A HOME THAT INSPIRED A POET. The house where John Greenleaf Whittier grew up mirrors the poet and his poems
Haverhill, Mass. — JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER'S poems about his childhood are like detailed photographs, from which a visitor to the Whittier homestead in Haverhill, Mass., can recognize right away small remembrances, lovingly captured. From such remembrances, and the rustic household items that inspired them, you can draw a mental picture of a poet and his home -- how a house becomes a part of the man, and a man can leave so much of himself traced upon his house.
A visit to the homestead quickly takes you back to the early 1800s, when a slender, dark-haired youth, known as ``Greenleaf'' to his family, sat by the evening fire and covered his school slate with verses.
In his poem ``Snow-Bound,'' he calls his childhood remembrances of home ``the Flemish pictures of old days'' and invites the reader to ``sit with me by the homestead hearth,/ And stretch the hands of memory forth/ To warm them at the wood-fire's blaze!''
Today, you can pull up the original Salem rocker, sit by the red-brick fireplace, and imagine that December night of long ago, when ``We piled, with care, our nightly stack/ of wood against the chimney-back, . . ./ We watched the first red blaze appear,/ Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam/ On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,/ Until the old, rude-furnished room/ Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom; . . .''
On a nearby shelf sits the brown quart-size mug that, filled with homemade apple cider, once ``between the andirons' straddling feet . . . simmered slow.'' The family Bible, its shredding pages marked with notes in the mother's handwriting, lies on a small table in the ``guest'' or ``birthing'' room. Daily she gathered the children around her and read to them from its pages. She also told them sad tales of the kidnapping and selling into slavery of young black children.
The silver pocket watch still hangs from its accustomed nail above the mantle. Each night, exactly at nine, Uncle Moses took the watch from his pocket and hung it there as the bedtime sign for the family.
Since the mid-1890s, thousands have visited the two-story farmhouse, built in 1688 by the poet's great-great-grandfather in a valley of oak trees, rolling meadows, and a rambling brook.
They come to see the large, cozy kitchen with its ``clean-winged hearth'' and ``motley-braided mat,'' where once a Quaker family gathered, snowbound. Or to trace a barefoot boy's ambling footsteps from the back door along the garden wall to where ``Laughed the brook for (his) delight/ Through the day and through the night . . . .''
In the childhood home, stereotypes of the poet as a frail, white-haired gentleman are swiftly dispelled. On the kitchen's far wall hangs a portrait of Whittier as a young man. It shows a handsome youth with striking features: black, bushy hair and sideburns, determined forehead, and penetrating green eyes.
Young Greenleaf had a lively imagination. Although he helped his father work the farm's rocky soil and daily milked the seven cows without complaint, he kept sheets of foolscap and a pen close at hand in case a verse surprised him. In later years he wrote to a friend that, at the age of 14, ``I began to make rhymes . . . and to imagine stories and adventures. In fact, I lived a sort of dual life and in a world of fancy, as well as in the world of plain matter-of-fact about me.''
The women closest to the poet's heart were those in his family: his mother, Abigail, his younger sister, Elizabeth or ``Lizzie,'' and his Aunt Mercy. Their pictures hang on the front and side walls near the desk and, throughout the house, a chair or a candlestick, a spinning wheel or a loom, recall the parts they played in his life.
His sister, Lizzie, ``our youngest and our dearest,'' shared his sensitive nature, love of reading, and ``disposition to make rhymes.'' Once, the two of them secretly borrowed and read together Sir Walter Scott's novel, ``The Pirate'' -- certainly not approved reading for good Quaker children. By candlelight they read long past the bedtime hour, holding the candle closer and closer to the book as it burned down. Then, in the middle of an exciting part, it burned out. The children, gravely disappointed, went to their beds.
If you come to the homestead curious about the affectionate brother's other side, you can ask to see the railing of the attic stairs, from which he often teasingly threatened to hang Lizzie's cat.
Aunt Mercy's rocker, smaller and more compact than the Salem rocker, is in a corner of the parents' room, just off the kitchen. Like her sister Abigail, she often told stories around the evening fire.
As she did on the snowbound nights, Whittier's mother often sat near the hearth, turning her spinning wheel or darning socks, and entertained the children with tales of Quaker heroes.
At the front window sits the ancient desk used first by the poet's great-grandfather, and more than a century later by a 14-year-old boy to compose his first poem. Greenleaf probably sat at this desk that bitter night when he happened to look out the window and see the bridle-post, shaped by drifts of snow to resemble ``an old man . . . with loose-flung coat and high cocked hat.''
A favorite spot for imagining was the back doorstep, at the end of a narrow hallway, which looked out on the endless backyard. Here the boy sometimes ate his breakfast and fancied himself a king, entertained by frogs and fireflies: ``O for festal dainties spread/ Like my bowl of milk and bread, --/ Pewter spoon and bowl of wood,/ On the door-stone, gray and rude! . . .''
It's an easy walk up the fern-covered slope to the brook, running swiftly over the large, black stones, that he describes in ``Telling the Bees'': ``Here is the place, right over the hill/ Runs the path I took;/ You can see the gap in the old wall still,/ And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook. . . .''
Nearby, the stone wall, built by the poet and his father, runs between gently-sloping hills toward the grave site where Whittier's grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents are buried.
Like the home itself, the wall and the grounds leave you feeling what, in fact, Whittier must have meant for you to feel when reading his lines: ``The Traveler owns the grateful sense/ Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,/ And, pausing, takes with forehead bare/ The benediction of the air.