A YEAR or two back it was my good fortune to spend a few delightful days amidst the green hills and pleasant water-courses of New England. And nothing that I there experienced impressed me more than the reverent affection with which the name of John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, is always mentioned there. In New England he was born; in New England he lived and labored and wrote; in New England he died: and in his chaste and tuneful minstrelsy, more than anywhere else, the essential spirit of New England has become articulate.
A farm boy, he was poorly educated. His father held that too much book-learning was bad for young people. It made them turn up their noses at the plough, the reaping hook and the milk cans. He insisted that the cultivated field, the green woods and the open air can teach everything that a young farmer really needs to know.
If the circumscribed life to which the youth was thus restricted seems severely narrow, it was by no means unhappy. In his Snowbound, Whittier has given us a vivid and colorful delineation of these early days of his; and the poem stands as one of the most beautiful descriptions of domestic felicity in the English language. It is at many points reminiscent of Burns' Cotter’s Saturday Night—a poem that very possibly influenced its composition. Who that has once read Whittier's exquisite stanzas can ever forget those winter evenings in the snow-bound farmhouse? The roaring fire; the babel of irresponsible chatter; the peals of laughter; the books and needlework and games; the music and the story-telling; what nights of romance those were! Eyes sparkled and cheeks flushed as the father unfolded narratives of adventure belonging to the rough old pioneering days; whilst even the demure little Quaker mother could sometimes make them hold their breath with tense excitement:
Our mother, while she turned her wheel
Or run the new-knit stocking-heel,
Told how the Indian hordes came down
At midnight on Cochecho town,
And how her own great-uncle bore
His cruel scalp-mark to fourscore,
Recalling, in her fitting phrase,
So rich and picturesque and free
(The common unrhymed poetry
Of simple life and country ways)
The story of her early days.
It was in this idyllic atmosphere that Whittier spent his boyhood; and nothing would have surprised him more than to be told that, whilst still a youth, he was destined to pass from it into a life of publicity, conflict and fame.
Two events, neither of them appearing momentous at the time, shattered the tranquility of the farm-lad's career. A wandering pedlar arrived one evening at the door of the homestead, and, in keeping with the traditional hospitality of the Whittiers, was invited to stay the night. After supper he delighted the family by singing some of the songs of Robert Burns. John sat spellbound: the Scottish bard captivated his youthful fancy at once. Shortly afterwards the village schoolmaster, Joshua Coffin, dropped in one night, and, to John's unbounded delight, brought a copy of Burns with him. The boy borrowed it, devoured it hungrily, and, in its pages, made a sensational and epoch-making discovery. `I found', he says, `that the things out of which poems came were not, as I had always imagined, somewhere far off in a world of life lying outside our own sky. They were right here about my feet and among the people I knew!' The first few hours after opening that book were among the most memorable in his life.
How oft that day, with fond delay, I sought the maple's shadow,
And sang with Burns the hours away, forgetful of the meadow.
New light on home-seen Nature beamed, new glory over woman;
And daily life and duty seemed no longer poor and common.
This was the first of the two events that fashioned his destiny; and the second arose naturally out of it. For the thought suggested itself to his eager mind that it might be possible for him to do for New England what Burns had done for Scotland. In odd moments he scrawled his jingles on any fugitive scraps of paper that he could gather together. Whether he would ever have found courage to seek the publication of these rough-and-ready verses can never be determined; for the issue was taken entirely out of his hands.
On the arrival at the farm one day of the local paper, he was dumbfounded at beholding one of his own poems in all the bravery of type. He had no idea that his sister, Mary, always one of his warmest admirers, had found the penciled lines, had fallen in love with them, and, without consulting anybody, had forwarded them to the Editor. This Editor chanced to be a youth named Lloyd Garrison, still in his teens, but destined to become the prime mover in the agitation that led to the emancipation of the American slaves.
