Recollections of [John Greenleaf] Whittier
Mary Rice Jewett
It was a very happy moment when on arriving at a friends house [on a visit] my hostess met me saying, "You are surely in good fortune now for Mr. Whittier has just come unexpectedly" and good fortune indeed it was! I can see now after all these years his tall slender figure as he rose to greet me clad in the black coat of Quaker cut, which he always wore. Every line of which was as carefully fitted as if he had been a fashionable young man. Someone once said that she never remembered seeing him wear one coat bearing the marks of extreme newness any more than she remembered one bearing any marks of age. The two most striking things in his appearance to me were his wonderful eyes which he and Daniel Webster alike are said to have inherited from Father Batchelder of the old Hampton Church from whom they are said to have descended. The other striking feature was his extreme lightness and quickness of motion. One had so little sense of weight connected with him that it seemed more like a birds flight than a mortals tread when he moved. One felt as if his bones must have been more like quills than anything else. In those days he was only slightly deaf, but he had a way of as it were withdrawing himself into silences[,] sometimes, as if communing with his own heart, coming back however most readily to join in the conversation going on about him. We were fellow guests for several days then and I can never forget the charm of that time. The stories he told, and the serious talk that went on, often about the old AntiSlavery days, our hosts having been deeply interested in all the struggles of those days, and we listened eagerly as he told so quietly the story of his escapes from mobs, and the difficulty he and his companions had in carrying forward their great work. As the years went on I saw him from time to time either in Boston or at Amesbury, and always with new delight. Mr. Whittier was one of the very first of the older writers to say kind words to my sister about her writings, and his pleasure was very great in what she did as long as he lived. I imagine that very few persons present know that his Mother was born on what we know as Sligo Point, and some of his happiest memories seemed to be of his visits to this region with her when he was a boy. He knew all the old local names. Even to the Eagle tree on the river bank, and so often after a moments silence there would come an inquiry. "Sarah Jewett does thee know if Thankful Hussey or some other old Friend it might be is still alive". He told my sister once that he remembered his first sight of Agamenticus which at that moment had a little cloud on its summit, and having heard about a mountain was sure that must be one, being greatly awed by the sight he said. In the later years of life he was much in Boston in the winter and it was a frequent pleasure to find him at [a] Mrs Fields house or some other friends house in those days, and listen to the quaint things he was sure to say as only he could say them. Nothing however could hold him back from going home to Amesbury in time for the spring election, though he probably would have quite disclaimed the idea of being a politician. Only the other day I read of the death of the old friend in Amesbury in whose little shop Mr. Whittier used to sit and discuss many things of interest with his neighbors. He laughingly said one day that he doubted if the aforesaid neighbors knew or cared much about what he wrote, but somehow they could not seem to even build a hencoop without talking it over with him first. So that little back shop must have heard many topics gone over. One would hardly think from the seriousness and passion [of] of most of his verse, how full of wit and humor his conversation would be, or how much he looked upon life from the humorous point of view. His talk was full of delightful anecdotes of quaint rustic characters whom he had known, which he would tell in such an inimitable [style?] that while he almost never laughed aloud himself his listeners often did so. He had so great a gift of telling a story that we wonder that his writing never ran along that line, but his prose like his verse was always serious. He had a great deal of natural shyness and reticence, but when he felt at ease and comfortable especially with younger people he was a most delightful companion. Once when he had just returned from [the] Friends Yearly Meeting at Portland he reported the effort of an advanced and new fashioned Friend to introduce music on the occasion. "She began to sing" he said. "What did happen?["] interrupted my sister. ["]Oh an old Friend in a bunnit [bonnet] right beside her was moved in prayer.["] ["]Which beat["] asked my sister eagerly. "Oh the bunnit did,["] he said shaking with laughter. Though his poetry came from simple life and every day surroundings, he had a wonderful knowledge through his reading of foreign life and countries, and [written over word] allusions are always most accurate and beautiful as if he had lived in Italy or the East. He knew all the best new books and loved to talk about them, and his correspondence with some of the foremost Englishmen like John Bright kept him in touch with a larger life. You always felt he was a citizen of the widest world. Almost every summer he went to some delightful place among the mountains where there was a wide view, and there he loved to gather his friends about him. Among whom my sister was often happy enough to be one and his cousins Joseph and Gertrude Cortland and Mrs Fields and Lucy Larcom. My sister has told me with much amusement of a certain afternoon when they were raspberrying and he being color blind couldn't tell the ripe berries from the green ones, until after meeting several disappointments. She saw him take the bush and shake it angrily. He never seemed so happy as on those summer holidays, and a great many of his most beautiful poems were written then. I was one of the company who went to his funeral at Amesbury on a beautiful autumn day, an experience I can never forget. From far and near the old friends had come. Some dating back to the old AntiSlavery days. Some like myself of more recent date. And we gathered in the old garden, under the dear trees which he had loved and planted, for the final service for the house could not hold the throng. A more interesting gathering could hardly be imagined for along with [with] the representative men and women from far and near were the old friends and neighbors who had lived beside him for years and known and loved him, all brought together by a common sorrow. It was the simplest possible service after the Friends manner. Just an address and a prayer from two old friends, and then I saw his cousin Mrs Cortland rise from her place and stand for a moment before she began quietly repeating one of the best loved of his poems.
