Patucket Falls, by John Greenleaf Whittier

Tales and Sketches

MANY years ago I read, in some old chronicle of the early history of New England, a paragraph which has ever since haunted my memory, calling up romantic associations of wild Nature and wilder man:—

"The Sachem Wonolanset, who lived by the Groat Falls of Patucket, on the
Merrimac."

It was with this passage in my mind that I visited for the first time the Rapids of the Merrimac, above Lowell.

Passing up the street by the Hospital, a large and elegant mansion surrounded by trees and shrubbery and climbing vines, I found myself, after walking a few rods farther, in full view of the Merrimac. A deep and rocky channel stretched between me and the Dracut shore, along which rushed the shallow water,—a feeble, broken, and tortuous current, winding its way among splintered rocks, rising sharp and jagged in all directions. Drained above the falls by the canal, it resembled some mountain streamlet of old Spain, or some Arabian wady, exhausted by a year's drought. Higher up, the arches of the bridge spanned the quick, troubled water; and, higher still, the dam, so irregular in its outline as to seem less a work of Art than of Nature, crossed the bed of the river, a lakelike placidity above contrasting with the foam and murmur of the falls below. And this was all which modern improvements had left of "the great Patucket Falls" of the olden time. The wild river had been tamed; the spirit of the falls, whose hoarse voice the Indian once heard in the dashing of the great water down the rocks, had become the slave of the arch conjurer, Art; and, like a shorn and blinded giant, was grinding in the prison-house of his taskmaster.

One would like to know how this spot must have seemed to the "twenty goodlie persons from Concord and Woburn" who first visited it in 1652, as, worn with fatigue, and wet from the passage of the sluggish Concord, "where ford there was none," they wound their slow way through the forest, following the growing murmur of the falls, until at length the broad, swift river stretched before them, its white spray flashing in the sun. What cared these sturdy old Puritans for the wild beauty of the landscape thus revealed before them? I think I see them standing there in the golden light of a closing October day, with their sombre brown doublets and slouched hats, and their heavy matchlocks,—such men as Ireton fronted death with on the battle-field of Naseby, or those who stalked with Cromwell over the broken wall of Drogheda, smiting, "in the name of the Lord," old and young, "both maid, and little children." Methinks I see the sunset light flooding the river valley, the western hills stretching to the horizon, overhung with trees gorgeous and glowing with the tints of autumn,—a mighty flower-garden, blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, Frost; the rushing river, with its graceful water-curves and white foam; and a steady murmur, low, deep voices of water, the softest, sweetest sound of Nature, blends with the sigh of the south wind in the pine-tops. But these hard-featured saints of the New Canaan "care for none of these things." The stout hearts which beat under their leathern doublets are proof against the sweet influences of Nature. They see only "a great and howling wilderness, where be many Indians, but where fish may be taken, and where be meadows for ye subsistence of cattle," and which, on the whole, "is a comfortable place to accommodate a company of God's people upon, who may, with God's blessing, do good in that place for both church and state." (Vide petition to the General Court, 1653.)

In reading the journals and narratives of the early settlers of New England nothing is more remarkable than the entire silence of the worthy writers in respect to the natural beauty or grandeur of the scenery amid which their lot was cast. They designated the grand and glorious forest, broken by lakes and crossed by great rivers, intersected by a thousand streams more beautiful than those which the Old World has given to song and romance, as "a desert and frightful wilderness." The wildly picturesque Indian, darting his birch canoe down the Falls of the Amoskeag or gliding in the deer-track of the forest, was, in their view, nothing but a "dirty tawnie," a "salvage heathen," and "devil's imp." Many of them were well educated,—men of varied and profound erudition, and familiar with the best specimens of Greek and Roman literature; yet they seem to have been utterly devoid of that poetic feeling or fancy whose subtle alchemy detects the beautiful in the familiar. Their very hymns and spiritual songs seem to have been expressly calculated, like "the music-grinders" of Holmes,—

                   "To pluck the eyes of sentiment,
                    And dock the tail of rhyme,
                    To crack the voice of melody,
                    And break the legs of time."

