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Chapter 11: early loves and love poetry

It is hard to associate with the Whittier of maturer years a passage like this written from Boston in 1829, at the age of twenty-three;--

Here I have been all day trying to write something for my paper, but what with habitual laziness, and a lounge or two in the Athenaeum Gallery, I am altogether unfitted for composition. . . . There are a great many pretty girls at the Athenaeum, and I like to sit there and remark upon the different figures that go flitting by me, like aerial creatures just stooping down to our dull earth, to take a view of the beautiful creations of the painter's genius. I love to watch their airy motions, notice the dark brilliancy of their fine eyes, and observe the delicate flush stealing over their cheeks, but, trust me, my heart is untouched,--cold and motionless as a Jutland lake lighted up by the moonshine. I always did love a pretty girl. Heaven grant there is no harm in it! . .. Mr. Garrison will deliver an address on the Fourth of July. He goes to see his Dulcinea every other night almost, but is fearful of being ‘shipped off,’ after all, by her. Lord help the poor fellow, if it happens so. I like my business very well; but hang me if I like the people here. I am acquainted with a few girls, and have no wish to be so with many.

Pickard's Whittier, I. 93-4.

Mr. Pickard however assures us that there are many similar passages in Whittier's early letters; and this boyish semi-sentimentalism, even if it reaches the confines of romance, has really no more perilous quality of [136] passion than has Whittier's equally unexpected “Hang me!” of profanity. What we know about the maturer Whittier is that no man has touched in a higher and simpler strain the images of beauty and the associations of youthful love.

Perhaps the nearest we shall ever come to his own habitual views of matrimony as a personal application may be found in his reply to a young girl with whom he was fond of talking, and who once replied,--

Mr. Whittier, you often ask me to tell you about my experiences; I think you ought to tell me about yours.’

‘Well,’ said the poet, ‘ it isn't likely, Mary, that one has lived so long as I have in the world without having had some experiences, but it isn't worth while for an old man to talk much about them. Time was when I had my dreams and fancies — but those days have long since passed -don't thee think I should have made a pretty good husband?’

‘Yes,’ said Mary; ‘but I think if thee had wished to go to Amesbury on a certain train thee would have gone, wife or no wife.’

Claflin's Reminiscences, p. 68.

At which he laughed a merry laugh, vigorously smote his knee, and said, “I guess thee is about right, Mary.”

Yet in reading the memoirs of poets it is impossible not to find the basis of their early inspirations, three times out of four, in some personal experience of love and romance. It is, on the other hand, an inconvenience of lifelong bachelorhood that innumerable stories arise about a man, first and last; and that however shy his personal relations with women, he only gives the more place for supposed wanderings of the heart. Whittier's elder sister, looking back from middle life, could find nothing positive to tell me of any such [137] wanderings in his case, and could only say that there had been vague reports, to which she attached no value, about “somebody at Amesbury.” The Century Magazine for May, 1902, contained what was called “a noteworthy letter” by Whittier, edited by Mr. William Lyon Phelps and addressed to Miss Cornelia Russ of Hartford, Conn., on his leaving that city on Dec. 31, 1831. It contains a proposal of an interview, apparently with a view to marriage. Mr. Pickard, his literary editor, frankly doubts the genuineness of this letter, and partly from its signature, “Yours most truly,” a loss of the Quaker form which has not other example among his early correspondence; and he also questions the correctness of its dates, because he finds Whittier to have left Hartford permanently several months earlier than the date of the letter. He also disapproves, apparently, the assumption of Mr. Phelps that the object of this letter was the person who inspired that poem of Whittier which came nearest to a love-song, “Memories.” He asserts positively that the real object of this poem was a lady of whom Mr. Pickard thus writes in a newspaper communication since the publication of his volume.