I can see her now in her black Friends bonnet and [unreadable] as she stood in the sunshine with the shadow of the leaves flitting over her peaceful old face. And there was hardly a dry eye in all the place when she finished. When on my day of life the night is falling, it begins. I shall never forget the verse,
"Thou who hast made my home of life so pleasant,
Leave not thy tenant when [when] its walls decay.
O Love Divine. O Helper ever present
Be thou my strength & stay
Some humble door among Thy many mansions
Some sheltering shade where sin and sorrow cease
And flows forever through heavens green mansions
This river of Thy peace".
And as the sweet old voice ceased speaking, it seemed as if indeed Peace had indeed fallen upon us all. And as we came back to our various homes in the gathering twilight it was with a new sense of gratitude that such a man had lived, and that we had been permitted to know him.
"Recollections of Whittier" is reprinted by permission of the Berwick Academy Archives, item: 1996.0086. This text may not be reprinted without the permission of the Berwick Academy, South Berwick, ME.
This piece probably was composed sometime after Sarah Orne Jewett's death in 1909, certainly after Whittier's in 1892.
This manuscript apparently was prepared as a speech, perhaps for the South Berwick Women's Club, of which Mary Rice Jewett was a leader. In this text, Jewett does not use apostrophes, and her capitalization and punctuation are erratic. She has crossed out text and inserted words without clearly indicating where they should go. I have produced a text that includes a number of guesses and, where it seems important, corrections. I have indicated my changes, guesses about text, and unreadable text with brackets. My purpose has been to make the work readable. Therefore, I have not indicated all of the places where words are crossed out and added, nor have I indicated all of my guesses about punctuation and capitalization. A scholar wishing for a more precise text will need to consult the original.
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Eagle tree: See Sarah Orne Jewett's poem, "The Eagle Trees," which is dedicated to Whittier.
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best loved of his poems: Whittier's "At Last" comes from The Bay of Seven Islands, and other Poems, 1883. It has been combined with hymn tunes for singing in churches.
When on my day of life the night is falling,
And, in the winds from unsunned spaces blown,
I hear far voices out of darkness calling
My feet to paths unknown,
Thou who hast made my home of life so pleasant,
Leave not its tenant when its walls decay;
O Love Divine, O Helper ever present,
Be Thou my strength and stay!
Be near me when all else is from me drifting;
Earth, sky, home's pictures, days of shade and shine,
And kindly faces to my own uplifting
The love which answers mine.
I have but Thee, my Father! let Thy spirit
Be with me then to comfort and uphold;
No gate of pearl, no branch of palm I merit,
Nor street of shining gold.
Suffice it if -- my good and ill unreckoned,
And both forgiven through Thy abounding grace --
I find myself by hands familiar beckoned
Unto my fitting place.
Some humble door among Thy many mansions,
Some sheltering shade where sin and striving cease,
And flows forever through heaven's green expansions
The river of Thy peace.
There, from the music round about me stealing,
I fain would learn the new and holy song,
And find at last, beneath Thy trees of healing,
The life for which I long.
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Transcription by Kelly Sanders, Linda Heller, and Terry Heller.
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.