Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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John Greenleaf Whittier
WHITTIER, John Greenleaf, poet, born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, 17 December, 1807. His parents were members of the Society of Friends, and to the principles and practices of this sect he always remained faithful, conforming even to its peculiarities of speech and garb in a community where such observance, by being singular, must often have been trying to a temperament so shy and sensitive as his. His first American ancestor came to Massachusetts in 1638, and the conversion to Quaker-ism took place in the second generation of the family, after the settlement of the Bay Colony, at a time when that sect was sternly persecuted. There may therefore be something of heredity in the unswerving constancy of Whittier to unpopular opinions. At the date of his birth Haverhill was still a farming village, one of the prettiest, among the many pretty hamlets which then gave a peaceful charm to the rural scenery of Massachusetts. Born on a farm, Whittier's first occupations were those of a farmer's boy, driving the kine to and from pasture, riding to mill, fetching in wood for the undying kitchen-fire, and helping in the lighter labors of haying and harvest, he was thus early brought into that intimate communion with Mother Earth and with Nature which comes not by mere observation, and which gives such a' peculiar charm of picturesque truth to so many of his poems. How much he thus learned and to how good profit he put it are visible in ninny of his poems, but especially in his " Snow-Bound," which, in addition to its other merits, has now also a historical value as a vivid picture of modes of life even then obsolescent and now almost as far away as those pictured by Homer. And not only will the scenery of New England, both outward and domestic, live in his verse, but it is worth remark that the nobler qualities of the Puritans have nowhere found such adequate literary expression since Milton as in this member of a sect which they did their utmost to suppress. Almost alone among American poets, he has revived the legends of his neighborhood in verse, and his "Floyd Ireson" is among the best of modern ballads, surpassed by none save Scott, if even by him. His schooling in other respects must have been scanty enough, since his only opportunity during boyhood would be the nearest district school (taught commonly by a college student younger than some of his rustic pupils), where he got such training in the simpler rudiments of knowledge as was possible under the conditions then existing. And this training, as usually in the country, was limited to the winter months, when farm-work was necessarily suspended. He has recorded .his indebtedness during boyhood to Dr. Elias Weld, of Haverhill, who gave him the freedom of his library.
A farm-hand taught him shoemaking, the common occupation during winter in the fishing and farming villages along the coast, and by this means he earned enough to warrant his attending Haverhill academy during six months of 1827. He was now sufficiently learned, according to the simpler notions of those days, to be himself a teacher, and taught in the district school of West Amesbury during the following winter. This supplied the means for another six months at the academy, hi Whittier's case, as in that of so many other New Englanders, nothing is more characteristic or more touching than the persistent resolve to get the best education within their reach at whatever sacrifice.
The literary impulse in him must have been strong, for while yet in his nineteenth year he contributed anonymous verse to the poet's corner of the "Free Press," a journal edited by W. L. Garrison in Newburyport, and enjoyed the furtive bliss of print. Garrison saw signs of promise in these immature experiments, sought out the author, and gave him the precious encouragement of praise and sympathy. This led to a lasting friendship, and, with the traditions of his sect, may have had some influence in preparing Whittier to enlist in the anti-slavery crusade which began with the establishment of the "Liberator " in 1831, and afterward caught so much of its inspiration from his fervid lyrics. The ambition to become a poet was awakened in him appropriately enough by a copy of Robert Burns's poems, which fell into his hands in his fourteenth year.
His father dying, he carried on the farm for the next five years, and in 1835 was sent to the general court from Haverhill. During all these years he had been an industrious writer, seeking an outlet in all directions and contributing poems to John Neal's "Yankee" and to the " New England Magazine," where the "Autocrat" began his admirable discourses. In 1829 he undertook the editorship of the "American Manufacturer" in Boston, and in 1830 succeeded George D. Prentice as editor of the "Haverhill Gazette" during the first six months of the year, and then of the " New England Weekly Review" in Hartford, Connecticut This office he resigned in 1832 on account of failing" health and returned home. In 1836 he became secretary of the American anti-slavery society, and afterward removed to Philadelphia, where for a year (1838-'9) he edited the "Pennsylvania Fretman." This he did with such sincerity that its printing-office was sacked and burned by a mob. At that time it required the courage of passionate conviction to maintain principles the noisier profession of which was to become profitable a few years later. Delicate as his organization was, Whittier faced many a brutal mob with unflinching composure. He was never a mere fanatic, but always quick to recognize and celebrate high qualities even in an adversary, as many of his poems show. He refused to follow Garrison in the renunciation of political action as one means of reform. In 1840 he took up his abode in Amesbury. a quiet village near his birthplace, and there (with the exception of six months spent at Lowell as editor of the " Middlesex Standard"), in the simple dignity of a frugal independence, the fruit of his own literary labors, he has lived ever since, and happily still lives, known and loved wherever our tongue is spoken. From 1847 to 1859 he contributed editorially to the " National Era," an anti-slavery newspaper published at Washington, in which " Uncle Tom's Cabin" was first printed.
In his seclusion Whittier was never idle, nor did he neglect his duties as a citizen while confirming his quality as a poet. Whenever occasion offered, some burning lyric of his flew across the country, like the fiery cross, to warn and rally. Never mingling in active politics (unless filling the office of presidential elector may be called so), he probably did more than anybody in preparing the material out of which the Republican party was made. When the civil war was impending he would have evaded it, if possible, by any concession short of surrender, as his "Word for the Hour" (January, 1861) shows. While the war continued he wrote little with direct, reference to it, and never anything that showed any bitterness toward the authors of it. After it was over he would have made the terms of settlement liberal and conciliatory. He was too wise and too humane to stir the still living" embers of passion and resentment for any political end however dear to him.
