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WHITTIER'S
"WRECK OF RIVERMOUTH"

Read the Ballad
The Changeling
The Hex-ploitation of Goody Cole
About Whittier, The Wreck and Celia Thaxter
The Original 1657 Shipwreck Report
Whittier's Own Notes
More Seacoast NH Ballads, Poems & Songs
Hampton Beach Home
Isles of Shoals Home
Goody Cole
See Shipwreck Discovered in Rye

Goody Cole sketch
An artist's wild concept of Hampton's Goody Cole
from "The Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier"
Revised Edition, 1879, Riverside Press.

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THE WRECK OF RIVERMOUTH
By John Greenleaf Whittier

Rivermouth Rocks are fair to see,
    By dawn or sunset shone across,
When the ebb of the sea has left them free,
    To dry their fringes of gold-green moss:
For there the river comes winding down
From salt sea-meadows and uplands brown,
And waves on the outer rocks afoam
Shout to its waters, "Welcome home!"

And fair are the sunny isles in view
    East of the grisly Head of the Boar,
And Agamenticus lifts its blue
    Disk of a cloud the woodlands o'er;
And, southerly, when the tide is down,
"Twixt white sea-waves and sand-hills brown,
The beach-birds dance and the gray gulls wheel
Over a floor of burnished steel.

Once, in the old Colonial days,
    Two hundred years ago and more,
A boat sailed down through the winding ways
    Of Hampton River to that low shore,
Full of goodly company
Sailing out on the summer sea,
Veering to catch the land-breeze light,
With the Boar to left and the Rocks to right.

In Hampton meadows, where mowers laid
    Their scythes to the swaths of salted grass,
"Ah, well-a-day! our hay must be made!"
    A young man sighed, who saw them pass,
Loud laughed his fellows to see him stand
Whetting his scythe with a listless hand,
Hearing a voice in a far-off song,
Watching a white hand beckoning long.

"Fie on the witch!" cried a merry girl,
    As they rounded the point where Goody Cole
Sat by her door with her wheel atwirl,
    A bent and blear-eyed poor old soul.
"Oho!" she muttered, "ye're brave to-day!
But I hear the little waves laugh and say,
The broth will be cold that waits at home;
For it's one to go, but another to come!' "

"She's cursed," said the skipper; "speak her fair:
    I'm scary always to see her shake
Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
    And nose like a hawk, and eyes like a snake."
But merrily still, with laugh and shout,
From Hampton River the boat sailed out,
Till the huts and the flakes on Star seemed nigh,
And they lost the scent of the pines of Rye.

They dropped their lines in the lazy tide,
    Drawing up haddock and mottled cod;
They saw not the Shadow that walked beside,
    They heard not the feet with silence shod.
But thicker and thicker a hot mist grew,
Shot by the lightnings through and through;
And muffled growls, like the growl of a beast,
Ran along the sky from west to east.

Then the skipper looked from the darkening sea
    Up to the dimmed and wading sun;
But he spake like a brave man cheerily,
    "Yet there is time for our homeward run."
Veering and tacking, they backward wore;
And just as a breath from the woods ashore
Blew out to whisper of danger past,
The wrath of the storm came down at last!

The skipper hauled at the heavy sail:
    "God be our help!" he only cried,
As the roaring gale, like the stroke of a flail,
    Smote the boat on its starboard side.
The Shoalsmen looked, but saw alone
Dark films of rain-cloud slantwise blown,
Wild rocks lit up by the lightning's glare,
The strife and torment of sea and air.

Goody Cole looked out from her door:
    The Isles of Shoals were drowned and gone,
Scarcely she saw the Head of the Boar
    Toss the foam from tusks of stone.
She clasped her hands with a grip of pain,
The tear on her cheek was not of rain:
"They are lost," she muttered, "boat and crew!
Lord, forgive me! my words were true!"

Suddenly seaward swept the squall;
    The low sun smote through cloudy rack;
The Shoals stood clear in the light, and all
    The trend of the coast lay hard and black.
But far and wide as eye could reach,
No life was seen upon wave or beach;
The boat that went out at morning never
Sailed back again into Hampton River.

O mower, lean on thy bended snath,
    Look from the meadows green and low:
The wind of the sea is a waft of death,
    The waves are singing a song of woe!
By silent river, by moaning sea,
Long and vain shall thy watching be:
Never again shall the sweet voice call,
Never the white hand rise and fall!

O Rivermouth Rocks, how sad a sight
    Ye saw in the light of breaking day!
Dead faces looking up cold and white
    From sand and sea-weed where they lay.
The mad old witch-wife wailed and wept,
And cursed the tide as it backward crept:
"Crawl back, crawl back, blue water-snake!
Leave your dead for the hearts that break!"

Solemn it was in that old day
    In Hampton town and its log-built church,
Where side by side the coffins lay
    And the mourners stood in aisle and porch.
In the singing-seats young eyes were dim,
The voices faltered that raised the hymn,
And Father Dalton, grave and stern,
Sobbed through his prayer and wept in turn.

But his ancient colleague did not pray,
    Because of his sin at fourscore years:
He stood apart, with the iron-gray
    Of his strong brows knitted to hide his tears.
And a wretched woman, holding her breath
In the awful presence of sin and death,
Cowered and shrank, while her neighbors thronged
To look on the dead her shame had wronged.

Apart with them, like them forbid,
    Old Goody Cole looked drearily round,
As, two by two, with their faces hid,
    The mourners walked to the burying-ground.
She let the staff from her clasped hands fall:
"Lord, forgive us! we're sinners all!"
And the voice of the old man answered her:
"Amen!" said Father Bachiler.

