William Sloane Kennedy.

John G. Whittier, the poet of freedom online

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The Poet of Freedom



He that knows anything worth communicating and
does not comnttinicate it, let him be hanged by the
neck" TALMUD.






Copyright 1892 by the

PREFACE. "> />

WHILE the manuscript of this volume was lying in
the safe of the publishers, I made a little Whittier
itinerary along the storied Essex coast, a voyage
through Whittier ballad-land, bringing before my
eyes the very scenes of the poems in the study of the
sources of which in the libraries I had made such de
lightful and exciting discoveries. After adventures
manifold and pleasant I found myself on the top of
Powow Hill, that rises just above our poet s old
home in Amesbury. From this coigne of vantage the
eye takes in, in one swift coup d ceil, a mighty spread
of landscape and sea, beginning with conical Aga-
menticus, violet-dim and far, in Maine, resting for a
moment on the Isles of Shoals, Little Boar s Head,
Great Boar s Head, and Salisbury Beach, traveling
along the tumbled sand dunes of the Ipswich coast,
catching over the blue sea-floor the white sparkle of
the houses of Cape Ann, fetching a compass over
Danvers and Haverhill, to finally rest on the far
range of the Pawtuckaway Hills. This is Essex
County with its winding roads, old shingled barns,
huge stranded rocks, sea estuaries, clean quiet little
sea towns and rugged honest folk, the Attica of
Massachusetts. What the view from Powow Hill is
to the traveler I hope this book will be to the indoor
reader of Whittier s ballads. I have done my best to
show that Flood Ireson was justly tarred and
feathered, that John Brown did stoop to kiss the slave
child, that Barbara Frietchie did wave that historic
flag in the face of the Confederate troops, that at


Lucknow both loud and sweet " the pipes of rescue
blew," that Whittier s story of the wreck of the
" Palatine " is true to the letter, and that the romantic
story of Harriet Livermore is truth stranger than
fiction. If, however, you observe with curious interest
how very often the poet slips in minor matters of
historical accuracy in his rhymed poems, you may
ponder the words of Ruskin where he tells us that
" a lovely legend is all the more precious when it has
no foundation." Cincinnatus or any other man might
have plowed a field fifty times over and it would
have signified little to us ;. but if no Cincinnatus
existed at all, and yet the Roman people, to express
their conviction that tilling the soil is a noble occu
pation, invented a Cincinnatus out of hand and en
shrined him for all time in their literature, " this
precious coinage out of the brain and conscience of
a mighty people " we had better take to heart most

The full story of the part Whittier played in the
anti-slavery movement is here set down for the first
time in book form. Many interesting and unexpected
things plowed up during my researches into such
subjects as the mobbings in which Whittier was a
sufferer, the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in Phila
delphia, the estrangement of years which Garrison s
narrow intolerance produced between himself and
Whittier, with the subsequent reconciliation of the
two, and the story of the rise and fall of the Liberty
Party, the lineal predecessor of the party that saved
the Union.













INDEX _ - 325




IN July, 1867, Bayard Taylor wrote to his friend,
Edmund Clarence Stedman, from Friedrichroda in
the Thuringian forest : " How delighted I am with
Whittier s success ! Fields writes that his * Tent
has already sold twenty thousand copies. Here is a
man who has waited twenty-five years to be generally
appreciated. I remember when his name was never
mentioned without a sneer, except by the small
Abolition clique. In England, too, they are now
beginning to read him for the first time." 1

These statements of Whittier s friend are true in
the main, but need to be somewhat qualified and
annotated. It will hardly do to say that Whittier was
not generally appreciated previous to 1866-67, when
we remember that an edition of his collected works
had been reviewed with high praise by Edwin P.
Whipple as early as 1848 ; that in 1857 he had helped
to establish the " Atlantic Monthly," and that in the

Life and Letters of Bayard Taylor, ii. 479.


same year the little two-volume blue and gold edition
of his poems was published by Ticknor & Fields,
and had a tolerably large circulation throughout the
country. And it is further to be noted that his
Kansas Emigrants" song had been sung from
Massachusetts Bay to the Missouri River by the
pioneer settlers of the debated ground ; that the
maturest creations of his art had been published
(such ballads as " Maud Muller," " Barbara Frietchie,"
" Skipper Ireson," " Mabel Martin," " Telling the
Bees," and " The Pipes at Lucknow ") ; and that at
least two of his war poems " Ein Feste Burg" and
" Song of the Negro Boatmen " had been sung in
the Northern armies.

