Personal Recollections of John Greenleaf Whittier

by Edwin Watts Chubb

In the New England Magazine Charlotte Forten Grimke writes entertainingly of Whittier. From this article we are permitted to quote the following extracts:

"And so it happened that, one lovely summer day, my friend and I found ourselves on the train, rapidly whirling eastward, through the pleasant old town of Newburyport, across the 'shining Merrimac,' on our way to the poet's home in Amesbury. Arriving at the station, we found Mr. Whittier awaiting us, and a walk of a few minutes brought us to his house on Friend Street. Amesbury, a busy manufacturing town, pleasantly situated on the Merrimac, impressed me at first as hardly retired enough for a poet's home; for fresh in my recollection were Longfellow's historic house, guarded by stately poplars, standing back from the quiet Cambridge street, and Lowell's old mansion, completely buried in its noble elms; and each of these had quite realized my ideal of the home of a poet. But the little house looked very quiet and homelike; and when we entered it and received the warm welcome of the poet's sister, we felt, as all felt who entered that hospitable door, the very spirit of peace descending upon us. The house was then white (it was afterwards painted a pale yellow), with green blinds, and a little vine-wreathed piazza on one side, upon which opened the glass door of 'the garden room,' the poet's favorite sitting-room and study. The windows of this room looked out upon a pleasant, old-fashioned garden. The walls on both sides of the fireplace were covered with books. The other walls were hung with pictures, among which we noticed 'The Barefoot Boy,' a painting of Mr. Whittier's birthplace in Haverhill, a copy of that lovely picture, 'The Motherless,' under which were written some exquisite lines by Mrs. Stowe, and a beautiful little sea-view, painted by a friend of the poet. Vases of fresh, bright flowers stood upon the mantelpiece. After we had rested we went into the little parlor, where hung the portrait of the loved and cherished mother, who some years before had passed away to the 'Better Land.' Hers was one of those sweet, aged faces which one often sees among the Friends,—full of repose, breathing a benediction upon all around. There were other pictures and books, and upon a table in the corner stood Rogers' 'Wounded Scout.'

John Greenleaf Whittier

From a photograph

"At the head of the staircase hung a great cluster of pansies, purple and white and gold. Mr. Whittier called our attention to their wonderful resemblance to human faces,—a resemblance which we so often see in pansies, and which was brought out with really startling distinctness in this picture.

"In the cool, pleasant chamber assigned to us, pervaded by an air of Quaker serenity and purity, was a large painting of the poet in his youth. This was the realization of my girlish dreams. There were the clustering curls, the brilliant dark eyes, the firm, resolute mouth. He looked like a youthful Bayard, 'without fear and without reproach,' ready to throw himself unflinchingly into the most stirring scenes of the battle of life.

"We were at once greatly interested in Miss Whittier, and impressed by the simplicity and kindness of her manner. We saw the soul's beauty shining in her soft, dark eyes, and in the smile which, like her brother's, was very winning, and we felt it in the music of her gentle voice and the warm pressure of her hand. There was a refreshing atmosphere of unworldliness about her. She had rarely been away from her home, and although her brother's fame obliged her to receive many strangers, she had never, as she told us, been able to overcome a shyness of disposition, except in the case of a very few friends. She was naturally witty and original, and when she did shake off her shyness, had a childlike way of saying bright things which was very charming. She and her brother had lived together, alone since their mother's death, and in their mutual devotion have been well compared to Charles Lamb and his sister.

"We spent a delightful evening in the garden-room in quiet, cheerful talk. In society Mr. Whittier had the reputation of being very shy, and he was so among strangers; but at times, in the companionship of his friends, no one could be more genial. He had even a boyish frankness of manner, a natural love of fun, a keen appreciation of the humorous, which the sorrows and poor health of many years failed to subdue. That night he talked to us freely of his childhood, of the life on the old farm in Haverhill, which he has so vividly described in Snow-Bound, and showed us a venerable book, Davideis, being a history of David written in rhyme, the quaintest and most amusing rhyme, by Thomas Ellwood, a friend of Milton. It was the first book of 'poetry,' he told us, that he read when a boy. He entertained us with stories of people who came to see him. He had many very interesting and charming visitors, of course, but there were also many exceedingly queer ones, and these, he said with a queer smile, generally 'brought their carpet bags!' He said he was thankful to live in such a place as Amesbury, where people did not speak to him about his poems, nor think of him as a poet. Sometimes he had amused himself by tracking the most persistent of the lion-hunters, and found that the same individuals went to Emerson and Longfellow and other authors, and made precisely the same speeches. Emerson was not much annoyed by them; he enjoyed studying character in all its phases.

"Begging letters and begging visits were also very frequent, and his sister told us that her brother had frequently been victimized in his desire to help those whose pitiful stories he believed. One day he received a letter from a man in a neighboring town, asking him for a loan of ten dollars, and assuring him that he should blow his brains out if Mr. Whittier did not send him the money. The tone of the letter made him doubt the sincerity of the writer, and he did not send the money, comforting himself, he said, with the thought that the man really had no brains to blow out. 'I must confess, however,' he added, 'I looked rather anxiously at the newspapers for the next few days, but seeing no news of a suicide in the neighboring town, I was relieved.'

