It was clearly the silhouette of a man – not a chipmunk or a dolphin or a woman. It was a manly man, carved as another stone-face Daniel Webster wrote, by the Almighty himself. An anonymous poet in Godey’s Lady’s Book once put these words in the mountain’s mouth – "The sculpturing Hand Divine gave me this rocky birth." NH’s Governor Benson may have been alluding to his own divinity when he promised to "rebuild" the mighty visage. It is, after all, the icon on our coins and license plates and road signs. How embarrassing for the governor to have the state symbol fall to pieces on his watch.
New Hampshire is certainly less of a state for the loss of its rocky symbol, voted "favorite icon" in a NH Historical Society poll not long ago. And though the state’s politicians and bankers and real estate agents and tour guides have been dealt a mighty blow, hardest hit are the poets. Sure it was an easy metaphor, but it was also an awesome image. The best known poem on the topic, reprinted below, is by stone-faced statesman Daniel Webster who lived for a decade in downton Portsmouth.
Robert Frost, who lived in Franconia for a time, is groaning even now. Poet john Greenleaf Whittier came so frequently to the New Hampshire hills that he got one of them named in his honor. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was here, and even borrowed the Old Man’s name for his most famous poem "Hiawatha". Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "The Great Stone Face" an essay that Whittier purchased for $25 in 1860 and published. (Hawthorne died in the NH mountains in 1864 on a trip with his friend Franklin Pierce who suggested he go there for his health.) Henry David Thoreau himself was one of the first of the famous poets to rusticate among the White Mountains. New Hampshireite Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science faith, got in her two cents on the topic. You can hear them crying even now over the loss of the Great Profile.
Someone will make a book out of all this literary reference, I’m sure. The collected writings about the famous Old Man will make a dandy doctoral thesis. Meanwhile the governor and his high-tech swat team are likely planning ways to fabricate a prosthetic face. But it won’t be the same in Styrofoam. The Old Man has fallen. Long live the Old Man! In his place he leaves just one more faceless mountain, and one whopping new metaphor. Here, in his memory, are a few literary pebbles from the past. -- JDR
From "The Old Man of the
Gigantic sire, unfallen still they crest!
From "Old Man of the
Nations shall pass like summer’s grass,
Spoken to the Old Man of the
"How long will thy dark eye this glorious scene survey?
"Open! I am Hiawatha!"
Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective
Illustration from an early poscard
Commentary by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright 2003 by SeacoastNH.com
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