Still, it is a fact that the publication in 1866-67 of
" Snow-Bound " and " The Tent on the Beach," with
its included ballads, greatly increased the poet s
fame. For thirty-five years he had been chiefly
known as the bard of a despised cause. But the war
had come and gone, the slaves had been freed, and
in any case the people of the whole country would
have turned with reverence to the pages of the poet
of freedom ; but his idyl " Snow-Bound," and his
beautiful ballads, lifted him into the rank of a national
poet, and he has since been greeted as such on both
sides of the sea.

There is fitness in the title " Poet of Free
dom " as applied to John G. Whittier ; for the
inastor-passion of his soul is hatred of tyranny.
When there is no brother-man, heart-broken and in
chains, to rescue, no inhumanity to arraign in words
of withering scorn, then he finds a little leisure
to write ballads and songs. I find by actual


count that in more than a third of his poems freedom
is either the main theme or is alluded to in passing.
In love of liberty and the singleness of aim with which
he has devoted his life to its defense Whittier re
sembles John Brown. In both, the moral idea flames
out with volcanic power. Both were sinewed by out
door life. But John Brown was a mechanism of steel
and iron ; the soul of Whittier may be likened to the
frail plant Dictamnus set in a porcelain vase, a plant
which on a hot day is surrounded by an inflammable
gas that ignites with a sudden flash when a flame is
applied to it.

In the later poetical work of Whittier that pro
duced after the Civil War purely literary topics
naturally predominate, although at irregular inter
vals the old lyre of freedom is taken up, either to
chant a paean for some triumph of human rights at
home or abroad or to strike the minor chords over
the passing away of a comrade of the old anti-
slavery days. Indeed, for several years before the
war broke out, he had been engaged in purely literary
work (Songs of Labor and folk ballads). So it is
evident that the lines of his intellectual development
were not altogether determined by national or
political events, nor were precisely coincident with
these, but that his growth followed the common law
of men and nations, first the age of manly energy,
self-assertion, and moral strife ; then an epoch of
peaces in which the ideal arts, after long slumber,
suddenly crystallize into shapes of beauty.

Although the lives of poets are seldom rich in
dramatic events, they are often ennobled by rare
friendships and set in an interesting environment. In


the case of Whittier, extreme dislike of publicity has
not availed to conceal his personal adventures in the
anti-slavery crusade, nor to keep enthusiastic friends
from printing descriptions of his personal appearance
and ways. After all, his life has been a semi-public
one, and I feel sure our dear friend will forgive me
for just weaving into a connected narrative such
matters as may permissibly be known of his outward

The rugged and hilly old county of Essex, Mas
sachusetts, may be called the cradle of American
poets ; for in its town of Haverhill, by the Merri-
mack, the poet Whittier was born (December 17,
1807 ), and in the neighboring town of Newbury
lived the immediate ancestors of Longfellow and
Lowell. The old farm-house, the birthplace of
Whittier, is only five miles from the ancestral estate
of the Longfellows. Three miles to the southeast
lies the town of Haverhill. The Whittier farm is at
the junction of the main road to Haverhill and a
cross-road to Plaistow. It is so situated, in a de
pression between surrounding hills, that no other
house is visible from it in any direction. The whole
locality reminds one of the " Knobs " of Kentucky,
being made up of gently rounded hills set close
together. In the Great West they call such rough
land as this " sassy country." On the road to Haver-

1 Some one having raised a doubt as to the exact date of his
birth, Mr. Whittier humorously said, " I cannot say positively from
my personal knowledge when I was born, but my mother told me
it was on the I7th of December, 1807, and she was a very truthful


hill you pass, on the left, Kenoza lake, so christened
by Whittier, filled with purest water, and terraced
by thick-wooded slopes. A little farther on, the
road skirts the base of a high hill crowned by a
castellated stone dwelling, from which one catches
glimpses, far off, of blue Monadnock and many New
England towns, sparkling white on the slopes of
azure hills.