She died several years ago, the widow of Judge Thomas of Covington, Ky. She was born in Haverhill, and was a distant relative of Whittier's, her maiden name being Mary Emerson Smith. Her grandmother, Mrs. Nehemiah Emerson, was a second cousin of Whittier's father. As a girl she was often at her grandfather Emerson's, and Whittier as a boy lived for a time at the same place, and attended school in that district. He called Mary's grandmother “Aunt.” Afterward they were fellow students at Haverhill Academy. When Whittier was editing the American [138] Manufacturer, in Boston, she was at a seminary at Kennebunk, Me., and they were in correspondence, which showed a warm attachment on his part. I have seen the originals of these letters. There were several considerations which forbade thought of marriage on the part of either of them. She went to Cincinnati with her uncles, about 1831, and for this reason he planned to go West in 1832, but was prevented by a prospect of being elected to Congress from the Essex district. Up to the time of her marriage to Judge Thomas, Whittier's letters to her were frequent, all written in a brotherly tone, and giving the gossip of Haverhill. In one letter, written in 1832, he refers to his just published poem, “Moll Pitcher,” and says he has in it drawn a portrait of herself. This portrait may be found on pages 26, 27, of the poem, and it is probable that the reason why “Moll Pitcher” does not appear in any collection of his works is that he used several passages of it in other and later poems. Thus, the first stanza of ‘Memories’ is copied almost verbatim from these lines in “Moll Pitcher ” :

A beautiful and sylph-like girl,
With step as soft as summer air-
With fresh, young lip and brow of pearl,
Shadowed by many a natural curl
Of unconfined and flowing hair--
With the moist eye of pitying care,
Is bending like a seraph there:
A seeming child in everything
Save in her ripening maiden charms;
As nature wears the smile of spring,
When sinking into summer's arms.

It will be noticed that the person described in “Memories ” is remembered as a child, and this does not apply to the case of Miss Russ, as it does apply to Miss Smith. Then again, the “ hazel eyes' and ” brown tresses' belong to Miss Smith, and not, as I have understood, to the Hartford lady.


Apart from these boyish traditions, the person with whom Whittier's name was most persistently attached, in the way of matrimonial predictions, was an accomplished and attractive person named Elizabeth Lloyd, whom he knew intimately in Friends' Meeting, though she afterward became, like many of the Philadelphia Friends, an Episcopalian. She, like himself, printed many poems, one of which gave her a sort of vicarious celebrity, being that entitled “Milton's prayer in Blindness,” which was taken by many to be a real production of the poet. I can well remember to have heard this theory defended by cultivated people; and the impression so far prevailed, that it was understood to have been reprinted in an English edition of Milton's “Works.” I remember well this lady at a later period during her widowhood, as Mrs. Howell; she had the remains of beauty, was dainty in her person and dress, and was very agreeable in conversation. She was invariably described as having been a personal friend of Whittier's, and was unquestionably the person mentioned by him in his poem called originally “An incident among the White Mountains,” but more recently “Mountain pictures, Monadnock from Wachusett.” 1 In later years, I fear, she was not quite loyal to his memory; and was known to criticise him as rustic, untravelled, without various experience; but she must remain in the world's memory, if at all, like so many Italian women in the past, as the possible retrospective candidate for the glory of a poet's early love.

However this may be, it is deeply interesting to trace, through Whittier's earlier and later poems, this dawning of pure and high emotion. We find it first, [140] in one of his best known poems; that which Matthew Arnold recognised as “one of the perfect poems, which must live” :--

Still sits the schoolhouse by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry vines are creeping.

Within, the master's desk is seen,
Deep-scarred by raps official;
The warping floor, the battered seats,
The jack-knife's carved initial;

The charcoal frescos on the wall;
It's door's worn sill, betraying
The feet that, creeping slow to school,
Went storming out to playing!

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes,
And low eves' icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving
Of one who still her steps delayed
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favour singled,
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled.

Pushing with restless feet the snow
To right and left he lingered,--
As restlessly her tiny hands
The blue-checked apron fingered. [141]

He saw her lift her eyes, he felt
The soft hand's light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voice,
As if a fault confessing.

‘ I'm sorry that I spelt the word;
I hate to go above you:
Because,’--the brown eyes lower fell-
‘Because, you see, I love you.’

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! the grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing.

I withhold the closing verse with its moral; a thing always hard for Whittier to forego.

