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Chapter 13: closing years

There was no literary man of his time who worked under such a lifelong embargo in respect to health as Whittier. He once said, “I inherited from my parents a nervous headache, and on account of it have never been able to do all I wished to do.” Whittier's early trouble was regarded by physicians as a disease of the heart, and he was told that he must carefully avoid excitement. With care, as one of them assured him, he might live to be fifty years old. His headaches always pursued him, and he could not read continuously for half an hour without severe pain. At public dinners and receptions he was obliged to stipulate that he should be allowed to slip out when he felt fatigue coming on. It showed great strength of will surely for one man, combining the functions of author, politician, and general reformer, under such disadvantages, to outlive his fellow chiefs, carry so many points for which he had toiled, and leave behind him seven volumes of his collected works. The most successful of these, “Snow-bound,” was written to beguile the weariness of a sick-chamber.

When editor of the National Era he wrote to Miss Wendell that he should have spent the winter in Washington but for the state of his health and the difficulty of leaving home on his mother's account. In the same letter (2d. mo. 21, 1847) he wrote:-- [172]

I have of late been able to write but little, and that mostly for the papers, and I have scarcely answered a letter for a month past. I dread to touch a pen. Whenever I do it increases the dull wearing pain in my head, which I am scarcely ever free from.

Pickard's Whittier, I. 319.

Yet at this time he was occasionally publishing eight or nine columns a week in the National Era, besides a large political correspondence.

“Sleep,” says Mrs. Claflin,

was the one blessing that seemed to be denied him, and which he constantly longed for. He resorted to every simple remedy for insomnia — but it was all in vain — his was the ‘sore disquiet of a restless brain,’ and he would often come down in the morning looking tired and worn from his long night of wakefulness, and say, ‘ It is of no use; the sleep of the innocent is denied me. Perhaps I do not deserve it.’ Claflin's Personal Recollections, p. 40.

While reticent and uncomplaining to strangers, we find him through life obliged to write to friends in such phrases as these, “I should have been glad to make Haverhill a visit in the winter, but the extremely delicate condition of my health has compelled me to forego that pleasure.” “I now think some of going next week to New York and Philadelphia, partly to escape our east winds which I dread.” “I think sickness has a wonderful effect in fanning into life the half-extinguished conscience. It is doubtless better for me and my friends that the hand of sickness is sometimes laid heavily upon me.”

Being a bad sleeper, “seldom,” as he said, “putting a solid bar of sleep between day and day,” he habitually rose early and, as he claimed, “had rarely missed seeing [173] the sun rise for forty years.” “I have lately felt great sympathy with--,” 1 he said one morning, “for I have been kept awake one hundred and twenty hours; an experience I should not care to try again.” He said also to Mrs. Fields: “I am forbidden to use my poor head, so I have to get along as I can without it. The Catholic St. Leon, thee knows, walked alert as usual after his head was cut off.” “I cannot think very well of my own things,” he elsewhere said to her; “and what is mere fame worth when thee is at home alone and sick with headaches, unable either to read or to write?” “He must often have known,” adds this sympathetic friend, “the deeps of sadness in winter evenings, when he was too ill to touch book or pen, and when he could do nothing during the long hours but sit and think over the fire.”

This loss of sleep and other unfavourable symptoms were by no means due to a sedentary life. His love of nature was deep and constant, and more like that of Emerson and Thoreau, than that of Longfellow and Lowell. He liked to be actually immersed in outdoor life, not merely to enjoy it as an episode. He loved to recall his first stay among the hills, when “his parents took him where he could see the great wooded slope of Agamenticus.” “As he looked up and gazed with awe at the solemn sight, a cloud drooped, and hung suspended, as it were, from one point, and filled his soul with astonishment. He had never forgotten it. He said nothing at the time, but this cloud hanging from the breast of the hill, filled his boyish mind with a mighty wonder, which had never faded away.” Fields's Whittier, p. 90.

