The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XIII
§ 1. Quaker Ancestry and Nurture.
IT was in 1638, when the great Puritan emigration to Massachusetts was beginning to slacken, that Thomas Whittier, a youth of eighteen, possibly of Huguenot extraction, landed in New England and made a home for himself on the shores of the Merrimac River. The substantial oak farmhouse which, late in life, he erected for his large family near Haverhill, is still standing. Descended from him in the fourth generation, John Greenleaf Whittier, the poet, was born in this house, 17 December, 1807. This is the homestead described with minute and loving fidelity in Snow-Bound, and it is typical of the many thousands of its sort that dotted the New England country-side, rearing in the old Puritan tradition a sturdy pioneer stock that was to blossom later in the fine flower of political and ethical passion, of statesmanship and oratory and letters. Though Whittier’s family tree was originally Puritan, a Quaker scion was grafted upon it in the second American generation, when Joseph Whittier, the youngest son of the pioneer, married Mary Peaslee, whose father had been an associate and disciple of George Fox. The descendants in this line remained faithful to the doctrines of the Society of Friends, and the poet, although he persisted in the characteristic and quaint (although ungrammatical) use of the second person singular pronoun in address, found the principle of non-resistance something of a strain in the days when his fondest hopes were bound up in the holy cause for which his friends were bearing arms and laying down their lives upon the battle-field.
The levelled gun, the battle brand
We may not take,
But, calmly loyal, we can stand
And suffer for our suffering land
For conscience’ sake.
The temperament of the New England Quaker was not unlike that of the New England Puritan. The one could be as cantankerous as the other, on occasion, but when the early Puritan intolerance of the sect had been smoothed away, the Quaker was found to be a man whose ideals were essentially those of the founders of Massachusetts, contributing to those ideals his own element of kindly sympathy, his own insistence upon the dignity of the individual, and his own uncompromising spirit of democracy. These traits were permanently stamped upon Whittier’s character, and all rested upon a foundation of unshakable faith in the spiritual order of the world. Christianity has perhaps never assumed a purer or lovelier guise than it took in the lives of those New England Quakers of whom Whittier was the type.
The life of the household in which the poet grew to manhood is reproduced in Snow-Bound with a fidelity which makes of that poem, for its truthfulness and sincerity, one of the imperishable things in American literature—a document whose significance is becoming fully apparent only now that the phase of life it describes has all but vanished from American life, whether in New England or elsewhere. The home which Snow-Bound describes was a comfortable one, as New England farmsteads went, and, in poetical retrospect, its gracious human aspects are raised to a prominence which somewhat obscures the hard facts of the daily life of the household. It was a life of toil, with meagre opportunities for recreation, and the young Whittier did not have the constitution needed for its requirements. The physical disabilities under which he laboured all his life were doubtless traceable to the hardships of these early years on the farm.
Whittier had but little education of the formal sort. There were sessions of the district school for a few weeks every year, and these he attended off and on. In his twentieth year, an academy was opened in Haverhill, and in this institution he was enrolled as a student for two terms, earning the money to pay for his tuition. Meanwhile, he had been acquiring the best kind of education by devouring every book that he could lay his hands on, including the few on the family shelf—mostly the writings of pious Quakers—and
The Bible towering o’er the rest,
Of all other books the best.
One evening the district school teacher, Joshua Coffin, brought to the house a volume of Burns, and read from it to the family. This reading was a revelation to the boy of fourteen, who eagerly sought permission to keep the book for a while. The Scotch poet aroused in him the poetical stirrings which were to occupy his mind from that time on, and marked an epoch in the intellectual development of his boyhood. It was Burns, as he confessed many years later, who made him see
through all familiar things
The romance underlying;
The joys and griefs that plume the wings
Of Fancy skyward flying,
and so shaped his imaginings that he became, in a more exact sense than is usually connoted by such literary analogies, the Burns of his own New England country.
§ 2. Early Poems.
