John Greenleaf Whittier

Whittier's Birthplace by Thomas Hill (artist), published by L. Prang & Co. (publisher). Located at the Boston Public Library.

Whittier’s Birthplace by Thomas Hill (artist), published by L. Prang & Co. Located at the Boston Public Library.

John Greenleaf Whittier
a sketch of his life

The loneliness of the homestead in which Whittier was born, on December 17, 1807, has been described by the poet himself and emphasized by his biographers. It is a solitary spot, even today. The farmhouse, built by the poet’s great-great-grandfather in 1688, has been preserved by the affectionate solicitude of the Whittier Homestead Association. After the ravages of fire and of time it has been scrupulously restored. The old-fashioned garden, the lawn sloping to the brook, the very stepping-stones, the bee-hives, the bridle-post, the worn door-stone, the barn across the road, even the surrounding woods of pine and oak, are all, as nearly as may be, precisely what they were a hundred years ago. The shadow of Job’s Hill still darkens the pleasant little stream and the narrow meadows of the homestead. In the dusk of August evenings the deer come out to feed among the alders. The neighborhood remains sparsely settled. No other house is within sight or hearing. Even in summer the rural quiet is scarcely broken, and the winter landscape makes an almost sombre impression of physical seclusion.

The intellectual isolation of the poet’s youth has likewise been impressed upon every reader of “Snow-Bound.” The books in that Quaker farmhouse were few and unattractive. The local newspaper came once a week. The teachers of the district school often knew scarcely more literature than their scholars. In the Friends’ meeting-house at Amesbury, which the Whittiers faithfully attended, there was little of that intellectual stimulus which the sermons of an highly educated clergy then offered to the orthodox. The hour of the New England lyceum — that curiously effective though short-lived popular university — had not yet come. Yet our own generation, bewildered by far too many newspapers, magazines, and books, is apt to forget that a few vitalizing ideas may more than make good the lack of printed matter. Whittier, who was to become the poet of Freedom, felt even in boy-hood, in that secluded valley of the Merrimac, the pulse of the great European movement of emancipation which has transformed, and is still transforming, our modern world. “My father,” he wrote afterwards, “was an old-fashioned Democrat, and really believed in the Preamble of the Bill of Rights which reaffirmed the Declaration of Independence.” In his poem “Democracy” he reasserts his own and his father’s faith : —

M Oh, ideal of my boyhood’s time!

The faith in which my father stood,
Even when the sons of Lust and Crime

Had stained thy peaceful courts with blood!”

Not even the terrors of the French Revolution,
it seems, could shake the silent John Whittier’s
steadfast belief in the natural rights of man.
He entertained in the old farmhouse William
Forster, the distinguished British advocate of
abolition. He transmitted to his boys a hatred
of “priests and kings” which befitted the de-
scendants of forbears who had felt the weight
of the displeasure of the Puritan theocracy.
Not that the Whittiers were agitators: they
were taciturn, self-respecting landholders, who
— in the phrase which a famous American
[ 5 ]


poet, also of Quaker stock, afterward applied
to himself — wore their hats as they pleased,
indoors and out. But the Whittiers were so
used to quiet independence that it never oc-
curred to them to brag of it.

This moral freedom of the New England
Quakers, touched as it was with the humani-
tarian passion of the later eighteenth century,
was the poet’s spiritual heritage. Judged by
material standards, his lot was one of hard-
ship. The Whittier farm was both rocky and
swampy. Only the most stubborn toil could
wring from it a livelihood. In the harsh labor
of the farm the two boys helped as best they
could, but John Greenleaf was slender and
delicate, and suffered life-long injury by at-
tempting tasks beyond his strength. The win-
ters were like iron; underclothing w r as almost
unknown ; the houses were poorly warmed
and the churches not at all; and the food,
in farmers’ homes, lacked variety and was ill-
cooked. Though the poet’s body never recov-
ered from these privations of his youth, the
sufferings grew light when, in middle and later
life, he weighed them against the happiness
[ « ]


