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Chapter 9: Whittier at home

One of Whittier's biographers, Mr. William Sloane Kennedy, who has also been in a manner a biographer of Whitman, rather surprises the reader by an unexpected admission in comparing the two. He says of Whittier, “He is democratic, not so powerfully and broadly as Whitman, but more unaffectedly and sincerely.” It is a concession of some value, the critic having been one of Whitman's warmest admirers and most generous advocates, and it seems to me to touch the truth very well. Certainly no one could see Whittier in contact with his fellow-citizens of a country village, without being struck by the genuineness and healthiness, so to speak, of the relations between them. If I may repeat my own words used elsewhere, I should say that there was something most satisfactory in the position of the poet among the village people. He was their pride and their joy, yet he lived as simply as any one, was careful and abstemious, reticent rather than exuberant in manner, and met them wholly on matter-of-fact ground. He could sit on a barrel and discuss the affairs of the day with the people who came to the “store,” but he did not read them his verses. I was once expressing regrets for his ill health, in talking with one of the leading citizens of Amesbury, and found that my companion could not agree with me; [107] he thought that Whittier's ill health had helped him in the end, for it had “kept him from engaging in business,” and had led him to writing poetry, which had given him reputation outside of the town. That poetry was anything but a second choice, perhaps a necessary evil, did not seem to have occurred to my informant. Had he himself lost his health and been unable to sell groceries, who knows but he too might have taken up with the Muses? It suggested the Edinburgh citizen who thought that Sir Walter Scott might have been “sic a respectable mon” had he stuck to his original trade of law advocate.

I will borrow from what I have elsewhere written a picture of the Whittier household as I saw it, more than fifty years ago, when residing at Newburyport in his neighbourhood.

It was but a short walk or drive of a few miles from my residence to his home; or, better still, it implied a sail or row up the beautiful river, passing beneath the suspension bridge at Deer Island, to where the woods called The Laurels spread themselves on one side, and the twin villages of Salisbury and Amesbury on the other. ...

To me, who sought Whittier for his poetry as well as his politics, nothing could have been more delightful than his plain abode with its exquisite Quaker neatness. His placid mother, rejoicing in her two gifted children, presided with few words at the hospitable board, whose tablecloth and napkins rivalled her soul in whiteness; and with her was the brilliant “Lizzie,” so absolutely the reverse, or complement, of her brother that they seemed between them to make one soul. She was as plain in feature as he was handsome, except that she had a pair of great, luminous dark eyes, always flashing with fun or soft with emotion, and often changing with lightning rapidity from the one expression to the other; her nose was large and aquiline, while [108] his was almost Grecian; and she had odd motions of the head, so that her glances seemed shot at you, like sudden javelins, from each side of a prominent network. Her complexion was sallow, not rich brunette like his; and whereas he spoke seldom and with difficulty, her gay raillery was unceasing, and was enjoyed by him as much as by anybody, so that he really appeared to have transferred to her the expression of his own opinions. . . . The lively utterances thus came with double force upon the auditor, and he could not fail to go out strengthened and stimulated. Sometimes the Whittiers had guests; and “Lizzie” delighted to tell how their mother was once met at the door by two plump maidens, who announced that they had come from Ohio mainly to see her son. She explained that he was in Boston. No matter; they would come in and await his return. But he might be away a week. No matter; they would willingly wait that time for such a pleasure. So in they came. They proved to be Alice and Phoebe Cary, whose earlier poems, which had already preceded them, were filled with dirges and despair; but they were the merriest of housemates, and as the poet luckily returned next day, they stayed as long as they pleased, and were welcome.

It is hardly fair, however, to give this last incident without giving the letter by which the unwary bachelor poet brought this visit upon his household. He had actually invited these frank young ladies by the following letter, not put in print for many years after, and addressed to that general friend — and occasional enemy — of all literary people, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, of New York:--

Amesbury, 21st June, 1850.
My dear fr. Griswold:--I learn from my friend F. W. Kellogg that Alice and Phoebe Cary, of Ohio, are on their way to the East, and would be glad to see them at my place if they come to Boston. Presuming that thou wilt see them in N. Y. I have taken the liberty to invite [109] them, through thee, to call on me. I have been quite ill this spring and my sister also is an invalid, and we see little company, but I should feel sorry to have the “sweet singers” of the West so near and not see them.

