Chapter 2: school days and early venturesThe whole story of Whittier's beginnings as a poet is like something from an old-fashioned German novel of Friendship — for instance, by Jean Paul — it was the casual discovery of a gifted boy by another barely grown to manhood, this leading to a life-long friendship, occasionally clouded for a time by decided differences of opinion and action. William Lloyd Garrison, a young printer's apprentice, just embarked at twenty-one on a weekly newspaper in his native town of Newburyport, near Haverhill, published in the twelfth number some verses entitled “The Exile's departure” and signed “W., Haverhill, June 1, 1826” ; verses to which the young editor appended this note, “If ‘W.’ at Haverhill will continue to favour us with pieces as beautiful as the one inserted in our poetical department of to-day, we shall esteem it a favour.” The poem itself, now interesting chiefly as a milestone, is as follows:--
This poem was by Whittier, written in 1825 at the age of seventeen, and sent by his elder sister Mary for purposes of publication. The further history of its reception is thus told by Garrison in a lecture on Whittier, never printed by himself, but of which this extract is given by Garrison's biographers:--
The family tradition is simply that the number of the newspaper containing his contribution was thrown out, one day, by the carrier to the youthful Whittier, as he was working with his uncle on a stone wall by the roadside; and he read it with natural delight. Some days later a young man of fine appearance and bearing drove out to see him, accompanied by a young lady. This was Garrison, who had driven fourteen miles for that purpose. Whittier was in his working clothes, in the field, and it needed his sister Mary's persuasion to bring him to the house. Thus did he and Garrison first meet, and the latter expressed frankly to the elder Whittier his opinion of his son's talent, and the suggestion that the youth should be sent to a better school than Haverhill then afforded. The elder Whittier did not promptly accept this; it does not appear precisely whether from some lingering distrust of higher education, or simply from his own poverty. Whittier wrote to Garrison thirty years later (1859), recognising only the latter ground. “My father did not oppose me; he was proud of my pieces, but as he was in straitened circumstances he could do nothing to aid me. He was a man in advance of his times, remarkable for the soundness of his judgment and freedom from popular errors of thinking. My mother always encouraged me, and sympathised with me.” He sent also another poem, entitled “The Deity,” an amplification of the eleventh and twelfth verses of  the nineteenth chapter of First Kings. This was also written in 1825, and was published in the Free Press of June 22, 1826.1 Mr. Garrison introduced it as follows:--
Going upstairs to my office, one day, I observed a letter lying near the door, to my address; which, on opening, I found to contain an original piece of poetry for my paper,  the Free Press. The ink was very pale, the handwriting very small; and, having at that time a horror of newspaper ‘original poetry,’ --which has rather increased than diminished with the lapse of time,--my first impulse was to tear it in pieces, without reading it; the chances of rejection, after its perusal, being as ninety-nine to one; . . . but, summoning resolution to read it, I was equally surprised and gratified to find it above mediocrity, and so gave it a place in my journal. ... As I was anxious to find out the writer, my post-rider one day divulged the secret — stating that he had dropped the letter in the manner described, and that it was written by a Quaker lad, named Whittier, who was daily at work on the shoemaker's bench, with hammer and lapstone, at East Haverhill. Jumping into a vehicle, I lost no time in driving to see the youthful rustic bard, who came into the room with shrinking diffidence, almost unable to speak, and blushing like a maiden. Giving him some words of encouragement, I addressed myself more particularly to his parents, and urged them with great earnestness to grant him every possible facility for the development of his remarkable genius. . . .Almost as soon as he could write, he [Whittier] gave evidence of the precocity and strength of his poetical genius, and when unable to procure paper and ink, a piece of chalk or charcoal was substituted. He indulged his propensity for rhyming with so much secrecy (as his father informed us), that it was only by removing some rubbish in the garret, where he had concealed his manuscripts, that the discovery was made. This bent of his mind was discouraged by his parents: they were in indigent circumstances, and unable to give him a suitable education, and they did not wish to inspire him with hopes which might never be fulfilled. ... We endeavoured to speak cheeringly of the prospect of their son; we dwelt upon the impolicy of warring against Nature, of striving to quench the first kindlings of a flame which might burn like a star in our literary horizon-and we spoke too of fame--‘ Sir,’ replied his father, with an emotion which went home to our bosom like an electric shock, ‘poetry will not give him bread.’ What could we say? The fate  of Chatterton, Otway, and the whole catalogue of those who had perished by neglect, rushed upon our memory, and we were silent.Garrison's life, I. 67, 68.
