Snow-Bound Poem Made Whittier Wealthy
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Mural at Amesbury Whittier House shows haverhill Homestead in winterHISTORY MATTERS  

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.  

snow-bound_03Many 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. 

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CONTINUE with Snow-Bound


 

Buried deep in depression  

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. In time his hope and inspiration returned.  

“Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl” began as a deeply private poem written, not for publication or money, 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. Stranded by deep snow for two days, the young Whittier, his family and their house guests gathered by an ancient hearth and told tales.  

The poem shows the author musing about mortality. The heavy two-day snowfall transformed the familiar Whittier farm into an alien white landscape. “We looked upon a world unknown,” he wrote. Buried below the surface, safe and warm, the family recounted old stories, like ghosts whispering from the grave, the author says. 

Recalling his boyhood days while writing the poem, Whittier found it difficult to accept the fact that so much time had passed for him. He was growing old. Among the dozen people featured in the poem, only his brother was still alive by 1865.  

But after spending some healing time with his childhood memories, the poet broke free. The storm in his mind, like the snow storm itself, came to an end. At the conclusion of the poem “Snow-Bound” the sun comes out. The air is fresh and children run out to play. Like his family after the storm, Whittier was able to re-connect with the outside world and get back to work. He shook off his nostalgia and faced up to the changes in his life.  

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A post-war bestseller  

Something in this gentle ballad drove straight into the heart of post-Civil War America. Over 600,000 people had died in the war. The nation too was shaking off a long dark period, waking up, and getting back to work. "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 was a native of Portsmouth, NH. Born in 1817, Fields published his first poem in the Portsmouth Journal, then went on to work at a famous bookstore in Boston at age 14. With his partner at Ticknor & Fields, he published the greatest American writers of his day from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry  Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as American editions by stellar English authors like Charles Dickens.  

“It goes and goes,” Fields wrote to Whitter about his new poetry book, “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, now found a wide audience. 

Portsmouth-born Harriet Livermore, by coincidence, was visiting with the Whittier family during that famous storm in the early 1800s. Rejecting her family’s wealth and position, Livermore had become a traveling preacher and religious zealot.  The young Whittier was frightened by the strange lady and describes her in “Snow-Bound” as

as the “not unfeared, half-welcome guest” who weathered the storm with his family. The poet noted her legendary temper, her lustrous eyes and her “unbent will's majestic pride.” The portrait was not flattering. When Livermore first read Whittier's description of her, legends says, she threw the book across the room.

CONCLUSION of Snow-Bound coming up 


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 After the storm  

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 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 house with a pair of scissors to request a lock of his hair. Whittier told a friend that he would rather chop wood than talk about his poetry with strangers.  

Whittier wrote many poems about the Piscataqua region, the Isles of Shoals, and the White Mountains. His treatment of Maud Muller’s spring in York and tales of tenting on Hampton Beach were as recited in their era as rock and rap lyrics are today. He often based poems on supernatural themes drawn from popular legends. Whittier’s treatment of the exploited witch” Goody Cole or the devilish Jonathan Moulton, both of Hampton, make him the forerunner of spooky story tellers like Stephen King. Like King, his work was largely considered “pop” art for the masses, not worthy of scholarly attention. But even as his work as a Fireside Poet fades, his early work as a white abolitionist, Quaker, and advocate of women’s rights is drawing more attention among academics.   

Whittier wrote his last poem at age 84 while vacationing in nearby South Hampton. He died there in 1892. Despite persistent rumors that the poet is buried in seacoast, New Hampshire, his body was delivered to his Amesbury home, now a museum, where it lay in state as 5,000 guests passed by. But that is a story for another snow-bound day.   

SOURCES: For more information on Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, MA visit johngreenleafwhittier.com or learn about the Whittier Home in Amesbury, MA at whittierhome.org.  

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online.