Snowbound With Mr Whittier
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

SNowstormSEACOAST POETS

A snowstorm can be threatening or a snowstorm can be peaceful. For John Greenleaf Whittier it was also profitable. His pastoral poem about a family farm hidden under a blanket of snow became his first bestseller. This childhood memory earned enough to pay off his Amesbury, Mass home – today a museum.

 

 

 

SEE ALSO: Whittier in NH

A Victorian Home Frozen in Time

John Greenleaf Whittier’s writing parlor remains exactly as he left it when he died in 1892. His hat and glasses and ink bottle still lie on the tiny dropleaf desk that seems too small for the lanky Quaker poet. His precious books, many inscribed by the most famous English and American authors of his day are still in place, as are the portraits hung against the worn and somber wallpaper. His walking stick and boots are propped behind an ornamented Victorian wood stove. There is no escaping the feeling that the enormously popular New England abolitionist, editor and author is just about to step in from the hallway carrying a cup of tea, squeeze into his familiar alcove, and settle back to work.

"We had a scholar in here once who had been studying Mr. Whittier’s poetry for years," a former manager of the Whittier House museum in Amesbury, MA told me once. "The moment he walked in, he burst into tears. It was all so suddenly real for him, just being here among the worn rugs and old furniture."

Whittier in his Study

Whittier’s true fame, like some New England winters, arrived late and stayed long. By 1865, as the Civil War was nearing its bloody conclusion, the 57-year-old Whittier was best known for three decades of anti-slavery activism. Born and raised in Haverhill, he lived his last 56 years in the Amesbury house, never married, and provided for his elderly mother Abigail and sister Elizabeth and an aunt. The year before he wrote "Snow-Bound", his most famous poem, Whittier earned only a thousand dollars, not enough to pay taxes even in the 19th century.

Then everything changed. His aunt and mother died. Abraham Lincoln freed an enslaved race and was assassinated. When Eliza, his sister and closest friend, succumbed to a mysterious illness, Whittier was suddenly alone and, for months, he was unable to write. He returned to his favorite haunts in the New Hampshire mountains and visited his friend Celia Thaxter at the Isles of Shoals. Slowly, his hope and inspiration returned.

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Mural inside Whittier's Amesbury, MA house shows scene of Haverhill Birthplace/ SeacoastNH.com

"Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl" began as a very private poem written, not for publication, but for the poet’s only niece. It is the nostalgic story of a winter storm in a simpler time. It takes place in the poet’s boyhood home in Haverhill, today also preserved as an historic site. Stranded by deep snow, the young John Greenleaf Whittier, his family and their house guests gather by an ancient hearth and tell tales.

The poem shows the author musing on mortality. The heavy two-day snowfall transformed the familiar Whittier farm into an alien white landscape. ("We looked upon a world unknown.") Buried below the surface, safe and warm, the family recounted old stories, like ghosts whispering to the author from their graves. Remembering his youth, Whittier found it difficult to believe that only he and one brother were still alive by 1865.

We turn the pages that they read,
Their written words we linger o’er,
But in the sun they cast no shade,
No voice is heard, no sign is made,
No step is on the conscious floor!

But after spending healing time with his childhood memories, the poet breaks free. The storm ends. The sun comes out. The air is fresh and children run out to play. As the neighbors in "Snow-Bound" re-connect with the world and get back to their daily work, Whittier was able to shake off his nostalgia and come to terms with the changes in his life.

Something in this gentle ballad drove straight into the heart of postwar America exactly 140 years ago. "Snow-Bound", a long poem of 759 lines, was released as a small book on February 17, 1866. Whittier’s Boston publisher, James T. Fields (who was born in Portsmouth, NH) wrote back effusively:

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Whittier Home in AMesbury, MA / SeacoastNH.com

"It goes and goes, and now, today, we are bankrupt again, not a one being in crib. I fear it will be impossible to get along without printing another batch."

"Snow-Bound" sold 10,000 copies over the next few weeks and double that by mid-summer and that was just the beginning. With his 10-cent royalty per book, starving artist John Greenleaf Whittier was, at long last, a bestselling author. Future books of verse, including hundreds of his older poems, continued the trend.