of home affection and the endless pleasures
of a boy’s life out of doors. “The Barefoot
Boy,” “Snow-Bound,” and “In School-Days”
tell the story more charmingly and with more
truth than it can ever be told in prose. Few
households are better known to American
readers than the inmates of the ancient home-
stead under Job’s Hill. In the “Flemish pic-
tures” of the gifted son we behold the reticent,
laborious father, the benignant mother, —
like Goethe’s mother, a natural story-teller,
— the gracious maiden aunt, the uncle with
his “prodigies of rod and gun,” the grave
elder sister, and the brilliant Elizabeth. These,
with the boyish schoolmaster and the “half-
welcome” casual guest, are still grouped for
us before the great hearth in the ample living-
room, waiting

“Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom —

a bloom that never fades from the memory
of the born New Englander. Indeed, such was
Whittier’s fidelity to the impressions made
upon him in his youth, so unerring was his
instinct for what was truly characteristic of the
[ 7 ]


time and place, that these poems written about
his boyhood portray, with a vividness rarely
equalled in our literature, not only a mode of
outward life, but a type of thought and feeling
which possesses a permanent significance to all
who would understand the American mind.

It was easier for Whittier, after all, to pic-
ture the East Haverhill homestead and its
other inmates than to draw the portrait of
himself in youth. We know that he was tall,
frail, clear-colored, with those wonderful dark
“Bachiler eyes” which now prove not to have
been true Bachiler eyes at all. He was shy, —
with a painful shyness which lasted throughout
his life, — but he was prouder than a cavalier.
Consciousness of intellectual power came to
him early; behind him was a long line of clean-
lived farmers whose lips, although “to caution
trained” by Quaker breeding, could speak
decisively when there was need. Poverty had
taught him that respect and sympathy for the
poor which is one of the noblest forms of class-
pride. It would have been hard to find in all
New England a country boy whose mind was
so perfectly prepared for the visitation of a
[ 8 ]


master-poet; and the poet, by some special
gift of fortune, proved to be Robert Burns.

The story of that revealing experience is
familiar enough: how a “pawky” wandering
Scotchman sang “Bonny Doon” and “High-
land Mary” and “Auld Lang Syne” over his
mug of cider in the Whittier kitchen ; and then
how Joshua Coffin, the boy’s first schoolmaster,
loaned him that copy of Burns which proved
to be his passport to the wonder- world : —

“I saw through all familiar things
The romance underlying;
The joys and griefs that plume the wings
Of Fancy skyward flying.”

He had already scribbled verses upon the
beam of his mother’s loom, and like the boy
Alfred Tennyson, only two years younger than
himself, in the far-away Lincolnshire rectory,
he had loved to fill his slate with rhymes. But
from the moment that he read Burns this boy-
ish delight in mere jingling sounds deepened
into a sense that he, too, might become a poet.
At sixteen he was composing with extraordi-
nary fluency and with considerable skill. At
eighteen he had written verses which his sister
[ » ]


Mary thought good enough to be printed, and
a poem which she sent surreptitiously to
William Lloyd Garrison, the twenty-year-old
editor of the “Newburyport Free Press,” was
accepted and published on June 8, 1826. This
printing of “The Exile’s Departure” in the
poet’s corner of a struggling local newspaper
was a fateful event for Whittier. Everybody
knows the instant and generous interest
aroused in the youthful editor: how he drove
out to East Haverhill, unearthed his bashful
poet, — who was at that moment crawling
under the barn after a stolen hen’s nest, — and
urged his father to give Greenleaf something
better than a district schooling. “Sir, poetry
will not give him bread!” exclaimed John
Whittier, as sternly as Carlyle’s father might
have said it. But the upshot was that the gaunt
lad got his term at the Haverhill Academy,
paying his way by making shoes.

He continued to write poems in astonishing
profusion, taught school himself for a term
in his native township, then took a final term
at the Academy, and at twenty-one the ways
were parting before his feet. A scheme for the
[ 10 ]


publication of his poems by subscription had
failed. His health seemed too frail for effect-
ive farm labor. His ignorance of the classics,
as well as his lack of funds, barred the doors
of a college course. He decided to earn his
bread by journalism, and became at the end
of his twenty-first year the editor of “The
American Manufacturer” in Boston. The
choice was significant. For three years he
had been heralded as an unlettered ‘ 6 poet,”
a sort of local phenomenon who was possibly
destined, as Garrison had prophesied, to rank
“among the bards of his country.” Yet here
he was, turning, with a Yankee’s shrewd facil-
ity, to politics and affairs.

He was led, no doubt, — as in the more
momentous crisis of 1833, when he obeyed
Garrison’s call and turned Abolitionist, — by
an instinct deeper than any conscious analysis
of his powers. He knew that he had what
he called a “knack of rhyming,” and he had
learned from Burns to find material for poetry
all about him. Yet he possessed at this time
but a scanty equipment for the long road
which a poet must travel. His physical endow-
[ 11 ]


ment was impoverished. That full-blooded
life of the senses, which taught Burns and
Goethe at fourteen such secrets of human rap-
ture and dismay, was impossible for the
Quaker stripling. He was color-blind. His ear
barely recognized a tune. The bodily sensa-
tions of odor, taste, and touch are scarcely to
be felt in his poetry. He was indeed “no
Greek,” as Whitman said of him long after-
ward; and at the outset of his career, as at its
close, he cared but little for literature as an art.
To conceive of any of the arts as a religion, or
as an embodiment, for sense perception, of the
highest potencies of the human spirit, would
have seemed almost blasphemous to this fol-
lower of the “inward light.” He wrote to Lucy
Hooper that a long poem, “unless consecrated
to the sacred interests of religion and humanity,
would be a criminal waste of life.” Parthenon
and Pantheon were in his eyes less significant
and memorable than Pennsylvania Hall, the
Abolitionist headquarters in Philadelphia. In
an editorial in “The Freeman” in 1838, pre-
facing a reprint of “A Psalm of Life,” which
had just been published in the New York
[ 12 ]


“Knickerbocker,” Whittier declared: “It is
very seldom that we find an article of poetry
so full of excellent philosophy and common
sense as the following. We know not who
the author may be, but he or she is no common
man or woman. These nine simple verses are
worth more than all the dreams of Shelley, and
Keats, and Wordsworth. They are alive and
vigorous with the spirit of the day in which we
live — the moral steam enginery of an age of

One who could utter this amazing verdict
upon the “Psalm of Life” certainly seems less
fitted for poetry than for journalism and poli-
tics : and indeed Whittier’s aptitude for affairs,
even at twenty-one, was extraordinary. His
political editorials for the “Manufacturer” —
a Clay journal which advocated a protective
tariff — were skilfully written from the first.
Subsequent editorial engagements in Haver-
hill, Hartford, and Philadelphia, although ren-
dered brief by his wretched health, neverthe-
less widened his acquaintance and increased
his self-confidence. His judgment was canny.
His knowledge of local conditions, at first in
[ 13 ]


his native town and county, and afterward
throughout New England and the Eastern
States, was singularly exact. He seemed to
perceive, as by some actual visualization, how
people were thinking and feeling in Massa-
chusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and other
communities which he had observed at first
hand; and he employed a correspondingly
accurate and as it were topographical imagina-
tion when he wrote of affairs in Kansas, Paris,
or Italy.