They were sworn enemies of the Muses; haters of stage-play literature, profane songs, and wanton sonnets; of everything, in brief, which reminded them of the days of the roistering cavaliers and bedizened beauties of the court of "the man Charles," whose head had fallen beneath the sword of Puritan justice. Hard, harsh, unlovely, yet with many virtues and noble points of character, they were fitted, doubtless, for their work of pioneers in the wilderness. Sternly faithful to duty, in peril, and suffering, and self-denial, they wrought out the noblest of historical epics on the rough soil of New England. They lived a truer poetry than Homer or Virgil wrote.

The Patuckets, once a powerful native tribe, had their principal settlements around the falls at the time of the visit of the white men of Concord and Woburn in 1652. Gookin, the Indian historian, states that this tribe was almost wholly destroyed by the great pestilence of 1612. In 1674 they had but two hundred and fifty males in the whole tribe. Their chief sachem lived opposite the falls; and it was in his wigwam that the historian, in company with John Eliot, the Indian missionary, held a "meeting for worshippe on ye 5th of May, 1676," where Mr. Eliot preached from "ye twenty-second of Matthew."

The white visitants from Concord and Woburn, pleased with the appearance of the place and the prospect it afforded for planting and fishing, petitioned the General Court for a grant of the entire tract of land now embraced in the limits of Lowell and Chelmsford. They made no account whatever of the rights of the poor Patuckets; but, considering it "a comfortable place to accommodate God's people upon," were doubtless prepared to deal with the heathen inhabitants as Joshua the son of Nun did with the Jebusites and Perizzites, the Hivites and the Hittites, of old. The Indians, however, found a friend in the apostle Eliot, who presented a petition in their behalf that the lands lying around the Patucket and Wamesit Falls should be appropriated exclusively for their benefit and use. The Court granted the petition of the whites, with the exception of the tract in the angle of the two rivers on which the Patuckets were settled. The Indian title to this tract was not finally extinguished until 1726, when the beautiful name of Wamesit was lost in that of Chelmsford, and the last of the Patuckets turned his back upon the graves of his fathers and sought a new home among the strange Indians of the North.

But what has all this to do with the falls? When the rail-cars came thundering through his lake country, Wordsworth attempted to exorcise them by a sonnet; and, were I not a very decided Yankee, I might possibly follow his example, and utter in this connection my protest against the desecration of Patucket Falls, and battle with objurgatory stanzas these dams and mills, as Balmawapple shot off his horse-pistol at Stirling Castle. Rocks and trees, rapids, cascades, and other water- works are doubtless all very well; but on the whole, considering our seven months of frost, are not cotton shirts and woollen coats still better? As for the spirits of the river, the Merrimac Naiads, or whatever may be their name in Indian vocabulary, they have no good reason for complaint; inasmuch as Nature, in marking and scooping out the channel of their stream, seems to have had an eye to the useful rather than the picturesque. After a few preliminary antics and youthful vagaries up among the White Hills, the Merrimac comes down to the seaboard, a clear, cheerful, hard-working Yankee river. Its numerous falls and rapids are such as seem to invite the engineer's level rather than the pencil of the tourist; and the mason who piles up the huge brick fabrics at their feet is seldom, I suspect, troubled with sentimental remorse or poetical misgivings. Staid and matter of fact as the Merrimac is, it has, nevertheless, certain capricious and eccentric tributaries; the Powow, for instance, with its eighty feet fall in a few rods, and that wild, Indian-haunted Spicket, taking its wellnigh perpendicular leap of thirty feet, within sight of the village meeting- house, kicking up its Pagan heels, Sundays and all, in sheer contempt of Puritan tithing-men. This latter waterfall is now somewhat modified by the hand of Art, but is still, as Professor Hitchcock's "Scenographical Geology" says of it, "an object of no little interest." My friend T., favorably known as the translator of "Undine" and as a writer of fine and delicate imagination, visited Spicket Falls before the sound of a hammer or the click of a trowel had been heard beside them. His journal of "A Day on the Merrimac" gives a pleasing and vivid description of their original appearance as viewed through the telescope of a poetic fancy. The readers of "Undine" will thank me for a passage or two from this sketch:—

"The sound of the waters swells more deeply. Something supernatural in their confused murmur; it makes me better understand and sympathize with the writer of the Apocalypse when he speaks of the voice of many waters, heaping image upon image, to impart the vigor of his conception.

