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A Tribute to Whittier on his Eighty-fourth Birthday.



     BOSTON, Dec. 7, 1891.

[Letters of tribute to John Greenleaf Whittier appeared in The Boston Journal of December 12, 1891. Charles E. L. Wingate then quoted selections from these letters in The Critic (16:335-6) for December 12, 1891. This text is from The Critic. Sarah Orne Jewett's contribution appears in the second half of the piece. This text is available courtesy of the Newberry Library.]

On Saturday, the 19th of this month, John Greenleaf Whittier will reach his eighty-fourth birthday, and the congratulations that will, in mind at least, be offered to the good New England poet will be limited only by the number of men, women and children who know his name. But some of his warmest admirers, at the request of the Boston Journal, have willingly offered a few words, in tribute, for the occasion, and from their letters I should like to quote for the pleasure of The Critic's readers.

     Julia Ward Howewho is at Gardiner, Me., writes: -- 'In my view Mr. Whittier has poetry enough in his works to redeem the whole realm of Quakerdom from prosaic reproach, and manhood enough in his character to make weight against the frivolous flippancy which discredits this as it has other times. May the Indian summer of his beautiful life be prolonged to its fullest term, and may his work be crowned with what poets should most desire, abundant fruit and abiding fame.'

     Celia Thaxter says: -- 'He is a power for good in his own land and in the world, a landmark [landmard] up to which all struggling souls may look and gather fresh courage to climb. How many instances I recall in which I have seen his beautiful words comforting the weariness of age, and inspiring with all fine and noble impulses the fiery heart of youth! Truly, I know of no one who has been more universally revered and beloved since the world began. His very name is a symbol of truth and unflinching integrity, and the good he has done us all comes back to him now in the sweetness of the blessing his friends and his country bring to him with the homage of their admiration.'

     Harriet Prescott Spoffordthough she has been very ill and is not yet entirely recovered, would not forego the opportunity of offering her meed [need] of praise to Mr. Whittier. Referring to the question regarding her favorite poem, she replied: -- 'My favorite among Mr. Whittier's poems is, I think, "Snow Bound." I could hardly tell you why, except it is for its simplicity, its truth, its sweetness, its tenderness, its music -- reasons enough, you will say. It is our New England epic, and every line of it is dear to us.'

     Rose Terry Cooke found it difficult to choose her favorite poem. 'I like -- I love -- so many of Mr. Whittier's poems,' she writes, 'that it is all but impossible to say which seems to me best. "Hampton Beach" I like as well as any; it seems to me absolutely perfect, both in its keen perception of nature and its delicate ethical analogy. "May he live a thousand years!" if he wants to.'

     Donald G. Mitchell declares that of Mr. Whittier's poems he always likes the one last read, but beyond the poet's great literary art he admires the broad humanities of the man.

     Edna Dean Proctor selects several favorites among Mr. Whittier's patriotic poems and his lyrics, and then declares: -- 'But above all these I would set those poems of the soul, full of hope and trust and faith; such poems as "My Psalm," "The Grave by the Lake" and "The Eternal Goodness." Indeed, if I could preserve but one stanza out of all he has written, this, from the last-named poem, would be the immortal one: --

          I know not where his islands lift
               Their fronded palms in air;
          I only know I cannot drift
               Beyond his love and care.'

     Rev. Dr. A. P. Peabody quotes from one of his sermons in saying: -- 'It is spiritual industry, patient soul culture, the unceasing aim at the highest and best that the human soul can attain, which, more than capacity independent of consecration, has made Whittier, the village shoemaker, second to no poet of our time in blended strength and sweetness.'

     Francis M. Stanwood, a nephew and intimate friend of James G. Blaine, in an appreciative letter upon Mr. Whittier's verse give the following interesting anecdote: -- 'Mr. Blaine was always a devoted friend and enthusiastic appreciator of Whittier. I can remember a visit he made to our house shortly after "Among the Hills" was published, and he read and re-read that charming idyl during a Sunday morning. Referring to the lines,

          Love scarce is love that never knows
          The sweetness of forgiving,

he observed: -- "Think of an unmarried man having such a tender and beautiful conception!'"

     Sarah Orne Jewett selects 'In School Days' as the most beautiful and beloved of Whittier's poems. To Mr. Whittier she pays this warm tribute: -- 'We know him as patriot and poet and as a leader of public opinion. He has buckled on the armor of many a young spirit made eager for the right in life's inevitable warfare; he has been a great teacher of religious truth, a consoler of the disheartened and sorrowful; a kind and sympathetic friend to many whose faces he has never seen and whose grateful voices have never reached his ear. To no man has it been given to show more clearly the loyalty of friendship or the dignity and sincerity of citizenship. If sometimes opportunity has been passed by through lack of physical strength, ability and keenness of mental and spiritual vision and the gift of inspiring others have never failed this great American and poet. The is ours of bing sure in these later days that his heart is as young and his mind as young as ever, though his years make a long count, and that he is growing yet like one of our noblest forest trees, some great pine, that came to its prime in an untainted soil, and has drawn its potent sap from hidden springs. The lesser growths gather beneath its boughs, the roots of the great landmark cling fast to the strong New England ledges, but its green top, where singing birds come and go, is held high to the winds and sunshine in clearest air.'

