The poem is set during the Civil War in Frederick, Maryland and it features an elderly woman called Frietchie, who defied Confederate orders by flaunting a flag in the presence of Stonewall Jackson. It is very tempting to categorize Barbara Frietchie as a historical poem because of its arduous rhythm and persistent rhyming that can be distracting to most people. It is a poem that carries a lot of sentimentality and shameless defense of the Unionists to the contemporary audience. Without a doubt, the piece does not call for any sophisticated examination. It only presumes a communal role of the writer that in the modern era poets hardly ever perform. Barbara Frietchie is actually more than a piece of recitable propaganda. To the contemporary audience of the poem, it is a passionate declaration of the traditionalist virtue of order which dominated the British neoclassical ideas in the mid-eighteenth century.
Whittier uses language and symbolism to create a happier view of the civil war. He uses playful rhymes and several heroic couplets to lighten the mood of the poem and uses the courageous story of an old lady who stood up to confederate troops which bears similarities to many nursery rhymes. In addition, the poem employees the theme of nationalism and freedom as well as American pride where one person can stand up to people who are considered rebels even though they put their life at risk while doing it. In the first few lines, he uses words that describe nature and these include meadow, fruit trees as well as fruit, gardens, hills, and the natural calm temperatures of that day. When Whittier was choosing Frederick as the name of the town, he ensures that it has a realistic ring to it and this suggests that his view of the civil war is not based on personal experiences in any battle, but it is rather based on glorified narratives of heroics and war.
To get its point across, the poem uses three unique emblems. Unlike other symbols used by most poems, most of which invite creative and often interpretive analysis, the use of emblems produces vivid pictographic images that straightforwardly correspond to a unique abstract principle and one that is particularly useful in teaching. Here, the poet deploys the natural environment itself which is actually the emblem of a universal virtual of social order (Stewart, 2015, 34). For instance, the flag is not only an emblem of the political and social forces referred to as the Union but it is also an emblem of the general universal virtue of order as foreseen by human efforts. In addition, the guns that the rebel forces carry are an emblem of societal disorder. They are seen by the poet as a dangerous declaration of anarchy which in neoclassical perspective, has represented rebellion which is in it a huge threat to peace and order. According to the poet’s perspective, the Civil War was not just an economic, political, cultural or military act; it was also a moral act, particularly a violation of the universal virtue of order.
In terms of the setting, the narrator describes a stunning cool morning in September where meadows were rich and filled with corn that surrounded the spires of Frederick, Maryland. town was besieged by several troops of General Robert E. Lee’s rebel army that was being commanded by Stonewall Jackson. About forty troops entered the town at a time when pears and apples were hanging in plenty on various fruit trees. The troops were very hungry, and they had come to gather food for their counterparts who were starving (Loewy, 2016, 165). The confederate forces invaded the town with their flags arrogantly displayed, and by noon that day, they had managed to pull down other flags.
The poet emphasizes the advanced age of Barbara Frietchie in order to make the reader sympathize with her condition. Her advanced age is impressed on the audience by straightforwardly referring to Barbara as old and also commenting on her gray hair. By letting the reader know that she is old makes her appear fragile and this makes her stance against the rebels even more dramatic. The poem is meant to align the loyalty people have for their country and their flag with the vision of the old generation, while at the same time classifying the rebels as the young generation. He associates Barbara’s action of raising the flag to keeping a memory alive and likens it to the bravery of people like Barbara Frietcher. Whittier’s overall portrayal of patriotism and national pride for the modern American is romanticized using a subtle and soft approach to a situation that in reality would have been much more horrifying.
According to the narrator, Barbara Frietchie took her flag, went to her window, and started yelling at the rebel troops telling them to shoot her if they wanted to, but warned them that they were not to in any way harm the union banner, which she referred to as the country’s flag. In doing this Barbara Frietchie was actually professing her unwavering loyalty to the country as well as insisting that that the country still belonged to the misguided people in the rebel army.
General Stonewall Jackson reacted in a way that showed that deep down in his heart he knew that the old lady was right. According to the poet, Stonewall’s face was reduced to a blush that represented his shame and sadness. His usual nobility was eliminated and for a moment, Stonewall was at the mercy of the old woman’s word or deed. This is evident when the general issued the command that anyone who touched a hair on the old woman’s head would die like a dog (Fine, 2016, 777). He then goes on to tell his troops to march on. Even as the troops marched on through the town’s streets, Barbara’s flag remained visible to everyone and it flew over the heads of the passing troops. They were obeying Stonewall’s order not to hurt the old lady and her banner, which remained raised even at night. The last part of the poem is actually a glowing tribute to Barbara Frietchie’s patriotism as well as General Stonewall’s brave capacity to appreciate and recognize old patriot’s loyalty toward the country she called home. The narrator now describes Frederick as a peaceful town as the war is over. The flag that Barbara honored and loved now erected on her grave, and the town’s patriots have all become stars for their courageous patriotism.
Fine, David R. “Symbolic Expression and the Rehnquist Court: The Lessons of the Peculiar Passions of Flag Burning.” U. Tol. L. Rev. 22 (2016): 777.
Loewy, Arnold H. “The Flag-Burning Case: Freedom of Speech When We Need It Most.” NCL Rev. 68 (2016): 165.
Stewart, Ralph. ““Barbara Frietchie” and the Civil War.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 16.2 (2015): 32-36.