The influence of Haverhill and Amesbury in the life of John G. Whittier
Nicholaides, Evangeline Iris
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My purpose in writing this thesis is to show the influence of Haverhill and Amesbury in the life of John Greenleaf Whittier, and to do this it seemed best to me to begin with a brief introduction and then try to cover my subject under five chapter headings plus two appendixes and a bibliography. The first chapter is just a brief sketch of the "Life of John Greenleaf Whittier." John G. Whittier was born in Haverhill Massachusetts on December 17, 1807 and died September 7, 1892. He was the son of Quaker parents whose religious doctrines and tales of local history and legends, undoubtedly influenced the young Whittier's literary leanings. Spending his boyhood on the farm, he came in close contact with nature and learned to love it and observe it closely. The beauty of nature thrilled him perhaps to such a degree that he just had to allow an outlet to his emotions and that outlet he found in poetry, to which his practical father objected on the grounds that poetry and farming do not go hand in hand; but it was Abijah Thayer who urged the elder Whittier to send his son to the academy. Though the elder Whittier consented to do so, it was necessary for Greenleaf to work as a shoemaker and teacher in order to meet the expenses. He entered the newly opened Haverhill Academy at the beginning of May, 1827. In the meantime his poetry appeared in the "Free Press", "Essex Gazette", and Boston Statesman. The next thirty years he devoted himself to writing poetry on slavery and politics. His interest in abolition got him into considerable trouble with the opposing party, but his perseverance was finally rewarded after the Civil War, because the ideas of the abolitionists materialized. In spite of his abolition views he succeeded in being elected a member of the Massachusetts Legislature from Haverhill which was the only political office he held; he did not serve again due to ill health. In the meantime his reputation as a poet increased and he took rank with Longfellow and Bryant among the greatest American poets. He had several romances two of which almost led to marriage. His views on labor and economic questions were narrow, for he did not know enough about these issues to express a decided opinion. However he did stand out as a poet of nature, as a balladist, as a religious poet, as a poet of the home, as a poet of abolition, and as a composer of hymns and elegies. The second chapter is based on the Geographic and Social Conditions Surrounding Whittier. It was in an isolated, rustic, glen, in Haverhill that Whittier was born and lived his early youthful years, but it was in Amesbury that he lived in his manhood, and his extremely late years he spent in Danvers and Hampton Falls. His habits and circumstances bound him to the land and the life of the people. He loved the land in which he spent his boyhood and manhood, and that love he sang to the world in terms of vivid descriptions. Of the Merrimac River he said, "The Merrimac River is the fairest river this side of Paradise." Haverhill in the County of Essex is situated on the northern side of the river Merrimac. It is bounded on the west by Methuen; on the north by Salem, Atkinson, and Plaistow, in New Hampshire; on the east by Amesbury and the river, and on the south by the river which divides it from Bradford. The town contains about fifteen thousand acres and its soil in places is a rich loam and very productive. Its woods are oak and walnut. There are some cultivated farms and orchards. There are four ponds: Creek, Plug, Round, and Great, all within a mile of each other. Great Pond or Pickerel Lake, whose name was changed to Kenoza by Whittier, is one of the most beautiful ponds in New England, and about which Whittier wrote the poem "Kenoza". There are several outstanding hills, but none can be called mountains. Among these may be named Golden Hill, Silver Hill, Turkey Hill, Brandy Brow Hill, and Great Hill. The hills are all of gentle ascent and capable of easy cultivation. There are no craggy peaks, or barren ledges, but the view from the valley and hilltop can hardly be surpassed for its loveliness. At this point it seems appropriate to give also a brief geographic description of Amesbury, even if the topography would be similar to Haverhill's in many respects. It was in Amesbury that Whittier lived during his later life and wrote the bulk of his poems. In Amesbury, Whittier loved to walk with his sister along the river path which led to "Pleasant Valley", and this he has commemorated in "The River Path," Sudden our pathway turned from night; The hills swung open to the light;" At the lower end of this valley, near the mouth of the Powow, Goody Martin lived more than two hundred years ago, and Whittier first told the story of the "Witch's Daughter", the poem now known as "Mabel Martin." She was the only woman who suffered death on a witchcraft charge on the north side of the Merrimac. The Merrimac, beautiful as are its banks along its entire course, nowhere presents lovelier scenery than where it passes between the hills of Amesbury and Newbury and especially where its tidal current is parted by the cliffs of Deer Island. The hills encircling the lovely valley of the short and busy Powow are: Baileys, the site of Goody Martin's cottage; next is the ridge on which is Union Cemetery where Whittier is buried; then Whittier Hill named not for the poet but for his first ancestor who settled here, and locally called "Whitcher Hill". Po Hill Is near