The author of the following graphic sketch, which would do credit to riper years, is a youth of only sixteen years, who we think bids fair to prove another Bernard Barton, of whose persuasion he is. His poetry bears the stamp of true poetic genius, which, if carefully cultivated, will rank him among the bards of his country.Other poems — or versified contributions — bore such a wide range of titles as “The Vale of the Merrimack,” “The death of Alexander,” “The voice of time,” “The Burial of the Princess Charlotte of Wales,” “To the Memory of William Penn,” “The Shipwreck,” “Paulowna” “Memory,” and the like; but it is impossible now to find in these the traces of genius which Garrison saw, or thought he saw; nor has their author preserved any of the above, except the first two, even in the appendix to his Riverside edition. Later, when Garrison edited The Journal of the Times at Bennington, Vt., he printed in it four poems by Whittier, and wrote of him, “Our friend Whittier seems determined to elicit our best panegyrics, and not ours only, but also those of the public. His genius and situation no more correspond with each other than heaven and earth. But let him not despair. Fortune will come, ere long, ‘with both hands full.’ ” Garrison's Journal of the Times, Dec. 5, 1828; Life, I. 115. Whittier was by this time editing the American Manufacturer in Boston.  When Garrison was in England at a great Antislavery Convention, that same year, Whittier wrote to him (Nov. 10, 1833):
I have, my dear Garrison, just finished reading thy speech at the Exeter Hall meeting. It is full of high and manly truth-terrible in its rebuke, but full of justice. The opening, as a specimen of beautiful composition, I have rarely seen excelled. Garrison's life, I. 369, note.It is to be noticed that both these young editors were the hearty supporters of what was called “Henry Clay and the American system,” and that when Whittier met Clay in Washington, years after, and was asked why he did not support for office that very popular man, replied that it was because he could not support a slaveholder.2 The relation between Garrison and Whittier is to be further traced in this correspondence between Garrison and some young ladies in Haverhill who called themselves “Inquirers after truth.”
Garrison wrote after the visit to Haverhill (1833), “To see my dear Whittier once more, full of health and manly beauty, was pleasurable indeed” ; and it was only three months before Whittier's pamphlet appeared entitled “Justice and Expediency; or Slavery considered with a view to its rightful remedy, Abolition.” When Garrison had urged greater school advantages for Whittier, it was a bit of advice which the elder Whittier received, as has been seen, rather coldly; but when the same counsel was given by the editor of the Haverhill Gazette, Mr. A. W. Thayer, and was accompanied by the offer to take the boy into his own family and let him attend the newly formed Haverhill Academy, the kind proposal was accepted. His instruction began on May 1, 1827, the necessary money having been raised by extra work done by him in making a new kind of slippers, just then invented. So carefully did Whittier plan to meet the cost of his half year's teaching, that he calculated on having  twenty-five cents of surplus at the end of the year, and had it. It is an unusual thing for a newly established academy to be opened with an ode by a pupil just entered, but this was the case with the Haverhill Academy on April 30, 1827, when the oration was given by the Hon. Leverett Saltonstall of Salem. The poem cannot now be found, but we can easily test the product of the young student's muse as to quantity at least, by the columns of the Haverhill Gazette, which yielded forty-seven of his poems in 1827 and forty-nine in 1828. These were given under various signatures, of which “Adrian” was the chief, while “Donald,” “Timothy,” “Micajah,” and “Ichabod” were others, and the modest initial “W.” filled up the gaps. The first which appeared under his full name was a long one, “The Outlaw,” printed in the Gazette on Oct. 28, 1828. He seems to have made an effort in early life to preserve the “Greenleaf,” which was always his home name, he differing curiously at this last point from Lowell, who was always James at home and Russell, especially in England, to the world outside. Out of all these poems written before 1829, Whittier himself preserved, in the collected edition of his works, only eight, and these in an appendix, in discouragingly small type, as if offering very little encouragement to the reader. Probably these would have passed into oblivion with the rest, had they not been, as he says in his preface, “kept alive in the newspapers for the last half-century, and some of them even in book form.” They represent, the author says, “the weak beginnings of the graduate of a small  country district-school, sixty years ago.” “That they met with some degree of favour at that time may be accounted for by the fact that the makers of verse were then few in number, with little competition in their unprofitable vocation, and that the standard of criticism was not discouragingly high.” 4 It is curious that he here threw into this shadow of oblivion even his first long poem, “Mogg Megone,” which he had nevertheless included in the first collective edition of his poems, in 1857, though saying of it in his preface that it was in a great measure composed in early life; “and it is scarcely necessary to say that its subject is not such as the writer would have chosen at any subsequent period.” An attempt was made by Mr. Thayer to get a volume containing “The poems of Adrian” published by subscription in 1828, but this failed of success, perhaps fortunately. The best description of Whittier's personal bearing at that time is given by one who was then a friend and associate of his younger sister, and was doubtless often at the house. This was Miss Harriet Minot, a daughter of Judge Minot of Haverhill, and afterward Mrs. Pitman of Somerville. She wrote thus of him to Mr. Francis H. Underwood, in 1883:--
Whittier does not preserve among his early poems “The song of the Vermonters, 1779,” published anonymously in the New England Magazine in 1833. He taught school in a modest way after his first half-year at the academy, then took a second and final term at the institution, partly paying his expenses by posting the ledgers of a business man in Haverhill. Through Garrison he was offered the editorship of a weekly temperance paper called The Philanthropist, in Boston, and wrote the following letter to his friend Thayer, asking his advice as to acceptance. It shows, better than anything else, his condition of mind at the period.
