March 25, 2010

Your old friend, John G. Whittier

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier often encouraged the work of younger writers, particularly women. One of the women for whom Whittier served as a mentor was the Lowell, Massachusetts-based Lucy Larcom. She once invited him to visit but, being unable, he had to refuse. Rather than write a boring letter, however, he wrote her a poem. It is dated March 25, 1866, sent from his home in Amesbury, Massachusetts (don't worry if you don't get his inside jokes and other references):

Believe me, Lucy Larcom, it gives me real sorrow
That I cannot take my carpet-bag, and go to town to-morrow;
But I'm "Snow-bound," and cold on cold, like layers of an onion,
Have piled my back, and weighed me down, as with the pack of Bunyan.

The north-east wind is damper, and the north-west wind is colder,
Or else the matter simply is that I am growing older;
And then, I dare not trust a moon seen over one's left shoulder
As I saw this, with slender horn caught in a west hill-pine,
As on a Stamboul minaret curves the Arch Imposter's sign.

So I must stay in Amesbury, and let you go your way,
And guess what colors greet your eyes, what shapes your steps delay,
What pictured forms of heathen love, of god and goddess please you,
What idol graven images you bend your wicked knees to.

But why should I of evil dreams, well knowing at your head goes
That flower of Christian womanhood, our dear good Anna Meadows!
She'll be discreet, I'm sure, although, once, in a fit romantic,
She flung the Doge's bridal ring, and married the "Atlantic;"
And spite of all appearances, like the woman in the shoe,
She's got so many "Young Folks" now she don't know what to do.

But I must say, I think it strange that thee and Mrs. Spaulding,
Whose lives with Calvin's five-barred creed have been so tightly walled in,
Should quit your Puritanic homes, and take the pains to go
So far, with malice aforethought, to walk in a vain show!
Did Emmons hunt for pictures? was Jonathan Edwards peeping
Into the chambers of imagery with maids for Tammuz weeping?

Ah, well, the times are sadly changed, and I msyself am feeling
The wicked world my uaker coat from off my shoulders peeling;
God grant that, in the strange new sea of change wherein we swim,
We still may keep the good old plank of simple faith in Him!

P.S. My housekeeper's got the "tissuck," and gone away, and Lizzie
Is at home for the vacation, with flounce and trimmings busy;
The snow lies white about us, the birds again are dumb, —
The lying blue-frocked rascals who told us Spring had come;
But in the woods of Folly-Mill the sweet May-flowers are making
All ready for the moment of Nature's great awaking.

Come when they come; their welcome share: — except when at the city,
For months I've scarce seen womankind, save when, in sheerest pity,
Gail Hamilton came up, beside my lonely hearth to sit,
And make the Winter evening glad with wisdom and with wit
And fancy, feeling but the spur and not the curbing bit,
Lending a womanly charm to what before was bachelor rudeness; —
The Lord reward her for an act of disinterested goodness!

And now, with love to Mrs. F., and Mrs. S. (God bless her!),
And hoping that my foolish rhyme may not prove a transgressor,
And wishing for your sake and mine, it wiser were and wittier,
I leave it, and subscribe myself, your old friend,
                                      John G. Whittier.

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