4 June 2011

John Greenleaf Whittier's Haverhill, Massachusetts

This sculpture, a tribute to the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), the most famous son of Haverhill (pronounced 'HAY-vrill'), is downtown.

The whole poem:

The River Path

No bird-song floated down the hill,
The tangled bank below was still;

No rustle from the birchen stem,
No ripple from the water’s hem.

The dusk of twilight round us grew,
We felt the falling of the dew;

For, from us, ere the day was done,
The wooded hills shut out the sun.

But on the river’s farther side
We saw the hill-tops glorified,—

A tender glow, exceeding fair,
A dream of day without its glare.

With us the damp, the chill, the gloom
With them the sunset’s rosy bloom;

While dark, through willowy vistas seen,
The river rolled in shade between.

From out the darkness where we trod,
We gazed upon those hills of God,

Whose light seemed not of moon or sun.
We spake not, but our thought was one.

We paused, as if from that bright shore
Beckoned our dear ones gone before;

And stilled our beating hearts to hear
The voices lost to mortal ear!

Sudden our pathway turned from night;
The hills swung open to the light;

Through their green gates the sunshine showed,
A long, slant splendor downward flowed.

Down glade and glen and bank it rolled;
It bridged the shaded stream with gold;

And, borne on piers of mist, allied
The shadowy with the sunlit side!

'So,' prayed we, 'when our feet draw near
The river dark, with mortal fear,

'And the night cometh chill with dew,
O Father! let Thy light break through!

'So let the hills of doubt divide,
So bridge with faith the sunless tide!

'So let the eyes that fail on earth
On Thy eternal hills look forth;

'In Thy beckoning angels know
The dear ones whom we loved below!'

'The River Path'
artist: Dale Rogers
sponsored by: Team Haverhill
unveiled: August 14, 2010
inspired by: John Greenleaf Whittiers [sic]
                                  'The Rivers [sic] Path'

The Whittier Birthplace, at 305 Whittier Road to the east of the town, once a farm, was built by John Greenleaf Whittier's great-great-grandfather, and remained in the Whittier family until 1836. James Carleton, former mayor of Haverhill and friend of Whittier's, later purchased the property, gave it to the Haverhill Whittier Club,  and the museum was opened in 1893, the year after Whittier's death. It has remained much the same as when John Greenleaf Whittier lived in it.

IN 1688
DECEMBER 17, 1807

Samuel T. Pickard's Whittier-land: A Handbook of North Essex (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904) states that 'The visitor's attention is usually first drawn to the great fireplace in the centre of its southern side [in the kitchen]', and quotes from Whittier best-known poem Snow Bound (1866), which was a huge success and further good sales from later books meant that Whittier could live comfortably for the rest of his life:

'The oaken log, green, huge and thick,
And on its top the stout back-stick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art
The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom.'

To the left of the photo above is a curious log device with five prongs: this is for roasting apples, and recalls the evocative line 'And apples sputtered in a row'.

Snow Bound is a long narrative poem in iambic tetrameter that was originally published as a full book. It goes back to the narrator's childhood, and is autobiographical throughout. The poem covers several days in December 1822, when snow held the family indoors, and gives descriptions of all the people present on that occasion. The poem makes clear at times that these are memories, and says that only the poet and his brother Flanklin Whittier are still alive.

John Whittier was John Greenleaf's father,  but the father in the poem is just called 'A prompt,  decisive man', who got  the boys to clear a path through the snow and reach the animals.

Abigail Hussey was John Greenleaf's mother, of whom Whittier says:

'Our mother, while she turned her wheel
Or run the new-knit stocking wheel'.

And certainly Abigail used this spinning wheel to the right of the photo to make the Whittier garments.

John Greenleaf's bachelor uncle Moses is also part of the family:

'Our uncle, innocent of books,
Was rich in lore of fields and brooks.
The ancient teachers never dumb
Of Nature's unhoused lyceum'

As is his maiden aunt, Mercy Evans:

'The sweetest woman ever Fate
Peverse denied a household mate.'

Of his elder sister Mary he says:

'A rich, full nature, free to trust,
Truthful and almost sternly just,
Impulsive, earnest, prompt to act,
And make her generous thought a fact.'

Of his beloved sister Elizabeth he says:

'Our youngest and our dearest sat,
Lifting her large sweet asking eyes,'

and immediately adds:

'Now bathed in the unfading green
And holy peace of Paradise.'