Past Haverhill winds the placid Merrimack, now
made classic by the genius of Whittier. Born amid
the snows and springs of the White Mountains ; tak
ing tribute of many crystal streams as it flows south;
its mountain brawling hushed by a plunge through
the deeps of beautiful Winnepesaukee ; sliding
through the grassy meadows of Concord studded
with elms ; fretting and chafing among the rapids of
Suncook and Hookset ; turning successively the
wheels of the huge mills of Manchester, Nashua,
Lowell, and Lawrence ; passing by Haverhill, New-
bury, Amesbury, the mouth of the winding and nar
row Powow, the silver Quasycung, and the bough-
hung Artichoke, and at its mouth separating .the
towns of Newburyport and Salisbury, it finally falls
into the sea at Ipswich Bay.

It is about seventeen miles from Haverhill, down
the river, to Newburyport ; and about half way down
lies Amesbury, at the junction of the Powow with
the main stream. Amesbury was the home of
Whittier for twenty-five years ; and he still owns his
house there, and keeps in it a study, with a few
books and pictures and an open fire, as a place of
retreat, and for the sake of many precious memories.
A horse-railroad connects Amesbury with Newbury-


port, the birthplace of William Lloyd Garrison. As
you go down, you look across at the wide and far-
reaching salt meadows of Hampton, emerald green
in summer, and purple and brown in autumn. About
half way from Amesbury to the sea, your horse-car
trundles across Deer Island, wild, rugged, and
picturesque, its huge one-handed pines griping the
weather-stained granite with knotty fingers, their
branches the resting-place of hawks and crows,
eagles and herons. The only house on the island is
the home of Whittier s friend, Harriet Prescott Spof-

Off the mouth of the river, Plum Island lies " like
a whale aground." Off to the northeast are discern
ible the Isles of Shoals, whose fair Calypso (Celia
Thaxter) is said to have been introduced to the world
of letters by Whittier. On the rocks of Appledore
he has often sat, of an evening, to watch the gold-
lamps kindled in the lighthouses of Portsmouth and
White Island. Indeed, this whole sea-region Hamp
ton beaches, Rivermouth Rocks, Plum Island, the
Isles of Shoals has been sung by Whittier in his
classic ballads. He is familiar with almost every
acre of this part of Essex County. Some lines he
wrote in 1885, for the 25oth anniversary of the settle
ment of Newbury, would apply to half a dozen other
neighboring towns as well. He said : " Although I
can hardly call myself a son of the ancient town, my
grandmother, Sarah Greenleaf, of blessed memory,
was its daughter, and I may therefore claim to be its
grandson. All my life I have lived in sight of its
green hills and in hearing of its Sabbath bells. Its
history and legends are familiar to me. I seem to


have known all its old worthies, whose descendants
have helped to people a continent, and who have
carried the name and memories of their birthplace to
the Mexican Gulf and across the Rocky Mountains
to the shores of the Pacific."

When, in early boyhood, Whittier first read the
poetry of Burns, and learned from it where to look
for true poetic material, namely, in the common
heart and the common life, he found a store of
legends ready to his hand, in the homes of the
inhabitants of the Merrimack Valley, just as
Burns had found them on the banks of the Ayr.
Burns tells us that, when he was a boy, his imagina
tion was greatly stimulated by the talk of an old
woman who resided in the family. She had the
largest collection in the country of tales and songs
concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches,
warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights,
wraiths, apparitions, cantrips, giants, enchanted
towers, dragons, and other trumpery. So Whittier
grew up in an atmosphere thick with legends of the
marvelous, stories of headless men walking about
with their heads under their arms ; traditions
of second-sight ; of witches innumerable and their
wicked deeds ; of haunted mills kept running
o nights by ghostly millers ; of phantom ships and
spectral armies ; of singing witch-grass at the spring
" where withered hags refresh at ease their broom
stick nags " ; and of wizards skilled in calling birds
out of trees, hiving the swarming bees, and by
a potent spell making the dry logs and frosted
branches of winter green with summer bloom. I
shall speak, farther on, of the pretty superstition of


telling the bees of the death of a member of the
family. The belief in fairies was by no means extinct
in the Whittier neighborhood. The poet has several
folk-lore incidents about them in his prose and

One cannot open any early book published in
Newbury without coming across queer legends and
superstitions. In the Reminiscences of Mrs. Sarah
Emery, we are told that her aunt, Ruth Little, had a
heifer that one day kicked over the milk-pail, where
upon she declared that the animal was bewitched by
a poor woman who lived near. So off she rushes to
the house, gets her sharp shears, and, cutting off some
hairs from the heifer s tail, burns them. In a few
days it was learned that the suspected woman had
badly burned her hand on the warming-pan. Aunt
Ruth stoutly maintained that the burning of the hei
fer s hair and that of the woman s hand were cause
and effect, and, in her mind at least, no doubt
remained as to the woman s character.

