New England’s Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the sentimental and melancholy story of Maud Muller in 1854. The poem, one of his best known, tells of Maud Muller, a beautiful farmer’s daughter, and a judge who happens to meet her one day while he is out riding.
After Maud gives he judge a drink of water, the two have a pleasant chat. As the judge rides off, he ponders how wonderful life could be as a country farmer with Maud Muller as his wife. He imagines his days filled with gentle breezes and the sounds of lowing cattle, not bickering lawyers.
Similarly, as Maud Muller returns to raking hay she considers how pleasant life could be as the judge’s wife, with the comfort of a good income and a charming husband.
Both go on with their lives, marrying unhappily and forever regretting that they didn’t pursue their attraction.
The themes of the poem – regret and class distinctions interfering with the course of true love – made the poem one of Whittier’s most popular and enduring works.
The poems penultimate couplet is familiar even today:
Of all sad words of tongue and pen
The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’
The tale would be adapted for films and songs. The Maud Muller character would appear in paintings and prints, and she was used in advertisements for products as diverse as tobacco and baking powder.
Whittier’s fellow poet Bret Harte even wrote a parody of the poem called Mrs. Judge Jenkins. It was one of many parodies of the story. In Harte’s version, the Judge and Maud Muller actually do marry, and they live unhappily ever after. Harte’s take on the topic of romantic regret:
If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, “It might have been,”
More sad are these we daily see:
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be.”
As who was the real Maud Muller with her lifelong heartache?
Well, she was real but the heartache was purely fabricated. Whittier would explain that he did meet a young farm girl in bare feet raking hay by the road between South Berwick and York, Maine. He and his sister were on a summer outing and stopped their horse by a brook in the shade of an apple tree to rest. They chatted with the lovely girl while they rested.
After that, Whittier let his imagination do the rest. As for the name Maud Muller, it was inspired by that of a Hessian soldier who had deserted and settled in the United States after the American Revolution.