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Gossip About Portsmouth Writers


The genial B. P. Shillaber, the poet and prose writer, was born in 1814 in a humble house still standing on Brewster Street, on the shores of the North Pond so frequently referred to in his poems and prose works. Here with "His Brother Rob," the pound and pest-house keeper, a rival in witty sayings, he enjoyed his boyhood years.

Literary Gossip / SeacoastNH.comWhen engaged in newspaper work in Boston at the time of a sudden rise in the prices of food he wrote his first saying, which read: "Mrs. Partington says it makes no difference to her whether flour was dear or cheap as she always had to pay just as much for a half dollar’s worth." This was widely copied and led to other sayings and the creation of "Ike, her mischievous grandson." When the sayings were published in 1854, 50,000 copies were quickly sold. His wit was spontaneous. I was present at an instance of it. When the spire of the North Church was being repaired by a man at the top near the vane, my employer, Governor Goodwin, pointing to the climber asked Shillaber how he would like to be with the climber. He instantly replied, "It is vain to aspire so high." He was one of the earliest promoters of the 1853 return of the sons, which some of you may know was the first gathering in the country now extensively celebrated as "Old Home Week." The verses he wrote in 1853 and twenty years later, at the second celebration, showed his love for the familiar scenes of his childhood.

In looking over the files of the Portsmouth Journal, I find in its issue of May 8, 1847, the poem so familiar a half century ago from its insertion in school books under the title "The Voice of the Grass," "Here I come creeping, creeping everywhere." It was signed "S. R." the maiden initials of Sarah Robert Boyle of this city.

One thinks of Celia Thaxter as the true child of the rocks and the seas and the bright flowers of the Isles of Shoals. I occasionally met her at her home and in her famous flower garden at the Shoals, but more intimately when she lived on State Street in Portsmouth during the last years of her life with her eccentric son, Karl, who was interested in our photographic club and knew the subject as he did certain others, technically and learnedly, but could not make satisfactory negatives or produce successful results in other lines. He was a great trial to his mother whose love and forbearance were well known to her intimate friends, and are made evident in the letters of Celia Thaxter published by Rose Lamb and Annie T. Fields in 1895. Unlike the first verses of Portsmouth authors, whose contributions were made to newspapers (even Aldrich’s poetry was rejected by magazines) Mrs. Thaxter was surprised to find her poem, "Landlocked," in the Atlantic, the editor, James Russell Lowell, having printed it without exchanging a word with the author. Her articles in the Atlantic entitled "Among the Isles of Shoals" published in book form in 1873, brought many visitors to the Appledore Hotel, which was kept by her brothers, Oscar and Cedric Laighton. She was born in Portsmouth on Daniel Street in 1834, but her childhood was spent at the Shoals where she passed away and rests where she craved in "Landlocked," near

"The sad, caressing murmur of the wave
That breaks in tender music on the shore."

In the adjoining town of New Castle, formerly part of Portsmouth, John Albee, the poet and author, had his residence in the Jaffrey House, the oldest dwelling in town; there he wrote his history of New Castle, coming to the city occasionally to tell lyceum audience his farming experiences in cultivating the soil around the ancient earthworks at Jaffrey’s Point. Near by E. C. Stedman, the banker-poet, author of American Anthology, built his summer home.

I was interested in Sam Walter Foss when I occasionally met him on his long tramp from home on the outskirts of Portsmouth to the high school. On the evening of his graduation, in 1877, I prevailed upon him to repeat to the alumni association his class ode which had been sung at the afternoon exercises. On his last appearance here, five years ago, he made the principal address to the graduates of the high school and closed with his well-known poem:

"Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man."

In 1898, while librarian of Somerville Public Library, he addressed the New Hampshire Library Association when it met in Portsmouth and I quote from his letter to me:

"I was very glad my little essay pleased you. It is rather presumptuous for a six months old librarian to give advice to men who have given their lives to the service, and I am more than pleased when the veterans are kind enough to write with favor on the efforts of the yearling." 

On August 17, 1914, a tablet was dedicated to his memory before his birthplace in Candia.