I can tell you nothing of him as a boy. I wish I could, but he is older than I, lived three miles from the village of Haverhill, where my father's home was, and was nearly nineteen years old when I first saw him. ... He was a very handsome, distinguished-looking young man. His eyes were remarkably beautiful. He was tall, slight, and very erect, a bashful youth, but never awkward, my mother said,  who was a better judge than I of such matters. He went to school awhile at Haverhill Academy. There were pupils of all ages from ten to twenty-five. My brother George Minot, then about ten years old, used to say that Whittier was the best of all the big fellows, and he was in the habit of calling him ‘Uncle Toby.’ Whittier was always kind to children, and under a very grave and quiet exterior there was a real love of fun and a keen sense of the ludicrous. In society he was embarrassed, and his manners were in consequence sometimes brusque and cold. With intimate friends he talked a great deal and in a wonderfully interesting manner; usually earnest, often analytical, and frequently playful. He had a great deal of wit. It was a family characteristic. The study of human nature was very interesting to him, and his insight was keen. He liked to draw out his young friends, and to suggest puzzling doubts and queries.When a wrong was to be righted or an evil to be remedied, he was readier to act than any young man I ever knew, and was very wise in his action, shrewd, sensible, practical. The influence of his Quaker bringing — up was manifest. I think it was always his endeavourTo render lessThis, I say, was his stedfast endeavour, in spite of an inborn love of teasing. He was very modest, never conceited, never egotistic. One could never flatter him. I never tried; but I have seen people attempt it, and it was a signal failure. He did not flatter, but told very wholesome and unpalatable truths, yet in a way to spare one's self-love by admitting a doubt whether he was in jest or earnest. The great questions of Calvinism were subjects of which he often talked in those early days. He was exceedingly conscientious. He cared for people — quite as much for the plainest and most uncultivated, if they were original and had something in them, as for the most polished. He was much interested in politics, and thoroughly  posted. I remember, in one of his first calls at our house, being surprised at his conversation with my father upon Governor Gerry and the gerrymandering of the state, or the attempt to do it, of which I had until then been ignorant. He had a retentive memory and a marvellous store of information on many subjects. I once saw a little commonplace book of his, full of quaint things and as interesting as Southey's. His house was one of the most delightful that I ever knew, situated in a green valley, where was a laughing brook, fine old trees, hills near by, and no end of wild flowers. What did they want of the music and pictures which man makes when they had eyes to see the beauties of Nature, ears to hear its harmonies, and imaginations to reproduce them? It makes me impatient to hear people talk of the dulness and sordidness of young life in New England fifty years ago! There was Nature with its infinite variety; there were books, the best ever written, and not too many of them; there were young men and maidens with their eager enthusiasm; there were great problems to be solved, boundless fields of knowledge to explore, a heaven to believe in, and neighbours to do good to. Life was very full. Whittier's home was exceptionally charming on account of the character of its inmates. His father, a sensible and estimable man, died before I knew the home. His mother was serene, dignified, benevolent — a woman of good judgment, fond of reading the best books — a woman to honour and revere. His aunt, Mercy Hussey, who lived with them, was an incarnation of gracefulness and graciousness, of refinement and playfulness, an ideal lady. His sister Elizabeth, ‘ the youngest and the dearest,’ shared his poetic gifts, and was a sweet rare person, devoted to her family and friends, kind to every one, full of love for all beautiful things, and so merry, when in good health, that her companionship was always exhilarating. I cannot imagine her doing a wrong thing or having an unworthy thought. She was deeply religious, and so were they all. I have said nothing of Whittier in his relations to  women. There was never a particle of coxcombry about him. He was delicate and chivalrous, but paid few of the little attentions common in society. If a girl dropped her glove or handkerchief in his presence, she had to pick it up again, especially if she did it on purpose. I was about to speak of his thrift and frugality, and of his independence, and of his early taking upon himself the care of the family. ... I have not mentioned the antislavery cause, the subject nearest to his heart after the year 1833, the subject about which he talked most, for which he laboured most, and to which he was most devoted. All his friends became abolitionists. I was deeply in sympathy with him on this question; but this is a matter of history, and he should recount his own experience.
