Snowbound with Whittier
The sun that brief December day Rose cheerless over hills of gray, And, darkly circled, gave at noon A sadder light than waning moon ...
AND how did the rest of it go? Once I knew the first 16 lines of ``Snow-Bound.'' All day the incompleteness of that epic nagged, and I knew that before I retired I would have to check the small leatherbound copy of Whittier to settle the matter.
So finally, when lamps were lit and newspapers set aside, it was time to pursue my quest. By then, too, the threatened storm was upon us, and even through drawn drapes we could hear the hissing of sleet against windows, and the wind roaring down from the north, drifting snow and breaking branches: pronouncing ``Blizzard.''
John Greenleaf Whittier was an old friend, though we hadn't been together in years. His book of poetry was the second volume I ever bought that was not a necessary textbook. The date on the flyleaf is March 3, 1934; the price, one dollar. It is much-marked, underlined, margin-notated. Some of the theories I expounded back then are well off the mark. I should erase them, but probably won't. If I did I'd find myself going through hundreds of volumes, obliterating my youthful con-victions.
Let them stand. Nobody's perfect. Maybe not even Whittier. He was born on Dec. 17, 1807, and died on Dec. 7, 1892. Between those dates was a rewarding lifetime dedicated to truth, goodness, and the emancipation of his fellow man. He was an ardent supporter of the antislavery campaign, and his pen was a sword of righteousness to strike down all injustice.
It's strange how we are influenced by people whom we admire in our youth, and follow them along our own pathways. Maybe it's not strange - maybe it's divine direction. Whittier's first interest in poetry came from studying Robert Burns, and though he was as scantily educated as his idol, he read assiduously. Anyone perusing him today must be astonished at the scope of his knowledge, the breadth of his concern, the classical and biblical references so bountifully broadcast.
THOUGH I don't remember many of his poems now, I must have read that book from beginning to end, if the observations on the sidelines are any indication. Those long sagas, obviously: ``The Bridal of Pennacook,'' for example. Perhaps I saw myself as
Child of the forest! - strong and free,
Slight-robed, with loosely flowing hair, She swam the lake or climbed the tree ... At 17, yes, easy as falling off a log.
Again, Mog Megone:
Tall and erect the maiden stands, Like some young priestess of the wood, The free born child of Solitude ...
I could relate to Cassandra Southwick, who had the courage of her convictions and lived to see them vindicated: ``Sing, oh, my soul, rejoicingly, on evening's twilight calm''.
And I could echo Whittier's ``Voices of Freedom'' - and did.
For a gentle Quaker soul such as he, the events leading to the War between the States must have been a torment. If the Northerners had had a poet laureate it would have been Whittier, who was dedicated to nonviolence, and yet knew that blood must flow before purification could come to his entire beloved country. He had many influential and loyal friends; among them, Emerson, Channing, Stowe, and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who published Whittier's first poem. Whittier eventually contributed to and edited, papers in Haverhill, Mass.; Boston; and Hartford, Conn. And he lived to acclaim the final success of the antislavery campaign.
`BROWN of Ossawatomie'' was also his friend. Though he could not condone John Brown's impetuosity, he loved and forgave him. He put it into rhyme: Brown on the scaffold, seeing a slave mother and her child below:
Then the bold, blue eye grew tender, and the old harsh
face grew mild, As he stooped between the jeering
ranks and kissed the negro's child!
... But I began this as a trackdown of his most famous poem, ``Snow-Bound.'' A charming picture of his boyhood home. A time past, a country weathering, a benediction. Again I read it through.
And at the end, my own penciled scrawl: ``In 1934, February 20, the US, especially New England, was snow-bound. It was the worst blizzard since 1888. Transportation was temporarily at a standstill, but we youngsters (I was a day over 17), made the most of it and enjoyed its depths and blinding whiteness. We built tunnels, which, incidentally, caved in on us the first afternoon, and plowed our way through town making paths, for the streets could hardly be determined. It was a glorious experience, certainly, even though the wind was terrible. AJR 2-26-'35.''
So much for perspective. I can still be 17 in my heart. As for Whitter? You be the judge.