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Chapter 8: personal qualities

That acute, if not always impartial, observer, Mr. George W. Smalley, says of the most famous of modern English Quakers, John Bright, “There was no courtlier person than this Quaker, none whose manners were more perfect. ... If there had been no standard of good manners, he would have created one. . . . Swift said, ‘Whosoever makes the fewest persons uneasy is the best-bred man in the company.’ ” London letters, I. 124.

Tried by this last standard, at least, Whittier was unsurpassed; and living in America, where artificial standards are at least secondary, he never found himself misplaced. The relation between himself and others rested wholly on real grounds, and could be more easily computed. Personally I met him first in 1843, when the excitement of the “Latimer case” still echoed through Massachusetts, and the younger abolitionists, of whom I was one, were full of the joy of eventful living. I was then nineteen, and saw the poet for the first time at an eating-house known as Campbell's, and then quite a resort for reformers of all sorts, and incidentally of economical college students. Some one near me said, “There is Whittier.” I saw before me a man of striking personal appearance; tall, slender, with olive complexion, black hair, straight, [95] black eyebrows, brilliant eyes and an Oriental, Semitic cast of countenance. This was Whittier at thirty-five. Appetite vanished, and I resolved to speak to him, then or never. I watched till he rose from the table; and then advancing, said with boyish enthusiasm and, I doubt not, with boyish awkwardness also, “I should like to shake hands with the author of Massachusetts to Virginia.” The poet, who was then, as always, one of the shyest of men, looked up as if frightened, then broke into a kindly smile, and said briefly, “Thy name, friend?” I gave it, we shook hands, and that was all; but to me it was like touching a hero's shield; and though I have since learned to count the friendship of Whittier as one of the great privileges of my life, yet nothing has ever displaced the recollection of that first boyish interview.

In comparing his whole life with that of his early friend Garrison, one must observe the fact that, while there was but a slight difference in their ages, Garrison was at first the leader, Whittier the follower. On the other hand, we notice that differences of temperament soon showed themselves and told both upon their careers and their memories. Partly as a result of this, each had a certain advantage with a later generation. Whittier, for instance, was childless; while Garrison left behind him a family of children to carry on his unfinished work, to write his memoirs and to do honour to his name by their inheritance of his qualities. It is difficult, however, to read those very memoirs without seeing that Garrison encountered in life some drawbacks which grew out of his own temperament, that he ceased in some cases to hold the warm friendships he had made, and lost the alliance of [96] many of his early supporters; while Whittier during his whole life rarely lost a friend. That was true of him in life which Mr. Wendell has keenly said of him since his death, that “though a lifelong and earnest reformer, he is the least irritating of reformers to those who chance not to agree with him.” 1 Garrison, again, had the experience, almost unique among reformers, of triumphing, as it were, in spite of himself and by ways which ran precisely counter to his own immediate methods and even predictions. A non-resistant, he saw his ends effected by war; a disunionist, he lived to join in the chorus of triumph over the reestablishment of the American Union. Step by step, Whittier saw his own political opinions established; while Garrison lived to be content in seeing his specific counsels set aside and his aims accomplished by other methods than his own.

One of the most permanent qualities always to be relied upon in Whittier was his generosity in all matters of money, a thing peculiarly valuable in one who had learned in early life, by privation, to count his dollars very carefully. The following note to me, in regard to helping a young authoress, who had planned to go to her father, then in England, will well illustrate this. The note came undated, but was received in July, 1870.

My Dear H , I quite agree with thee as regards our friend — and wd. be glad to help her. I have reserved the sum of $50 for her when she needs it to go to England; but if she requires it now especially, I shall be happy to forward it at once, either to her or to thee, in which case thee can say that thee have rec'd that sum of me for her [97] benefit, which will leave her but $50 to repay [she being then $100 in debt].

I got thy note as regards Boutwell [some political matter] yesterday, and shall write as thee suggest. I wish I could only straighten things out, in this snarl of a world. God help us! We can do but little, but that little shall not be withheld on our part.

Always truly thy frd. John G. Whittier.
[P. S.] Advise me whether to send the money to her or to thee.

The very letter enclosing the money suggested also another object of interest, in a similar direction.

Some years later, on the marriage of the first young lady, this gift was duplicated, as seen by the following note — having the same combination, as before, of philanthropy and politics:--

Oak Knoll, Danvers, 3d mo., 26, 1878.
My Dear Higginson,--Thanks for thy letter. I have mislaid —'s address. . . . Will thee drop me a postal to tell me? I will send her $50 as a wedding gift, as thee suggest. I am glad she is soon to escape from her desk drudgery.

Thine always, J. G. W.
If there is a change in the Cabinet I hope Evarts will go. He may be a lawyer — he seems to be nothing else. He has about as much magnetism as one of Dexter's wooden images. Washburn, late minister to France, would do well in the Cabinet, I think.