Men were never abstractions to him. They
were concrete persons, with ambitions to be
tempted, generosities to be wakened, weak-
nesses to be utilized. His own county of Essex
was then, as now, noted for the adroitness of its
politicians, but at twenty-five John Greenleaf
Whittier could beat the best of them at their
own game. He was tireless in personal persua-
sion, in secret correspondence, in fighting fire
with fire. He read Burke, and was prompt to
apply Burke’s principle: “When bad men com-
bine, the good should associate.” A Whig him-
self until the formation of the Liberty party, he
was willing, as his friend Garrison was not, to
[ 14 ]


compromise on non-essentials for the sake of
bringing things to pass. The hand of a master
is revealed in his published letters to Caleb
Cushing and to Henry Clay. It was he who
devised the coalitions which sent Cushing, the
Whig, and Rantoul, the Democrat, to Con-
gress, which made Bout well governor of Massa-
chusetts and sent Sumner to the United States
Senate. When Sumner was struck down in the
Senate chamber and his indignant constituents
held mass meetings to voice their horror, Whit-
tier was self -controlled enough to declare: “It
seems to me to be no time for the indulgence of
mere emotions. . . . The North is not united
for freedom as the South is for slavery. . . .
We must forget, forgive, and unite.” No ut-
terance could be more characteristic of the
man. In public affairs he knew what he
wanted to compass, and he was as willing to
lobby or to trade votes as to write an editorial
or a lyric, provided the good cause could be
thereby made to prosper. Extremists thought
that he yielded to considerations of mere ex-
pediency; but his was rather the versatility of
the born political fighter, who can use more
[ 15 ]


weapons than one. Underneath all questions of
policy, lay his inherited democratic sympathy
with the ordinary man. At the height of his fame
he loved to sit upon a cracker barrel in the gro-
cery store at Amesbury, and talk politics. “I
am a man” he wrote to his biographer Under-
wood in 1883, “and not a mere verse-maker.”

This glimpse at the later revelations of his
character is essential to an understanding of
the spiritual crisis which confronted him in
1833, when he was only twenty-six. He loved
power, and had already exercised it in the con-
genial field of politics. The road to preferment
lay that way. It is true that he had continued
to compose abundantly, both in prose and in
verse. His writings were favorably noticed.
Yet he saw no career for himself as a man of
letters. “I have done with poetry and litera-
ture,” he wrote to a friend in 1832. Repeated
disappointments in love had darkened his
spirit. The death of his father had forced him
back to the old farm to support his mother and
yj sisters. Black care sat very close behind him.
Discouraged, lonely, with ambitions ungrati-
fied and great powers of which he was but half
[ 16 ]


aware, he paused, like some knight who had
lost his way in an enchanted forest. Then
blew the clear unmistakable trumpet call which
broke the spell and summoned him to action.
Although an anti-slavery man by native in-
stinct, Whittier had never given his adherence
to the sect of Abolitionists. Now came a letter
from Garrison (March 22, 1833): “My bro-
ther, there are upwards of two million of our
countrymen who are doomed to the most hor-
rible servitude which ever cursed our race and
blackened the page of history. There are one
hundred thousand of their offspring kidnapped
annually from their birth. The southern por-
tion of our country is going down to destruc-
tion, physically and morally, with a swift
descent, carrying other portions with her.
This, then, is a time for the philanthropist —
any friend of his country, to put forth his ener-
gies, in order to let the oppressed go free, and
sustain the republic. The cause is worthy of
Gabriel — yea, the God of hosts places him-
self at its head. Whittier, enlist! Your
talents, zeal, influence — all are needed.” 1

1 Carpenter’s Whittier, p. 118.
[ 17 ]


The spirit of Burns, years before, had whis-
pered to the boy that he, too, had the poet-soul,
yet facile versifying was all that had seemed to
come of it, and the young man had turned
to politics. Now the living voice of Garrison
called him away from partisan ambitions to
enlist in a doubtful and perilous measure of
moral reform. He obeyed, and — ^so strange
are the mysteries of personality — found in that
new service to humanity not only the inspira-
tion which made him a genuine poet, but the
popular recognition which set the seal upon his

The immediate cost of obedience to his con-
science was heavy. The generation of Ameri-
cans born since the Civil War look back upon
the Abolitionists as victors after thirty years
of agitation, as the dictators of national policy.
Their statues are in public places. Their the-
ories have prevailed. But in the early thirties
they suffered such ostracism and even martyr-
dom as only a few historical students now
realize. Churches, colleges, and courts were
against them, for reasons which were adequate
enough. They were dangerous members of
[ 18 ]


society. To-day we endeavor to exclude
Anarchists from American soil; the leading
Abolitionists, like the Russian Revolutionists
of the present hour, preached Anarchy in the
name of Humanity. ^^Vhittier, trained to quiet-
ism, non-resistance, and respect for law, and
skilled as he had become in feeling the pulse
of public opinion, knew perfectly well what
company he was henceforth to keep. To be an
active Abolitionist was to join the outcasts.

His first act of allegiance was to write and
publish at his own expense a pamphlet entitled
” Justice and Expediency,” which pleaded for
immediate emancipation by peaceful means.
In December, 1833, he was a delegate from
Massachusetts at the founding in Philadelphia
of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Whit-
tier was the youngest member. Thirty years
later he wrote to Garrison, who had been his
companion upon that memorable journey:
“I am not insensible to literary reputation. I
love, perhaps too well, the praise and good-will
of my fellow-men; but I set a higher value on
my name as appended to the Anti-Slavery
Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of
[ 19 ]


any book.” No words could better illustrate
his devotion to the cause of the slave. Yet he
did not surrender his right of private judgment
as to the best means to be employed. Garrison
lost patience, ere long, with Whittier’s willing-
ness to further the cause by compromise and
concession, and the friends parted, to come
together again in later years. The movement
for emancipation needed both men and both
methods ; but Whittier’s method — less heroic
than Garrison’s, less intolerant than Sumner’s,
less virulent than that of Wendell Phillips —
was like Abraham Lincoln’s in its patience,
shrewdness, and sympathy.

Whittier faced hostile mobs with perfect
courage, and with a touch of the humor which
is rarely revealed in his writings. WTien the
Philadelphia rioters looted and burned Penn-
sylvania Hall, he disguised himself in a wig
and long white overcoat, mingled with the
mob, and saved his own editorial papers. He
brought not only courage and finesse, but
high journalistic skill, to the service of the
Abolitionists. His pamphlets, his editorials
in the “Freeman,” “Middlesex Standard,”
[ 20 ]


“National Era,” and other newspapers, were
trenchant, caustic, and far-sighted. Invalidism
and the care of his mother’s family kept him
almost constantly at Amesbury, whither he
had removed after the sale of his birthplace
in 1836. VBut Whittier’s was no home-keeping
mind, and there is scarcely a political event of
importance, either in this country or abroad,
which is not reflected in his prose and verse
produced during the thirty years ending with
the close of the Civil War.

Yet his chief function during the long anti-
slavery struggle was that of chartered poet
to the cause. No sooner had he abandoned
his dream of personal advancement than the
Byronic melancholy, the weak imitations of
Scott, and the echoes of Mrs. Felicia Hemans
disappear from his verse. He was studying the
prose of Milton and Burke, those organ-voices
of English liberty. From Burns and Byron he
now caught only the passion for justice and the
common rights of all. He forgot himself. He
forgot, for the time being, those pleasant themes
of New England legend and history, which
earlier and later touched his meditative fancy.
[ 21 ]


