‘Maud Muller’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a classic in its own right, as it explores the haunting regrets that we can all feel after making a decision.
As this tragic poem sets its course to explore the themes of unrequited love, nature, urban life, and social standing, it finds its way to the unsettling conclusion that, often, our only hope to right a wrong is to wait for another life to come around.
Maud Muller John Greenleaf WhittierMAUD Muller, on a summer’s day,Raked the meadow sweet with hay.Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealthOf simple beauty and rustic health.Singing, she wrought, and her merry gleeThe mock-bird echoed from his tree.But when she glanced to the far-off town,White from its hill-slope looking down,The sweet song died, and a vague unrestAnd a nameless longing filled her breast,—A wish that she hardly dared to own,For something better than she had known.The Judge rode slowly down the lane,Smoothing his horse’s chestnut mane.He drew his bridle in the shadeOf the apple-trees to greet the maid,And ask a draught from the spring that flowedThrough the meadow across the road.She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,And filled for him her small tin cup,And blushed as she gave it, looking downOn her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.“Thanks!” said the Judge; “a sweeter draughtFrom a fairer hand was never quaffed.”He spoke of the grass and flowers and trees,Of the singing birds and the humming bees;Then talked of the haying, and wondered whetherThe cloud in the west would bring foul weather.And Maud forgot her brier-torn gownAnd her graceful ankles bare and brown;And listened, while a pleased surpriseLooked from her long-lashed hazel eyes.At last, like one who for delaySeeks a vain excuse, he rode away.Maud Muller looked and sighed: “Ah me!That I the Judge’s bride might be!“He would dress me up in silks so fine,And praise and toast me at his wine.“My father should wear a broadcloth coat;My brother should sail a painted boat.“I’d dress my mother so grand and gay,And the baby should have a new toy each day.“And I’d feed the hungry and clothe the poor,And all should bless me who left our door.”The Judge looked back as he climbed the hill,And saw Maud Muller standing still.“A form more fair, a face more sweet,Ne’er hath it been my lot to meet.“And her modest answer and graceful airShow her wise and good as she is fair.“Would she were mine, and I to-day,Like her, a harvester of hay:“No doubtful balance of rights and wrongs,Nor weary lawyers with endless tongues,“But low of cattle and song of birds,And health and quiet and loving words.”But he thought of his sisters proud and cold,And his mother vain of her rank and gold.So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,And Maud was left in the field alone.But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,When he hummed in court an old love-tune;And the young girl mused beside the well,Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.He wedded a wife of richest dower,Who lived for fashion, as he for power.Yet oft, in his marble hearth’s bright glow,He watched a picture come and go;And sweet Maud Muller’s hazel eyesLooked out in their innocent surprise.Oft, when the wine in his glass was red,He longed for the wayside well instead;And closed his eyes on his garnished roomsTo dream of meadows and clover-blooms.And the proud man sighed, with a secret pain,“Ah, that I were free again!“Free as when I rode that day,Where the barefoot maiden raked her hay.”She wedded a man unlearned and poor,And many children played round her door.But care and sorrow, and childbirth pain,Left their traces on heart and brain.And oft, when the summer sun shone hotOn the new-mown hay in the meadow lot,And she heard the little spring brook fallOver the roadside, through the wall,In the shade of the apple-tree againShe saw a rider draw his rein.And, gazing down with timid grace,She felt his pleased eyes read her face.Sometimes her narrow kitchen wallsStretched away into stately halls;The weary wheel to a spinet turned,The tallow candle an astral burned,And for him who sat by the chimney lug,Dozing and grumbling o’er pipe and mug,A manly form at her side she saw,And joy was duty and love was law.Then she took up her burden of life again,Saying only, “It might have been.”Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,For rich repiner and household drudge!God pity them both! and pity us all,Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.For of all sad words of tongue or pen,The saddest are these: “It might have been!”Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope liesDeeply buried from human eyes;And, in the hereafter, angels mayRoll the stone from its grave away!
Explore Maud Muller
‘Maud Muller’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a narrative ballad about a peasant woman and a judge’s regrets as they fantasize about what might have happened if they had gotten married.
The poem opens as the 3rd-person speaker depicts a scene of the titular character Maud Muller raking grass. Although the speaker describes Maud as beautiful, her agricultural activities and “torn” apparel make it clear that she is a poor peasant woman.
As Maud Muller rakes the grass and dreams about a more exciting life, a handsome judge rides up and asks her for some water. She obliges, and during their encounter, she develops an attraction to this upper-class, handsome man.
As the judge rides away, both parties think about how attracted they were to one another. However, their difference in social standing keeps them from doing anything about their unrequited attraction.
As the years go on, Maud Muller marries a distasteful pauper, but she still dreams that she had married the handsome judge. Still, in her older age, she cannot even fathom changing anything about her meager life. She must suffer in silence.
