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"THE CHANGELING"
BY WHITTIER

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Whittier, Hampton and Changelings
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Whittier in NH
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Mother and Child

"And The Cloud of her Soul was Lifted"
Illustration from "The Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier"
Revised Edition, 1879, Riverside Press.

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THE CHANGELING
By John Greenleaf Whittier 1865

FOR the fairest maid in Hampton
    They needed not to search,
    Who saw young Anna favor
    Come walking into church,--

    Or bringing from the meadows,
    At set of harvest-day,
    The frolic of the blackbirds,
    The sweetness of the hay.

    Now the weariest of all mothers,
    The saddest two years' bride,
    She scowls in the face of her husband,
    And spurns her child aside.

    "Rake out the red coals, goodman,--
    For there the child shall lie,
    Till the black witch comes to fetch her
    And both up chimney fly.

    "It's never my own little daughter,
    It's never my own," she said;
    "The witches have stolen my Anna,
    And left me an imp instead.

    "Oh, fair and sweet was my baby,
    Blue eyes, and hair of gold;
    But this is ugly and wrinkled,
    Cross, and cunning, and old.

    "I hate the touch of her fingers,
    I hate the feel of her skin;
    It's not the milk from my bosom,
    But my blood, that she sucks in.

    "My face grows sharp with the torment;
    Look! my arms are skin and bone!
    Rake open the red coals, goodman,
    And the witch shall have her own.

    "She'll come when she hears it crying,
    In the shape of an owl or bat,
    And she'll bring us our darling Anna
    In place of her screeching brat."

    Then the goodman, Ezra Dalton,
    Laid his hand upon her head:
    Thy sorrow is great, O woman!
    I sorrow with thee," he said.

    "The paths to trouble are many
    And never but one sure way
    Leads out to the light beyond it:
    My poor wife, let us pray."

    Then he said to the great All-Father,
    "Thy daughter is weak and blind;
    Let her sight come back, and clothe her
    Once more in her right mind.

    "Lead her out of this evil shadow,
    Out of these fancies wild;
    Let the holy love of the mother
    Turn again to her child.

    "Make her lips like the lips of Mary
    Kissing her blessed Son;
    Let her hands, like the hands of Jesus,
    Rest on her little one.

    "Comfort the soul of thy handmaid,
    Open her prison-door,
    And thine shall be all the glory
    And praise forevermore."

    Then into the face of its mother
    The baby looked up and smiled;
    And the cloud of her soul was lifted,
    And she knew her little child.

    A beam of the slant west sunshine
    Made the wan face almost fair,
    Lit the blue eyes' patient wonder
    And the rings of pale gold hair.

    She kissed it on lip and forehead,
    She kissed it on cheek and chink
    And she bared her snow-white bosom
    To the lips so pale and thin.

    Oh, fair on her bridal morning
    Was the maid who blushed and smiled,
    But fairer to Ezra Dalton
    Looked the mother of his child.

    With more than a lover's fondness
    He stooped to her worn young face,
    And the nursing child and the mother
    He folded in one embrace.

    "Blessed be God!" he murmured.
    "Blessed be God!" she said;
    "For I see, who once was blinded,--
    I live, who once was dead.

    "Now mount and ride, my goodman,
    As thou lovest thy own soul!
    Woe's me, if my wicked fancies
    Be the death of Goody Cole!"

    His horse he saddled and bridled,
    And into the night rode he,
    Now through the great black woodland,
    Now by the white-beached sea.

    He rode through the silent clearings,
    He came to the ferry wide,
    And thrice he called to the boatman
    Asleep on the other side.

    He set his horse to the river,
    He swam to Newbury town,
    And he called up Justice Sewall
    In his nightcap and his gown.

    And the grave and worshipful justice
    (Upon whose soul be peace!)
    Set his name to the jailer's warrant
    For Goodwife Cole's release.

    Then through the night the hoof-beats
    Went sounding like a flail;
    And Goody Cole at cockcrow
    Came forth from Ipswich jail.

Source: Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier, Riverside Edition, 1879.

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John Greenleaf Whittier

Whittier, Witches and Changelings

As he did with his poem "Wreck of the Rivermouth," John Greenleaf Whittier again draws on the character Goody Cole, New Hampshire's only convicted "witch" to spice up a poem. "The Changeling" is also set in Hampton, a town very familiar to Whittier whose poems "Hampton Beach" and "Tenting on the Beach" were set there as well. Whittier imagined himself related to Rev. Batchelder, an early religious leader of Hampton. That, his ongoing fascination with witchcraft, and a friendship with "island poet" Celia Thaxter all contributed to his choice of topic.

The legend of the changeling was popular in colonial New England where superstition was an early way to understand confusing occurrences. How, for example, could a gentle baby suddenly become a squalling little monster? The answer -- it was really an imp, the offspring of a devil or supernatural being. Stories of "exchanged children" persist from the earliest human legends in most cultures up into belief in fairy stories as recently as the 20th century.

In some religious interpretations the changeling is a piece of flesh with no soul. In Whittier's poem, the distraught mother plans to throw the devilish infant into the fireplace. German theologian Martin Luther believed infanticide was a totally appropriate means of disposing of an exchanged child. Grimm's Fairy Tales suggest plenty of harsh treatment for changelings when they appear on Earth. Folklorist DL Ashliman suggests a connection between severe cases of early child abuse and child murder and the superstitious belief in the changeling tradition. The legends provided an acceptable excuse, in some societies, for mistreatment or murder of uncontrollable or handicapped children in a harsher age. Since male babies, who could grow to provide physical labor were more "valuable," male infants in some cultures were dressed in female clothing to trick the supernatural forces. Mothers were warned to watch their babies carefully for at least six weeks to avoid an exchange, and talismans from crucifixes to bibles were left on the sleeping baby to ward off theft.

Whittier's poem adds extra twists. His presentation of the mother seems also to imply that her own psychological state may be the issue. A prayer from her husband appears to break the spell, be it depression or witchery. When the mother snaps out of her mood, she regrets, it appears, having blamed Goody Cole for bewitching her child. The husband then rides to Ipswich jail to repeal the sentence on the elderly Hampton woman. Does Whittier intend us to think that Goody replaced the baby with a devilish imp child? Or is he wondering about the power of the human psyche? His approach to Goody's curse in "Wreck of the Rivermouth" seems equally ambiguous.

Whittier's friend James Russell Lowell focuses his version of "The Changeling" on angels rather then witches. Unlike the more dramatic Whittier poem that has a double happy ending, Lowell's lost child appears gone forever, stolen by angels and replaced by a soulless imp.

Whittier's poem was published in Atlantic in July 1865 to popular response, including praise from his fellow Boston poet Oliver Wendell Holmes.

By J. Dennis Robinson
Source: "Changelings" by DL Ashliman.
(Click for essay and press BACK to return to SeacoastNH.com)
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