So, as I sat upon Appledore
    In the calm of a closing summer day,
And the broken lines of Hampton shore
    In purple mist of cloud-land lay,
The Rivermouth Rocks their story told;
And waves aglow with sunset gold,
Rising and breaking in steady chime,
Beat the rhythm and kept the time.

And the sunset paled, and warmed once more
    With a softer, tenderer after-glow;
In the east was moon-rise, with boats off shore
    And sails in the distance drifting slow.
The beacon glimmered from Portsmouth bar,
The White Isle kindled its great red star;
And life and death in my old-time lay
Mingled in peace like the night and day!

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John Greenleaf Whittier
Celia Thaxter, Whititer and the "Wreck"

This poem expands on the true story of a Hampton shipwreck (click for original report) from 1657, when a group of eight were killed in a sudden storm. Whittier credits Celia Thaxter, poet from the Isles of Shoals, with giving him the idea for the story. The addition of poor Goody Cole, Hampton's only convicted "witch," shows Whittier's skill at weaving old legends together to heighten the drama of the story. His poem "The Changling" also features Goody, a woman so feared by townspeople that, after her death, she was buried with a stake driven into her heart.

Whittier also includes the character of Rev. Stephen Batchelder to whom he imagined he was related, though this connection, according to local historians, appears not to have been accurate. Related to a Hampton Minister or not, Whittier did write as many as dozen poems focused in the region around Seacoast NH.

Whittier's narrator "writes" the poem from Appledore Island, where Celia's circle of famous New England writers and artists gathered at her family's hotel. Looking back to the Hampton shore just eight miles away, he imagines the deadly storm, two centuries earlier, appearing suddenly and swallowing the small boat. We know Whittier, whose fame increased steadily in his later years, made many trips to the Isles. A confirmed bachelor from nearby Amesbury and Haverhill, Whittier corresponded often with Mrs. Thaxter. Modern fiction writer Julia Older has even speculated that their relationship was more than platonic, but that seems extremely unlikely. Celia's late grandaughter Rosamond Thaxter, in her book "Sandpiper" devoted an entire chapter to the relationship between the two poets from 1867-1892. When they first spent time together at Appledore House, Celia was in her early 30s and Whittier just coming into his fame at age 60.

Regarding "Wreck of Rivermouth" Whittier, using his formal Quaker style, wrote to Celia on August 8, 1868: "By the way, thee ought to like that poem, for it would scarcely have been written but for thee. The thought of thee and thy sea stories and pictures prompted it, and when writing I was wondering whether thee would like it."

The poem first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1864, and later was included in the small book "The Tent on the Beach" which is also about the Hampton, NH area.

By J. Dennis Robinson
Article idea submitted by Janice L. Todd
© 1998 SeacoastNH.com

Photo Credit:
Photo of beardless Whittier in 1866 around the time of this poem and when he began to befriend Celia Thaxter at the Isles of Shoals. (photo by EK Clarkson, Amesbury)

Other key sources:
(1) Life and letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, by Samuel T. Pickard, Riverside Press, 1894.
(2) John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography, by Rolad H. Woodwell, Whittier Homestead, Amesbury, Mass, 1985
(3) For the entire Whittier book in hypertext click here
Click BACK to return to SeacoastNH.com

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The Original Shipwreck Report
from Hampton History 1657
(Original spelling is maintained)

The: 20th of the 8 mo 1657
The sad Hand of God upon Eight p[er]sons goeing in a small vessell by Sea from Hampton to boston Who wear all swallowed up i the ocian sone after they ware out of the Harbour the p[er]sons wear by name as Followeth
Robert Read
Sargent: Will Swaine
Manewell: Hilyard
John: Philbrick
& Ann: Philbrick His wife
Sarah: Philbrick their daught
Alice the wife of moses Cocks:
and John Cocks their sonn:
who ware all Drowned the: 20th of the 8 mo: 1657"

From Dow's History of Hampton
For more on this history online visit the
Lane Memorial Library in Hampton, NH

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Whittier Notes to
"Wreck of Rivermouth"

The Goody Cole who figures in this poem and "The Changling" was Eunice Cole, who for a quarter of a century or more was feared, persecuted, and hated as the witch of Hampton. She lived alone in a hovel a little distance from the spot where the Hampton Academy now stands, and there she died, unattended. When her death was discovered, she was hastily covered up in the earth near by, and a stake driven through her body, to exorcise the evil spirit. Rev. Stephen Bachiler or Batchelder was one of the ablest of the early New England preachers. His marriage late in life to a woman regarded by his church as disreputable induced him to return to England, where he enjoyed the esteem and favor of Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate.

Further "Rivermouth" Notes
from the Riverside Edition, 1894

FIE ON THE WITCH!
Goody Cole was brought before the Quarter Sessions in 1680 to answer to the charges of being a witch. The court could not find satisfactory evidence of witchcraft, but so strong was the feeling against her that Major Waldron, the presiding magistrate, ordered her to be imprisoned, with a "lock kept on her leg," at the pleasure of the Court. In such judicial action one can read the fear and vindictive spirit of the community at large.

"AMEN!" SAID FATHER BACHILER
Evidence found in favor of Rev. Stephen Bachiler, an ancestor [JDR Note: not supported by modern research] of the poet, after the poem was first printed, led Whittier to modify these lines which implied the guilt of the clergyman.

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