the Powow and "The Fountain"; about which Whittier wrote a poem, is a spring to be found on the western side of Mundy Hill. The following is from Whittier's "Fountain"; "Where the birch canoe had glided Down the swift Powow Dark and glooooy bridges strided Those clear waters now; And where once the beaver swam, Jarred the wheel and frowned the dam." (Samuel T. Pickard--"Whittier-land"; published by Houghton, Mifflin and Co.; 1904; Boston and New York; p.55, 56, 58, 86, 87.) Under these rural geographic surroundings Whittler lived, worked, played, and dreamed. And as he dreamed he recreated into verse not only nature surrounding him, but also the ideals of religion, the affections of home, the old legends, and the hymnals, and perhaps from these varied elements developed his gradual transition from the aesthetic to the idealism of the abolitionist cause. On locking down from the birthplace one can see a beautiful valley through which glides a brook. The house faces the brook and not the road, and as the eye tries to span the immediate surroundings, a feeling of loneliness creeps upon you because there is no other visible habitation around; but in spite of this desolate appearance, Whittier wrote his poetic fancies because he had the chance for quiet contemplation which we moderns cannot hope to achieve in the midst of our many diversions. It was customary for the early pioneers to select home sites near the water power of brooks, so it is not surprising that Thomas Whittier, (the founder) built his home near Fernside Brook which is a tributary of Country Brook. Settling near brooks was done with the idea of harnessing the power for their various needs. The larger rivers they could not use because they did not have the means then to harness river power. Although the homestead itself is no Yankee mansion; it is constructed firmly and is superior to the average isolated farm dwelling of the time and place. The house and its 148 acres of land remained in possession of the direct male Whittier line until 1836. In 1836 Whittier sold the old homestead and bought a home in Amesbury, near the Quaker meeting house, because he didn't feel that he was sufficiently interested in farming now that he had begun editorial work. To understand Whittier one must know his religious background. It seems that his ancestors and he himself belonged to the Soeiety of Friends or Quakers which was established by John Fox in Northern England, in 1649. This movement not only lacked church discipline but also was so highly individualistic that it made fanatics of these who "testified", either by quaking---whence came the name or by going through other extraordinary and sometimes unsocial behaviour, which ultimately resulted in their persecution. The persecution found synpathizers and one of these sympathizers was Thomas Whittier (the founder) who defended them even to the point of losing his rights as a freeman, but he achieved full citizenship fourteen years later. However it was Joseph Whittier son of Thomas who became a professed Quaker, and established Quakerism in the Whittier family, in 1694 when Quakers became recognized as entirely respectable people. Whittier always regarded himself as a number of the Society of Friends in good standing and he always kept one Quaker virtue faithfully---he never put pen to paper unless the spirit moved him. Because Whittier's "Barefoot Boy" and "In School Days" indicate a humble walk of life it must not be assumed that he was poverty stricken. Whittier enjoyed everything that was in accordance with the standards of the time and place. He was clad as all boys of his time were, he was never hungry, and his education though limited was not neglected---he attended the district school and the newly opened Haverhill Academy, where he progressed rapidly. Whittier's father, being a practical man, was very much opposed to his son's literary talents, but the boy was encouraged by his mother, Aunt Mercy and two sisters, and later by Garrison. Life conditions, even among the more prosperous families, were more or less universal, which meant working in the fields, taking care of the livestock, suffering cold in the winter, and eating plain but plentiful food. Due to his health, limited money and family ties, Whittier never traveled abroad or in distant parts of the United States; his earliest journeys from home appear to have been to Boston and Salem, where he became fascinated by the witchcraft and folklore of the latter. This interest led to the writing of his very first book, "The Legends of New England", followed by "The Supernaturalism of New England". A few years later he knew of all the legends of Hampton and used many these in tale and poem. Two of the nine tales in the "Tent" poems concern the Hampton witch, Goody Cole, who was buried with a stake through her body to keep her down. The young poet was also impressed by the tales of men married to beautiful women who were actually evil demons and in time destroyed their husbands. On trips to the village to bring the farm produce in exchange for household commodities, Whittier observed keenly the tavern proprietor, the country storekeeper, the blacksmith, the man who sold combs and cigars, and the widow who made his homespun trousers and coats; and as he observed these characters they became so well imprinted in his mind, that he later used them in his poetry. Thus the monotony of the life of the early New England farmer was broken not only by the beauties of nature but by their diversions which were a combination of work and play---corn-husking, quitting parties, story telling, and