It was to ill health, I think, that his renunciation [174] of all far-off travel was due. He once told me, however, that perhaps the reason why he had never travelled, was that he had always been a great reader of books of travel, and after reading each one, had in his mind so vivid a picture of it that he wished to go somewhere else. What just ground have we to complain of this, when we know by Scott's own confession that his description of Melrose Abbey by moonlight, --one of the most widely quoted descriptions ever written,--was not written in presence of that beautiful spectacle, but quite the contrary? He wrote to Bernard Barton:--

I was surprised into confessing what I might have as well kept to myself, that I had been guilty of sending persons a bat-hunting to see the ruins of Melrose by moonlight, which I never saw myself. The fact is rather curious, for as I have often slept nights at Melrose (when I did not reside so near the place), it is singular that I have not seen it by moonlight on some chance occasion. However, it so happens that I never did, and must (unless I get cold on purpose) be contented with supposing that these ruins look very like other Gothic buildings which I have seen by the wan light of the moon.

Letters and poems of Bernard Barton, by his daughter, p. 147.

This was carried so far by Whittier that during all his visits to the White Mountains, he never could be tempted to go to Quebec, but said, “I know all about it, by books and pictures, as if I had seen it.” Yet how much he enjoyed thus tasting in imagination the atmosphere and the life of a foreign land, is to be seen in a charming picture given by him to Mrs. Fields of a talk with a wandering Arab whom he once encountered. [175]

‘ I was in my garden,’ he said, ‘ when I saw an Arab wander down the street, and by-and-by stop and lean against my gate. He held a small book in his hand, which he was reading from time to time when he was not occupied with gazing about him. Presently I went to talk with him, and found he had lived all his life on the edge of the desert until he started for America. He was very homesick, and longed for the time of his return. He had hired himself for a term of years to the master of the circus. He held the Koran in his hand, and was delighted to find a friend who had also read his sacred book. He opened his heart still further then, and said how he longed for his old, wild life in the Desert, for a sight of the palms, and the sands, but above all for its freedom.’

Fields's Whittier, p. 54.

It would be interesting to find out what effect Whittier's physical condition had upon the production of a work quite unique among his prose writings, “The Opium Eater,” published in the New England Magazine in 1833, in his twenty-fourth year. He spoke of it to Fields and others as something which he had almost entirely forgotten. But it is preserved by him, nevertheless, in his works,2 and certainly is, as he says, unique in respect to style. It is undoubtedly one of many similar productions coming from various pens and taking De Quincey's “Confessions of an Opium Eater” as their model, though this is really better than the average of such attempts. The question of interest is to know how far this literary experiment-evidently a deliberate thing, from its length and careful structure — was in any way the result of his illness, and, as such, a passing phenomenon only. “The Proselytes,” published in the same year, and reprinted in the same volume, looks somewhat in the same morbid and unhealthy direction, from which the mass of Whittier's writings is so wholly free. [176]

Whittier's later years were calm and prosperous. He held no public position after his early service in the Massachusetts Legislature, but during the period when the overseers of Harvard College were chosen by the legislature he once served, in 1858, as overseer, and alluded to this jocosely in a letter to Lowell, then editor of the Atlantic, as giving him authority over Lowell. He received the Harvard honorary degree of Master of Arts in 1860, and that of Doctor of Laws in 1866, at the hundredth anniversary of the college, when he was the only literary man so decorated among a number of men of science, a fact which attracted some notice. He was made a trustee of Brown University (Providence, R. I.) in 1869. He was chosen a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1863, and was borne upon its rolls for three years, but never accepted the office or even replied to the invitation, for some reason yet unexplained, so that his name was dropped. He declined membership of the Loyal Legion, a society of officers who had served on the Union side in the Civil War, and had a limited number of civilian members; but this he refused as an organisation inconsistent with the principles of the Society of Friends.

