The Boyhood of John Greenleaf Whittier
by William H. Rideing
The life of Whittier may be read in his poems, and, by putting a note here
and a date there, a full autobiography might be compiled from them. His boyhood
and youth are depicted in them with such detail that little need be added to
make the story complete, and that little, reverently done as it may be, must
seem poor in comparison with the poetic beauty of his own revelations.
What more can we do to show his early home than to quote from his own
beautiful poem, "Snow-bound"? There the house is pictured for us, inside and
out, with all its furnishings; and those who gather around its hearth, inmates
and visitors, are set before us so clearly that long after the book has been put
away they remain as distinct in the memory as portraits that are visible day
after day on the walls of our own homes. He reproduces in his verse the
landscapes he saw, the legends of witches and Indians he listened to, the
schoolfellows he played with, the voices of the woods and fields, and the round
of toil and pleasure in a country boy's life; and in other poems his later life,
with its impassioned devotion to freedom and lofty faith, is reflected as
lucidly as his youth is in "Snow-bound" and "The Barefoot Boy."
He himself was "The Barefoot Boy," and what Robert Burns said of himself
Whittier might repeat: "The poetic genius of my country found me, as the
prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha, at the plow, and threw her inspiring mantle
over me." He was a farmer's son, born at a time when farm-life in New England
was more frugal than it is now, and with no other heritage than the good name
and example of parents and kinsmen, in whom simple virtues—thrift, industry, and
His birthplace still stands near Haverhill, Mass.,—a house in one of the
hollows of the surrounding hills, little altered from what it was in 1807, the
year he was born, when it was already at least a century and a half old.
WHITTIER'S BIRTHPLACE, NEAR HAVERHILL,
He had no such opportunities for culture as Holmes and Lowell had in their
youth. His parents were intelligent and upright people of limited means, who
lived in all the simplicity of the Quaker faith, and there was nothing in his
early surroundings to encourage and develop a literary taste. Books were scarce,
and the twenty volumes on his father's shelves were, with one exception, about
Quaker doctrines and Quaker heroes. The exception was a novel, and that was
hidden away from the children, for fiction was forbidden fruit. No library or
scholarly companionship was within reach; and if his gift had been less than
genius, it could never have triumphed over the many disadvantages with which it
had to contend. Instead of a poet he would have been a farmer like his
forefathers. But literature was a spontaneous impulse with him, as natural as
the song of a bird; and he was not wholly dependent on training and opportunity,
as he would have been had he possessed mere talent.
Frugal from necessity, the life of the Whittiers was not sordid nor cheerless
to him, moreover; and he looks back to it as tenderly as if it had been full of
luxuries. It was sweetened by strong affections, simple tastes, and an
unflinching sense of duty; and in all the members of the household the love of
nature was so genuine that meadow, wood, and river yielded them all the pleasure
they needed, and they scarcely missed the refinements of art.
Surely there could not be a pleasanter or more homelike picture than that
which the poet has given us of the family on the night of the great storm when
the old house was snowbound:
"Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat.
And ever when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up its roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed.
The house-dog on his paws outspread,
Laid to the fire his drowsy head;
The cat's dark silhouette on the wall
A couchant tiger's seemed to fall,
And for the winter fireside meet
Between the andiron's straddling feet
The mug of cider simmered slow,
The apples sputtered in a row,
And close at hand the basket stood
With nuts from brown October's wood."
For a picture of the poet himself we must turn to the verses in "The Barefoot
Boy," in which he says:
"O for boyhood's time of June,
Crowding years in one brief moon,
When all things I heard or saw,
Me, their master, waited for.
I was rich in flowers and trees,
Humming-birds and honey-bees;
For my sport the squirrel played,
Plied the snouted mole his spade;
For my taste the blackberry cone
Purpled over hedge and stone;
Laughed the brook for my delight
Through the day and through the night,
Whispering at the garden-wall,
Talked with me from fall to fall;
Mine the sand-rimmed pickerel pond,
Mine the walnut slopes beyond,
Mine on bending orchard trees,
Apples of Hesperides!
Still as my horizon grew,
Larger grew my riches, too;
All the world I saw or knew
Seemed a complex Chinese toy,
Fashioned for a barefoot boy!"
THE OLD SCHOOL-HOUSE, HAVERHILL, MASS.