"Through yonder elm-branches I catch a few snowy glimpses of foam in the air. See that spray and vapor rolling up the evergreen on my left The two side precipices, one hundred feet apart and excluding objects of inferior moment, darken and concentrate the view. The waters between pour over the right-hand and left-hand summit, rushing down and uniting among the craggiest and abruptest of rocks. Oh for a whole mountain- side of that living foam! The sun impresses a faint prismatic hue. These falls, compared with those of the Missouri, are nothing,—nothing but the merest miniature; and yet they assist me in forming some conception of that glorious expanse.

"A fragment of an oak, struck off by lightning, struggles with the current midway down; while the shattered trunk frowns above the desolation, majestic in ruin. This is near the southern cliff. Farther north a crag rises out of the stream, its upper surface covered with green clover of the most vivid freshness. Not only all night, but all day, has the dew lain upon its purity. With my eye attaining the uppermost margin, where the waters shoot over, I look away into the western sky, and discern there (what you least expect) a cow chewing her cud with admirable composure, and higher up several sheep and lambs browsing celestial buds. They stand on the eminence that forms the background of my present view. The illusion is extremely picturesque,— such as Allston himself would despair of producing. 'Who can paint like Nature'? "

To a population like that of Lowell, the weekly respite from monotonous in-door toil afforded by the first day of the week is particularly grateful. Sabbath comes to the weary and overworked operative emphatically as a day of rest. It opens upon him somewhat as it did upon George Herbert, as he describes it in his exquisite little poem:—

               "Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
               The bridal of the earth and sky!"

Apart from its soothing religious associations, it brings with it the assurance of physical comfort and freedom. It is something to be able to doze out the morning from daybreak to breakfast in that luxurious state between sleeping and waking in which the mind eddies slowly and peacefully round and round instead of rushing onward,—the future a blank, the past annihilated, the present but a dim consciousness of pleasurable existence. Then, too, the satisfaction is by no means inconsiderable of throwing aside the worn and soiled habiliments of labor and appearing in neat and comfortable attire. The moral influence of dress has not been overrated even by Carlyle's Professor in his Sartor Resartus. William Penn says that cleanliness is akin to godliness. A well-dressed man, all other things being equal, is not half as likely to compromise his character as one who approximates to shabbiness. Lawrence Sterne used to say that when he felt himself giving way to low spirits and a sense of depression and worthlessness,— a sort of predisposition for all sorts of little meannesses,—he forthwith shaved himself, brushed his wig, donned his best dress and his gold rings, and thus put to flight the azure demons of his unfortunate temperament. There is somehow a close affinity between moral purity and clean linen; and the sprites of our daily temptation, who seem to find easy access to us through a broken hat or a rent in the elbow, are manifestly baffled by the "complete mail" of a clean and decent dress. I recollect on one occasion hearing my mother tell our family physician that a woman in the neighborhood, not remarkable for her tidiness, had become a church-member. "Humph!" said the doctor, in his quick, sarcastic way, "What of that? Don't you know that no unclean thing can enter the kingdom of heaven?"

"If you would see" Lowell "aright," as Walter Scott says of Melrose Abbey, one must be here of a pleasant First day at the close of what is called the "afternoon service." The streets are then blossoming like a peripatetic flower-garden; as if the tulips and lilies and roses of my friend W.'s nursery, in the vale of Nonantum, should take it into their heads to promenade for exercise. Thousands swarm forth who during week- days are confined to the mills. Gay colors alternate with snowy whiteness; extremest fashion elbows the plain demureness of old- fashioned Methodism.

