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Old Man of the Mountains 
The ancient authors of New England wail this week. They rattle their boney fists against their coffin walls for the loss of their beloved old man. Poets and writers loved "The Old Man of the Mountains" in Franconia Notch, the much-exploited symbol of New Hampshire. It crumbled last weekend and is no more. It was, after all, a bunch of rocks that only looked like a man from the right vantage-point. It was only a symbol, but symbols are the bedrock of poetry – and when one falls, wordsmiths wail.

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 


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From "The Old Man of the Mountains"
By Mary Baker Eddy

Gigantic sire, unfallen still they crest!
Primeval dweller where the wild winds rest!
Beyond the ken of mortal e’er to tell
What power sustains thee in they rock-bound cell.

From "Old Man of the Mountains"
By JT Trowbridge

We may not know how long ago
That ancient countenance was young;
Thy sovereign brow was seamed as now
When Moses wrote and Homer sung.
Empires and states it antedates,
And wars, and arts, and crime, and glory;
In that dim morn when man was born
Thy head with centuries was hoary.

Nations shall pass like summer’s grass,
And times unborn grow old and change;
New governments and great events
Shall rise, and science new and strange;
Yet will thy gaze confront the days
With its eternal calm and patience,
The evening red still light thy head,
Above thee burn the constellations.

Spoken to the Old Man of the Mountains
From "Godey’s Ladys Book"
Philadelphia, November 1850

"How long will thy dark eye this glorious scene survey?
When will thy watching cease - thy visage pass away?"
"While springs, brooks, pools, and lakes, flumes, mountains, echoes raise
A harmony of song to their Creator's praise;
Till Time shall o'er man's dreams his latest moments count;
Till Love's bless'd radiant beams shall all life's woes surmount;
The water's lose their place, these mountains crumbling fall,
And Adam's sinning race hear Gabriel's clarion call."
"May wealth erect a mill within this calm abode?
And engineering skill run here its iron road?"

From "Hiawatha"
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Open! I am Hiawatha!"
But the Old Man of the Mountain
Opened not, and made no answer
From the silent crags of sandstone,
From the gloomy rock abysses.

From an Oratory
by Daniel Webster

Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades.
Shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers, a monster watch; even a dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Franconia Mountains God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that in New England He makes men.

From "The Great Stone Face"
By Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Great Stone Face, then, was a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness, formed on the perpendicular side of a mountain by some immense rocks, which had been thrown together in such a position as, when viewed at a proper distance, precisely to resemble the features of the human countenance. It seemed as if an enormous giant, or a Titan, had sculptured his own likeness on the precipice. There was the broad arch of the forehead, a hundred feet in height; the nose, with its long bridge; and the vast lips, which, if they could have spoken, would have rolled their thunder accents from one end of the valley to the other.

Illustration from an early poscard
Commentary by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright 2003 by SeacoastNH.com

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