From this time on, Whittier was an industrious scribbler of rhymes. Most of them have been lost, but enough remain to reveal a promise which may perhaps be characterized as similar to that of the Poems by Two Brothers, or the Poems by Victor and Cazire. The first of his verses to appear in print were sent, unknown to the author, by his sister Mary to The Free Press, a weekly paper just established by William Lloyd Garrison in Newburyport. The boy’s surprise was great when he read his own composition in an issue of the paper that was delivered at the Whittier farm in the summer of 1826. Other pieces followed, and one day shortly afterward, Garrison made a journey to the farm for the purpose of hunting up his promising contributor. He found Whittier at work in the field, urged the poet’s father to send him to the academy, and thus began what was to be the life-long friendship of these two remarkable personalities. During the next two years Whittier published in the Haverhill Gazette nearly one hundred poems, besides prose articles on Burns, War, and Temperance. In 1828, a volume to be entitled The Poems of Adrian was projected, but this venture was abandoned. In the summer of that year his schooldays came to an end, and he began to look about for a means of earning his living. An offer was made him of the editorship of The Philanthropist, a paper devoted to the cause of what is called “temperance” in the current perverted sense of that term, but this offer he declined in a letter containing this significant confession: “I would rather have the memory of a Howard, a Wilberforce, and a Clarkson than the undying fame of Byron.” By this time, he had acquired a considerable local reputation as a young writer of promise, and various modest openings already lay in his path.
During the next four years of his life (1828–32), Whittier was the editor of papers in Boston and Haverhill, and of The New England Review, in Hartford, Connecticut, besides contributing to many others. He became a partisan of Clay and the protective system, and looked askance at Jackson, “the blood-thirsty old man at the head of our government.” The death of the elder Whittier in 1830 kept him for some time in Haverhill for the settlement of the family affairs. His interest in politics became more and more pronounced, and he thought seriously of standing for an election to Congress in 1832 but gave up the idea because he would, at the time of the election, be a few weeks short of the legal age requirement. When he identified himself, the next year, with the unpopular cause of the abolitionists, he gave up all hopes of political advancement.
§ 3. Abolitionism.
Whittier’s first published book was entitled Legends of New England, in Prose and Verse. It appeared in 1831, and was followed in 1832 by a pamphlet containing Moll Pitcher. Both these publications he afterwards did his best to suppress. Reform still appealed to him even more than poetry, and he wrote upon one occasion: “I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Antislavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of any book.” This Declaration was issued by the Convention held in Philadelphia, in 1833, to which Whittier was a delegate. In taking this momentous decision, he builded better than he knew, for the poet in him was aroused, and the Voices of Freedom which from that time flowed from his pen were the utterances of a deeply-stirred soul, as different as possible from the imitative exercises which had hitherto engaged him.
The incidents of Whittier’s life during the following few years may be briefly summarized. In 1835 he served a term in the Massachusetts Legislature. In 1836, the Haverhill homestead was sold, and he bought in Amesbury, a few miles down the Merrimac, the cottage which was to be his home for the rest of his life. He occupied various editorial positions, which, together with activities in connection with the abolitionist agitation, kept him moving about until 1840, when he found his health badly broken and returned to Amesbury, there to remain for the greater part of the half-century that was still vouchsafed to him. In his abolitionist activities he proved his mettle, often suffering indignities at the hands of mobs and being on several occasions in no small physical peril. His shrewd and persuasive political activities made him a force to be reckoned with, and he kept in close touch with the leaders and movements of the time, allying himself with the Liberty Party of 1840, which, like the scriptural mustard seed, was destined to wax into so great a tree.
§ 4. Poems.
In 1836, Whittier published Mogg Megone, and, in the following year, a collection of his miscellaneous poems. In 1849, a comprehensive collection of his poems appeared, followed a year later by Songs of Labour and Other Poems. The first English edition of his collected poems also appeared in 1850. These volumes included all that he thought worth preserving of the work of twenty years. In 1857, the “blue and gold” collected edition of the poems was published in Boston. From this time onward small volumes of new poems appeared at intervals of about two years down to the year of the author’s death, At Sundown, the last of the series, bearing the date of that very year (1892). Of special significance are the idyl entitled Snow-Bound (1866) and the cycle called The Tent on the Beach (1867). These two volumes marked a broadening of Whittier’s fame, a higher recognition of his standing as an artist, and a noticeable measure of release from the financial difficulties under which he long had struggled. For the rest, the ballads, lyrics, and occasional pieces which made him most famous are scattered somewhat indiscriminately through the score or more of his volumes. For upwards of half a century verse flowed profusely from his pen, and his career did not fall into the distinctive periods that it is the task and the delight of the critic to define and to characterize in the work of many other poets.