Dost ever come to Boston? I should be very glad to see thee at Amesbury. I have a pleasant and grateful recollection of our acquaintance in N. Y. and Boston. I shall be obliged to thee if thou wilt kindly remember me to Tuckerman. I like his last book exceedingly, and shall notice it soon in the Era.

Thine cordially, John G. Whittier.1

A lady who had been long a neighbour once described Whittier's parlour fire:--

That fire was a perpetual source of pleasure and annoyance to us all. It was an old-fashioned Franklin stove, that smoked on the slightest provocation, and scattered the ashes over the hearth. At the same time it had a habit of throwing out the most charming gleams and shadows, especially if driftwood was being burned. Mr. Whittier was very jealous of any one else tending or poking the fire. Often I have unconsciously taken the tongs to touch up a brand, when his hand would stay mine, and he would say, ‘ Thee must not touch that, it is just right,’ and perhaps the next minute he would have the tongs and do just what I had attempted. I have frequently gone in at twilight and found him lying on the lounge, watching the flitting shadows, and repeating aloud from some favourite author, generally Scott or Burns. His mood and conversation at such times were particularly delightful. The beautiful poem, ‘ Burning Driftwood’ was doubtless inspired by such experiences.

Pickard, II. 745.

One of the very best delineations of Whittier by one of those who approached him on the public or semi-public side is that written by the Hon. Robert S. Rantoul of Salem, Mass.:-- [110]

Mr. Whittier was self-contained. In the company of persons whom he did not care for — who could not draw him out — his mind seemed to furnish him with almost nothing to say. He had no small talk. Where there was nothing in common he could be as remote and silent as a mountain peak .... For himself, he was transparent in his expressions and he sought the communion of those only who met him on his own ground. Insincerity was incivility ....

He could no more face a mixed company than he could face an audience. It was the lack of touch — of correlation --that seemed to disturb him. Miss Bremer said of him that he could cheerfully confront martyrdom, but shrank from the ordinary requirements of social intercourse ....

Later, in 1882, when I was a member of the Republican State Central Committee, I was designated to conduct Mr. Whittier from his rooms in Boston on the morning of the Music Hall convention which put Robinson forward for the defeat of Butler, and I was specially charged to place him in a conspicuous seat near the front of the platform, that all Massachusetts might see that he was with us. By dint of much entreaty and persuasion I finally prevailed. No man was better entitled to a high seat in the party sanhedrim at that time, nor more worthy to be held up as the high priest of Massachusetts Republicanism. But the proceedings were scarcely opened when I found his chair was vacant. He had stolen away to a hiding-place beside the great organ, where he could see and hear without being discovered, and the convention from that time on, so far as its visual faculties availed, was without its poet.

We have, through Mrs. Claflin, also Whittier's own reports as to his personal conversations with fellow-authors. For instance, as he was driving one day with Emerson, the latter pointed out a small, unpainted house by the roadside, and said:--

“ There lives an old Calvinist in that house, and she says she prays for me every day. I am glad she does. I pray for [111] myself.” “Does thee?” said Whittier. “What does thee pray for, friend Emerson?”

“Well,” replied Emerson, “when I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows, and look out upon the beautiful world, I thank God that I am alive, and that I live so near Boston.”

In one of their conversations, Mr. Emerson remarked that the world had not yet seen the highest development of manhood.

“ Does thee think so?” said Whittier. “I suppose thee would admit that Jesus Christ is the highest development our world has seen?”

“Yes, Yes, but not the highest it will see.”

“Does thee think the world has yet reached the ideals the Christ has set for mankind?”

“No, no,” said Emerson: “I think not.”

“ Then is it not the part of wisdom to be content with what has been given us, till we have lived up to that ideal? And when we need something higher, Infinite Wisdom will supply our needs.”