"His sister once told us of an incident which occurred during the war, which pleased them very much. One night, at a late hour, the door-bell rang, and her brother, on answering it, found a young man in an officer's uniform standing at the door. 'Is this Mr. Whittier?' he asked. 'Yes.' 'Well, sir,' was the quick reply, 'I only wanted to have the pleasure of shaking hands with you.' And with that he seized the poet's hand, shook it warmly, and rushed away, before Mr. Whittier had recovered from his surprise.

"In subsequent visits to Mr. Whittier, he was sometimes induced to talk about his poems, although that was a subject on which he rarely spoke. On my friend's once warmly praising Maud Muller, he said decidedly that he did not like the poem, because it was too sad; it ministered to the spirit of unrest and dissatisfaction which was only too prevalent. With My Psalm he felt much better satisfied, because it was more hopeful. His favorite poets were Wordsworth and Burns. He once showed us an autograph letter of Burns, which he prized very highly, and a number of beautiful photographs of Scotch scenery, the gift of a sturdy old Scotchman, a neighbor of his and also an ardent, admirer of Burns.

"Our conversation occasionally touched on the subject of marriage, and I remember his asking us if we could imagine why there should be so much unhappiness among married people, even among those who seemed to have everything calculated to make them happy, and who really loved each other. He said he had pondered over the subject a good deal, and had finally concluded that it was because they saw too much of each other. He did not believe it was well for any two human beings to have too much of each other's society. We told him that, being a much-to-be-commiserated bachelor, he was not competent authority on that subject.

"Among the most intimate of his friends were Mr. and Mrs. James T. Fields, Colonel Higginson, Charles Sumner, and Bayard Taylor. To the two latter, and also to Emerson, he has alluded very beautifully in one of his most characteristic poems, The Last Walk in Autumn.

"On visiting the poet after my return from the South, for a vacation, I found a new inmate of the house, a gray and scarlet parrot, named Charlie, a great pet of the poet and his sister, and far-famed for his wit and wisdom. He could say many things with great distinctness, and although at first refusing rather spitefully to make my acquaintance, when I invited him to come into the kitchen and get his supper he at once hopped upon my hand and behaved in the most amicable manner. It was very comical to see him dance to a tune of Mr. Whittier's whistling. His master told us that he would climb toilsomely up the spout, pausing at every step or two to say, in a tone of the deepest self-pity, 'Poor Charlie!' and when he reached the roof screaming impertinently at the passers-by. The Irish children said that he called them 'Paddies,' and threatened him with dire vengeance. Mr. Whittier said he did not know; he 'could believe anything of that bird.' Charlie's favorite amusement was shaking the unripe pears from the trees in the garden; and when he saw Miss Whittier approaching, he would steal away with drooping head, like a child caught in a naughty action. This gifted bird afterwards died, and was much missed by the poet, who alluded to him in the poem entitled The Common Question.

"Mr. Whittier showed me a couple of stuffed birds which had been sent to him by the Emperor of Brazil, after reading his Cry of a Lost Soul, in allusion to the bird in South American forests which has so intensely mournful a note that the Indians give it a name which signifies a lost soul. The first birds which were sent did not reach him, and the Emperor on hearing it sent two more. The bird is larger than a mocking bird, and has sober gray plumage, very unlike the bright-hued creatures usually seen in tropical forests.

"The Emperor was a warm admirer of Mr. Whittier, and one of the first persons for whom he inquired on reaching Boston was the poet. There was some delay about their meeting and Dom Pedro became very impatient. At last they met in a house in Boston. Dom Pedro expressed great delight at meeting the poet, and talked with him a long time, paying very little attention to any one else. On leaving, he asked Mr. Whittier to accompany him downstairs, and before entering his carriage threw his arms around the astonished poet and embraced him warmly.

"Rare and beautiful were the qualities which met in Mr. Whittier: a singularly unworldly and sweet disposition, and unwavering love of truth and justice, a keen sense of humor, the highest type of courage, and a firm faith in God's goodness, which no amount of suffering ever shook. For years he was an invalid, a martyr to severe headaches. He once told me that he had not for a long time written anything without suffering. The nearest and dearest of his earthly ties had been severed by death. But he never rebelled. His life exemplified the spirit of resignation which is breathed throughout so many of his poems.

All as God wills, who wisely heeds
To give or to withhold,
And knoweth more of all my needs
Than all my prayers have told.

"My husband and I made our last visit to him two years ago, at Oak Knoll. He gave us his customary warm greeting and, although in extremely feeble health, was as sweet and genial in spirit and as entertaining in conversation as ever. He took us into his cosey little library, and talked about his books and pictures and old friends, and promised to send us his latest photograph,—which he afterwards did. Fearing to weary him, we stayed but a short time. So frail he looked, that in parting from him our hearts were saddened by the thought that we might not look upon that dear face again. And so it proved. I shall ever remember him as I saw him then, in his beautiful country home, surrounded by devoted friends, awaiting calmly the summons to enter into rest—in that serene and lovely old age which comes only to those gifted ones whose lives are the embodiment of all that is noblest and best and sweetest in their poetry.

"Farewell, beloved, revered friend! Thou art gone to join the loved ones who beckoned to thee from those blessed shores of Peace. To thee, how great the gain! To us, how infinite the loss! But thy influence shall remain with us. Still shalt thou

... be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.