|VANE OF THE OLD NORTH
By Charles Brewster
Author's Note: The vane of
the Old North Church bore the date of 1732 when it was put up. It was not
gilded until 1796. When destined to come down in 1854, the vane is thus
personified, to enable it to tell its story.
READ: Brewster's Ramble
on North Church in 1854
The Vane of the Old North Church
I can't come down! I can't come down!
Call loudly as you may!
A century and a third I've stood;
Another I must stay.
Long have I watched the changing scene,
As every point I've faced;
And witnessed generations rise,
Which others have displaced.
The points of steel which o'er me rise
Have branched since I perched here;
For Franklin then was but a boy,
Who gave the lightning gear.
The day when Cook exploring sailed,
I faced the eastern breeze;
Stationed at home, I turned my head
To the far western seas.
I've stood while isles of savage men
Grew harmless as a dove;
And spears and battle-axes turned
To purposes of love.
I looked on when those noble elms
Upon my east first sprung,
And heard, where now a factory stands,
The ship-yard's busy hum.
When tumult filled the anxious throng,
I found on every side
The constant fanned flame,
And freedom's fire supplied.
William and Mary's fort I've oft,
Through storms, kept full in view;
Queen's Chapel in the snow's squalls faced;
And west, looked King Street through.
For Constitution now takes place,
To meet my south-east glance;
The shrill north-easters from St. John's
Up Congress Street advance.
In peace I once felt truly vain;
For 'neath my shadow stood
The man whom all the people loved, --
George Washington the good!
But why recount the sights I've seen?
You'll say I'm getting old:
I'll quit my tale, long though it be,
And leave it half untold.
The name of Rogers, Fitch and Stiles,
And Buckminster, --- all true;
And later men, whom all do know,
Come passing into view.
Their sainted souls and hearers too --
Your fathers -- where are they?
The temple of their love still stands, --
Its memories cheer your way.
Till that old oak, among whose boughs
The sun my first shade cast,
Lays low in dust his vigorous form,
A respite I may ask.
This little boon I now must crave, --
(Time's peltings I will scorn,) --
Till coward like, I turn my head,
Let me still face the storm.
-- From Poets of Portsmouth , 1885, Edited by Albert Laighton
READ: More Seacoast Ballads & Poems
READ: Slaves in Portsmouth Churches
Notes on Brewster's North Church Poem
It may not be top-notch poetry, but this little chestnut tells a quick history of Portsmouth from a unique perspective. Charles W. Brewster (1802-1869) is remembered today for his two-volume collected essays about the history of his native New Hampshire town, "Brewster's Rambles". Shy and unassuming in person, Brewster rarely traveled beyond the few city blocks of downtown Portsmouth. He worked there for 50 years as a newspaper writer and editor.
In "The Vane of the North Church" Brewster uses a simple poetic form to tell his familiar history. The personified weather vane, set to come down after more than a century atop the highest point in the city, recalls a few historic moments it has seen. In that time, the city had changed from a British colony to a member of the United States. New Hampshire's original State House had been built in the center of Market Square and removed. Washington, Jones, Langdon and a series of famous North Church ministers had come and gone. Ben Franklin had installed his famous lightning rod. The "heathens" on the Isles of Shoals had been tamed by Rev. Tucke. Brewster even references the famous voyage of Cap. James Cook, whose famous ship HM Endeavour has been reconstructed and scheduled to tour the city as part of the city's 375th Anniversary Celebration, the logo of which depicts the famous steeple.
Today the North Church steeple is again in the news. The 150-foot spire has grown weak, discolored and is badly in need of costly renovation. At this writing, the church has a number of architects studying the problems.
The North Church meeting house in 1714 (left) and as remodeled in 1837 (right) before it was replaced by the current brick building in 1854.
-- From an Historical Calendar of Portsmouth, 1907.
History of the North Church
The first church was a Meeting House erected near the junction of South and Marcy Streets about 1657. In 1671, under the name of "The Church of Christ in Portsmouth", the church was formally organized.
The first building was erected on the present site in 1714. It was a three-decker, in the second gallery of which worshiped slaves and servants. Noted worshippers in this edifice were General William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Langdon, a signer of the Constitution of the United States, Daniel Webster and John Paul Jones.
Some parishioners preferred to remain at the former location where they incorporated themselves into the South Parish, now the Unitarian Church. The older organization retained its original name, but by custom it assumed the name of the First or North Parish in Portsmouth under which title, it was formally incorporated in 1791.
About this time the so-called schism developed in New England Congregationalism. In an endeavor to avoid the loss of church property through such a division, and to provide more adequately for the administration of trust funds, a corporation known as "North Church of Portsmouth" was formed in 1816 by action of the legislature.
The building was renovated in 1837 and changed to a two-story structure. Because fashions were changing around it, the building was torn down and the present edifice constructed and ready for dedication on November 1, 1855.
- Text courtesy of the North Church