Amesbury, like Concord, had its individual oddities; and the two poets liked to compare notes upon them. Whittier had a neighbour whose original remarks he loved to repeat, and Emerson once said, “That man ought to read Plato,” and offered him a volume through Whittier. It was kept for a while and then returned with the remark, “There are some good things in that book. I find that this Mr. Plato has a good many of my ideas.”

Whittier gave to Mrs. Claflin, also, this account of his only advance toward personal intercourse with Hawthorne :--

He said,

Thee knows I am not skilled in visits and small talk, but I wanted to make a friendly call on Hawthorne, [112] and one morning — it chanced to be an ill-fated morning for this purpose — I sallied forth, and on reaching the house was ushered into a lugubrious-looking room where Hawthorne met me, evidently in a lugubrious state of mind.

In rather a sepulchral tone of voice he bade me good-morning, and asked me to be seated opposite him, and we looked at each other and remarked upon the weather; then came an appalling silence and the cold chills crept down my back, and after a moment or two I got up and said, “I think I will take a short walk.” I took my walk and returned to bid him good morning much to my relief, and I have no doubt to his.

With Mrs. Stowe he would sit till the small hours of the morning, and till the lights burned blue, to talk about psychical mysteries, and relate stories of ghosts and spirit rappings and manifestations. They “wooed the courteous ghosts” together; but he said, “Much as I have wooed them, they never appear to me. Mrs. Stowe is more fortunate — the spirits sometimes come at her bidding, but never at mine — and what wonder? It would be a foolish spirit that did not prefer her company to that of an old man like me.” They would repeat, says Mrs. Claflin, the most marvellous stories of ghostly improbabilities, apparently for the time being believing every word. With Mrs. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, who had written on the possible employments of another life, he would discuss that theme with a relish, but would add, “Elizabeth, thee would not be happy in heaven unless thee could go missionary to the other place, now and then.”

Quakers, if genuine, usually have rather a predilection for fighters. Garibaldi was one of Whittier's heroes, so was General Gordon, so was young Colonel Shaw; and so was John Bright, who fought with [113] words only. Whittier wrote at his death to Mrs. Fields--

Spring is here to-day, worm, birdful. .... It seems strange that I am alive to welcome her when so many have passed away with the winter, and among them that stalwartest of Englishmen, John Bright, sleeping now in the daisied grounds of Rochdale, never more to move the world with his surpassing eloquence. How I regret that I have never seen him! We had much in common in our religious faith, our hatred of war and oppression. His great genius seemed to me to be always held firmly in hand by a sense of duty, and by the practical common sense of a shrewd man of business. He fought through life like an old knight-errant, but without enthusiasm. He had no personal ideals. I remember once how he remonstrated with me for my admiration for General Gordon. He looked upon that wonderful personality as a wild fighter, a rash adventurer, doing evil that good might come. He could not see him as I saw him, giving his life for humanity, alone and unfriended, in that dreadful Soudan. He did not like the idea of fighting Satan with Satan's weapons. Lord Salisbury said truly that John Bright was the greatest orator England had produced, and his eloquence was only called out by what he regarded as the voice of God in his soul.

Mrs. Fields's Whittier, pp. 50-51.

It is an interesting fact that one of the best pictures ever drawn of Whittier in his home life is that drawn by Hayne, the Southern poet, who once visited him.

So 'neath the Quaker poet's tranquil roof,
From all deep discords of the world aloof,
I sit once more and measured converse hold,
With him whose nobler thoughts are rhythmic gold;
See his deep brows half-puckered in a knot,
O'er some hard problem of our mortal lot,
Or a dream soft as May winds of the south,
Waft a girl's sweetness 'round his firm, set mouth. [114]

Or, should he deem wrong threats the public weal,
Lo, the whole man seems girt with flashing steel;
His glance a sword-thrust and his words of ire,
Like thunder tones from some old prophet's lyre.
Or by the hearthstone, when the day is done,
Mark swiftly lanced a sudden shaft of fun;
The short quick laugh, the smartly smitten knees,
Are all sure tokens of a mind at ease.

God's innocent pensioners in the woodland dim,
The fields, the pastures, know and trust in him,
And in their love, his lonely heart is blest,
Our pure hale-minded Cowper of the West.

1 Letters of R. W. Griswold, pp. 266-67.

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