Of a certain extremely thin and gaunt spinster,
reported witch, it was mysteriously whispered to Mr.
Whittier by one of the pall-bearers at her funeral
that her coffin was so heavy that four stout men could
barely lift it.

Mr. Whittier tells of a stout, red-nosed farmer
whom he used to meet occasionally in boyhood, who,
having emigrated to Ohio, and taken a certain widow
to wife, became gradually convinced that the warn
ings he had received from her neighbors were true,
and that his wife was a witch. He grew so hypo-
chondriacal over this idea that, unable any longer to
endure her society, he ran away and came back to


New England, but was followed, captured, and taken
back to Ohio by the too-fond wife.

Near the home of the mother of our poet, in Som-
ersworth, New Hampshire, there dwelt a quiet old
Quaker, named Bantum, who exercised, in all sim
plicity and sobriety, the art of magic and conjury.
His help was sought by lovers of both sexes and by
persons in search of stolen goods. He would receive
them all kindly, put on his huge iron-rimmed spec
tacles, open his conjuring-book a great clasped vol
ume in blackletter and give the required answers
without money and without price.

I am indebted to a friend for calling my attention
to an incident related of Daniel Webster s early life,
which is explained by the above anecdote. When
Prof. Francis Lieber visited Webster in 1845, Webster
told him that, when he was a lad in New Hampshire,
a friend of his father s seriously advised him (Daniel)
to become a sorcerer, as they needed one to recover
stolen cattle, children, etc.

Mr. Whittier tells some amusing stories of old Aunt
Morse who lived at Rocks Village near Amesbury.
He says that one of his earliest recollections is of this
reputed witch, who was accused of preventing the
coming of the butter in the churn, snuffing out can
dles at huskings and quilting parties, and even of
more serious injuries. One night, he says, there was
a husking at Rocks Village, and about the middle of
the evening a big black bug came buzzing into the
room and kept bumping against the faces of the
merry huskers. At last it was knocked down with a
stick ; and about the same time Aunt Morse, who
was at home, fell downstairs and got covered with


bruises. But the buskers stoutly affirmed that the
black bug was Aunt Morse, and that the places where
she was bruised were where she had been struck by
the stick. A certain old Captain Peaslee who lived
near her covered his house and barns all over with
horseshoes to ward off her evil influence. She at last
became so annoyed by this silent persecution that
she went to a justice of the peace and took oath that
she was a Christian woman and no witch. 1 But it
seems that her undeserved reputation followed her
even into the grave, as the following story by our
poet not included in his collected works will show:

" After the death of Aunt Morse no will was found, though
it was understood before her decease that such a document
was in the hands of Squire S., one of her neighbors. One cold
winter evening, some weeks after her departure, Squire S. sat
in his parlor, looking over his papers, when, hearing some one
cough in a familiar way, he looked up, and saw before him a
little crooked old woman, in an oil-nut colored woolen frock,
blue and white tow and linen apron, and striped blanket, lean
ing her sharp, pinched face on one hand, while the other sup
ported a short black tobacco pipe, at which she was puffing in
the most vehement and spiteful manner conceivable.

" The squire was a man of some nerve ; but his first thought
was to attempt an escape, from which he was deterred only by
the consideration that any effort to that effect would necessa
rily bring him nearer to his unwelcome visitor.