The speaker offers us a moral in closing, stating that the saddest words in the human language are “it might have been!”
Form and Structure
‘Maud Muller’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a narrative ballad written in rhyming couplets that give the poem a musical sound.
In addition, its rhyme’s sing-song-like qualities establish this poem as a sort of folk tale, which remains true to the ballad’s tradition.
The form and structure of this poem are rather typical of Romantic-era ballads, but this verse is unique in that it is an American pastoral Ballad. While the poets overseas in England were writing stories a lot like Maud’s in their poetry, Whittier often put an American spin on his poems, rooting his scenes and images in the common experiences of American commoners.
‘Maud Muller’ explores many different themes, but ultimately, this poem is about regret. Maud Muller and the judge’s different social standings may create the boundaries that make their love an unrequited one, but their idealized perceptions of what might have been fuel the conflict in this poem.
Additionally, ‘Maud Muller’ plays with perspective, as both the judge and Maud have different ideas of what freedom is. Maud wants to be free from her life of rural labor and hardships, while the judge wants to be free of societal expectations. Both parties imagine that the other’s life is better, but neither of them is happy. The listener must wonder if either of them will ever be happy.
Imagery plays heavily in ‘Maud Muller,’ as both the judge and Maud fantasize about what their lives could have been like if they married.
The grassy fields, green with clover, take center stage in the judge’s fantasy. Here, in the fields, the sound of the “little spring brook” reminds both Maud and the judge of their meeting, adding sound elements to the collage of stunning pastoral scenery.
However, Maud’s dream life is textured with glimmering silk fabrics, colors that decorate her father’s new ship, and the crimson red that the judge peers at while he drinks his wine.
Still, the most important symbol in this poem is the well, which happens to be a wishing well. It functions to emphasize that both the judge and Maud wish for a new life. However, the well never delivers them the lives they dream about.
MAUD Muller, on a summer’s day,
Raked the meadow sweet with hay.
Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.
Singing, she wrought, and her merry glee
The mock-bird echoed from his tree.
‘Maud Muller’ opens as the titular character, Maud, rakes up grass to make hay. The unspecified 3rd-person omniscient speaker describes Maud’s tattered appearance, indicating that our heroine is a poor woman, although she is healthy and beautiful in a “simple” way.
Like the woman in Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper,’ the woman sings while she rakes the grass. This device allows us, as listeners, to imagine that Maud is singing this poem to us. However, in the background, the “mock-bird,” a mockingbird, is mimicking and mocking her.
While the addition of the bird makes for a wonderful image of Maud singing while the birdsong harmonizes with her, it also implies that Maud is lowly and mockable. This reveals that Maud will be a tragic hero because she is a passive character who does not take action, as we’ll see near the poem’s close.
But when she glanced to the far-off town,
White from its hill-slope looking down,
The sweet song died, and a vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast,—
A wish that she hardly dared to own,
For something better than she had known.
As she sings, Maud Muller looks toward the town, which the speaker describes rather gloriously. The “hill-slope” is white and elevated, giving it a glimmering majesty that emphasizes Maud’s perception of the city.
As the heroine looks toward this town, she stops singing, indicating that she is unhappy and lost in thought. Maud makes a wish for something more — likely, to live in the town and be something better than a hardworking peasant woman. She is dreaming of something more than her provincial life, just like in Beauty and the Beast.’
The Judge rode slowly down the lane,
Smoothing his horse’s chestnut mane.
He drew his bridle in the shade
Of the apple-trees to greet the maid,
And ask a draught from the spring that flowed
Through the meadow across the road.
She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,
And filled for him her small tin cup,
And blushed as she gave it, looking down
On her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.
“Thanks!” said the Judge; “a sweeter draught
From a fairer hand was never quaffed.”
In lines 13 through 24 of ‘Maud Muller,’ a handsome judge from the town rides into the scene. He rides slowly, indicating that he is leisurely riding around the countryside — something that Maud Muller would never have the free time to do.
He ties up his horse in the pastoral countryside scene, then walks over to our heroine, Maud. He immediately asks her for a drink of water. This encounter emphasizes that Maud Muller is below the judge in position. He does not ask if he can fetch some water from the field or even if she could show him the way. He asks her to give him some water. She is his subservient.
Maud, as she gets the water, shows all the physical signs of a developing crush. Her awkward timidness and blushing face are met with some casual flirting from the judge, who states that he’s never had water that came from a hand more beautiful.
He spoke of the grass and flowers and trees,
Of the singing birds and the humming bees;
Then talked of the haying, and wondered whether
The cloud in the west would bring foul weather.
