Page images



primitive reality; Whittier thought conscience and heart of more importance than all the paraphernalia of planets and of suns. Emerson was influenced by

the materialistic philosophy of the English deists, and by the Unitarian reaction from the older Calvinistic. theology; Whittier drew his inspiration and his doctrine from deep personal experience of sin and of redemption, and from sympathetic observation of the sorrow and guilt of humanity. In short, Emerson began with nature; Whittier began with man. Emerson interpreted man by nature; Whittier interpreted nature by man. For this reason there is a prevailing ethical element in Whittier's poetry, which Emerson's almost wholly lacks; the keynote of Whittier's is compassion, while that of Emerson is speculation; Emerson's intuitions are the uncertain utterances of his own imperfect moral being; Whittier's inner light is that of an indwelling and personal God.

The poet was born and not made. Yet his surroundings had much to do with the unfolding of his genius. The handsome Quaker lad was five feet ten and a half inches tall when he was only fifteen years of age. But life on the Haverhill farm was one of solitude and privation. There were no doors to the barns, and no flannels or overcoats for men; no buffalorobes for driving, and no fires in the meeting-house. The milking of seven cows daily, and the threshing of wheat with the flail, overtaxed the boy's strength, and left him a lifelong prey to heart-disease and to insomnia. It was a rocky and swampy farm. Exposure induced bronchitis. Ill-cooked food gave him the dyspepsia. Yet he learned to read at home; and the



[ocr errors]


Bible, 'Pilgrim's Progress," and a stray Waverley novel devoured in secret, wakened in him an intense love of literature. "I well remember," he writes, "how, at a very early age, the solemn organ-roll of Gray's Elegy' and the lyric sweep and pathos of Cowper's Lament for the Royal George' moved and fascinated me, with a sense of mystery and power felt rather than understood." His first verses were apparently written on the woodwork of his mother's loom; later efforts he committed to a slate; and finally he aspired to an album. His reminiscences of childhood are peculiarly touching. Who can mistake the truth of his picture of "The Barefoot Boy"?

Blessings on thee, little man,

Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;

With thy red lip, redder still

Kissed by strawberries on the hill;

With the sunshine on thy face,

Through thy torn brim's jaunty grace;

From my heart I give thee joy,—

I was once a barefoot boy!

And that same barefoot boy we see depicted as a scholar, in his lines "To My Old Schoolmaster":

I, the urchin unto whom,

In that smoked and dingy room,
Where the district gave thee rule
O'er its ragged winter school,
Thou didst teach the mysteries
Of those weary A B C's,-
Where, to fill the every pause
Of thy wise and learned saws,
Through the cracked and crazy wall


Came the cradle-rock and squall,

And the goodman's voice, at strife
With his shrill and tipsy wife.


It was one of his crude early poems, "The Exile's Departure," which attracted the attention of William Lloyd Garrison, and led ultimately to their partnership in the work of reform. Without Whittier's knowledge, his sister had sent to the "Free Press" of Newburyport the manuscript of that poem. Garrison was but little older than Whittier; but, with larger knowledge of the world and of literature, he recognized the promise of its author, and made a journey of fourteen miles to greet him. The father was besought to give his son an education, but at first refused, upon the ground that poetry would not give him bread. His scruples were overruled when the boy learned to make shoes for twenty-five cents the pair and sold them to pay his schooling. So Whittier had two years in the Haverhill Academy. They were years of wide reading and of constant literary production, both in prose and in verse. Most of his early work indeed was journalistic. His poetry was thrown off hastily to express some fleeting impulse or to meet some public need. Whittier was a natural editor. Each new event was to him a challenge, and he discussed it in print. It was soon apparent that he had political insight, knowledge of motives, and power to direct public opinion. In his "Tent on the Beach" he describes himself:

And one there was, a dreamer born,

Who, with a mission to fulfil,
Had left the Muses' haunts to turn

The crank of an opinion-mill,



Making his rustic reed of song

A weapon in the war with wrong,

Yoking his fancy to the breaking-plough

That beam-deep turned the soil for truth to spring
and grow.

Too quiet seemed the man to ride
The winged Hippogriff Reform;
Was his a voice from side to side

To pierce the tumult of the storm?
A silent, shy, peace-loving man,
He seemed no fiery partisan

To hold his way against the public frown,

The ban of Church and State, the fierce mob's
hounding down.

For while he wrought with strenuous will
The work his hands had found to do,
He heard the fitful music still

Of winds that out of dreamland blew.

The din about him could not drown

What the strange voices whispered down;

Along his task-field weird processions swept,
The visionary pomp of stately phantoms stepped.

He had not yet found himself. But vague premonitions of coming power and reputation were there to tempt and to attract. In "Moll Pitcher" there was originally a closing stanza, which the poet subsequently suppressed:

Land of my fathers!-if my name,
Now humble and unwed to fame,
Hereafter burn upon the lip

As one of those which may not die,
Linked in eternal fellowship

With visions pure and strong and high-
If the wild dreams, which quicken now
The throbbing pulse of heart and brow,
Hereafter take a real form


Like specters changed to being warm;
And over temples worn and gray

The starlike crown of glory shine,-
Thine be the bard's undying lay,

The murmur of his praise be thine!


And now we come to the turning-point of Whittier's life, to what we must regard as a genuine conversion. Hitherto he had lived with no definite aim beyond his own development and success. Local incidents and legends had furnished subjects for his poems. Political advancement had seemed possible, and he had thought seriously of running for Congress. He was a brilliant editor, and he had formed literary acquaintances of value. He longed to escape from the monotony of farm life, and to make himself felt in public affairs. Then came the anti-slavery agitation and the call of God to espouse the cause of freedom. Garrison summoned him to join the abolitionists. It was like joining the anarchists of to-day. We must remember that cotton-growing at the South had made slave-labor profitable and apparently necessary. Northern capital was invested in commerce and manufactures which depended on Southern trade. The early acknowledgment of the injustice of slavery was replaced by a defense of the system. Even the Quakers were sometimes unwilling to permit anti-slavery discussion in their conferences. The whole weight of social, literary, and political influence was on the side of the oppressor. To be an abolitionist was to expose oneself to contempt and ostracism, if not to the violence of the mob. When Garrison sent his ringing appeal to Whittier, acceptance of his invitation meant for our poet the

« PreviousContinue »