Fair pale faces catch a warmer tint from the free sunshine and fresh air. The languid step becomes elastic with that "springy motion of the gait" which Charles Lamb admired. Yet the general appearance of the city is that of quietude; the youthful multitude passes on calmly, its voices subdued to a lower and softened tone, as if fearful of breaking the repose of the day of rest. A stranger fresh from the gayly spent Sabbaths of the continent of Europe would be undoubtedly amazed at the decorum and sobriety of these crowded streets.

I am not over-precise in outward observances; but I nevertheless welcome with joy unfeigned this first day of the week,—sweetest pause in our hard life-march, greenest resting-place in the hot desert we are treading. The errors of those who mistake its benignant rest for the iron rule of the Jewish Sabbath, and who consequently hedge it about with penalties and bow down before it in slavish terror, should not render us less grateful for the real blessing it brings us. As a day wrested in some degree from the god of this world, as an opportunity afforded for thoughtful self-communing, let us receive it as a good gift of our heavenly Parent in love rather than fear.

In passing along Central Street this morning my attention was directed by the friend who accompanied me to a group of laborers, with coats off and sleeves rolled up, heaving at levers, smiting with sledge-hammers, in full view of the street, on the margin of the canal, just above Central Street Bridge. I rubbed my eyes, half expecting that I was the subject of mere optical illusion; but a second look only confirmed the first. Around me were solemn, go-to-meeting faces,—smileless and awful; and close at hand were the delving, toiling, mud-begrimed laborers. Nobody seemed surprised at it; nobody noticed it as a thing out of the common course of events. And this, too, in a city where the Sabbath proprieties are sternly insisted upon; where some twenty pulpits deal out anathemas upon all who "desecrate the Lord's day;" where simple notices of meetings for moral purposes even can scarcely be read; where many count it wrong to speak on that day for the slave, who knows no Sabbath of rest, or for the drunkard, who, imbruted by his appetites, cannot enjoy it. Verily there are strange contradictions in our conventional morality. Eyes which, looking across the Atlantic on the gay Sabbath dances of French peasants are turned upward with horror, are somehow blind to matters close at home. What would be sin past repentance in an individual becomes quite proper in a corporation. True, the Sabbath is holy; but the canals must be repaired. Everybody ought to go to meeting; but the dividends must not be diminished. Church indulgences are not, after all, confined to Rome.

To a close observer of human nature there is nothing surprising in the fact that a class of persons, who wink at this sacrifice of Sabhath sanctities to the demon of gain, look at the same time with stern disapprobation upon everything partaking of the character of amusement, however innocent and healthful, on this day. But for myself, looking down through the light of a golden evening upon these quietly passing groups, I cannot find it in my heart to condemn them for seeking on this their sole day of leisure the needful influences of social enjoyment, unrestrained exercise, and fresh air. I cannot think any essential service to religion or humanity would result from the conversion of their day of rest into a Jewish Sabbath, and their consequent confinement, like so many pining prisoners, in close and crowded boarding-houses. Is not cheerfulness a duty, a better expression of our gratitude for God's blessings than mere words? And even under the old law of rituals, what answer had the Pharisees to the question, "Is it not lawful to do good on the Sabbath day?"