‘The cause of negro emancipation in America
— to his mind only one phase of the struggle
for a wider human freedom everywhere —
stirred and deepened his whole nature. There
is scarcely a type of political and social verse
which is not represented in his work during
this period. He wrote personal lyrics in praise
of living leaders, and mournful salutes to the
dead; hymns to be sung in churches, and cam-
paign songs for the town hall. The touch-
ing lines to “Randolph of Roanoke” are a
knightly tribute to an opponent. The generous
and noble “Lost Occasion” was written after
Webster’s death to supplement, rather than to
retract, the terrific “Ichabod” addressed to
Webster after his defence of the Fugitive Slave
Law. Not since Burns had any poet dared
pillory the clergy in such derisive and indig-
nant strains as marked ” Clerical Oppressors,”
“The Pastoral Letter,” and “A Sabbath
Scene.” The selfishness of commercialism,
and its “paltry pedler cries” which exalt
“banks” and “tariffs” above the man, have
never been arraigned more powerfully than
in “The Pine-Tree” and “Moloch in State
[ 22 ]


Street.” Such poems are class and party verse
of the purest type.

Whittier’s direct contact with the soil and
his intense interest in localities made him
also an unequalled interpreter of sectional
feeling. “Massachusetts to Virginia” is per-
haps the finest example of this sort of politi-
cal verse, but he wrote many similar poems
hardly less striking ; and such was the flexi-
bility of Whittier’s imagination when inspired
by the common cause that he expressed not
only the mood of the New England but also
of the Middle States, and of that “Wild
West,” as he called it, which was so soon
to combine with his “roused North.” Much
of this political poetry was, in the nature
of the case, only a sort of rhymed oratory,
scarcely differing, save in rhetorical and metri-
cal structure, from the speeches of Beecher
and Wendell Phillips. Sometimes it was
rhymed journalism, of the kind which Greeley
was using in his sturdy iterative editorials.
Much of it, no doubt, has already met the
oblivion which attends most pamphlets or
stanzas “for the times.” Harshness of tone,
I 23 ]


over-severity in judgment of men and mea-
sures, diffuseness of style, a faulty ear for
rhymes, are frequently in evidence. Yet these
blemishes scarcely affected the immediate
value of Whittier’s verse for controversial pur-
poses. Its faults of taste and form were rightly
forgotten in its communicative energy of emo-
tion, its lambent scorn of evil things, its
prophet-like exaltation. Long before armed
conflict ended the debate, Whittier’s poetry
had won the attention not only of his section,
but of the entire North, and as the conflict
proceeded his verse sounded more and more
clearly that national note which had been the
burden of the great and maligned Webster’s
speeches for union. Only now it was to be a
union redeemed. We must be “first pure, then
peaceable,” the Quaker poet had maintained,
and the fine close of his ballad “Barbara Friet-
chie,” like his “Laus Deo” which “sang itself”
in church while the bells were ringing to cele-
brate the passing of slavery, is echoed to-day
in the hearts of true Americans everywhere.

To study the chronological order of his
poems from “The Exile’s Departure,” written
[ 24 ]


in 1825, to ” Snow-Bound,” written just forty
years later, is to watch the steady broadening
and clarifying of Whittier’s spirit. He found
in the community of emotion wrought by a
moral and political crisis the secret of com-
mand over his own nature and over the modes
of poetic expression. By 1840 the worst hour
of persecution for the Abolitionists was already
past. There were no more mobs for Whittier
to face. He remained, for the most part,
quietly at Amesbury. In 1845 he began to
contribute the spirited “Songs of Labor” to
the “Democratic Review,” thus antedating
Whitman by ten years in celebrating the
American workingman. By 1847, in the
“Proem” written to introduce the first general
collection of his poems, he has already learned
to regard himself as a singer whose nature
inclined him to the “old melodious lays” of
Spenser and Sidney, although his lot had
fallen in stormy times : —

“The rigor of a frozen clime,
The harshness of an untaught ear,

The jarring words of one whose rhyme
Beat often Labor’s hurried time,
Or Duty’s rugged march through storm and strife, are here.”
[ 25 ]