And Maud forgot her brier-torn gown
And her graceful ankles bare and brown;
And listened, while a pleased surprise
Looked from her long-lashed hazel eyes.
At last, like one who for delay
Seeks a vain excuse, he rode away.
The judge begins to speak indirectly of “the singing birds and the humming bees.” While he may be discussing the ecology of the American countryside, in this instance, it is clear that there is some sort of romantic discussion going on here.
Note that “He spoke” and “Maud… listened.”
Maud does not speak at all while the judge is rambling on about the things that Maud knows best. She is a peasant. Of course, she knows about the grass and the haying — she was in the process of preparing hay when the urban judge showed up!
So, here we have an example of how passive Maud is as a character. She does not actively participate in conversations. She listens. Additionally, while she wants a grander, more exciting life away from the fields, she does nothing to change her circumstances. Quite pitiful, huh?
Finally, the speaker uses a simile to explain that the judge had trouble saying goodbye to Maud. He seems to try to make up an excuse to explain why he is leaving, which indicates that he has an ulterior motive here. He is not being honest about why he must leave. However, he jumps on his horse and rides away all the same.
Maud Muller looked and sighed: “Ah me!
That I the Judge’s bride might be!
“He would dress me up in silks so fine,
And praise and toast me at his wine.
“My father should wear a broadcloth coat;
My brother should sail a painted boat.
“I’d dress my mother so grand and gay,
And the baby should have a new toy each day.
“And I’d feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
And all should bless me who left our door.”
In lines 35 through 44, Maud Muller fantasizes about what it would be like if the judge married her. She’d finally get away from the countryside and her hard labor.
The judge, in his active, authoritative role, would “dress her” in expensive clothes. Again, Maud is being acted upon, and she wouldn’t even dress herself. She is a dependent in this daydream, just as she is an inactive heroine in her real life.
However, her activity would be limited to offering her father and mother a better life. This dichotomy between active and passive finally does Maud some favors. She is so focused on her family and other people that she allows the world to do things for and to her.
So, perhaps Maud is not just a pitiful, dependent daydreamer. Perhaps she cannot bear the idea of risking her position as an agricultural worker because her family needs her to work.
This idea becomes even more clear in the next lines, as Maud explains that if she had the money and time, she’d “feed the hungry and clothe the poor.” She’d finally be able to actively change the world for the better.
However, there’s a little clue here about social standing. While Maud would finally be an active, charitable figure if she married the judge, all the poor people who she would help would “bless her.” Here, here goals are made all too clear. She wants to be admired, and she still wants to be blessed. So, at the end of the day, everything Maud does is for other people’s approval.
The Judge looked back as he climbed the hill,
And saw Maud Muller standing still.
“A form more fair, a face more sweet,
Ne’er hath it been my lot to meet.
“And her modest answer and graceful air
Show her wise and good as she is fair.
“Would she were mine, and I to-day,
Like her, a harvester of hay:
“No doubtful balance of rights and wrongs,
Nor weary lawyers with endless tongues,
“But low of cattle and song of birds,
And health and quiet and loving words.”
But he thought of his sisters proud and cold,
And his mother vain of her rank and gold.
So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,
And Maud was left in the field alone.
Meanwhile, as Maud Muller fantasizes about the Judge, it seems that the Judge is fantasizing about her. He thinks about how beautiful and modest she is. Her wholesome, rural, introverted vibe seems to be what the judge appreciates the most. He imagines a future where he lives with her out in the country, far away from legal jargon and city folk.
Here, we can find tons of problems with both the hero and the heroine. While Maud Muller is dreaming of city life with the judge, the judge is dreaming of pastoral country life with Maud.
The grass is always greener on the other side.
But, as curious listeners, we must wonder: how happy would the judge and Maud be if they did get married? Whose fantasy life would win: Maud’s or the judge’s? Would the judge move into Maud’s rustic home and, unknowing of how to work the land, watch Maud work all day?
These fantasies, then, might better be left as mere daydreams. The realities of their potential relationship would likely make both parties unhappy, after all. Or would they?
Well, that’s what this poem is trying to get us to ask. Is a fantasy better than reality? And, if that fantasy were to come true, would it be as fulfilling as we once imagined?
But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;
And the young girl mused beside the well,
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.
He wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.
Yet oft, in his marble hearth’s bright glow,
He watched a picture come and go;
And sweet Maud Muller’s hazel eyes
Looked out in their innocent surprise.
Oft, when the wine in his glass was red,
He longed for the wayside well instead;
And closed his eyes on his garnished rooms
To dream of meadows and clover-blooms.
And the proud man sighed, with a secret pain,
“Ah, that I were free again!
“Free as when I rode that day,
Where the barefoot maiden raked her hay.”