§ 5. Later Honours.
From 1840 onward Whittier made Amesbury his home, although he allowed himself many protracted visits to friends and relatives, to Danvers and Newburyport, to the waters and mountains of New Hampshire, to Maine and the Isles of Shoals. From 1847 to 1860 he was associated, at long distance, with The National Era, a weekly paper published at Washington, and best remembered as the periodical in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first given to the world. This paper was the chief medium for his expression until the establishment of The Atlantic Monthly in 1857, in whose pages a large part of his later work appeared. His seventieth birthday, in 1877, was made the occasion of a celebration more elaborate than had before been the reward of any American poet. He attended the Boston dinner then given in his honour, feeling
Like him who in the old Arabian joke
A beggar slept and crownéd Caliph woke.
His eightieth birthday was also celebrated, bringing to him a striking memorial signed by all the members of the Supreme Court bench, nearly all the members of both houses of Congress, and many private citizens of the highest distinction, making it clear that the nation held him in love and veneration as one of its greatest spiritual assets. He was visiting at the house of a friend, a few miles from Amesbury just over the New Hampshire border, when a cerebral hemorrhage brought him to a peaceful death, 7 September, 1892. “Love to all the world,” were the words that played upon his lips just before the end.
§ 6. Ballads.
In the classification of Whittier’s work, the narrative poems are the first to call for consideration. “Of all our poets he is the most natural balladist,” says E. C. Stedman, and throughout his entire life he was always ready to turn from the strenuous exactions of the causes which claimed his most ardent sympathies to the delightful relaxation of story-telling. From childhood he was steeped in the legendry of New England, its tales of Indian raids, of Quaker persecutions, of picturesque pioneers, and of romantic adventure; while the wide reading which made Whittier in later life a cultivated man fed his narrative faculty with old-world themes, ranging all the way from the Norse to the Oriental. The grim tragic economy of the folk-ballad, as it sprang from the heart of the people in England, Denmark, or Germany, never imparted its secret to him, although in The Sisters he came near to plucking the heart out of that mystery; but the ballad was to him the occasion for a rambling narration, diffuse in its unfolding and unrestrained in its form, often with decorative illustrations drawn from quite unexpected sources, and usually shaped to the point of a rather obtrusive moral. Such pieces as Maud Muller and Barclay of Ury would doubtless have been better poems without the moralizing tags which conclude them, but probably they would also have been less popular. Whittier’s public expected a certain element of sermonizing in his verse and the America of his time paid scant heed to the cry that “art for art’s sake” should be the guiding principle of poetic practice. The best of Whittier’s ballads, nevertheless, are comparatively unburdened with didacticism. Among these may be mentioned Pentucket, with its memories of old-time Indian raids along the Merrimac; Cassandra Southwick, a tale of the Quaker persecutions; The Angels of Buena Vista, an echo from the battle-fields of the Mexican War; The Garrison of Cape Ann, which tells how the New Englander of old vanquished the powers of darkness; Skipper Ireson's Ride, a spirited song of the vengeance wrought by the women of Marblehead upon a sea-captain thought to have abandoned the crew of a sinking ship; Mabel Martin, an idyl of the days of witchcraft, and Amy Wentworth, a dainty romance of the old colonial time. Upon these ballads, and many others, New England childhood has been nurtured for a century, gaining from them its special sense of a heritage of no mean spiritual content, rich also in picturesque associations and romantic memories.
§ 7. Snow-Bound.
The high-water mark of Whittier’s artistic achievement was undoubtedly reached in the years that gave birth to Snow-Bound and The Tent on the Beach. The latter and less important of these two works is a cycle of narratives in verse, linked together in the fashion of Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. The company are three in number, “Fields the lettered magnate and Taylor the free cosmopolite” being foregathered on Salisbury Beach with Whittier, who thus describes himself:
And one there was, a dreamer born,
Who, with a mission to fulfil,
Had left the Muses’ haunts to turn
The crank of an opinion-mill,
Making his rustic reed of song
A weapon in the war with wrong.
