The speaker, who is likely meant to be the poet himself, uses the seventeen stanzas to explore how his beliefs differ from his friends’ beliefs. As the poem concludes, it is very clear that no matter how one feels about God’s role or God’s love, the speaker knows that everyone is protected. He takes a great deal of joy from this fact, especially when times are tough.
The Eternal Goodness John Greenleaf WhitterO friends! with whom my feet have trodThe quiet aisles of prayer,Glad witness to your zeal for GodAnd love of man I bear.I trace your lines of argument;Your logic linked and strongI weigh as one who dreads dissent,And fears a doubt as wrong.But still my human hands are weakTo hold your iron creeds;Against the words ye bid me speakMy heart within me pleads.Who fathoms the Eternal Thought?Who talks of scheme and plan?The Lord is God! He needeth notThe poor device of man.I walk with bare, hushed feet the groundYe tread with boldness shod:I dare not fix with mete and boundThe love and power of God.Ye praise His justice; even suchHis pitying love I deemYe seek a king; I fain would touchThe robe that hath no seam.Ye see the curse which overbroodsA world of pain and loss;I hear our Lord's beatitudesAnd prayer upon the cross.The wrong that pains my soul belowI dare not throne above:I know not of His hate,—I knowHis goodness and His love.I dimly guess from blessings knownOf greater out of sight,And, with the chastened Psalmist, ownHis judgments too are right.I long for household voices gone,For vanished smiles I long,But God hath led my dear ones on,And He can do no wrong.I know not what the future hathOf marvel or surprise,Assured alone that life and deathHis mercy underlies.And if my heart and flesh are weakTo bear an untried pain,The bruised reed He will not break,But strengthen and sustain.No offering of my own I have,Nor works my faith to prove;I can but give the gifts He gave,And plead His love for love.And so beside the Silent SeaI wait the muffled oar;No harm from Him can come to meOn ocean or on shore.I know not where His islands liftTheir fronded palms in air;I only know I cannot driftBeyond His love and care.O brothers! if my faith is vain,If hopes like these betray,Pray for me that my feet may gainThe sure and safer way.And Thou, O Lord! by whom are seenThy creatures as they be,Forgive me if too close I leanMy human heart on Thee!
Explore The Eternal Goodness
‘The Eternal Goodness’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a religious poem about how the speaker’s faith differs from that of his companions.
The speaker indicates from the first lines that, in some way (that’s elaborated on as the poem progresses), his faith is different from his friends. They all believe in God, but his friends have a different view of God than he does. They are focused on his power while the speaker is entirely consumed by God’s love and protection. He spends much of the poem discussing how he trusts in God’s love and still feels dedicated to him, even when his loved ones are taken away.
Structure and Form
‘The Eternal Goodness’ by John Greenleaf Whittier is a seventeen-stanza poem that is divided into quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple and predictable pattern of ABAB. This is known as an alternate rhyme scheme, one that’s found in poetry from many different generations and around the world. Much of the poem is written in perfect trochees. These are used to structure lines of either eight or six syllables, known as trochaic tetrameter and trochaic trimeter.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: this poem is filled with religious allusions, many of which are complicated to unpack.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words, for example, “logic linked” in line two of stanza two.
- Personification: is seen when the poet’s speaker describes his heart as pleading with him.
Stanzas One and Two
O friends! with whom my feet have trod
The quiet aisles of prayer,
Glad witness to your zeal for God
And love of man I bear.
I trace your lines of argument;
Your logic linked and strong
I weigh as one who dreads dissent,
And fears a doubt as wrong.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker makes it clear that they are addressing a group of “friends.” They tell these people, who they clearly care about, that together they have all walked the path of God. They have a “zeal for God” that the speaker shares and admires. He loves them for it as he loves humankind (something his friends share a love for as well).
The poet goes on to note that the speaker doesn’t like “dissent” and feels that a doubt (presumably about God) is “wrong.” His friends, it seems, never have these doubts, and clearly, this is something else he admires in them.
Stanzas Three and Four
But still my human hands are weak
To hold your iron creeds;
Against the words ye bid me speak
My heart within me pleads.
Who fathoms the Eternal Thought?
Who talks of scheme and plan?
The Lord is God! He needeth not
The poor device of man.
The speaker suggests that he is not perfect. His “human hands are weak,” a metaphor for his soul/morality. It’s hard for him to always conform perfectly to the “creeds” of religion (something his friends seem capable of).
There are times, the speaker notes, that his heart wants him to do something different than what his friends’ support or are telling him to do. There is a curious allusion to “words ye bid me speak” in the third stanza that may indicate something specific (but is not at this point elaborated on). It seems the speaker’s friends want him to commit himself to a specific path or way of belief that he is not ready to adhere to. He has doubts.