In lines 61 to 78, the years fly by in an instant. Fast forward from the day that the Judge and Maud Muller met, the judge has married an incredibly fashionable woman, and he is still wealthy and powerful. However, his well-decorated home only makes him think of Maud Muller and the lush fields where he met her. He often dreams about living out in the country, where he could be “free” from his work and urban society.
In his fantasies of the fields and Maud, it’s clear that the Judge has hung on to his idealized perspective of country living. After all, the judge doesn’t think about how fulfilling it would be to work the land as a poor sharecropper. He’s not thinking about fertilization methods for the soil, and he’s not thinking about the going price for potatoes. He’s only thinking of a romantic life with Maud and the green grass.
The reality of this fantasy would, no doubt, be very disappointing to our sensible and “civilized” hero.
She wedded a man unlearned and poor,
And many children played round her door.
But care and sorrow, and childbirth pain,
Left their traces on heart and brain.
And oft, when the summer sun shone hot
On the new-mown hay in the meadow lot,
And she heard the little spring brook fall
Over the roadside, through the wall,
In the shade of the apple-tree again
She saw a rider draw his rein.
And, gazing down with timid grace,
She felt his pleased eyes read her face.
Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls
Stretched away into stately halls;
The weary wheel to a spinet turned,
The tallow candle an astral burned,
And for him who sat by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o’er pipe and mug,
A manly form at her side she saw,
And joy was duty and love was law.
Meanwhile, Maud has also married, but her husband is “unlearned and poor,” just like her. She has children to keep her busy, and all the pains she has suffered as a poor mother have scarred her “heart and brain.” Her life seems pretty miserable.
Still, just like the judge does, Maud Muller thinks about what might have been. The sound of the water trickling down from the spring sends her mind back in time to the day they met.
Additionally, she sometimes imagines that her home is actually a stately residence in the city, where her spinning wheel is actually a grand piano, and her lowly tallow candle is a star-like chandelier.
Maud Muller even imagines that her husband, who often dozes by the fireplace with a pipe in his mouth, is a handsome, dutiful, and loving man.
However, the reality is: Maud Muller is poor, her husband’s a bum, and her home is merely functional, not decorative.
Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, “It might have been.”
Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;
And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!
In the final lines of ‘Maud Muller,’ the speaker takes a step back to deliver to the listener the moral of this tragic tale. The speaker tells the listener to pity Maud and the judge, but he goes even further, asking us to pity anyone who recalls their youth and regrets their decisions.
In this section, we find the famous couplet:
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
This couplet is one of the most often quoted selections from poetry due to its universal appeal. Everyone has regrets, and it’s very easy to pity others who feel that they have made bad decisions because everyone makes bad decisions all the time.
At the end of the day, while the judge and Maud live tragic lives full of idealized memories and regrets, they are very relatable characters. We all have our own daydreams and fantasies that we keep private, “tucked away from human eyes.”
All we can hope, in some cases, is that in our next life, after the angels “roll the stone” from our graves, we will find that our dreams have come true. As for the judge and Maud Muller, all they can hope is that, maybe, in another life, they can finally be happy with what they have.
The theme of ‘Maud Muller’ by Henry Greenleaf Whittier is regret, but the poem also includes the themes of unrequited love, the boundaries of social standing, and freedom. While both the urban hero and rural heroine feel trapped by their social classes, their failure to marry and change their positions haunts them for the rest of their lives.
The line “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been,’” from ‘Maud Muller’ mean that regrets are a source of great sadness and pity. While misfortune is changeable, we can never go back in time to change the past.
‘Maud Muller’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a narrative ballad poem written in rhyming couplets. The ballad form allows the poem to tell a story in a song-like way, which helps to engage the listener. Additionally, true to its form, this poem tells a story about common people doing everyday things.
Maud Muller and the judge from the poem likely would not have been happy together because they both wanted each other’s social class and lifestyle. Maud wanted to marry the judge so she could live an upper-class life, while the judge just wanted to be free from social pressure and live in the countryside.
‘Maud Muller’ is a very popular poem due to its timeless moral lesson and relatable, yet tragic, heroes. As a product of the 19th century, this ballad picked up on some very popular themes from the Romantic period.
For example, the subgenre of pastoral narrative ballads took English poetry by storm around the time Whittier wrote this poem, and many of the works from this movement likely served as inspiration for his American take on the topic. John Greenleaf Whittier’s poetry is filled with similar examples.
Some similar famous poems include:
- ‘The Lady of Shallott’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson – is a popular ballad that illustrates the life of a woman isolated in a tower in a tower far from what she wants to live and experience.
- ‘The Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth – is a recollection of the poet’s emotional experience as he listens to a woman singing in the fields.
- ‘Michael’ by William Wordsworth – is a simple pastoral poem that tells the tale of a shepherd and his difficult relationship with his prodigal son.