Whittier's seventieth birthday was celebrated more profusely than had happened to any American author before; and more so than was at first wholly congenial to his modest nature. The issue of a Literary World (Dec. 1, 1877), devoted to him wholly, on the part of various authors, he might have more easily endured; but the elaborate dinner given him by the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly, at Hotel Brunswick, in Boston, (Dec. 17, 1877) was an ordeal from which he is known [177] to have greatly shrunk; and I can testify that this reluctance was quite visible in his face and manner. Mr. Houghton presided, and gave a history of the magazine, after which he introduced Whittier, who could do no less in return than make one of the very few brief speeches into which he found himself driven in later life. He said:--

“You must know you are not to expect a speech from me to-night. I can only say that I am very glad to meet with my friends of the Atlantic, a great many contributors to which I have only known through their writings, and that I thank them for the reception they have given me. When I supposed that I would not be able to attend this ceremony I placed in my friend Longfellow's hands a little bit of verse that I told him, if it were necessary, I wished he would read. My voice is of ‘ a timorous nature, and rarely to be heard above the breath.’ Mr. Longfellow will do me the favour to read the writing. I shall be very much obliged to him, and hope at his ninetieth anniversary some of the younger men will do as much for him.”

After this, Longfellow, almost as shy of such functions as Whittier, could do no less than read the answering “Response,” which is here printed with the accompanying prefatory note, as it appears in Whittier's revised works.


On the occasion of my seventieth birthday in 1877, I was the recipient of many tokens of esteem. The publishers of the Atlantic Monthly gave a dinner in my name, and the editor of The Literary World gathered in his paper many affectionate messages from my associates in literature and the cause of human progress. The lines which follow were written in acknowledgment.

Beside that milestone where the level sun,
Nigh unto setting, sheds his last low rays
On word and work irrevocably done,
Life's blending threads of good and ill outspun, [178]
I hear, O friends! your words of cheer and praise,
Half doubtful if myself or otherwise.
Like him who, in the old Arabian joke,
A beggar slept and crowned Caliph woke.
Thanks not the less. With not unglad surprise
I see my life-work through your partial eyes;
Assured, in giving to my home-taught songs
A higher value than of right belongs,
You do but read between the lines
The finer grace of unfulfilled designs.

Works, II. 168, 169.

Emerson then read with his unique impressiveness Whittier's “Ichabod” ; Holmes and Stoddard read poems, and speeches were made by Story, Howells, Norton, Warner, and myself. So complete was the success of the enterprise, then rather a novel one in Boston, that it was followed by a similar entertainment on the seventieth birthday of Holmes, with the curious difference that Whittier, a lifelong advocate of the equality of sexes was greeted on this occasion by men only, while the far more conservative Holmes saw before him a brilliant gathering of both men and women. I think it was the general agreement that the second celebration was even more successful than the first.

Whittier of course made no speech on this later occasion, but he sent to the New York Critic on a subsequent birthday of his old friend, a summary of his qualities that was better than a speech. It is as follows:--

To the editor of the New York “ Critic.”

8th mo., 1884.
Poet, essayist, novelist, humourist, scientist, ripe scholar, and wise philosopher, if Dr. Holmes does not at the present [179] time hold in popular estimation the first place in American literature, his rare versatility is the cause. In view of the inimitable prose-writer, we forget the poet; in our admiration of his melodious verse, we lose sight of “Elsie Venner” and “The Autocrat of the breakfast-table.” We laugh over his wit and humour, until, to use his own words,--

We suspect the azure blossom that unfolds upon a shoot,
As if Wisdom's old potato could not flourish at its root;

and perhaps the next page melts us into tears by a pathos only equalled by that of Sterne's sick Lieutenant. He is Montaigne and Bacon under one hat. His varied qualities would suffice for the mental furnishing of half a dozen literary specialists. To those who have enjoyed the privilege of his intimate acquaintance, the man himself is more than the author. His genial nature, entire freedom from jealousy or envy, quick tenderness, large charity, hatred of sham, pretense, and unreality, and his reverent sense of the eternal and permanent, have secured for him something more and dearer than literary renown — the love of all who know him. I might say much more; I could not say less. May his life be long in the land!

The wish was fulfilled, and Holmes was the only one of Whittier's immediate circle of literary companions who outlived him.