I doubt if any boy ever rose to intellectual eminence who had fewer
opportunities for education than Whittier. He had no such pasturage to browse on
as is open to every reader who, by simply reaching them out, can lay his hands
on the treasures of English literature. He had to borrow books wherever they
could be found among the neighbors who were willing to lend, and he thought
nothing of walking several miles for one volume. The only instruction he
received was at the district school, which was open a few weeks in midwinter,
and at the Haverhill Academy, which he attended two terms of six months each,
paying tuition by work in spare hours, and by keeping a small school himself. A
feeble spirit would have languished under such disadvantages. But Whittier
scarcely refers to them, and instead of begging for pity, he takes them as part
of the common lot, and seems to remember only what was beautiful and good in his
Occasionally a stranger knocked at the door of the old homestead in the
valley; sometimes it was a distinguished Quaker from abroad, but oftener it was
a peddler or some vagabond begging for food, which was seldom refused. Once a
foreigner came and asked for lodgings for the night—a dark, repulsive man, whose
appearance was so much against him that Mrs. Whittier was afraid to admit him.
No sooner had she sent him away, however, than she repented. "What if a son of
mine was in a strange land?" she thought. The young poet (who was not yet
recognized as such) offered to go out in search of him, and presently returned
with him, having found him standing in the roadway just as he had been turned
away from another house.
JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER
"He took his seat with us at the supper-table," says Whittier in one of his
prose sketches, "and when we were all gathered around the hearth that cold
autumnal evening, he told us, partly by words and partly by gestures, the story
of his life and misfortunes, amused us with descriptions of the grape-gatherings
and festivals of his sunny clime, edified my mother with a recipe for making
bread of chestnuts, and in the morning, when, after breakfast, his dark sallow
face lighted up, and his fierce eyes moistened with grateful emotion as in his
own silvery Tuscan accent he poured out his thanks, we marveled at the fears
which had so nearly closed our doors against him, and as he departed we all felt
that he had left with us the blessing of the poor."
Another guest came to the house one day. It was a vagrant old Scotchman, who,
when he had been treated to bread and cheese and cider, sang some of the songs
of Robert Burns, which Whittier then heard for the first time, and which he
never forgot. Coming to him thus as songs reached the people before printing was
invented, through gleemen and minstrels, their sweetness lingered in his ears,
and he soon found himself singing in the same strain. Some of his earliest
inspirations were drawn from Burns, and he tells us of his joy when one day,
after the visit of the old Scotchman, his schoolmaster loaned him a copy of that
poet's works. "I began to make rhymes myself, and to imagine stories and
adventures," he says in his simple way.
Indeed, he began to rhyme very early and kept his gift a secret from all,
except his oldest sister, fearing that his father, who was a prosaic man, would
think that he was wasting time. He wrote under the fence, in the attic, in the
barn—wherever he could escape observation; and as pen and ink were not always
available, he sometimes used chalk, and even charcoal. Great was the surprise of
the family when some of his verses were unearthed, literally unearthed, from
under a heap of rubbish in a garret; but his father frowned upon these evidences
of the bent of his mind, not out of unkindness, but because he doubted the
sufficiency of the boy's education for a literary life, and did not wish to
inspire him with hopes which might never be fulfilled.
His sister had faith in him, nevertheless, and, without his knowledge, she
sent one of his poems to the editor of The Free Press, a newspaper
published in Newburyport. Whittier was helping his father to repair a stone wall
by the roadside when the carrier flung a copy of the paper to him, and,
unconscious that anything of his was in it, he opened it and glanced up and down
the columns. His eyes fell on some verses called "The Exile's Departure."
"Fond scenes, which delighted my youthful existence,
With feelings of sorrow I bid ye adieu—
A lasting adieu; for now, dim in the distance,
The shores of Hibernia recede from my view.
Farewell to the cliffs, tempest-beaten and gray,
Which guard the loved shores of my own native land;
Farewell to the village and sail-shadowed bay,
The forest-crowned hill and the water-washed strand."
His eyes swam; it was his own poem, the first he ever had in print.
WHITTIER'S STUDY AT AMESBURY, MASS.
"What is the matter with thee?" his father demanded, seeing how dazed he was;
but, though he resumed his work on the wall, he could not speak, and he had to
steal a glance at the paper again and again, before he could convince himself
that he was not dreaming. Sure enough, the poem was there with his initial at
the foot of it,—"W., Haverhill, June 1st, 1826,"—and, better still, this
editorial notice: "If 'W.,' at Haverhill, will continue to favor us with pieces
beautiful as the one inserted in our poetical department of to-day, we shall
esteem it a favor."
Fame never passes true genius by, and when it came it brought with it the
love and reverence of thousands, who recognize in Whittier a nature abounding in
patience, unselfishness, and all the sweetness of Christian charity.
JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER
Born December 17, 1807 Died September 7, 1892
Whittier is known not only as a poet, but as a reformer and author. He
was a member of the Society of Friends. He attended a New England
academy; worked on a farm; taught school in order to afford further
education, and at the age of twenty-two edited a paper at Boston. He was
a leading opponent of slavery and was several times attacked by mobs on
account of his opinions.