games. Thus, Whittier's background was respectable and in conformity with the times. The third chapter covers the influence of Whittier's environment in his life. Since Haverhill and Amesbury resemble each other geographically and socially both shall be considered as one huge territory in determining their influences on Whittier. Whittier, being the son of Quaker parents, was undoubtedly brought up under stern laws. The Haverhill farm house where Whittier was born and passed his boyhood, survives with little change. The isolation of the home, and the meagre supply of books in the household, offered neither companionship nor entertainment and perhaps as a result his aesthetic mind was lulled into dreaming. In his boyhood Whittier toiled with his hands, studied by the fireplaces, and attended the district school and the academy. Whittier was country born, bred, and educated; he was a Haverhill boy and an Amesbury man who never broke the ties of family and neighbor, and thus became directly typical of his town and district, and indirectly typical of folk, race, and nation, who lived the same simple life. He was just a native writer stimulated by his natural environment and the local forces to which he was subjected. The Haverhill farmhouse, its various, and different members of his household, he has portrayed very accurately and strikingly in "Snow-Bound". Near the house glides a little brook to which he refers a number of times in his writings. "The music of whose liquid lip Had been to us companionship, And in our lonely life had grown To have an almost human tone." (Thos. D. Murphy, Op. Cit., pp. 201-203.) Between the years 1836 to 1892 the poet made his home in Amesbury and it was here that he wrote most of his works. If environment develops the innate and characteristic genius which nature has stamped upon each man, then the environments of Whittier were fitted to make him the child of nature. From his rustic glen he emerged as a man with strong tendencies: first in his New England life interpretations; second his beliefs of freedom; and third upon the mystery of human emotions when seeking God. It would be hard to find on the earth's surface a concentration of more diversified industry than in the county of Essex, in Massachusetts---manufacturing, commerce, fishing, and farming. So Whittier was by birthright the poet of the farmer, the shoemaker, and the mechanic. (Thos. D. Murphy, Op. Cit., pp. 194-195.) The legends, of the people about Indians, witch-craft, and supernatural occurrences, inspired Whittier to repeople the region and preserve their legends in verse. Whittier loved the Merrimack, and all the lakes and ponds of his territory, because they inspired him and in return for the beauty they offered him, he made them become celebrated forever. All through his life Whittier kept warm reminiscences of his earlier years of which he often speaks in his poetry: "Crowding years in one brief moon, When all things I heard or saw, Me, their master, waited for." Whittier's work is crowded with pictures of rural life. Nothing was more pleasing to him than to lie beside the little brook and listen to its ripple, for which he has made many poetic remarks: "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." The barefooted farmer's boy, who helped with the farm chores, used the language he had always heard and spoken, a pure English speech with a few dialectic peculiarities. His poetry was widely read because he wrote in rustic language which rustics like himself could understand. Soon he abandoned all interests in the writing of nature poems, in favor of the vital cause of the century---anti-slavery. To this cause he devoted his time, and means without any consideration to himself. Finally at the close of the Civil Wart anti-slavery struggle ended, and Whittier emerged triumphant, for the dream of the abolitionists materialized. (Martin W. Hoyt--"Rambles in Whittier-Land"; Published by the Granite State Publishing Co.; 1912; pp. 36, 37.) Every part of this valley is commemorated in Whittier's prose and verse writings. When Washington "drew reign" under the sycamore trees, Whittier repeats the legend that he said: "I have aeen no prospect fairer In this goodly Eastern land." "Whittier held firmly to the faith in which he was educated and did not like to see the Friends adopting methods of other denominations. He loved beat the old Quaker meetings in which the silence was not broken. When reference was made to the Quaker misuse of grammer, he would say that it had been the manner of speech of his people for two centuries, and he clung to it because it was his mother's language. He upheld the doctrine of his sect to the end. Whittier's skill in his editorial work, in managing conventions, influencing legislation, and his interest in abolition, gave him prominence among the party leaders. Thus, while Whittier at the fields indulged in day dreaming. Nature was storing his mind with a wealth of material, from which he drew with lavish hand that he might bestow it upon those whose souls are less keen to note her wonderful harmonies." (Martin. W. Hoyt--"Rambles in Whittier-land"; Published by the Granite State Publishing Co.; Manchester, N.H.; 1912, p. 10.) The fourth chapter or the "Conclusion", consists of brief deductions of what has already been said in the thesis. Chapter five consists of the Abstract followed by Appendixes A and B which are brief historical sketches of Haverhill and Amesbury, and these are followed by the Bibliography.
This item was digitized by the Internet Archive. Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University