He does not regret his choice, but there is
some yearning over the lost Arcady. In the
enforced leisure of his frequent invalidism
Whittier read very widely, and legend and
dreamy fancy alternate in his verse with
satirical invective and eloquent humanitarian-
ism. The tragic “Ichabod” and the mordant
irony of “A Sabbath Scene” are followed by
the charming lines “To My Old Schoolmas-
ter.” The poem on Burns, so fresh with “the
dews of boyhood’s morning,” and the ballad
of “Maud Muller,” where the pathos of our
human “might have been” is expressed with
such artless adequacy, date from the thrilling
year of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. The Kansas
emigrants were actually singing

“We cross the prairie as of old
The Pilgrims crossed the sea”

while Whittier was writing “The Barefoot
Boy” in 1855. The “Burial of Barber” is suc-
ceeded by “Mary Garvin.” After the storm,
come the bird voices.

When “The Atlantic Monthly” was founded
in 1857, Whittier contributed to its early num-
bers, not his timely and impassioned “Moloch
[ 26 ]


in State Street” and “Le Marais du Cygne,”
but rather “The Gift of Tritemius,” “Skipper
Ireson’s Ride,” and “Telling the Bees.” In
other words, it was as a man of letters and
not as a controversialist that he joined this
distinguished company of fellow contributors.
Whittier was just turning fifty, in that year.
The hair was thin above his noticeably high
forehead ; his face and figure spare as in
youth; his deep-set dark eyes still aglow; the
lips clean-shaven, nervous, resolute. Like
many another invalid, he was destined to long
life, but of the thirty-five years remaining
to him, the succeeding ten were the most
fruitful. Aside from those poems, already
mentioned, inspired by the course and outcome
of the War for the Union, his most character-
istic productions during this decade are sug-
gested by such titles as “My Psalm,” “My
Playmate,” “The River Path,” “Cobbler
Keezar’s Vision,” “Mountain Pictures,” “An-
drew Rykman’s Prayer,” and “The Eternal
Goodness.” These are grave, sweet, quiet
poems, devout and consolatory.

Whittier ‘s mother died in 1857, and his
[ 27 ]


favorite sister, the gifted Elizabeth, in 1864,
thus leaving the Amesbury house desolate.
The poet’s memories of his birthplace, only
six miles away, but now in other hands, grew
increasingly tender in his new loneliness, and
he set himself to sketch, in an idyl longer
than it was his wont to write, the scenes and
persons dearest to his boyhood. “A homely
picture of old New England homes,” he called
it in a note to Fields, his friendly publisher.
The poem was “Snow-Bound,” and it proved
at once to be what it has since remained, the
most popular of his productions; notable, not
so much for sensuous beauty or for any fresh
range of thought, as for its vividness, its fidel-
ity of homely detail, its unerring feeling for
the sentiment of the hearthside.

The surprising profits of “Snow-Bound”
made Whittier — to whom, as he himself said,
the doors of magazines and publishing houses
had been shut for twenty years of his life —
a well-to-do man henceforward. He never
married. But he prided himself upon never
losing a friend, and many homes were gra-
ciously offered to him in his old age. After
[ 28 ]


the marriage of his niece in 1876, he became
for a large part of each year the guest of his
cousins at Oak Knoll, Dan vers. In this stately
and beautiful home, and in many friendly
houses in Boston, he met frequently some of
the best men and women of his time. His rela-
tions with the chief American authors of his
day were cordial, although scarcely intimate.
Most of them gathered in honor of his seven-
tieth birthday at a dinner given by the pub-
lishers of “The Atlantic,” and the subsequent
anniversaries of his birth were very generally
noticed. But his life was essentially a solitary
one. Professor Carpenter has noted in his
admirable study of Whittier that his most
familiar acquaintances and correspondents, in
his later life, were women. “In old age his was
the point of view, the theory of life, of the
woman of gentle tastes, literary interests, and
religious feeling. The best accounts of his
later life are those of Mrs. Claflin and Mrs.
Fields, in whose houses he was often a guest;
and they have much to say of his sincere friend-
liness and quiet talk, his shy avoidance of
notoriety or even of a large group of people,
[ 29 ]