Fame nourished Whittier through his elder years, but the demands of his ever-expanding public weighed heavily on "the hermit of Amesbury" as his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dubbed him. Hundreds of letters and requests for autographs and favors poured in. Curious fans knocked on his door, breaking his concentration. He was shocked when an anonymous woman arrived at his doorstep requesting a lock of his hair, and told a colleague that he preferred chopping wood to talking about poetry with strangers.

Entranceway to Whittier's Amesbury House/ SeacoastNH.com

These intimate details become even more dramatic inside the Whittier House itslef. Here, a tour guide points out, is the hole in the door where Whittier’s red African parrot Charley flitted from room to room. Upstairs is the "original recliner" that was presented to the poet by philanthropist George Peabody, where Whittier loved to read, write and doze. Hanging in the stairway is a portrait of the eccentric Harriet Livermore, a religious zealot with a wild temper who makes an appearance in "Snow-Bound" as "the not unfeared, half-welcome guest". Visitors see the bed where Elizabeth died still covered in a hand-sewn bedspread bearing the date 1837. On the wall nearby hangs an ornamental wreath that Elizabeth braided from human hair in memory of her mother.

"Through this door," our guide says pointing toward the downstairs entrance where a large white bust of the poet stares out from an alcove, "passed 5,000 mourners who viewed Mr. Whittier’s body as it lay in state here."

It is impossible not to picture the dead poet with his signature gray beard stretched out half-way across the room beside the green ottoman and between the huge portraits of his late mother and sister. Nothing has changed here in the Victorian sitting room either. And around the corner, in what was the poet’s bedroom, a plaster death mask of Whittier’s face and hands float eerily inside a glass-covered case.

Beloved for poems about Barbara Frietchie and her flag ("Shoot, if you must, this old gray head") and the "Barefoot boy with cheeks of tan", Whittier died a superstar. Besides Quaker and anti-slavery verse, he loved to tell dramatic tales of witches, shipwrecks, ghosts and devils. Many of these poems were drawn from the rich canon of folklore that still attracts visitors to coastal Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Romantic Victorian poets have grown increasingly out of style. Yet his fading fame, in many ways, helped keep the Whittier Home intact. In 1898, soon after the poet’s death, an association of local women stepped in to preserve the building and its contents as a literary shrine. Since everything, for them, was equally precious, Whittier’s home was essentially hermetically sealed, like the world beneath the surface in "Snow-Bound". It has survived unchanged for a century.

Today the members of the Whittier Home Association still hold meetings with tea, as they have since the organization was formalized in 1916. They are working to adapt the collection, the property, its gardens and backyard "summer kitchen" to meet modern museum standards – but without changing the unique and intimate quality of the poet’s home. That would certainly please John Greenleaf Whittier. Remembering the past, he discovered while writing "Snow-Bound" in his sheltered Amesbury room, is forever connected to the present.

VISIT THE HOUSE
Whittier Home
86 Friend Street
Amesbury, MA 01913
Open May 1 – October 31
10 am to 4 pm
Winter by appointment.

To see the actual location of Snow-Bound visit
Whittier Family Homestead
305 Whittier Road
Haverhill, MA
978-373-3979

Writer J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the regional Internet portal SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of "Wentworth by the Sea: The Life and Times of a Grand Hotel" and is currently writing a history of Strawbery Banke Museum. He recently completed juvenile biographies of outlaw Jesse James and Maryland founder Cecil Calvert.

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ILlustration from Snow-Bound by Whittier / SeacoastNH.com

SELECTION FROM "SNOW-BOUND" Selection

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro,
Crossed and recrossed the wingëd snow:
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.

So all night long the storm roared on:
The morning broke without a sun;
In tiny spherule traced with lines
Of Nature’s geometric signs,
In starry flake, and pellicle,
All day the hoary meteor fell;
And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below,—
A universe of sky and snow!
The old familiar sights of ours
Took marvellous shapes; strange domes and towers
Rose up where sty or corn-crib stood,
Or garden-wall, or belt of wood;
A smooth white mound the brush-pile showed,
A fenceless drift what once was road;
The bridle-post an old man sat
With loose-flung coat and high cocked hat;
The well-curb had a Chinese roof;
And even the long sweep, high aloof,
In its slant splendor, seemed to tell
Of Pisa’s loaning miracle.

John G. Whittier