The next example of Whittier's range of love poetry is to be found in that exquisite romance of New England life and landscape, known as “My Playmate,” of which Tennyson said justly to Mrs. Maria S. Porter, “It is a perfect poem; in some of his descriptions of scenery and wild flowers, he would rank with Wordsworth.” It interprets the associations around him and the dreams of the long past as neither Longfellow, nor Lowell, nor Holmes, could have done it; the very life of life in love-memories in the atmosphere where he was born and dwelt. Many a pilgrim has sought the arbutus at Follymill or listened to the pines on Ramoth Hill with as much affection as he would seek the haunts of Chaucer; and has felt anew the charm of the association, the rise and fall of the simple music, the skill of the cadence, the way the words fall into place, the unexplained gift by which this man who could scarcely tell one tune from another on the piano became musical by instinct when innocent early memories [142] swayed him. Note that in the whole sixteen verses the great majority of the words are monosyllables; observe how the veeries sing themselves into the line ; and how the moaning of the sea of change rushes out and prolongs itself until the revery is passed, and the same sea sweeps in and ends the dream as absolutely as that one whirling cloud of disastrous air, from the St. Pierre volcano, ended every breath of mortal life for thirty-six thousand human beings. See, again, how in the fourth verse, out of twenty-six words, every one is made monosyllabic in order that the one word “bashful” may linger and be effective; and see how in the sixth the one long word in the whole poem “uneventful” multiplies indefinitely those bereft and solitary years. Did Whittier plan those effects deliberately? Probably not, but they are there; and the most exquisite combination of sounds in Tennyson or in Mrs. Browning's “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” can only equal them. Even to Whittier, they came only in a favoured hour; and in the more continuous test of blank verse, he fails, like every modern poet since Keats, save Tennyson, alone.

Amy Wentworth” is also one of his very best, and has the same delicate precision of sound to the ear and in the use of proper names; the house in Jaffrey Street, with its staircase and its ivy; with Elliot's green bowers and the sweet-brier, blooming on Kittery sidethe very name “side” being local. This, however, was a wholly fictitious legend, as he himself told me; and still more imaginative was his last ballad, written at the age of sixty-eight, which I quote, in preference to “My Playmate,” as less known. It has the peculiar [143] interest of having been written in answer to a challenge coming from a young lady who said to him while they were staying together at his favourite Bearcamp River, “Mr. Whittier, you never wrote a lovesong. I would like to have you try to write one for me to sing.” The next day he handed her the following, and she was the first person to set it to music &nd sing it. He evidently worked it over afterward, however, for it must have been written at the earliest in the summer of 1876, was offered to the Atlantic Monthly in February, 1877, with some expressions of doubtful confidence; was withdrawn by the author, and was finally published in the Independent in Dec. 20, 1877, with this prose letter accompanying--

I send, in compliance with the wish of Mr. Bowen and thyself, a ballad upon which, though not long, I have bestowed a good deal of labour. It is not exactly a Quakerly piece, nor is it didactic, and it has no moral that I know of. But it is, I think, natural, simple, and not unpoetical.

Here is the ballad with its Elizabethan flavour: a ballad written at nearly three-score-and-ten, upon a day's notice:--

The Henchman

My lady walks her morning round,
My lady's page her fleet greyhound;
My lady's hair the fond winds stir
And all the birds make songs for her.

Her thrushes sing in Rathburn bowers,
And Rathburn's side is gay with flowers;
But ne'er like hers, in flower or bird,
Was beauty seen or music heard. [144]

The distance of the stars is hers;
The least of all her worshippers,
The dust beneath her dainty heel,
She knows not that I see or feel.

O proud and calm! she cannot know
Where'er she goes with her I go
O cold and fair! she cannot guess
I kneel to share her hound's caress.

Gay knights beside her hunt and hawk,
I rob their ears of her sweet talk;
Her suitors come from east and west,
I steal her smiles from every guest.

Unheard of her, in loving words
I greet her with the song of birds;
I reach her with her green-armed bowers,
I kiss her with the lips of flowers.

The hound and I are on her trail,
The wind and I uplift her veil;
As if the calm cool moon she were,
And I the tide, I follow her.

As unrebuked as they, I share
The license of the sun and air,
And in a common homage hide
My worship from her scorn and pride.

World-wide apart, and yet so near,
I breathe her charmed atmosphere,
Wherein to her my service brings
The reverence due to holy things.

Her maiden pride, her haughty name,
My dumb devotion shall not shame;
The love that no return doth crave
To knightly level lifts the slave. [145]

No lance have I, in joust or fight
To splinter in my lady's sight;
But at her feet how blest were I
For any need of hers to die.

When in his later years, he had matured the ballad measure, he gives us also something which, as an English critic, Mr. W. J. Linton, has said “reads as if it might be from the old French, or a ballad which Dante Rossetti might have written” :--

The sisters

Annie and Rhoda, sisters twain,
Woke in the night to the sound of rain,

The rush of wind, the ramp and roar,
Of great waves climbing a rocky shore.

Annie rose up in her bedgown white,
And looked out into the storm and night.