The most eccentric of Portsmouth authors was John Elwyn, who entered Harvard College at the age of twelve and was regarded there by Edward Everett as a phenomenon. He studied law with Daniel Webster and Jeremiah Mason. Having inherited a large income, he devoted his life to the study of literature and languages. He read and spoke five modern languages and read Hebrew, Sanscrit, Arabic and Armenian. He occasionally had printed a book for private circulation, notably one entitled, "Piscataway Things and A Good Deal Else," employing in his latter years Mr. Albert W. Ham in a small printing office liberally equipped by Mr. Elwyn for the publication of his studies in philology, mixed with occasional valuable facts relating to the early history of colonial and provincial Portsmouth. I quote from a copy of a pamphlet he gave me:

Very friendly and tireless Reader; I wanted to see How wrong I should and should not be, a writing straight ahead and never looking behind me until I got through: such a deal of Outlander stuff too, so I kept only One gentleman at work in a little outhouse of his own all by himself…. For all the Wrong text is My doings after all; me my own proof reader. . . . The fully understanding the Zend and Sanscrit, Hebrew and Arab would throw a wonderful deal of new light I think on the Pentateuch. Some day belike I will try this in ernest. Very friendly Reader, the Text of these pamphlets is hurt badly by my getting at last to write so many capitals but dealing all along with Words themselves, I got a trick of hardly knowing it, of writing away in capitals as fast as the others, and would not bother the printer about letting them go.

"The small de I’Isles atlas that showed the forgery is in my hut; Capt. John Mason, our New Hampshire patentee, he knew the Bay Puritans well.

"Since I wrote this too our cousins of Main have found things out to the rage of others of the bay that told the world there never was no kind of Englishmen in New England till the Plymouth Pilgrims; wonderful though that one of Gorges’ Indian spoke to them in English when they got here, and Christopher Levett in Twenty-three stayed awhile on With (Sagamore) Creek below where my hut is, and says nothing of ours being a new plantation, and the Spanish Herrera, tells of an English cruiser of three hundred tons a hundred years before the Pilgrims of her coming to Puerto Rico by the banks of Newfoundland; all afishing, already Englishman was coming to fill North America with Englishmen never no Puritan in the world."

Elwyn showed a great fondness for walking which continued daily until his death, frequently walking to Boston in a day and once, starting in the winter, he walked to Missouri on a five months’ trip. He never changed the pattern or style of his wearing apparel. His tall, erect figure, clothed in a blue coat of 1824 vintage, and his head crowned with a sugar loaf hat, was a familiar object on the country roads in and around Rockingham County.

Henry Clay Barnabee has recently had printed his reminiscences of his musical entertainments and extensive travels with his light opera troupes, the "Bostonians." He always had a cordial audience in his frequent visits to his native city, for he was generous in offering his services to charitable societies and associations with which he was formerly interested. His private library, books and pictures relating to his troupes were placed by him in the Barnabee Room in the Public Library building.

Many of the early authors had passed away before my time, but their books are preserved and fill a large case at the Public Library. Jonatha M. Sewall, the lawyer, noted as a writer of epitaphs and Revolutionary War songs, is best remembered by his oft-quoted couplet:

"No pent-up Utica contracts your powers
But the whole boundless continent is yours."

Dr. Samuel Haven composed the following impromtu lines in answer to the query, what title should be applied to Washington on the occasion of his visit in Portsmouth in 1789:

"Fame spread her wings, and with her trumpet blew,
Great Washington is near! What praise is due?
What title shall he have? She paused and said,
Not one, his name alone strikes every title dead! "

Mrs. Eliza Buckingham Lee wrote valuable biographies of her father, Rev. Joseph Buckminster, and of her late brother, Rev. Joseph S. Buckminster, giving us pictures of the revolutionary period. She succeeded in inducing her friend, Daniel Webster, to write for her a brief autobiography. In reference to his residence in Portsmouth from 1807 to 1816 he wrote: "I have lived in Portsmouth nine years lacking one month. They were very happy years. I wrote various pamphlets, including ‘Rockingham Memorial,’ of some note in its time, and like other young men made Forth of July orations which were published."

Reprinted 2006 by Please reference this web site when quoting.


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