At the earliest possible moment, Lloyd Garrison drove over to the Whittier farm to see his new contributor, then aged sixteen. `The rustic bard', he tells us, `came into the room with shrinking diffidence, unable to speak, and blushing like a girl.' Lloyd Garrison urged the boy to seek an ampler education; but the elder Whittier, scenting all kinds of dangers, told the young Editor bluntly to mind his own business and not to come putting notions into boys' heads!
During the years that followed, Whittier cut a great figure in his country's history. Nature and self-culture combined to endow him with a striking and commanding appearance. He was tall, dark, handsome, with raven hair and black, flashing eyes. He had, as one of his colleagues put it, `the reticence and presence of an Arab chief and the eye of an eagle'. At the, age of twenty-eight he entered the Legislature of Massachusetts; and, during the fevered years in which America was convulsed by the question as to whether the slaves should, or should not, be freed, Lloyd Garrison and the champions of emancipation found no ally more staunch, more able or more effective than Whittier.
He became one of the most attractive, one of the most honored, and one of the most beloved figures in the public life of the Western world. Strangely enough, he never married. He loved all pretty things—pretty girls particularly. He tells us how he reveled in admiring the charms of face and figure in the women who passed him on the street. `They go flitting by me', he says, `like aerial creatures just stooping down to our dull earth. I delight in their graceful movements, notice the brilliancy of their fine eyes and observe the delicate flush stealing over their cheeks; yet my heart is untouched—cold and motionless as a Jutland lake in the moonlight. I always did love a pretty girl. Heaven grant there is no harm in it!' To the end of his days—and he lived to be eighty-five—he treated all women with the utmost courtliness and reverence; he understood women as few men can claim to do; women admired and ministered to him; whilst the majority of his intimate friends were of the gentler sex. Yet, although he often expressed to those who were most deeply in his confidence an earnest desire for marriage, its felicities persistently evaded him.
To most of us Whittier will always represent the articulation of all that is simplest and sweetest in our faith. In how many thousands of churches, every Sunday, do devout hearts raise his beautiful Dear Lord and Father of Mankind?
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake; Wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm!
Who, more vividly than Whittier, has made us feel the reality and the virtue of the presence of our living Lord?
The healing of His seamless dress
Is by our beds of pain;
We touch Him in life's throng and press
And we are whole again.
Through Him the first fond prayers are said
Our lips of childhood frame;
The last low whispers of our dead
Are burdened with His name.
O Lord and Saviour of us all,
Whate'er our name or sign,
We own Thy sway, we hear Thy call,
And form our lives by Thine.
Thus the Quaker becomes the Priest—the Priest of the Presence—the Priest who leads us into those holy places in which we touch the intangible, sense the incomprehensible, hear the inaudible, see the invisible, and bow penitently and adoringly in the silence ineffable.
His later years were marked by the ripening and mellowing of those chivalrous qualities that had adorned his entire career. Sir Edmund Gosse visited him as he neared the end, and was impressed by his gentle sweetness and dignified courtesy: his spirit was gay and cheerful; his language fluid and graceful. He spent his last days feasting his eyes on the sparkling waters of the Merrimac. He reveled in the vision of the green hills, the blue sky, the abundance of flowers and the ships in the distance. To this charming retreat there came the most notable social and literary figures of the day, all anxious to offer their homage to one whose name, in his own lifetime, had become a cherished and luminous tradition.
Here he passed quietly away, exclaiming, as he gently raised his hand at the last, `Love . . . love to all the world!' According to Quaker custom, a plain slab marks his resting-place, exactly similar to the stones erected to the memory of the other Whittiers near by. Of that unpretentious monument Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
Lift from its quarried edge a flawless stone,
Smooth the green turf and bid the tablet rise,
And on its snow-white surface carve alone
These words—he needs none other—
HERE WHITTIER LIES!
Up among the malarial bogs of the African jungle, David Livingstone, in his last lonely days, reveled in the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier; and, in so doing, he becomes the distinguished representative of that great host who love to offer the tribute of their homage at that Quaker shrine.
F W Boreham, ‘A Melodious Quaker’, I Forgot to Say (London: The Epworth Press, 1939), 190-196.