« PreviousContinue »
Soon she extinguished her lamp, for the mellow and
radiant moonlight Streamed through the windows, and lighted the room,
till the heart of the maiden Swelled and obeyed its power, like the tremulous tides
of the ocean. Ah! she was fair, exceeding fair to behold, as she stood
with Naked snow-white feet on the gleaming floor of her
chamber! Little she dreamed that below, among the trees of the
orchard, Waited her lover and watched for the gleam of her lamp
and her shadow. Yet were her thoughts of him, and at times a feeling of
sadness Passed o'er her soul, as the sailing shade of clouds in the
moonlight Flitted across the floor and darkened the room for a
moment. And, as she gazed from the window, she saw serenely the
moon pass Forth from the folds of a cloud, and one star follow her
footsteps, As out of Abraham's tent young Ishmael wandered with
XV. – JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER.
LIFE AND WORKS.
* There is Whittier, whose swelling and vehement heart
John GREENLEAF WHITTIER, the poet of humanity and freedom, was born in the same year with his brother bard Longfellow, 1807 (December 17), on his father's farm not far from Haverhill, Massachusetts. The Whittiers belonged to the Society of Friends; and in his Snow-Bound the “Quaker poet” has given us a beautiful picture of his youthful days, - of his father, mother, sisters, and their peaceful home-life in the winter time, when “the housemates sat around the radiant fireplace.”
In his boyhood and youth, Whittier's life was that of a farmer's son. In summer he worked on the Merrimack farm; in winter he made shoes,- for in those days almost every rural household had. a shop where the men and boys worked at shoemaking during the long “snow-bound” season when there was little to be done out of doors.
The lad John Greenleaf enjoyed whatever advantage was afforded by the district school of those days. There was little to read but the Bible, “Pilgrim's Progress,” the almanac, and the weekly newspaper.
Yet the boy's poetic fancy was early stirred; and listening to the provincial traditions and legends, recounted by his elders at the fireside, he began to put his thoughts into numbers when yet very young.
When about eighteen years of age, Whittier sent a piece of verse to the Newburyport “Free Press,” of which William Lloyd Garrison, the earliest champion of the anti-slavery cause, was the editor. Garrison looked up his contributor, and encouraged him with praise and counsel. From that time we see the poet working upward in the old-fashioned way. His district-school training was supplemented by a year or more at the Haverhill Academy, and by a winter's practice as a teacher himself.
In 1829 we find Whittier editing a tariff paper in Boston. Before his twenty-fifth birthday he had experienced the vicissitudes of old-time journalism, changing from one desk to another, at Haverhill, Boston, and Hartford; still pursuing literature; ere long somewhat known as a poet and sketch writer, and near the close of this period issuing his first book,- the Legends of New England, in prose and verse. In this volume he showed a deep interest in the welfare of the Indians, of whom some still lingered in the region where the poet was born.
And now the mission of his life came upon him. In 1831 Garrison had begun “The Liberator.” Hatred of slavery was Whittier's heritage as a Quaker; a “swelling and vehement heart" was his heritage as a man. Thus moved, he threw his whole soul into the cause that Garrison was championing, and became the
psalmist of the new movement. He began to pour forth those Voices of Freedom which, like Luther's words, were “half battles," — shafts of song tipped with flame.
After eight or nine years of this stormy service, — during which he wrote anti-slavery pamphlets, edited the Pennsylvania Freeman, and faced mobs at Boston, Plymouth, and Philadelphia, — Whittier took up his abode in Amesbury, in his native county. Here he resided for nearly forty years, sending forth copiously both prose and verse. For the last few years he has lived at Danvers, Massachusetts.
Though, as we have seen, Whittier's earliest efforts were put forth in the storm and stress of a great conflict, thus drawing on himself bitter hatred, yet, as the years went by, his humane and fervent motives came to be understood even by his opponents, while the sweetness of his rural lyrics and idyls testified for him as a poet. Later on, the hermitage at Amesbury became the resort of many pilgrims who felt towards the Quaker poet the sentiment which Longfellow has expressed in the fine lines:
"O thou, whose daily life anticipates
Whittier's appearance shows little of what people sometimes look for in a poet. Yet his is a strikingly
interesting face; the fire of the deep-set eyes (an inheritance perhaps of that Huguenot blood of which he had a strain), contrasting with the benign expression of the mouth, -" that firm serenity," as Stedman finely puts it, "which by transmitted habitude dwells upon the lips of the sons and daughters of peace.”
Whittier has never married, but has made his home with relations and friends. In the summer he used to be fond of visiting the beaches that stretch along the coast of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, or journeying into the White Mountains, one of whose peaks has been named in his honor.
Whittier's prose, apart from his political writing, is mainly comprised in his Legends of New England, Margåret Smith's Journal, Supernaturalism in New England, and in his biographies of notable Quakers. In prose he writes with a true and direct hand, though without the felicities of Hawthorne, Holmes, or Lowell.
His poetical works are voluminous, and only a few of the chief collections need here be named. These are: The Voices of Freedom (1849), Songs of Labor (1850), Home Ballads and Poems (1860), In War Time and Other Poems (1863), Snow-Bound (1866), The Tent on the Beach (1867), and Mabel Martin (1874).
Whittier is often called the most “ thoroughly American” of our poets; but a more discriminating judgment has styled him “the poet of New England.”. His genius drew its nourishment from her soil; his pages are the mirror of her outward nature, and the strong utterance of her inward life. He has painted with unequaled fidelity New England landscapes, and told