     Lucy Larcom writes: -- 'Whittier's poetry is an element of the New England atmosphere; in reading it we feel that we are simply drawing our natural breath, and that, to me, is its chief charm; that it give in almost every line the spirit of the soil, and of the early settlers of the soil in the noble simplicity of the former days. In his sympathy with nature in her peculiar local and homely beauty -- in his deep spiritual perception and fervent expression of all that was best in Puritanism, of which Quakerism itself was a protesting phase -- he is great and unique. Sometimes it seems as if he were our only real New England poet, although others have written very beautiful local poetry. But we can no more separate the thought of Whittier from New England than we can that of [o] Burns from Scotland. His patriotism and his wide humanity pervading all he has written illustrate well the grandeur of the type of manhood which was the natural outgrowth of the primitive integrity, and which, spread through the whole nation, has made it hitherto our pride. We have no poet more thoroughly American than he, and we must all rejoice in the tender, softened beauty of his later verse, which, lacking nothing of vigor or intensity, seems suffused with an inner glow, like that of sunset-illumined clouds.'

     The Hon. Robert C. Winthrop, in tribute to his old friend, quotes a letter of his in which he wrote; -- 'His exquisite verses are among the treasures of American literature. They breathe a spirit of purity and piety which must wake an echo in the heart of every Christian, by whatever name he may be called. Many of them, too, are full of patriotic fire, and will warm the hearts and kindle the courage of young and old in time to come, as they have done in the past. I rejoice that he is still with us, to know how admiringly and affectionately he is regarded, not only by "Friends," but by all to whom his brilliant genius and spotless character are known.'


Errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors in this text or items that need annotation, please contact:

Charles E. L. Wingate: Wingate (1861-1944) was the dramatic editor of Boston Journal..
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John Greenleaf Whittier: According to Groliers Multimedia Encyclopedia, "one of the best-loved American poets of the 19th century, John Greenleaf Whittier, b. Haverhill, Mass., Dec. 17, 1807, d. Sept. 9, 1892, achieved a national reputation with his nostalgic poem "Snow-Bound" (1866), celebrating the rural world of New England. A Quaker, Whittier began his career as a journalist for William Lloyd Garrison, committing himself to the abolitionist cause in the celebrated pamphlet Justice and Expediency (1833) and thereafter, throughout the Civil War, in numerous polemics and volumes of patriotic verse." "Telling the Bees," the poem referred to here was published in 1838. Whittier and Jewett were close friends who admired each other's work. See, for example, her memorial poem, "The Eagle Trees" and her dedication of The King of Folly Island..
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Julia Ward Howe: Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was a poet, lecturer, abolitionist, and activist for woman suffrage. Perhaps her best known poem is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862)..
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Quakerdom: The Quakers or Society of Friends practiced an inward mode of Christianity, in which a part of worship was inner contemplation. George Fox founded the sect in 17th-century England..
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Celia Thaxter: Celia Thaxter (1835-1894), popular poet, author of An Island Garden (1894)..
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Harriet Prescott Spofford: Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921) was best-known for her short stories, such as those collected in The Amber Gods and Other Stories (1863)..
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Rose Terry Cooke: Rose Terry Cooke (1827-1892) was a popular writer of short stories, for example, Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills (1891)..
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Donald G. Mitchell: Donald Grant Mitchell (1822-1908) was an essayist, editor, diplomat, and the author of a number of books including, under the pen name of Ik Marvell, two very popular books, Reveries of a Bachelor (1850) and Dream Life (1851)..
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Edna Dean Proctor: Proctor (1829-1923) was a poet, travel writer, and editor of Henry Ward Beecher's discourses. One of her better-known books was A Russian Journey (1872)..
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Rev. Dr. A. P. Peabody: Andrew Preston Peabody (1811-1893), pastor of South Parish Unitarian Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, then a professor and acting president of Harvard University. He was editor of the North American Review, 1853-1863..
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Francis M. Stanwood ... James G. Blaine: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia says, "The most popular Republican of his time, James Gillespie Blaine (1830-1893) served as U.S. congressman, senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate. Francis Stanwood, Blaine's nephew, would be the son of one of the sisters of Mrs. Harriet Stanwood Blaine, wife of Mr. Blaine. More precise information would be welcome..
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Lucy Larcom: (1826 - 1893) poet and reformer, author of An Idyll of Work (1875) and A New England Girlhood (1889)..
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Burns from Scotland: Robert Burns (1759-1796), famous Scots poet..
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The Hon. Robert C. Winthrop: A descendent of the "original" John Winthrop of Plymouth Plantation, Robert Winthrop was a Massachusetts politician (U. S. Senator) and historian..
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"Friends": Quakers.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.

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Uncollected Essays