American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Whittier

A Rhyme

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Historical consciousness is often out of joint, wrenching awareness away from the present, submerging now in then, coloring then in now‘s diffused tinctures. At present, for instance, the past appears to me a blood-red sea, and blood is all I can see of history.

Historians have other ways of inhabiting and appraising time, though they too, I imagine, have moments of confusion: moments when the past seems to encompass the present, while remaining out of reach, and when the present no longer seems the past’s successor. As a mode of analysis or understanding, this uncanny or untimely experience of history can be an achievement, a way of knocking the present off its pedestal. For not all successors are deserving. And sometimes, it takes a crisis to appreciate that.

This experience of history can also be alienating. Encompassed by the past, the present loses its autonomy, and we, as creatures of the present, lose ours, held captive by a past we thought to have escaped. In such a circumstance, the best we can hope to do is sever ties with the past, break off from those who would retain them, commence anew. A necessary, revolutionary program that is also, to some extent, a self-annihilating one, since the consciousness that rids itself of history is itself historical. The ordinary work of generations, frightening because it occurs in a flash instead of at the stately pace of centuries.

There is, however, an aesthetic version of this alienation: a sudden recognition of similitude between two finite moments, past and present coming together with just that shade of difference needed to keep them from collapsing together, yielding in their conjunction the pleasing qualities of a rhyme.

An instance of that rhyme today: a torn up old copy of the Democratic Review, found in a used book stall in Bangor, bought for a dollar. It contains many interesting literary artifacts (one of Whittier’s “Songs of Labor”; and an early work of Whitman’s, “Tale of a Murderer Escaped”), but what really caught my eye was the opening editorial, “Statue to Jackson.” God help us, will we ever be free of these statues? And Jackson, of all monstrous precedents; truly a rhyme with our present rogue populist. The entire text is reproduced below.




Written by Ben Friedlander

August 17, 2017 at 8:05 pm


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In 1933, in a review of Emily Dickinson’s letters, Marianne Moore wrote:

As Mr. Trueblood has noted, “What she said seems always said with the choicest originality.” Whittier, Bryant, and Thoreau were choice; and to some extent Emerson. Hawthorne was a bear but great. All of these except Whittier seem less choice than their neighbor “Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty” she called herself, not realizing the pinnacle of favor to which her words of dejection were to be raised.

OK, wait a second. Moore preferred Whittier? To all of the others? Choice indeed.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 23, 2016 at 6:12 am

Whittier Blvd.

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The farmhouse, built by the poet’s great-great-grandfather in 1688, has been preserved by the affectionate solicitude of the Whittier Homestead Association. After the ravages of fire and of time it has been scrupulously restored. The old-fashioned garden, the lawn sloping to the brook, the very stepping-stones, the bee-hives, the bridle-post, the worn door-stone, the barn across the road, even the surrounding woods of pine and oak, are all, as nearly as may be, precisely what they were a hundred years ago.

— Bliss Perry, “John Greenleaf Whittier: A Sketch of His Life” (1907)

Gus Reusch, curator of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead

When you pass Haverhill, Mass., on I-495, there’s a sign that says something like Birthplace of John Greenleaf Whittier. Every time I drive that route I think to myself, “I really ought to stop and see what’s on offer.” This time I did, and I’m glad I did. “Snow-bound” (link) is one of my favorite poems. Every year, when the snow comes down, I reread it, ritually. And that’s the best thing I can say for winter! Also, Whittier was a mentor to Lucy Larcom, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately. Also, I love the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers visiting the poet, who heard their serenade with head bowed and tears rolling down. So I had to stop.

As it happens, the poem was written in June, so June was a good time to visit.[*] Gus Reusch, the curator, stood before the fireplace remembered in the poem, and told the story of Whittier’s life. After he was done, he gave a tour of the house, telling more stories about the artifacts. And after the tour, he took a picture of my wife and I sitting before the fireplace, in the chairs that belonged to Whittier’s mother and father.

It was a strange recompense. Just the day before, an old friend told me about seeing The Steins Collect at the Met, a show I never managed to see, to my regret. But tel me: Does the Met have Stein’s rocking chair? And if they do, would they let you sit in it? And if they did, would the curator take your picture? I’m pretty sure the answers to these questions are no, no, and no. Besides which, it wasn’t Stein looking down at me when I learned my ABCs. I’m old enough, God help me, to have had engravings of the Fireside Poets in my classroom.

It’s a paradox: time moves forward unceasingly and you can’t go backward; yet the past has attractions that you can visit. The Haverhill Homestead (link) is one of those attractions.

The best thing I learned at Haverhill was that Whittier kept a pet squirrel, Friday, who would take nuts from Whittier’s pocket, cracking them open on the poet’s shoulder. The two would go on walks together through Amesbury, which made Whittier a big hit with the kids.

When I got home, I googled “Whittier” and “squirrel,” just to make sure the story was genuine (I had the dreadful feeling, born of a lifetime’s gullibility, that my leg was being pulled). But it’s true! In fact, you can see the squirrel, stuffed, in the Whittier College archive, which collects Whittier memorabilia. A Quaker college, the school was named for the great Quaker poet, as was the California town where the college is located. I’ve long known that Richard Nixon, also a Quaker, was born in Whittier, but I never put two and two together.The sum in this case is not four but Friday.

By odd coincidence, Friday was featured in the Whittier Daily News exactly one week before my visit to Haverhill (link). The paper induced the president of the college, Sharon Herzberger, to pose with the creature, as the president cheerfully admits on her blog (link). There’s even a video:

These days, when I think of Whittier, California, my first association is not Richard Nixon but Thee Midniters, said to be the first Chicano rock band to have a hit in the U.S. They recorded on the Whittier label, and went to high school in that town, and had a hit in 1965 with the instrumental “Whittier Blvd.” My old roommate Oliver had one of their albums, which we listened to a lot.

Once again, I failed to put two and two together. Though Wikipedia and other sources report that the band was “Thee” rather than “The” Midniters to avoid confusion with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, I realize now that’s the Quaker thee.

You can hear the original “Whittier Blvd” on YouTube (link) — and you should! But here’s the band in 2011, great as ever. I’m going to guess for symmetry’s sake that they’re about the age Whittier was when he wrote “Snow-bound.”


* [Back to text] Or if not written in June, then assuming June as its vantage point on the past: “The birds are glad; the brier-rose fills / The air with sweetness; all the hills / Stretch green to June’s unclouded sky; / But still I wait with ear and eye / For something gone which should be nigh, / A loss in all familiar things, / In flower that blooms, and bird that sings.”

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 3, 2012 at 9:37 am