Poetry Friday: John Greenleaf Whittier

Years ago when I was in college, someone jotted these lines across the back of an envelope of a note sent to me:

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

I thought it was lovely, but I didn’t know where it came from (funny the difference the Internet makes in our lives with the ability to look these things up immediately!) Then some years later I found the same lines quoted and attributed to John Greenleaf Whittier in something Elisabeth Elliot wrote, though now I don’t remember what. Later still I heard it on the radio as a hymn. I don’t remember if I have ever sung it in church — I may have. But just recently I found it from from a much longer poem.

A few of the other verses are:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

More can be found under the hymn titled “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” at Cyberhymnal. I am not as familiar with either of the tunes listed there: I have always heard it more often to the melody of the Navy Hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save.

Whittier was a Quaker, which had a whole philosophy called “quietism” that I don’t ascribe to. But the Bible speaks of a “meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (I Peter 3:4a) and says in one of my favorite verses “For thus saith the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). David asks himself repeatedly in Psalm 42 and 43, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?” The quietness in these verses is not a mystical state, but rather just a a peace of spirit resting on and trusting in the Lord. As David says in answer to his own question, “hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God” (Psalm 42:11b). Psalm 46:10 a says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 112:7 says, “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: his heart is fixed, trusting in the LORD.” Psalm 46:1-3 says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.” I have reminded myself at times that if I can trust God to carry me through those circumstances, I can trust Him for whatever more minor problems I am facing.

The last two lines are an allusion to Elijah’s encounter with the Lord in I Kings 19: “And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (verses 11-12). I thought it odd that Whittier would say, ” Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,” when this passage says God did not speak through those means. Then it occurred to me he probably meant “through” not as in using those means to express Himself, but rather Whittier is asking God to speak to him in the midst of turmoil, to let him hear God’s still small voice over all the other clamor.

I found this lovely version on YouTube.

The Poetry Friday Round-Up can be found at Wild Rose Reader today.

7 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: John Greenleaf Whittier

  1. I don’t think I’ve heard this before… though I could be wrong! I really need the music to know… lyrics don’t stick unless I have music to keep with them! The verses are lovely though!

  2. Ohhhh, one of my FAVORITE hymns of all time, and that’s the tune I’m used to — but it’s not usually sung, but it’s an organ refrain. The same tune is used for He Comes To Us As One Unknown.

    I rather like Quaker hymns. Thanks for sharing this one.

  3. Beautiful. I’ve never heard this one before. There are so many old hymns out there that are very powerful and some churches just won’t do them anymore. It’s a shame.

  4. We still sing mostly hymns in my Church
    but we have so few attending, about 25
    to 30 and most of the struggles are over music.
    We too love the old hymns!
    It’s sad that most Churches feel that the music
    has to be noisy like the world’s. When do we hear
    “God’s still, small voice”??

  5. Thanks for your thoughts on J. G. Whittier’s “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” (It was first published on this date in 1872.) And yes, though we might not espouse Mr. Whittier’s Quaker theology, his hymn makes an important point–emphasized all the more in the longer poem called “The Brewing of Soma,” from which the hymn was taken. The spirit of sincere worship is to arise from within, not be induced from without–by drugs or any form of emotional manipulation.

    To see more about the poem and its author, I invite you to check out my daily blog on hymns, Wordwise Hymns.

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