" Aunt Morse, he said at length, for the Lord s sake, get

1 For this story I am indebted to an article in " Harper s Maga
zine," February, 1883, by George M 1 . White. Mr. White has,
however, got " Morse " somehow changed into " Mose." I here
take pleasure in acknowledging my obligations to the same writer
for several other interesting anecdotes, published in the periodical
just mentioned.


right back to the burying-ground ! What on earth are you here

" The apparition took her pipe deliberately from her mouth,
and informed him that she came to see justice done with her
will ; and that nobody need think of cheating her, dead or
alive. Concluding her remark with a shrill emphasis, she re
placed her pipe, and puffed away with renewed vigor. Upon
the squire s promising to obey her request, she refilled her
pipe, which she asked him to light, and then took her depart

The first of the Whittiers to come to America was
Thomas Whittier, 1 of whom two noteworthy inci
dents are recorded, first, that he brought with him
a hive of bees ; and, second, that he declined to make
use of the garrison house of Haverhill as a defense
against the Indians, preferring to rely on kind treat
ment of them and on faith in the Lord. John Green-
leaf Whittier s paternal grandmother was of the
Greenleaf family, of Newbury, highly respected for
integrity of character and religiousness of life. It is
recorded of Prof. Simon Greenleaf, professor of law
at Harvard College, 1833-1845, that he was one of the
most spiritually-minded of men, and very benevolent
and kind-hearted. He published some dozen works.
His son married a sister of the poet Longfellow. One
of the English Greenleafs took part with the Round
heads in all the wars of the English Revolution ;
while in this country the old records tell of a Captain
Stephen Greenleaf, of Newbury, who, in pursuing a
party of Indians up the Merrimack in 1695, got shot

1 The word Whittier is a corruption of white-tawier, the verb
" to taw" meaning to dress the lighter skins of goats and kids,
and then whiten them for the glover s use.


in the wrist and side, and lost, in consequence, the
use of his left hand. The moose-skin coat he wore is
still preserved. It is believed that the Greenleafs are
of Huguenot descent, and that their name has been
translated from the French Feuillevert.

Whittier s father and mother were both of Quaker
stock, and were themselves, also, it is needless to say,
members of the Society of Friends. On his mother s
side the poet is descended from the Quaker Husseys
of Somersworth and Hampton, New Hampshire, and
from those who were among the founders of Nan-
tucket. Through his mother he is also descended from
the Rev. Stephen Batchelder of Hampton, New Hamp
shire, the eccentric parson, noted for his philoprogen-
itiveness and for his wonderful black eyes, bequeathed
by him not only to Whittier, but also to other descend
ants of his, Daniel Webster, Caleb Gushing, Col.
William Batchelder Greene, and William Pitt Fessen-
den. Stephen Batchelder also gave to all those just
mentioned their massive features and swarthy, Orien
tal complexions. At the time of Daniel Webster s
subservient Southern tour, Garrison suggested that
his complexion might have caused him to be arrested
as a runaway slave and sold to pay his jail fees.

He was nicknamed " Black Dan " ; and of his father,
Captain Webster, it was humorously said that burnt
powder could not change his complexion in battle.
"The Bachiler eye" is dark and deep-set under heavy
eye-brows, inscrutable in depth, now shooting out
sudden gleams of lightning, and now suffused with the
lambent fire of tender emotion. Webster was known
in the village of Fryeburg as "All-eyes " ; one speaks
of his eye as being as black as death and as heavy as


a lion s ; Carlyle, as in all his portraits, gives one 01
two Velasquez-strokes, and behold the thing done
once and forever ! Describing Webster, he speaks of
"the dull black eyes under the precipice of brows,
like dull anthracite furnaces, needing only to be
blown." The poet Whittier s glance has not ordina
rily anything of that indignation which Carlyle noticed
in Webster, though beyond a doubt, when he is
aroused by injustice, or by oppression of man by his
fellow-man, his face is capable of expressing (in a
momentary flash) the fierce scorn and righteous
wrath of the prophet.

This expression is caught in a well-known por
trait of him taken during the anti-slavery days. Hav
ing once seen him, one can well understand what he
himself once related, how that when some rough
fellows threatened him, as he came out of an anti-
slavery meeting, he turned and faced them, and so
holding their eyes went out.

The family life of the Whittiers on the old farm
was made delightful, notwithstanding the hard work,
by the perpetual cheerfulness, humor, and wit, and
calm and trustful piety of all its members. The
cheeriness of atmosphere is insisted on with empha
sis by all acquaintances of the family. They were

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Online LibraryWilliam Sloane KennedyJohn G. Whittier, the poet of freedom → online text (page 1 of 22)