Snow-Bound Poem Made Whittier Wealthy
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 3
Now and then Mother Nature forces us to slow down. She sends her hyper active children to their rooms for a much-needed “time-out.” She shuts down businesses, blocks roads, and closes schools. She blankets the region in a few feet of frozen white crystals. We are snow-bound. (Continued below)
It’s like that scene in the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” where the visiting alien turns off the electricity all across the planet – just to get our attention. Everything stops. People pause and think. Trapped in their homes together, family members talk. It is a transformative moment.
Many of us were snow-bound recently, so we know the feeling. It happened to seacoast poet John Greenleaf Whittier in the early 1800s when he was 10 years old. Half a century later he turned the experience into a classic poem that captivated America. A woman born in Portsmouth is featured in the poem. A man born in Portsmouth turned Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” into a bestselling book. Here’s what happened.
At home with Whittier
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 drop-leaf desk that seems too small for the lanky Quaker poet. Here he wrote “Snow-Bound,” his most famous poem.
Whittier’s precious books, many inscribed by the most famous English and American authors of his day are still in place on his shelves. Portraits still hang 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 says. "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’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 final 56 years in the Amesbury house. (Both the Haverhill and Amesbury homes are museums today.)
Whittier never married, and he 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 his taxes even in the 19th century.
CONTINUE with Snow-Bound
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