One of John Greenleaf's teachers is also present - George Haskell, of whom the narrator says:

'Brisk wielder of the birch and rule,
The master of the local school
Held at the fire his favorite place,
Its warm glow hit the laughing face',

And though the teacher's more playful as opposed educational side is seen here - playing with the cat with a mitten on its head - the narrator takes the opportunity of Haskell's learned presence to launch into a kind of digressive rant about ignorance and stupidity as opposed to their perceived adversary - education. Slavery - once Whittier's bête noire - is only briefly mentioned as the book was published after the Civil War had (very recently) ended.

The final person present is Harriet Livermore (1788-1868) - the 'not unfeared, half-welcome guest'. Livermore was a well-known preacher who traveled throughout the US.

The only other person mentioned in the poem is the 'wise old Doctor', this being Dr Elias Weld, an early benefactor of Whittier's, to whom the poem 'The Countess' is dedicated.

In Pickard's words:

'The little room at the western end of the kitchen was "mother's room," its floor two steps higher than that of the larger room, for a singular reason. In digging the cellar the pioneer found here a large boulder it was inconvenient to remove, and wishing a milk room at this corner, he was obliged to make its floor two steps higher than the rest of the cellar.'

Again, in Pickard's words:

'The door at the southwestern corner of the kitchen opens into the room in which the poet was born. This was the parlor, but as the Friends were much given to hospitality, it was often needed as a bedroom, and there was in it a bedstead that could be lifted from the floor and supported by a hook in the ceiling when not in use. [...] The inlaid mahogany card-table between the front windows was brought to this house just a century ago (1804) by Abigail Hussey, the bride of John Whittier, and placed where it now stands.'

 'The volume of Robert Burns loaned to the poet, when he was a boy of 14, by his schoolmaster, Joshua Coffin.' In a short autobiographical sketch written in 1882,  Whittier states that he begged Coffin to leave the book with him, and that this was more or less the first poetry he'd ever read, and that it was then that he started a dual life, writing his poems in his secret world of fancy.

And a sketch of Joshua Coffin.

Whittier's sister Mary discovered a poem he'd written and sent it to the Newburyport Free Press, which was edited by William Lloyd Garrison who printed the poem, 'The Exile's Departure'. Shortly after the publication, Garrison went to Haverhill to see Whittier, and urged him to get an education. By making shoes the first year and teaching the next, Whittier managed to spend two six-month terms at the Haverhill Academy.

 A painting in the kitchen of a rather young Whittier looking a little like Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 And a bust of the older Whittier, certainly made long after he had left this house.

 The chairs we sat on were the actual chairs of Whittier's grandfather.

 The rear of the house.

And finally our guide to the house, Gus Reusch, a very lively, informative, and fascinating docent who held us spellbound for quite some time. Not only were we allowed to take any photos we wanted here - itself unusual in Massachusetts - but encouraged to take time doing so. There was no sense of rush - quite the reverse - and Gus is obviously deeply interested in John Greenleaf Whittier. We left very happy, and I can honestly say - after visiting more authors' homes than I can readily number - that this is the favorite. Thank you so much, Gus.

Addendum: The Whittier Home have just (17 December 2011) published a video on their website of Gus Reusch reading Snow-Bound and answering questions. It lasts for 108 minutes and is here.


Snatch51 said...

Interesting that Dr Shaw uses the term 'docent', which I doubt is understood at all in the United Kingdom. I lived in America for more than two years and encountered it from time to time but never troubled to look it up; after all there were so many words I didn't understand!

Clearly it is from Latin 'docere' and means 'teacher' or 'instructor'; probably also 'guide'. But there is going to be more: it seems to be associated with universities, and in the UK we have no docents unless my life has been exceptionally sheltered.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

I think 'docent' has almost fallen out of use in England. Thanks for this post, which provided me with the opportunity to re-read it, and correct some of the inevitable typos.

I should have added how interesting I found it to read Whittier's poetry after the visit.

And visiting the house in Amesbury, MA, a neighboring town where he moved after Haverhill, is a must for the near future.

Oh,and the Captain's Well, named after a Whittier poem about
Captain Valentine Bagley of Amesbury, is now a monument there.

Snatch51 said...

John James Britton, (see various articles about him on this blog), was an admirer of Whittier and believed to have sent him a book of his own poems.
It would be interesting to know how Whittier replied!