In private life Whittier was, during these years, in many respects most fortunate, or at least as near it as a lonely man can be. In his own house at Amesbury he had the friendly companionship of Judge Cate and wife; and during the summers he was for twelve years with his cousins, Joseph and Gertrude W. Cartland, at Intervale, N. H., or elsewhere among the White Mountains or wandered so far seaward as to be a housemate of Celia Thaxter and other cultivated persons at Appledore among the Isles of Shoals, or [180] Greenacre in Maine. In winter he made his homeafter the marriage of his niece who had kept house for him — at Oak Knoll in Danvers, a beautiful estate where his cousins Mrs. Woodman and the three Miss Johnsons resided; a place made more interesting to him from the fact that it had been the abode of the Rev. George Burroughs, who had been put to death during the witchcraft excitement, two centuries before. He always, however, retained his home and citizenship in Amesbury, went thither to vote and to attend Quarterly Meetings, and toward the end of his life made it his residence once more.

One of his enjoyments in later years was in recalling his memories of his early friend Lydia Maria Child, whose experience of life had so much in common with his own; and in serving her memory by editing a volume of her letters (1883). In his introduction he says of her “Appeal for that class of Americans called Africans” --

It is quite impossible for any one of the present generation to imagine the popular surprise and indignation which the book called forth, or how entirely its author cut herself off from the favour and sympathy of a large number of those who had previously delighted to do her honour. Social and literary circles, which have been proud of her presence, closed their doors against her. The sale of her books, the subscriptions to her magazine, fell off to a ruinous extent. She knew all she was hazarding, and made the great sacrifice, prepared for all the consequences that followed. ... It is not exaggeration to say that no man or woman of that period rendered more substantial service to the cause of freedom, or made such a great renunciation in doing it.

Nor is it exaggeration to say that no man or woman of that period was so fairly to be classed with her as [181] was the writer of these words. She had before this time passed away, having died in 1880.

A speech before the Essex Club by Senator Hoar, a few weeks before Whittier's eightieth birthday, brought forth one of the most striking tributes ever paid to an American author. It consisted of Senator Hoar's speech, followed by the signatures of all the Essex Club, of fifty-nine United States Senators, the entire bench of the Supreme Court of the United States,headed by Chief Justice Waite,--of Speaker Carlisle of the House of Representatives, and three hundred and thirty-three Members of the House, coming from every state and territory in the Union. To these were added the names of many private citizens of distinction, such as George Bancroft, Robert C. Winthrop, James G. Blaine, and Frederick Douglass. In that same year (1887) a companion tribute came in more concentrated form across the ocean.

In 1887, Mr. George W. Childs, of Philadelphia, generously offered to defray the expense of a Milton memorial window in St. Margaret's Church, London. The offer was accepted, and in October of that year, Archdeacon Frederick W. Farrar wrote to him as follows:--

The Milton window is making good progress. It will be, I hope, magnificently beautiful, and both in colouring and design will be worthy of your munificence, and worthy of the mighty poet to whose memory it will be dedicated. The artists are taking good pains with it. I sent you an outline of the sketch not long ago. Before the end of the year I hope to send you a painting of the complete work. Messrs. Clayton and Bell are putting forth their best strength, and promise me that it shall be finished before the end of the Jubilee Year. When it is put in, I shall make your gift [182] more universally known. Mr. Lowell wrote me a quatrain for the Raleigh window. I can think of no one so suitable as Mr. J. G. Whittier to write four lines for the Milton window. Mr. Whittier would feel the fullest sympathy for the great Puritan poet, whose spirit was so completely that of the Pilgrim Fathers. I have always loved and admired Mr. Whittier's poems. Could you ask him as a kindness to yourself and to me, and as a tribute to Milton's memory, if he would be so good as to write this brief inscription, which I would then have carved in marble or otherwise under the window. The same tablet will also record that it is your gift to the church of the House of Commons, which was dearer to Milton than any other.

Mr. Childs forwarded this letter to Mr. Whittier, who accepted the commission, and composed the following quatrain:--

The new world honours him whose lofty plea
For England's freedom made her own more sure,
Whose song, immortal as its theme, shall be
Their common freehold while both worlds endure.