I am naturally of a sober temperament, and am, besides, a member of that sect which Dr. More has called, mistakenly indeed, "the most melancholy of all;" but I confess a special dislike of disfigured faces, ostentatious displays of piety, pride aping humility. Asceticism, moroseness, self-torture, ingratitude in view of down-showering blessings, and painful restraint of the better feelings of our nature may befit a Hindoo fakir, or a Mandan medicine man with buffalo skulls strung to his lacerated muscles; but they look to me sadly out of place in a believer of the glad evangel of the New Testament. The life of the divine Teacher affords no countenance to this sullen and gloomy saintliness, shutting up the heart against the sweet influences of human sympathy and the blessed ministrations of Nature. To the horror and clothes-rending astonishment of blind Pharisees He uttered the significant truth, that "the Sabhath was made for man, and not man for the Sabhath." From the close air of crowded cities, from thronged temples and synagogues,—where priest and Levite kept up a show of worship, drumming upon hollow ceremonials the more loudly for their emptiness of life, as the husk rustles the more when the grain is gone, —He led His disciples out into the country stillness, under clear Eastern heavens, on the breezy tops of mountains, in the shade of fruit- trees, by the side of fountains, and through yellow harvest-fields, enforcing the lessons of His divine morality by comparisons and parables suggested by the objects around Him or the cheerful incidents of social humanity,—the vineyard, the field-lily, the sparrow in the air, the sower in the seed-field, the feast and the marriage. Thus gently, thus sweetly kind and cheerful, fell from His lips the gospel of humanity; love the fulfilling of every law; our love for one another measuring and manifesting our love of Him. The baptism wherewith He was baptized was that of divine fulness in the wants of our humanity; the deep waters of our sorrows went over Him; ineffable purity sounding for our sakes the dark abysm of sin; yet how like a river of light runs that serene and beautiful life through the narratives of the evangelists! He broke bread with the poor despised publican; He sat down with the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee; He spoke compassionate words to sin-sick Magdalen; He sanctified by His presence the social enjoyments of home and friendship in the family of Bethany; He laid His hand of blessing on the sunny brows of children; He had regard even to the merely animal wants of the multitude in the wilderness; He frowned upon none of life's simple and natural pleasures. The burden of His Gospel was love; and in life and word He taught evermore the divided and scattered children of one great family that only as they drew near each other could they approach Him who was their common centre; and that while no ostentation of prayer nor rigid observance of ceremonies could elevate man to heaven, the simple exercise of love, in thought and action, could bring heaven down to man. To weary and restless spirits He taught the great truth, that happiness consists in making others happy. No cloister for idle genuflections and bead counting, no hair-cloth for the loins nor scourge for the limbs, but works of love and usefulness under the cheerful sunshine, making the waste places of humanity glad and causing the heart's desert to blossom. Why, then, should we go searching after the cast-off sackcloth of the Pharisee? Are we Jews, or Christians? Must even our gratitude for "glad tidings of great joy" be desponding? Must the hymn of our thanksgiving for countless mercies and the, unspeakable gift of His life have evermore an undertone of funeral wailing? What! shall we go murmuring and lamenting, looking coldly on one another, seeing no beauty, nor light, nor gladness in this good world, wherein we have the glorious privilege of laboring in God's harvest-field, with angels for our task companions, blessing and being blessed?

To him who, neglecting the revelations of immediate duty, looks regretfully behind and fearfully before him, life may well seem a solemn mystery, for, whichever way he turns, a wall of darkness rises before him; but down upon the present, as through a skylight between the shadows, falls a clear, still radiance, like beams from an eye of blessing; and, within the circle of that divine illumination, beauty and goodness, truth and love, purity and cheerfulness blend like primal colors into the clear harmony of light. The author of Proverbial Philosophy has a passage not unworthy of note in this connection, when he speaks of the train which attends the just in heaven:—

"Also in the lengthening troop see I some clad in robes of triumph,
Whose fair and sunny faces I have known and loved on earth.
Welcome, ye glorified Loves, Graces, Sciences, and Muses,
That, like Sisters of Charity, tended in this world's hospital;
Welcome, for verily I knew ye could not but be children of the light;
Welcome, chiefly welcome, for I find I have friends in heaven,
And some I have scarcely looked for; as thou, light-hearted Mirth;
Thou, also, star-robed Urania; and thou with the curious glass,
That rejoicest in tracking beauty where the eye was too dull to note it.
And art thou, too, among the blessed, mild, much-injured Poetry?
That quickenest with light and beauty the leaden face of matter,
That not unheard, though silent, fillest earth's gardens with music,
And not unseen, though a spirit, dost look down upon us from the stars."