The sum of human wretchedness.
After leaving the academy, Whittier plunged with unexpected suddenness into journalism, which took with  him the form of a nursery for ardent political zeal. In Boston he was put in, as has been supposed, through Garrison's influence, as editor of the American Manufacturer. He was paid but nine dollars a week, half of which he saved toward paying off the mortgage on his father's farm, and he could avail himself of the Boston libraries which then seemed to him large, though they would now appear small. Then for six months he edited the Haverhill Gazette, and also contributed to the New England Review of Hartford, Conn., then edited by the once famous wit and dashing writer, George D. Prentice. The latter afterward transferred the editorship of the New England Review to Whittier, he himself having gone to Lexington, Ky., to write the “Life of Henry Clay,” who was expecting a nomination for the Presidency. Nothing in the relation between Prentice and Whittier — the reckless man of the world and the shy young Quaker — seems quite so amusingly inappropriate as Prentice's first letter to him, ere they had even met. It runs thus:
Whittier, I wish you were seated by my side, for I assure you that my situation, just now, is very much to my particular satisfaction. Here am I in my hotel, with a good-natured fire in front of me, and a bottle of champagne at my left hand. Can you imagine a situation more to a good fellow's mind? . . . Then you have more imagination than judgment. . . . The gods be praised that I am not a member of the temperance society! Would to fortune I could come to Haverhill, before my return to Hartford — but the thing is impossible. I am running short both of time and money. Well, we can live on and love, as we have done. Once or twice I have even thought that my feelings towards you had more of romance in them than they possibly could have if we were acquainted  with each other. I never yet met for the first time with a person whose name I had learned to revere, without feeling on the instant that the beautiful veil with which my imagination had robed him was partially rent away. If you cannot explain this matter, you are no philosopher.Whittier had at Hartford more of social life than ever before, and made the acquaintance of Mrs. Sigourney, then famous; also of F. A. P. Barnard, afterward president of Columbia College. Whittier's first thin volume, “Legend of New England” (Hartford, Hanmer and Phelps, 1831), was published with some difficulty at the age of twenty-four; and was suppressed in later life by the author himself, he buying it up, sometimes at the price of five dollars a copy, in order that he might burn it. It gave little promise, either in its prose or verse, and showed, like the early works of Hawthorne, the influence of Irving. The only things preserved from it, even in the appendix to his collected poems, are two entitled “Metacom” and “Mount Agioochook” 6; and he has wisely preserved nothing of the very rhetorical and melodramatic prose writing. Yet he showed in these the desire for home themes and the power to discover them. In “The Rattlesnake hunter” the theme is an old man who devotes his life, among the mountains of Vermont, to the extirpation of rattlesnakes, one of which has killed his wife. “The Unquiet sleeper” is based on the tradition of an old man in a New Hampshire village who died suddenly near his home, and whose cries were heard at night from the grave; the author claiming to have known people who had actually heard them. “The spectre ship” is from a tradition in Mather's “Magnalia.” “The Midnight  attack” is a narrative of adventure with the Indians on the Kennebec River in 1722, on the part of Captain Harmon and thirty forest rangers. “The human sacrifice” records the escape of a young white girl from Indians, who are terrified by rumbling noises that proceed from a carbonate concealed in the rocks; this suggesting the “Great Carbuncle” of Hawthorne. All these themes, it will be noticed, are American and local, and hence desirable as selections; but the talent of the author was not precociously mature, like that of Hawthorne, nor did he continue in the same direction. Yet so far as the selection of the themes went, his work was a contribution to the rising school of native literature. Aubrey de Vere once wrote to Tennyson that Sara Coleridge, daughter of the poet, had said to him that “However inferior the bulk of a young man's poetry may be to that of the poet when mature, it generally possesses some passages with a special freshness of their own, and an inexplicable charm to be found in them alone.” It is just this quality which seems wanting in the earliest poems of Whittier. As we may observe in his youthful action a certain element of ordinary self-seeking and merely personal