These lines were sent to Mr. Childs, to be forwarded to Archdeacon Farrar, in a letter from Mr. Whittier of which the following is a copy:--

I am glad to comply with thy request and that of our friend Archdeacon Farrar. I hope the lines may be satisfactory. It is difficult to put all that could be said of Milton into four lines. How very heartfelt and noble thy benefactions are! Every one is a testimony of peace and good will.

I think even such a scholar as Dr. Farrar will not object to my use of the word “freehold.” Milton himself uses it in the same way in his prose writings, viz., “ I too have my chapter and freehold of rejoicing.”

Mr. Whittier suggested to Dr. Farrar that if thought preferable the word “heirloom” might be substituted [183] for “freehold.” This is the Archdeacon's reply, dated Jan. 2, 1888:--

First let me express the wish that God's best blessings may rest on you and your house during this New Year. My personal gratitude and admiration have long been due to you for the noble influence you have exercised for the furtherance of forgotten but deeply needed truths. I have myself endeavoured to do something to persuade men of the lesson you have so finely taught,--that God is a loving Father, not a terrific Moloch. Next let me thank you for the four lines on Milton. They are all that I can desire, and they will add to the interest which all Englishmen and Americans will feel in the beautiful Milton window. I think that if Milton had now been living, you are the poet whom he would have chosen to speak of him, as being the poet with whose whole tone of mind he would have been most in sympathy. ... Unless you wish “heirloom” to be substituted for “freehold,” I will retain the latter as the original.

Whittier was taken with his last illness while visiting at the house of his friend, Miss Sarah A. Gove of Hampton Falls, N. H., seven miles from Amesbury. Miss Gove was the daughter of an old friend; of “that saintly woman whom we associate with one of the most spiritual and beautiful of his poems, ‘A Friend's Burial.’ ” Fields's Whittier, p. 101.

On September 3, he had a slight paralytic stroke which produced a difficulty in taking food or medicine, and it was plain that he could not be removed to Amesbury, where he had always hoped to die. He was conscious to the last, was grateful to every one; and several times said “Love to all the world.” He died in serene and quiet constancy to that feeling of affection, and had little acute pain. He lay all night in [184] peace, and died in the morning, one of the relatives present reciting softly his poem “At last,” as he passed away. This poem, written ten years before, is his best epitaph.

At last

When on my day of life the night is falling,
And, in the winds from unsunned spaces blown,
I hear far voices out of darkness calling
My feet to paths unknown.

Thou who hast made my home of life so pleasant,
Leave not its tenant when its walls decay;
O Love Divine, O Helper ever present,
Be Thou my strength and stay!

Be near me when all else is from me drifting;
Earth, sky, home's pictures, days of shade and shine,
And kindly faces to my own uplifting
The love which answers mine.

I have but Thee, my Father! let Thy spirit
Be with me then to comfort and uphold;
No gate of pearl, no branch of palm I merit,
Nor street of shining gold.

Suffice it if — my good and ill unreckoned,
And both forgiven through Thy abounding grace--
I find myself by hands familiar beckoned
Unto my fitting place.

Some humble door among Thy many mansions,
Some sheltering shade where sin and striving cease,
And flows forever through heaven's green expansions
The river of Thy peace. [185]

There, from the music round about me stealing,
I fain would learn the new and holy song,
And find at last, beneath Thy trees of healing,
The life for which I long.


The following simple and touching picture of his funeral is from the historical address on Whittier by his friend Robert S. Rantoul.

I attended his funeral. The day was ideal — a cloudless September sky above, a wealth of autumn beauty all about. No word was uttered in speech or song that day but it was apt, spontaneous, sincere. I think I never joined in obsequies more fit. Their simplicity was absolute. The poet Stedman spoke as few men can, and with a grace and aptness which, perfect as they were, yet seemed unstudied. It was hard to say whether deep feeling or critical characterisation were the leading quality of his words. And the Hutchinsons sang “Lay him low” as if it had been written for themselves and for the day; and the sister Friends, whose habit of speech in public gatherings made the part they took seem only the expected thing, bore testimony from out the depths of their experience to what the world had come at last to know.

1 Fields's Whittier, pp. 40, 59, 73.

2 Works, I. 278.

3 Works, II. 333.

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