A Short Analysis of John Greenleaf Whittier’s ‘Tribute to Mother’

A delightful little paean to the poet’s mother

‘Tribute to Mother’ is a short poem in which the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) recalls the time when he was a small child and sat beside his mother’s knee. The poet’s mother restrained his ‘selfish moods’ and taught him a ‘chastening love’:

Tribute to Mother

A picture memory brings to me;
I look across the years and see
Myself beside my mother’s knee.
I feel her gentle hand restrain
My selfish moods, and know again
A child’s blind sense of wrong and pain.
But wiser now, a man gray grown,
My childhood’s needs are better known.
My mother’s chastening love I own.

In three sets of rhyming triplets, John Greenleaf Whittier looks back on his mother from the vantage point of his own old age (‘a man gray grown’). His mother was gentle but firm, inspiring in him a sense of right and wrong, and knowing what’s best for her son (‘My childhood’s needs’). The love a mother has for her child is ‘chastening’ not just because it is designed to chasten or subdue the child’s wilder or more unacceptable impulses, instilling a strong moral sense into the child, but also because Whittier, now older and wilder, feels chastened by the love and patience his mother had for her son.

John Greenleaf Whittier is a curious figure: associated with the group of American writers known as the Fireside Poets, who hailed from New England (Whittier himself was from Massachusetts) and wrote moral poems on domestic themes, he was inspired by the great Bard of Ayrshire, Robert Burns. (They were called the Fireside Poets because their work was often read aloud by families gathered around the fire at home; Longfellow, one of their number, even published a poetry volume titled The Seaside and the Fireside in 1850.)

Whittier’s ‘Tribute to Mother’ embodies these two aspects of Whittier’s work, and that of the Fireside Poets more widely: the domestic and the moral. His Quaker upbringing – and the values instilled in him from a young age by his mother – probably also had a hand in making him the poet he became. So it is fitting that he penned this short tribute to his mother, acknowledging the part she played in the poet – and man – he grew up to be.