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Snow-Bound Poem Made Whittier Wealthy


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“Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl” began as a deeply private poem written, not for publication or money, but for the poet’s only niece.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.  


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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