Edmund Gosse Visits Whittier

by Edwin Watts Chubb

In December of 1884, Mr. Edmund Gosse, one of the most distinguished of English critics, visited Whittier at a house called Oak Knoll, in Massachusetts, where he was then staying with friends. We quote brief extracts from a report of that visit as published in Good Words, an English magazine:

"Doubtless in leafy season Oak Knoll may have its charms, but it was distinctly sinister that December morning. We rang, and after a long pause the front door opened slightly, and a very unprepossessing dog emerged, and shut the door (if I may say so) behind him. We were face to face with this animal, which presented none of the features identified in one's mind with the idea of Mr. Whittier. It sniffed unpleasantly, but we spoke to it most blandly and it became assured that we were not tramps. The dog sat down, and looked at us; we had nowhere to sit down, but we looked at the dog. Then, after many blandishments, but feeling very uncomfortable, I ventured to hold the dog in conversation while I rang again. After another pause the door was slightly opened, and a voice of no agreeable timbre asked what we wanted. We explained, across the dog, that we had come by appointment to see Mr. Whittier. The door was closed a second time, and, if our carriage had still been waiting, we should certainly have driven back to Danvers. But at length a hard-featured woman grudgingly admitted us, and showed us, growling as she did it, into a parlor.

"Our troubles were then over, for Mr. Whittier, himself appeared, with all that report had ever told of a gentle sweetness and dignified cordial courtesy. He was then seventy-seven years old, and, although he spoke of age and feebleness, he showed few signs of either; he was, in fact, to live eight years more. Perhaps because the room was low, he seemed surprisingly tall; he must, in fact, have been a little less than six feet high. The peculiarity of his face rested in the extraordinary large and luminous black eyes, set in black eyebrows, and fringed with thick black eye-lashes curiously curved inward....

"His generosity to those much younger and less gifted than himself is well known, and I shall not dwell on the good-natured things which he proceeded to say to his English visitor. He made no profession, at any time, of being a critic, and his formula was that such and such verse or prose had given him pleasure—'I am grateful to thee for all that enjoyment' was his charming way of being kind.... He spoke with great emotion of Emerson—'the noblest human being I have known,' and of Longfellow, 'perhaps the sweetest. But you will see Holmes,' he added. I said that it was my great privilege to be seeing Dr. Holmes every day, and that the night before he had sent all sorts of affectionate messages by me to Mr. Whittier. The latter expressed great curiosity to see Holmes's short Life of Emerson which, in fact, was published five or six days later.... Mr. Whittier greatly surprised me by confessing that he was quite color-blind. He exemplified his condition by saying that if I came to Amesbury I should be scandalized by one of his carpets. It appeared that he was never permitted, by the guardian goddess of his hearth, to go 'shopping' for himself, but that once, being in Boston, and needing a carpet, he had ventured to go to a store and buy what he thought to be a very nice, quiet article, precisely suited to adorn a Quaker home. When it arrived at Amesbury there was a universal shout of horror, for what had struck Mr. Whittier as a particularly soft combination of browns and grays proved, to normal eyes, to be a loud pattern of bright red roses on a field of the crudest cabbage-green."