The poems which make up the cycle fall into the general class of Whittier’s narrative verse; the thousand lines of octosyllabic rhyme which are entitled Snow-Bound are almost in a class by themselves. This idyllic description of the Whittier household shut in for a week by
The chill embargo of the snow,
which bids us
pause to view
These Flemish pictures of old days,
is not only a poem but a social document of the highest value. In the words of T. W. Higginson, Here we have absolutely photographed the Puritan Colonial interior, as it existed till within the memory of old men still living. No other book, no other picture preserves it to us; all other books, all other pictures combined, leave us still ignorant of the atmosphere which this one page re-creates for us; it is more imperishable than any interior painted by Gerard Douw.
It has been said of Whittier that he could never be concise—and a diffuse style is undoubtedly one of the greatest artistic defects of the body of his verse—but the criticism falls flat in the presence of the lines which describe the fireplace on that winter evening.
This poem has often been compared with The Cotter’s Saturday Night and it means to the American all and more than Burns’s famous poem means to the Scotsman. There is also much aptitude in a comparison with Crabbe, but it has qualities of wistful sentiment and tender reminiscence that are not to be found in the poet of The Village and The Borough. Akin to Snow-Bound, and to be mentioned as offering a foretaste of its subtle charm, is the short poem The Barefoot Boy, dated some ten years earlier, and cast in the same mould of retrospective yearning for the happy and wholesome days of childhood.
§ 8. Anti-Slavery Poems.
The most considerable section of Whittier’s verse in point of volume is that in which the poet voices the burning indignation fanned in his breast by the curse of negro slavery in America. His fellow-poets—Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, and Emerson—were all enlisted in the warfare against this monstrous evil, and did yeoman service in the cause of freedom, but Whittier alone gave himself heart and soul to the crusade, from early manhood until the cause was won, from the time of his first association with Garrison to the time when his jubilant Laus Deo acclaimed the writing into the fundamental law of the republic of the ban upon slavery throughout the extent of its domain. Every step in the history of the conflict, which is the history of the United States for the period of a full generation, was seized upon by Whittier as a pretext for poetical expression—the terrorizing of the pioneer abolitionists, the war which the annexation of Texas made inevitable, the efforts of Clay and Webster to heal the wounds of dissension by compromise, the outrage of the Fugitive Slave Law, the struggle for freedom in the Territory of Kansas, the growth of the modern Republican party, and the holocaust of the Civil War. The majority of the poems occasioned by these themes are too entirely of and for the moment to have any lasting value, but their immediate effect was potent in strengthening the mighty moral resolve of the nation, and they made Whittier perhaps the best beloved of contemporary American poets. When this mass of work is sifted by criticism, only a few pieces seem to preserve much of the fire which made them so effective at the time of their publication. We may still be stirred by the stanzas of Le Marais du Cygne and the marching-song of The Kansas Emigrants:
We cross the prairies as of old
The pilgrims crossed the sea,
To make the West, as they the East,
The homestead of the free!
The ballad of Barbara Frietchie still has power to thrill its readers, and the terrible Ichabod, occasioned by Webster’s willingness to make terms with the abhorred evil of slavery, has lost little or none of its original force. “It is a fearful thing,” says Swinburne, paraphrasing the Scriptures in praise of Victor Hugo, “for a malefactor to fall into the hands of an ever-living poet.” And nowhere in the Châtiments of the French poet is there to be found a greater finality of condemnation than that with which Whittier stamped the subject of this truly great poem.
§ 9. Occasional Pieces.
It will have been observed that many of the pieces already mentioned belong to the class of occasional or personal compositions. This class constitutes a large fraction of the total of Whittier’s work. The long list of his friendly tributes and poems written for occasions includes many that are merely trivial or without any special appeal to readers for whom the incidents or personalities commemorated have no longer any meaning. Whittier had neither the wit nor the erudition that have preserved many of the occasional pieces of Holmes and Lowell from decay. The tributes to Garrison, Sumner, and a few others still stand out as significant from this mass of metrical exercises, and when a great occasion inspired Whittier to song, the result was likely to be memorable, as in the verses which celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, the Chicago Fire of 1871, and the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
§ 10. Religious Feeling.