his keen sense of humor, his tales of his youth,
his quaintly serious comments on life, his sud-
den comings and goings as inclination moved,
and of the rare occasions when, deeply moved,
he spoke of the great issues of religion with
beautiful earnestness and simple faith. And
it is pleasant to think of this farmer’s lad, who
had lived for forty years in all but poverty for
the love of God and his fellows, taking an
innocent delight in the luxury of great houses
and in the sheltered life of those protected
from hardship and privation. After his long
warfare this was a just reward.” 1

After the publication of “Snow-Bound” in
1866, Whittier composed nearly two hundred
poems. They celebrate some of his friend-
ships, and indicate the variety of his reading
and his interest in progress both in this coun-
try and in Europe. They describe, with loving
accuracy, the mountains, streams, and shore
of New Hampshire, where he usually made
his summer pilgrimages. But few of these later
poems, pleasant reading as they are, affect
materially one’s estimate of Whittier’s poetic

1 Carpenter’s Whittier, p. 287.
[ 30 ]


powers. His real work was done. Here and
there, and notably in the idyl “The Pennsyl-
vania Pilgrim,” there is a grace and ripeness
which indicate the Indian Summer of his art,
with lovely lines written for the “wise angels”
rather than for discordant men. One thinks
with a sigh of his description of himself in “The
Tent on the Beach”: —

“And one there was, a dreamer born,
Who, with a mission to fulfil,
Had left the Muses’ haunts to turn
The crank of an opinion-mill.”

But regrets that he could not have lingered
in dream-land are doubly futile; for it was the
opinion-mill, after all, that made Whittier a
poet. Life taught him deeper secrets than
bookish ease could ever have imparted. “The
simple fact is,” he wrote to E. L. Godkin,
“that I cannot be sufficiently grateful to the
Divine Providence that so early called my at-
tention to the great interests of humanity,
saving me from the poor ambitions and miser-
able jealousies of a selfish pursuit of literary
reputation.” These words might have been
written by one of the saints, and such, in
[ 31 ]


very truth, was Whittier. Poverty, chastity, and
obedience were his portion in this life. By the
road of renunciation he entered into his spirit-
ual kingdom.

He was not one of the royally endowed, far-
shining, “myriad-minded” poets. He was rus-
tic, provincial ; a man of his place and time in
America. It is doubtful if European readers
will ever find him richly suggestive, as they
have found Emerson, Poe, and Whitman. But
he had a tenacious hold upon certain realities :
first, upon the soil of New England, of whose
history and legend he became such a sympa-
thetic interpreter; next, upon “the good old
cause” of freedom, not only in his own coun-
try but in all places where the age-long and
still but half-won battle was being waged ; and
finally, upon some permanent objects of hu-
man emotion, — the hill-top, shore and sky,
the fireside, the troubled heart that seeks rest
in God. Whittier’s poetry has revealed to
countless readers the patient continuity of hu-
man life, its fundamental unity, and the ulti-
mate peace that hushes its discords. The utter
simplicity of his Quaker’s creed has helped
[ 32 ]


him to interpret the religious mood of a gen-
eration which has grown impatient of formal
doctrine. His hymns are sung by almost every
body of Christians, the world over. It is un-
likely that the plain old man who passed
quietly away in a New Hampshire village on
September 7, 1892, aged eighty-five, will ever
be reckoned one of the world-poets. But he
was, in the best sense of the word, a world’s-
man in heart and in action, a sincere and noble
soul who hated whatever was evil and helped
to make the good prevail; and his verse, fiery
and tender and unfeigned, will long be cher-
ished by his countrymen.

John Greenleaf Whittier; a sketch of his life
by Bliss Perry, 1907 by Houghton Mifflin and Company