ambition which utterly vanishes in mature life, so there was, at that time, in his verses, an essentially commonplace quality which he himself recognised at a later time by his destruction of the volumes. Happy is he who has only this fault to deal with, and has no tinge of coarseness or mere frivolity for which to blush; and from all such elements Whittier was plainly free. Nevertheless, it must always remain one of the most curious facts in his intellectual history, that his first poetical  efforts gave absolutely no promise of the future; he in this respect differing from all contemporary American poets-Bryant, Longfellow, Emerson, Holmes, Poe, and Lowell. Whittier's desires in youth were almost equally divided between politics and poetry; and there presently appeared a third occupation in the form of that latent physical disease which haunted his whole life. This obliged him to give up the editorship of the New England Review and to leave Hartford on Jan. 1, 1832. He had been editing the “Literary remains of J. G. C. Brainard,” an early Connecticut poet, and wrote a preface, but did not see it in print until he had returned to Haverhill. He wrote about himself thus frankly to Mrs. Sigourney (Feb. 2, 1832) as to his condition of mind and body at that period.
“ Moll Pitcher” was published (Boston, 1832) anonymously, and again, but this time with his name, eight years later, together with “The minstrel girl” (Philadelphia, 1840). Neither of these has been included in his collected works. No American poet whose fame outlived him had ever produced in early life so much verse which he was ready to forget. On the other hand, he evidently had support all ready for him should he seriously enter public life. He wrote to his friend Jonathan Law in 1832, speaking of this: “My prospects are too good to be sacrificed for any uncertainty. I have done with poetry and literature. I can live as a farmer, and that is all I ask at present.  I wish you could make me a visit, you and Mrs. Law; our situation is romantic enough — out of the din and bustle of the village, with a long range of green hills stretching away to the river; a brook goes brawling at their foot, overshadowed with trees, through which the white walls of our house are just visible. In truth, I am as comfortable as one can well be, always excepting ill health.” Mr. Pickard informs us that it is made clear by his other correspondents that the prospects of which Whittier speaks are in the line of political promotion; and that he was prevented from accepting the offer by his friends of a nomination for Congress, only because he was below what he supposed to be the legal age, twenty-five.7
I intended when I left Hartford to proceed immediately to the West. But a continuance of ill health has kept me at home. I have scarcely done anything this winter. There have been few days in which I have been able to write with any degree of comfort. I have indeed thrown together a poem of some length, the title of which ( ‘Moll Pitcher’ ) has very little connection with the subject. This poem I handed to a friend of mine, and he has threatened to publish it. It will not have the advantage or disadvantage of my name, however. I have also written, or rather begun to write, a work of fiction, which shall have for its object the reconciliation of the North and the South,being simply an endeavour to do away with some of the prejudices which have produced enmity between the Southron and the Yankee. The style which I have adopted is about halfway between the abruptness of Laurence Sterne and the smooth gracefulness of W. Irving. I may fail,indeed, I suspect I shall,--but I have more philosophy  than poetry in my composition, and if I am disappointed in one project, I have only to lay it aside and take another up. If I thought I deserved half the compliments you have been pleased to bestow upon my humble exertions, I should certainly be in danger of becoming obnoxious to the charge of vanity. The truth is, I love poetry, with a love as warm, as fervent, as sincere, as any of the more gifted worshippers at the temple of the Muses. I consider its gift as something holy, and above the fashion of the world. In the language of Francis Bacon, ‘ The Muses are in league with time,’ --which spares their productions in its work of universal desolation. But I feel and know thatTo other chords than mine belongAnd in consequence, I have been compelled to trust to other and less pleasant pursuits for distinction and profit. Politics is the only field now open for me, and there is something inconsistent in the character of a poet and modern politician. People of the present day seem to have ideas similar to those of that old churl of a Plato, who was for banishing all poets from his perfect republic.
The breathing of immortal song.Pickard, pp. 100-2.