The deep and sincere religious feeling of the Centennial Hymn is characteristic of the entire body of Whittier’s verse, and not merely of the poems specifically religious in their subject-matter. His consciousness was shot through with a sense of the divine, and the essential spirituality of his thought suffuses his expression like the sunlight in cloud-banked western skies. But his religious faith was far from being of the dogmatic type. “I regard Christianity as a life rather than as a creed,” he once said, and the whole of his writing exemplifies the statement. He found in the doctrines of the Society of Friends exactly the framework which his nature needed, saying that “after a candid and kindly survey” of all the other creeds, “I turn to my own Society, thankful to the Divine Providence which placed me where I am; and with an unshaken faith in the one distinctive doctrine of Quakerism—the Light Within—the immanence of the Divine Spirit in Christianity.” In this doctrine, he says elsewhere, “will yet be found the stronghold of Christendom, the sure, safe place from superstition on the one hand and scientific doubt on the other.” The perfect expression of this simple and serene faith is found in The Eternal Goodness, and still again in the very last of all his poems. The sunset song of Tennyson’s soul, just before “crossing the bar” that divides the harbour of Time from the ocean of Eternity, illustrates no better than do these final lines of Whittier the matchless beauty that may crown the simplest modes of expression, if only they are based upon perfect faith and perfect sincerity.
§ 11. Prose.
While Whittier was primarily a poet, his activities as a reformer and philanthropist, and his editorial work in connection with the many papers that claimed his services, made him an important writer of prose. The amount of his prose writing is very great, and, although the larger part of it is too ephemeral to have any place in the history of American literature, the part which has been thought worthy of inclusion in the standard edition of his collected works fills three of the seven volumes. Much of this writing is controversial in character, like the early tract on Justice and Expediency, but the greater part of it belongs to the permanent literature of New England history and thought. The most important titles are The Stranger in Lowell, The Supernaturalism of New England, Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and Literary Recreations and Miscellanies. The story of Margaret Smith is almost a work of fiction. It recounts the imagined observations of a young woman who comes from England on a visit to the Bay Colony in its early days. She meets the chief worthies of the time, describes the landscape and the crude pioneer life, and writes of witch-hunting, Quaker-baiting, and Indian warfare. G. R. Carpenter says of this work that “no single modern volume could be found which has so penetrated the secret of colonial times in Massachusetts, for it is almost line by line a transcript and imaginative interpretation of old letters, journals, and memoirs.” Its Quaker authorship, moreover, gives it just the detachment needed to save it from the danger of accepting too unreservedly the view of New England colonial life that the leaders of the Puritan theocracy so zealously sought to perpetuate.
§ 12. Standing.
In the history of English literature in the larger sense, Whittier is probably no more than a poet of the third rank. His native endowment was rich, but it was supplemented by neither the technical training nor the discipline required for the development of the artist. He was extremely careless about his rhymes—“good Yankee rhymes, but out of New England they would be cashiered,” he once said of them. The construction of his stanzas was diffuse and often slovenly. The organ voice and the lyric cry were not, except at rare moments, his to command. But no American who lived in the shadow of slavery and internecine strife, none who grew to manhood in the generation succeeding those epic days, would dream of measuring his love and veneration for Whittier by the scale of absolute art. Whittier’s verse is so inwrought with the nation’s passion during that period of heightened consciousness that preserved the Union and redeemed it from the curse of slavery that it cannot be coldly and critically considered by any one who has had a vital sense of the agonies and exaltations of that critical time. To such, the invocation of Stedman’s Ad Vatem will always be a truer expression of their feeling than any critical judgment, for they can never forget their debt to him for
righteous anger, burning scorn
Of the oppressor, love to humankind,
Sweet fealty to country and to home,
Peace, stainless purity, high thoughts of heaven,
And the clear, natural music of [his] song.
Fifty years ago, the verdict of thoughtful Americans acclaimed Whittier as the foremost American poet, with the possible exception of Longfellow, and while now there would be more dissentients from that judgment than there were then, his fame still rests upon a very solid basis of acceptance and esteem. And especially to those who have sprung from the soil of New England, he will always be the incomparable poet of their childhood home, of its landscape, its legendry, and the spiritual essence of its history.