This was in early life, but after the sales of his poems became lucrative his income was large in proportion to his needs,--his personal expenditures increasing but slightly,--and he was, as his friends knew, most generous in giving. In this he was stimulated [98] perhaps by the extraordinary example of his old friend, Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, whose letters he edited, and who used to deny herself many of the common comforts of advancing years in order that she might give to the works which interested her; yet Whittier was distinctly treading a similar path when he subscribed regularly and largely to General Armstrong's great enterprise for the instruction of the blacks and Indians at Hampton; and apart from this he was writing such letters as the following, all the time--

Amesbury, 16th, 7th mo., 1870.
Dear Higginson,--Enclosed find cheque for Fifty Dollars, $50. [This was for a person known to both of us.]

I see by the Transcript that Phebe Cary lies very ill in Newport — dangerously, even. I do not know her address. I wish thee wd. find out, & call, & enquire about her, & leave her a message from me of love and sympathy, if she is in a condition to receive it. Poor girl! she gave herself to the care of her sister too unreservedly.

Always & truly thy fd

John G. Whittier.

The following is the account given of his kindness to a man, who described it anonymously in the Literary World for December 1877:--

When I was a young man trying to get an education, I went about the country peddling sewing silk to help myself through college, and one Saturday night found me at Amesbury, a stranger and without a lodging-place. It happened that the first house at which I called was Whittier's, and he himself came to the door. On hearing my request, he said he was very sorry that he could not keep me, but it was Quarterly Meeting, and his house was full. He, however, [99] took the trouble to show me to a neighbour's, where he left me; but that did not seem to wholly suit his ideas of hospitality, for in the course of the evening he made his appearance, saying that it had occurred to him that he could sleep on a lounge, and give up his own bed to me,--which it is, perhaps, needless to say, was not allowed. But this was not all. The next morning he came again, with the suggestion that I might perhaps like to attend meeting, inviting me to go with him; and he gave me a seat next to himself. The meeting lasted an hour, during which there was not a word spoken by any one. We all sat in silence that length of time, then all arose, shook hands, and dispersed; and I remember it as one of the best meetings I ever attended.

Kennedy's Whittier, pp. 167-68.

No one came nearer to Whittier in all good deeds or in private intimacy than the late Mrs. Mary B. Claflin, well known in Boston and Washington, in both of which cities she exercised profuse hospitality, during the public life of her husband, the Hon. William Claflin. No book yields such a store of private anecdotes about Whittier as her little work, “Personal Recollections of John G. Whittier.” Mrs. Claflin quotes one adviser, who said “I would rather give a man or woman on the verge of a great moral lapse a marked copy of Whittier than any other book in our language.” She goes on to describe a young and oversensitive college girl, overcome with the strain of her new life, who went to the president, and said, “It is of no use, I cannot go on, my life is a failure; I must leave college and go home.” The tactful president replied, “Go to the library and take Whittier's poems, sit down by your window and read ‘The Grave by the Lake,’ then come and I will talk with you.” The young girl came back in an hour with a changed [100] countenance. She said, “I will overcome the obstacles, I will go on with my college course. I believe, after reading Whittier, that life is worth the effort.”

Mrs. Claflin adds another instance of a woman in prison, utterly wild with rage and excitement, who was wholly quieted by being persuaded to sit down and read Whittier's poem on “The eternal Goodness.”

These were Whittier's relations with those poorer or humbler than himself. He never visited princes, and so was not tested much in that direction, but I remember an occasion when an emperor once visited him. While Dom Pedro II., formerly emperor of Brazil, was in the United States in 1876, I had the pleasure of meeting him at George Bancroft's house in Newport, R. I., and remember well the desire that he expressed to see Whittier, and the comparative indifference with which he received our conversation on all other subjects. He had, it seems, translated Whittier's “Cry of a lost soul” into Portuguese. When, on June 14, they met at the Radical Club, at Rev. J. T. Sargent's, on Chestnut Street, the interview was thus described in Mrs. Sargent's record of the club:--

When the emperor arrived, the other guests had already assembled. Sending up his card, his Majesty followed it with the quickness of an enthusiastic schoolboy; and his first question, after somewhat hastily paying his greetings, was for Mr. Whittier. The poet stepped forward to meet his imperial admirer, who would fain have caught him in his arms and embraced him warmly, with all the enthusiasm of the Latin race. The diffident Friend seemed somewhat abashed at so demonstrative a greeting, but with a [101] cordial grasp of the hand drew Dom Pedro to the sofa, where the two chatted easily and with the familiarity of old friends.

The rest of the company allowed them to enjoy their tete-à--tete for some half-hour, when they ventured to interrupt it, and the emperor joined very heartily in a general conversation.

As the emperor was driving away, he was seen standing erect in his open barouche, and ‘waving his hat, with a seeming hurrah, at the house which held his venerable friend.’

Mrs. Sargent's Sketches and Reminiscences of the Radical Club, pp. 301-02.

