whittier was an old man when he wrote "In School Days," one of the best-known poems in American literature. His friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said of the verse, "Certainly there is something more in education than is set down in school books. Whittier has touched this point very poetically." Another 19th century author, Oliver Wendell Holmes, added, "It melted my soul within me to read these lovely verses. I hardly think I dare read them aloud, lest my eyes fill with tears."

Whittier was recalling his boyhood in a one-room school, especially a spelling bee he almost won. The lesson he learned was more important than spelling. See if you don't agree.

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow
And blackberry vines are creeping.

Within, the master's desk is seen,
Deep-scared by raps official;
The warping door, the battered seats,
The jack-knife's carved initial.

Long years ago, a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window panes
And low eaves icy fretting.

It touched the tangled, golden curls
And brown eyes full of grieving
Of one who still her steps delayed
While all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy  (John Whittier)
Her childish favor singled:
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled.

Pushing with restless feet the snow
To right and left, he lingered --
As restlessly her tiny hands
Her blue-checked apron fingered.

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
Her soft hand's light caressing,
And heard the tremble in her voice,
As if a fault confessing.

"I'm sorry that I spelled the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because," her brown eyes lower fell,
"Because, you see, I love you."

Still memory to a gray-haired man,
Her sweet child face is showing.
Dear girl! The grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing!

He lives to learn, in life's hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss
Like her, because they love him.

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