Stanzas Five and Six
I walk with bare, hushed feet the ground
Ye tread with boldness shod:
I dare not fix with mete and bound
The love and power of God.
Ye praise His justice; even such
His pitying love I deem
Ye seek a king; I fain would touch
The robe that hath no seam.
The speaker goes on to note that he walks the path of religion differently than his friends do. They “tread with boldness shod,” as though they’ve given up some of their passion and, perhaps, curiosity. He, on the other hand, walks with “bare, hushed feet” that are not confined to a single path (as his friends want to confine “the love and power of God”). They have a certain way of belief that he finds confining.
His friends focus on God’s justice and acts of power, it seems, while the speaker is focused on his “love” and mercy.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Ye see the curse which overbroods
A world of pain and loss;
I hear our Lord’s beatitudes
And prayer upon the cross.
The wrong that pains my soul below
I dare not throne above:
I know not of His hate,—I know
His goodness and His love.
The seventh stanza indicates that the speaker’s friends are more concerned, perhaps, with sin and wrongdoing than they are with love and faith. They see the “curse,” as a reference to humanity’s sinful nature, that “overbroods / A world of pain and loss,” while the speaker sees the Lord’s message of mercy and sacrifice. The speaker sees in God’s love and mercy and knows nothing of “His hate.” Goodness and kindness are the only things he sees when he considers God.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
I dimly guess from blessings known
Of greater out of sight,
And, with the chastened Psalmist, own
His judgments too are right.
I long for household voices gone,
For vanished smiles I long,
But God hath led my dear ones on,
And He can do no wrong.
The speaker takes his faith from what he “dimly” knows, something that he’s very willing to acknowledge. He knows what he knows about God from experience, from sensing his “blessings” that are sometimes out of sight. He feels God always does the right thing, even when that thing is hard. This is elaborated on in the next four lines.
In the tenth stanza, the speaker notes that there are many loved ones he misses. He recalls their voices and their smiles. God took them, and despite the fact that he misses these people, he also knows that God does “no wrong.” This train of thought is continued into the next lines.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed He will not break,
But strengthen and sustain.
The eleventh stanza describes the speaker’s understanding, or lack thereof, of the future or what life has in store. But, when he’s feeling worried about the future, he reminds himself that God’s mercy “underlies” everything. He knows he’s safe in God’s care. The next lines add to his dedication to God, saying that he knows if he does something wrong that God will forgive him, and he’ll redeem himself, only becoming stronger in the process.
Stanzas Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen
No offering of my own I have,
Nor works my faith to prove;
I can but give the gifts He gave,
And plead His love for love.
And so beside the Silent Sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
The poet writes in these next lines that in comparison to God’s love and mercy, he has little to offer. He can be faithful to God and love him, but these things are small when compared to God himself.
He goes on, to reiterate how safe he feels when he considers God’s presence in the world. He’s protected no matter where he is or what he’s doing (“on ocean or on shore”). The speaker may not understand God as well as he could or he may in the future, but he knows there is nowhere he could go that he wouldn’t be beyond God.
Stanzas Sixteen and Seventeen
O brothers! if my faith is vain,
If hopes like these betray,
Pray for me that my feet may gain
The sure and safer way.
And Thou, O Lord! by whom are seen
Thy creatures as they be,
Forgive me if too close I lean
My human heart on Thee!
The final stanzas address the speaker’s friends once more. He indicates again that they have different beliefs, in some not entirely clear way, and that if he is wrong in his beliefs, he hopes that he can find the “sure and safer way.” Finally, he addresses God, asking for his mercy if the speaker leans too heavily on God for support throughout his life.
The tone is accepting and faithful. The speaker’s faith comes through from the first line to the last, as does his attitude toward his friends. He knows they treat faith differently than he, but he doesn’t fee
This is not a commonly-read poem or one that is often cited as an influential religious piece. The poem speaks to themes that many people are interested in though and can likely relate to.
‘The Eternal Goodness’ is a religious poem that’s written in quatrains with an alternate rhyme scheme. The poem uses a metrical pattern that’s commonly associated with ballads: alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
The poem ‘The Eternal Goodness’ is about one person’s faith in God and how they have faith in his “eternal goodness.” It is love and kindness the speaker is far more focused on than God’s power, cruelty, or anything else.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other John Greenleaf Whittier poems. For example:
- ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’ by John Greenleaf Whittier – an optimistic poem on the end of slavery and the future.
Other related poems include:
- ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’ by Elizabeth Jennings – explores religious convictions and faith.
- ‘Savior’ by Maya Angelou – explores the past and present while emphasizing the changes that have occurred since Christ was crucified.