Mrs. Claflin tells us that Whittier, when her guest in his later life, received many letters — sometimes fifty--by the morning's mail, and describes one occasion where he lingered over a letter with a look of deep sympathy, and added “Such letters greatly humiliate me.” It came from a lonely woman on a remote farm among the hills of New Hampshire, who aimed to tell him what his poems had done for her, and said:--

“ In my darkest moments I have found light and comfort in your poems, which I always keep by my side, and as I never expect to have the privilege of looking into your face, I feel that I must tell you, before I leave this world, what you have been through your writings to one, and I have no doubt to many, a longing heart and homesick soul. I have never been in a place so dark and hopeless that I could not find light and comfort and hope in your poems, and when I go into my small room and close the door upon the worries and perplexing cares that constantly beset me, and sit down by my window that looks out over the hills which have been my only companions, I never fail to find in the volume which is always by my side some word of peace and comfort to my longing heart.” [102]

It was such communications as these which completed the influence of temperament, and made him appear to the world even more shy than he was. He used to say to Mrs. Claflin:--

“ What does thee think women make such silly speeches to me for? It makes me feel like a fool. A woman said to me yesterday, ‘Mr. Whittier, your smile is a benediction.’ As I was walking across the floor at the Radical Club, a woman stopped me in the middle of the parlour among all the folks, and said, ‘I've long wished to see you, Mr. Whittier, to ask what you thought of the subjective and the objective.’ Why, I thought the woman was crazy, and I said, ‘I don't know anything about either of 'em.’ ”

A young friend asked him one day if Mr. Fields's story were true about the woman who made her way to his library under pretence of conversing with him upon literary topics. “Mr. Fields said her conversation became very personal and tender, and you remarked, ‘I do not understand thee, I do not understand thee; thee had better leave the room.’ Was that really true, Mr. Whittier?” asked the young girl. With a very funny twinkle in his eye, he replied, “Does thee think, Mary, I could treat a lady in so ungentlemanly a manner as that?” That was the only response Mary could elicit.

Shy and self-withdrawing in conversation although Whittier might be, he was never caught at a disadvantage and was always ready with some pithy reply. If he had any one firm rule, it was to avoid making a speech, and yet when, being called on unexpectedly to speak at a private service on the death of Charles Sumner, he rose and told off-hand a story of a Scotch colonel, who, being interred with military honours, had [103] an unfriendly regiment detailed to fire a salute over his grave, seeing which, an onlooker said, “If the colonel could have known this, he would not have died.” --“So I feel,” said Mr. Whittier. “If my friend Sumner could have known that I should have been asked to speak at his memorial service, he would not have died.” And he resumed his seat. When, after the meeting, a friend spoke to him of the breathless silence which pervaded the audience, that they might catch every word, the poet quickly replied, “Don't thee think they would have listened just as attentively if Balaam's animal had spoken?”

The element of humour, which early showed itself in Whittier, was undoubtedly one influence which counteracted whatever element of narrowness was to be derived from his Quaker training. One sees how a fine mind may be limited in influence through the want of humour when considering such a case as that of the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing, for instance, whose writings, otherwise powerful, have gradually diminished in influence through such a deficiency. Possibly even Tufts and Burroughs may have been in some degree useful in their post-mortem career, by helping to cultivate this trait in the young poet. That he read Sterne and Swift with enjoyment, we know.

There is little evidence, however, that his early writings showed any trace of this gift. The dozen poems which he had written at eighteen, and the ninety-six printed within two years (1827-28) in the Haverhill Gazette alone, were apparently quite serious and sometimes solemn. “Exile,” “Benevolence,” “Ocean,” “The Deity,” “The Sicilian Vespers,” “The Earthquake,” “The Missionary,” “Judith and Holofernes,” [104] these were the themes which, with much rhetoric and personification, were handled by the minstrel in his teens.

Diffuse thy charms, Benevolence!

was the cry, or more elaborately:--

Hail, heavenly gift within the human breast!
Germ of unnumber'd virtues!

This was the prevailing tone which had previously reached its climax in that humbler poet in England, whose appeal began with:--

Inoculation! heavenly maid.

Coleridge and the rest of his circle went through this period of impassioned declamation, and Whittier could not hope to escape it.

At the dinners of the Atlantic Club, during the first few years of the magazine, I can testify that Whittier appeared as he always did, simple, manly, and unbecomingly shy, yet reticent and quiet. If he was overshadowed in talk by Holmes at one end and by Lowell at the other, he was in the position of every one else, notably Longfellow; but he had plenty of humour and critical keenness and there was no one whose summing up of the affairs afterward was better worth hearing. On the noted occasion,--the parting dinner given to Dr.Stowe and Mrs. Stowe,--the only one where wine was excluded save under disguise, I remember Whittier's glances of subdued amusement while Lowell at the end of the table was urging upon Mrs. Stowe the great superiority of “Tom Jones” to all other novels, and Holmes at the other end was demonstrating to the Rev. Dr. Stowe that all swearing really began in the [105] too familiar use of holy words in the pulpit. His unmoved demeanour, as of a delegate sent from the Society of Friends to represent the gospel of silence among the most vivacious talkers, recalled Hazlitt's description of the supper parties at Charles Lamb's parties which included Mrs. Reynolds, “who being of a quiet turn, loved to hear a noisy debate.” Hazlitt's essay, On the conversation of authors.

1 Wendell's Literary history of America, p. 359.

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