‘Hush, and hearken’ she cried in fear,
‘Hearest thou nothing? sister dear! ’

‘ I hear the sea and the plash of rain,
And roar of the northeast hurricane.

‘ Get thee back to the bed so warm I
No good comes of watching a storm.

‘ What is it to thee, I fain would know,
That waves are roaring and wild winds blow?

‘ No lover of thine is afloat to miss
The harbour lights on a night like this.’

‘ But I heard a voice cry out my name:
Up from the sea on the wind it came.

‘ Twice and thrice have I heard it call;
And the voice is the voice of Estwick Hall.’ [146]

On the pillow the sister tossed her head:
‘Hall of the Heron is safe,’ she said.

‘ In the tautest schooner that ever swam
He rides at anchor in Anisquam.

‘ And, if in peril from swamping sea
Or lee-shore rocks, would he call on thee?’

But the girl heard only the wind and tide,
And wringing her small white hands she cried-

‘ O sister Rhoda! there's something wrong:
I hear it again, so loud and long.

‘ “Annie! Annie!” I hear it call,
And the voice is the voice of Estwick Hall.’

Up sprang the elder with eyes aflame;
‘Thou liest! he never would call thy name,

‘If he did, I would pray the wind and sea
To keep him for ever from thee and me.’

Then out of the sea blew a dreadful blast:
Like the cry of a dying man it passed.

‘ The young girl hushed on her lips a groan,
But through her tears a strange light shone--

The solemn joy of her heart's release
To own and cherish its love in peace.

‘ Dearest! ’ she whispered under breath,
‘Life was a lie, but true is death.

‘The love I hid from myself away
Shall crown me now in the light of day.

‘ My ears shall never to wooer list,
Never by lover my lips be kissed. [147]

‘ Sacred to thee am I henceforth,
Thou in heaven and I on earth.’

She came and stood by her sister's bed;
‘Hall of the Heron is dead ’ she said.

‘ The winds and the waves their work have done,
We shall see him no more beneath the sun.

‘ Little will reck that heart of thine,
It loved him not with a love like mine.

I for his sake, were he but here,
Could hem and broider thy bridal gear;

‘ Though hands should tremble and eyes be wet,
And stitch for stitch in my heart be set.

‘ But now my soul with his soul I wed;
Thine the living and mine the dead.’

This is in the highest degree dramatic, but the traces of individual feeling come back to us most deeply, after all, in the personal lyrics, like the following, behind which some direct private experience must, unquestionably, have stood:--


How thrills once more the lengthening chain
Of memory at the thought of thee I
Old hopes which long in dust have lain,
Old dreams come thronging back again,
And boyhood lives again in me:
I feel its glow upon my cheek.
Its fulness of the heart is mine,
As when I leaned to hear thee speak,
Or raised my doubtful eye to thine. [148]

I hear again thy low replies,
I feel thy arm within my own,
And timidly again uprise
The fringed lids of hazel eyes
With soft brown tresses overblown.
Ah! memories of sweet summer eves,
Of moonlit wave and willowy way,
Of stars and flowers and dewy leaves,
And smiles and tones more dear than they?

Ere this thy quiet eye hath smiled
My picture of thy youth to see,
When, half a woman, half a child,
Thy very artlessness beguiled,
And folly's self seemed wise in thee.
I, too, can smile when o'er that hour
The lights of memory backward stream,
Yet feel the while that manhood's power
Is vainer than my boyhood's dream.

Years have passed on, and left their trace,
Of graver care and deeper thought;
And unto me the calm, cold face
Of manhood, and to thee the grace
Of woman's pensive beauty brought.
More wide, perchance, for blame than praise,
The schoolboy's humble name has flown;
Thine, in the green and quiet ways
Of unobtrusive goodness known.

And wider yet in thought and deed
Diverge our pathways, one in youth;
Thine the Genevan's sternest creed,
While answers to my spirit's need
The Derby dalesman's simple truth.
For thee, the priestly rite and prayer,
And holy day, and solemn psalm;
For me, the silent reverence where
My brethren gather, slow and calm. [149]

Yet hath thy spirit left on me
An impress Time has worn not out,
And something of myself in thee,
A shadow from the past, I see,
Lingering, even yet, thy way about;
Not wholly can the heart unlearn
That lesson of its better hours,
Nor yet has Time's dull footstep worn
To common dust the path of flowers.

1 “ Works,” II. 57.

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