Of all American poets, with the single exception of Longfellow, Whittier has been the most popular, and in his case more than in that of any other the popularity has been warmed through with affection. This has ... been due in part to the nobly simple character of the man, transparent through his verse, in part to the fact that his poetry, concerning itself chiefly with the obvious aspects of life and speculation, has kept close to the highest levels of the average thought and sentiment, His themes have been mainly chosen from his own time and country--from his own neighborhood even--he deals with simple motives and with experiences common to all, and accordingly his scenery (whether of the outward or the inward eye) is domestically welcome to all his countrymen, He is never complex in thought or obscure in expression, and if sometimes his diction might gain in quality by a more deliberate choice, yet the pellucid simplicity of his phrase and the instant, aptness of his epithet as often secure a more winning felicity through his frankness of confidence in the vernacular. His provincialisms of word or accent have an endearing property to the native ear, though even that will consent to a few of his more licentious rhymes. One feels that it is a neighbor who is speaking. Nor should the genial piety of his habitual thought and the faith that seeks no securer foothold than the Rock of Ages, on which the fathers stood so firmly, be overlooked among the qualities that, give him a privilege of familiar entrance to a multitude of hearts and minds which would be barred against many higher, though not more genuine, forms of poetry. His religion has the sincerity of Cowper's without those insane terrors that made its very sincerity a torture. There are many points of spiritual likeness between the English and the American poet, especially in their unmetaphysicized love of outward natures their austerity tempered with playful humor, and in that humanity of tone which establishes a tie of affectionate companionship between them and their readers. Whittier has done as much for the scenery of New England as Scott for that of Scotland. Many of his poems (such, for example, as "Telling the Bees"), in which description and sentiment mutually inspire each other, are as fine as any in the language.
Whittier, as many of his poems show, and as, indeed, would be inevitable, has had his moments of doubt and distrust, but never of despair. He has encountered everywhere the moral of his inscription on a sun-dial, convinced that "there's light above me by the shade below." He, like others, has found it hard to reconcile the creed held by inheritance with the subtle logic of more modern modes of thought. As he himself has said : "He reconciled as best he could Old faith and fancies new." But his days have been "bound each to each with natural piety": he has clung fast to what has been the wholesome and instructive kernel of all creeds ; he has found consolation in the ever-recurring miracles, whether of soul or sense, that daily confront us, and in the expression of his own delight and wonder and gratitude for them has conveyed that solace to the minds and hearts of all his readers. One quality above all others in Whittier --his innate and unstudied Americanism--has rendered him alike acceptable to his countrymen and to his kindred beyond the sea. His first volume was "Legends of 'New England," in prose and verse (Hartford, 1831), which has been followed by " Moll Pitcher" (1832) ; "Mogg Megone" (Boston, 1836) ; "Ballads" (1838) ; " Lays of My Home, and other Poems" (1843) ; " Miscellaneous Poems" (1844): the first English edition of his poetry, entitled " Ballads, and other Poems," with an introduction by Elizur Wright (London, 1844); "The Stranger in Lowell " (1845); " Supernaturalism in New England" (New York and London, 1847); "Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal" (Boston, 1849) ; "Voices of Freedom " (Philadelphia, 1849) ; a larger English collection of his "Poetical Works" (London, 1850); "Old Portraits and Modern Sketches" (Boston, 1850); "Songs of Labor, and other Poems," and "The Chapel of the Hermits, and other Poems" (1853); "A Sabbath Scene: a Sketch of Slavery in Verse" (1853) ; "Literary Recreations and Miscellanies" (1854); "The Panorama, and other Poems" (1856); "Complete Poetical Works" (2 vols., 1857); "Home Ballads and Poems" (1860); "Snow-Bound" (1862); a new edition of his " Complete Poetical Works" (1863) : "In War Time, and other Poems" (1863); " National Lyrics" (1865) ; a collection of his " Prose Works" (2 vols., 1866)" " The Tent on the Beach " (1867)" . ' Among the Hills " (1868); an illustrated edition of his "Complete Poetical Works" (1868); one corresponding in typography with the "Prose Works" (1869); a volume of his "Ballads of New England" contains sixty illustrations by various artists (1869) ; " Miriam, and other Poems" (1870) ; "The Pennsylvania Pilgrim, and other Poems" (1872) ; "Hazel Blossoms" (1874) ; "Mabel Martin" (18'75); a new collected edition of his " Poetical Works" comprising poems that he had written till the date of publication (1875); " Centennial Hymn" (1876); "The Vision of Echard, and other Poems" (1878) ; " The King's Missive, and other Poems " (1881); "Bay of Seven Islands, and other Poems" (1883) ; "Poems of Nature" (1885) ; and "St. Gregory's Guest, and Recent Poems" (1886). A final edition of his poetical and prose works has been supervised by himself, and includes his sister's poems (7 vols., 1888-'9). See a "Biography," by Francis H. Underwood (Boston, 1875; new ed., 1883), and "John G. Whittier: his Life, Genius, and Writings," by W. Sloane Kennedy (1882).--His sister, Elizabeth Hussey, born near Haverhill, Massachusetts, 7 December, 1815 ; died in Amesbury, 3 kept., 1864, although not, a literary aspirant, was the author of poems marked by tenderness, grace, and rhythmic felicity. Several of them were included by her brother in his volume entitled " Hazel Blossoms." Like him, she was a member of the Society of Friends, and an ardent advocate of liberty. The engraving represents Whittier's home, Oak Knoll, in Danvers, MassachusettsEdited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM