Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > John Greenleaf Whittier > Old Portraits and Modern Sketches > This page

Old Portraits and Modern Sketches, essay(s) by John Greenleaf Whittier


< Previous
Table of content
Next >
_ The great charm of Scottish poetry consists in its simplicity, and genuine, unaffected sympathy with the common joys and sorrows of daily life. It is a home-taught, household melody. It calls to mind the pastoral bleat on the hillsides, the kirkbells of a summer Sabbath, the song of the lark in the sunrise, the cry of the quail in the corn-land, the low of cattle, and the blithe carol of milkmaids "when the kye come hame" at gloaming. Meetings at fair and market, blushing betrothments, merry weddings, the joy of young maternity, the lights and shades of domestic life, its bereavements and partings, its chances and changes, its holy death-beds, and funerals solemnly beautiful in quiet kirkyards, --these furnish the hints of the immortal melodies of Burns, the sweet ballads of the Ettrick Shepherd and Allan Cunningham, and the rustic drama of Ramsay. It is the poetry of home, of nature, and the affections.

All this is sadly wanting in our young literature. We have no songs; American domestic life has never been hallowed and beautified by the sweet and graceful and tender associations of poetry. We have no Yankee pastorals. Our rivers and streams turn mills and float rafts, and are otherwise as commendably useful as those of Scotland; but no quaint ballad or simple song reminds us that men and women have loved, met, and parted on their banks, or that beneath each roof within their valleys the tragedy and comedy of life have been enacted. Our poetry is cold and imitative; it seems more the product of over-strained intellects than the spontaneous outgushing of hearts warm with love, and strongly sympathizing with human nature as it actually exists about us, with the joys and griefs of the men and women whom we meet daily. Unhappily, the opinion prevails that a poet must be also a philosopher, and hence it is that much of our poetry is as indefinable in its mysticism as an Indian Brahmin's commentary on his sacred books, or German metaphysics subjected to homeopathic dilution. It assumes to be prophetical, and its utterances are oracular. It tells of strange, vague emotions and yearnings, painfully suggestive of spiritual "groanings which cannot be uttered." If it "babbles o' green fields" and the common sights and sounds of nature, it is only for the purpose of finding some vague analogy between them and its internal experiences and longings. It leaves the warm and comfortable fireside of actual knowledge and human comprehension, and goes wailing and gibbering like a ghost about the impassable doors of mystery:--

"It fain would be resolved
How things are done,
And who the tailor is
That works for the man I' the sun."

How shall we account for this marked tendency in the literature of a shrewd, practical people? Is it that real life in New England lacks those conditions of poetry and romance which age, reverence, and superstition have gathered about it in the Old World? Is it that

"Ours are not Tempe's nor Arcadia's vales,"

but are more famous for growing Indian corn and potatoes, and the manufacture of wooden ware and pedler notions, than for romantic associations and legendary interest? That our huge, unshapely shingle structures, blistering in the sun and glaring with windows, were evidently never reared by the spell of pastoral harmonies, as the walls of Thebes rose at the sound of the lyre of Amphion? That the habits of our people are too cool, cautious, undemonstrative, to furnish the warp and woof of song and pastoral, and that their dialect and figures of speech, however richly significant and expressive in the autobiography of Sam Slick, or the satire of Hosea Biglow and Ethan Spike, form a very awkward medium of sentiment and pathos? All this may be true. But the Yankee, after all, is a man, and as such his history, could it be got at, must have more or less of poetic material in it; moreover, whether conscious of it or not, he also stands relieved against the background of Nature's beauty or sublimity. There is a poetical side to the commonplace of his incomings and outgoings; study him well, and you may frame an idyl of some sort from his apparently prosaic existence. Our poets, we must needs think, are deficient in that shiftiness, ready adaptation to circumstances, and ability of making the most of things, for which, as a people, we are proverbial. Can they make nothing of our Thanksgiving, that annual gathering of long-severed friends? Do they find nothing to their purpose in our apple-bees, buskings, berry- pickings, summer picnics, and winter sleigh-rides? Is there nothing available in our peculiarities of climate, scenery, customs, and political institutions? Does the Yankee leap into life, shrewd, hard, and speculating, armed, like Pallas, for a struggle with fortune? Are there not boys and girls, school loves and friendship, courtings and match-makings, hope and fear, and all the varied play of human passions, --the keen struggles of gain, the mad grasping of ambition,--sin and remorse, tearful repentance and holy aspirations? Who shall say that we have not all the essentials of the poetry of human life and simple nature, of the hearth and the farm-field? Here, then, is a mine unworked, a harvest ungathered. Who shall sink the shaft and thrust in the sickle?

And here let us say that the mere dilettante and the amateur ruralist may as well keep their hands off. The prize is not for them. He who would successfully strive for it must be himself what he sings,--part and parcel of the rural life of New England,--one who has grown strong amidst its healthful influences, familiar with all its details, and capable of detecting whatever of beauty, humor, or pathos pertain to it,--one who has added to his book-lore the large experience of an active participation in the rugged toil, the hearty amusements, the trials, and the pleasures he describes.

We have been led to these reflections by an incident which has called up before us the homespun figure of an old friend of our boyhood, who had the good sense to discover that the poetic element existed in the simple home life of a country farmer, although himself unable to give a very creditable expression of it. He had the "vision," indeed, but the "faculty divine" was wanting; or, if he possessed it in any degree, as Thersites says of the wit of Ajax, "it would not out, but lay coldly in him like fire in the flint."

While engaged this morning in looking over a large exchange list of newspapers, a few stanzas of poetry in the Scottish dialect attracted our attention. As we read them, like a wizard's rhyme they seemed to have the power of bearing us back to the past. They had long ago graced the columns of that solitary sheet which once a week diffused happiness over our fireside circle, making us acquainted, in our lonely nook, with the goings-on of the great world. The verses, we are now constrained to admit, are not remarkable in themselves, truth and simple nature only; yet how our young hearts responded to them! Twenty years ago there were fewer verse-makers than at present; and as our whole stock of light literature consisted of Ellwood's _Davideis_ and the selections of _Lindley Murray's English Reader_, it is not improbable that we were in a condition to overestimate the contributions to the poet's corner of our village newspaper. Be that as it may, we welcome them as we would the face of an old friend, for they somehow remind us of the scent of haymows, the breath of cattle, the fresh greenery by the brookside, the moist earth broken by the coulter and turned up to the sun and winds of May. This particular piece, which follows, is entitled _The Sparrow_, and was occasioned by the crushing of a bird's-nest by the author while ploughing among his corn. It has something of the simple tenderness of Burns.

"Poor innocent and hapless Sparrow
Why should my mould-board gie thee sorrow!
This day thou'll chirp and mourn the morrow
Wi' anxious breast;
The plough has turned the mould'ring furrow
Deep o'er thy nest!

"Just I' the middle o' the hill
Thy nest was placed wi' curious skill;
There I espied thy little bill
Beneath the shade.
In that sweet bower, secure frae ill,
Thine eggs were laid.

"Five corns o' maize had there been drappit,
An' through the stalks thy head was pappit,
The drawing nowt could na be stappit
I quickly foun';
Syne frae thy cozie nest thou happit,
Wild fluttering roun'.

"The sklentin stane beguiled the sheer,
In vain I tried the plough to steer;
A wee bit stumpie I' the rear
Cam' 'tween my legs,
An' to the jee-side gart me veer
An' crush thine eggs.

"Alas! alas! my bonnie birdie!
Thy faithful mate flits round to guard thee.
Connubial love!--a pattern worthy
The pious priest!
What savage heart could be sae hardy
As wound thy breast?

"Ah me! it was nae fau't o' mine;
It gars me greet to see thee pine.
It may be serves His great design
Who governs all;
Omniscience tents wi' eyes divine
The Sparrow's fall!

"How much like thine are human dools,
Their sweet wee bairns laid I' the mools?
The Sovereign Power who nature rules
Hath said so be it
But poor blip' mortals are sic fools
They canna see it.

"Nae doubt that He who first did mate us
Has fixed our lot as sure as fate is,
An' when He wounds He disna hate us,
But anely this,
He'll gar the ills which here await us
Yield lastin' bliss."

In the early part of the eighteenth century a considerable number of Presbyterians of Scotch descent, from the north of Ireland, emigrated to the New World. In the spring of 1719, the inhabitants of Haverhill, on the Merrimac, saw them passing up the river in several canoes, one of which unfortunately upset in the rapids above the village. The following fragment of a ballad celebrating this event has been handed down to the present time, and may serve to show the feelings even then of the old English settlers towards the Irish emigrants:--

"They began to scream and bawl,
As out they tumbled one and all,
And, if the Devil had spread his net,
He could have made a glorious haul!"

The new-comers proceeded up the river, and, landing opposite to the Uncanoonuc Hills, on the present site of Manchester, proceeded inland to Beaver Pond. Charmed with the appearance of the country, they resolved here to terminate their wanderings. Under a venerable oak on the margin of the little lake, they knelt down with their minister, Jamie McGregore, and laid, in prayer and thanksgiving, the foundation of their settlement. In a few years they had cleared large fields, built substantial stone and frame dwellings and a large and commodious meeting-house; wealth had accumulated around them, and they had everywhere the reputation of a shrewd and thriving community. They were the first in New England to cultivate the potato, which their neighbors for a long time regarded as a pernicious root, altogether unfit for a Christian stomach. Every lover of that invaluable esculent has reason to remember with gratitude the settlers of Londonderry.

Their moral acclimation in Ireland had not been without its effect upon their character. Side by side with a Presbyterianism as austere as that of John Knox had grown up something of the wild Milesian humor, love of convivial excitement and merry-making. Their long prayers and fierce zeal in behalf of orthodox tenets only served, in the eyes of their Puritan neighbors, to make more glaring still the scandal of their marked social irregularities. It became a common saying in the region round about that "the Derry Presbyterians would never give up a pint of doctrine or a pint of rum." Their second minister was an old scarred fighter, who had signalized himself in the stout defence of Londonderry, when James II. and his Papists were thundering at its gates. Agreeably to his death-bed directions, his old fellow-soldiers, in their leathern doublets and battered steel caps, bore him to his grave, firing over him the same rusty muskets which had swept down rank after rank of the men of Amalek at the Derry siege.

Erelong the celebrated Derry fair was established, in imitation of those with which they had been familiar in Ireland. Thither annually came all manner of horse-jockeys and pedlers, gentlemen and beggars, fortune- tellers, wrestlers, dancers and fiddlers, gay young farmers and buxom maidens. Strong drink abounded. They who had good-naturedly wrestled and joked together in the morning not unfrequently closed the day with a fight, until, like the revellers of Donnybrook,

"Their hearts were soft with whiskey,
And their heads were soft with blows."

A wild, frolicking, drinking, fiddling, courting, horse-racing, riotous merry-making,--a sort of Protestant carnival, relaxing the grimness of Puritanism for leagues around it.

In the midst of such a community, and partaking of all its influences, Robert Dinsmore, the author of the poem I have quoted, was born, about the middle of the last century. His paternal ancestor, John, younger son of a Laird of Achenmead, who left the banks of the Tweed for the green fertility of Northern Ireland, had emigrated to New England some forty years before, and, after a rough experience of Indian captivity in the wild woods of Maine, had settled down among his old neighbors in Londonderry. Until nine years of age, Robert never saw a school. He was a short time under the tuition of an old British soldier, who had strayed into the settlement after the French war, "at which time," he says in a letter to a friend, "I learned to repeat the shorter and larger catechisms. These, with the Scripture proofs annexed to them, confirmed me in the orthodoxy of my forefathers, and I hope I shall ever remain an evidence of the truth of what the wise man said, 'Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.'" He afterwards took lessons with one Master McKeen, who used to spend much of his time in hunting squirrels with his pupils. He learned to read and write; and the old man always insisted that he should have done well at ciphering also, had he not fallen in love with Molly Park. At the age of eighteen he enlisted in the Revolutionary army, and was at the battle of Saratoga. On his return he married his fair Molly, settled down as a farmer in Windham, formerly a part of Londonderry, and before he was thirty years of age became an elder in the church, of the creed and observances of which he was always a zealous and resolute defender. From occasional passages in his poems, it is evident that the instructions which he derived from the pulpit were not unlike those which Burns suggested as needful for the unlucky lad whom he was commending to his friend Hamilton:--

"Ye 'll catechise him ilka quirk,
An' shore him weel wi' hell."

In a humorous poem, entitled Spring's Lament, he thus describes the consternation produced in the meeting-house at sermon time by a dog, who, in search of his mistress, rattled and scraped at the "west porch door:"--

"The vera priest was scared himsel',
His sermon he could hardly spell;
Auld carlins fancied they could smell
The brimstone matches;
They thought he was some imp o' hell,
In quest o' wretches."

He lived to a good old age, a home-loving, unpretending farmer, cultivating his acres with his own horny hands, and cheering the long rainy days and winter evenings with homely rhyme. Most of his pieces were written in the dialect of his ancestors, which was well understood by his neighbors and friends, the only audience upon which he could venture to calculate. He loved all old things, old language, old customs, old theology. In a rhyming letter to his cousin Silas, he says:--

"Though Death our ancestors has cleekit,
An' under clods then closely steekit,
We'll mark the place their chimneys reekit,
Their native tongue we yet wad speak it,
Wi' accent glib."

He wrote sometimes to amuse his neighbors, often to soothe their sorrow under domestic calamity, or to give expression to his own. With little of that delicacy of taste which results from the attrition of fastidious and refined society, and altogether too truthful and matter-of-fact to call in the aid of imagination, he describes in the simplest and most direct terms the circumstances in which he found himself, and the impressions which these circumstances had made on his own mind. He calls things by their right names; no euphuism or transcendentalism,--the plainer and commoner the better. He tells us of his farm life, its joys and sorrows, its mirth and care, with no embellishment, with no concealment of repulsive and ungraceful features. Never having seen a nightingale, he makes no attempt to describe the fowl; but he has seen the night-hawk, at sunset, cutting the air above him, and he tells of it. Side by side with his waving corn-fields and orchard-blooms we have the barn-yard and pigsty. Nothing which was necessary to the comfort and happiness of his home and avocation was to him "common or unclean." Take, for instance, the following, from a poem written at the close of autumn, after the death of his wife:--

"No more may I the Spring Brook trace,
No more with sorrow view the place
Where Mary's wash-tub stood;
No more may wander there alone,
And lean upon the mossy stone
Where once she piled her wood.
'T was there she bleached her linen cloth,
By yonder bass-wood tree
From that sweet stream she made her broth,
Her pudding and her tea.
That stream, whose waters running,
O'er mossy root and stone,
Made ringing and singing,
Her voice could match alone."

We envy not the man who can sneer at this simple picture. It is honest as Nature herself. An old and lonely man looks back upon the young years of his wedded life. Can we not look with him? The sunlight of a summer morning is weaving itself with the leafy shadows of the bass-tree, beneath which a fair and ruddy-checked young woman, with her full, rounded arms bared to the elbow, bends not ungracefully to her task, pausing ever and anon to play with the bright-eyed child beside her, and mingling her songs with the pleasant murmurings of gliding water! Alas! as the old man looks, he hears that voice, which perpetually sounds to us all from the past--no more!

Let us look at him in his more genial mood. Take the opening lines of his Thanksgiving Day. What a plain, hearty picture of substantial comfort!

"When corn is in the garret stored,
And sauce in cellar well secured;
When good fat beef we can afford,
And things that 're dainty,
With good sweet cider on our board,
And pudding plenty;

"When stock, well housed, may chew the cud,
And at my door a pile of wood,
A rousing fire to warm my blood,
Blest sight to see!
It puts my rustic muse in mood
To sing for thee."

If he needs a simile, he takes the nearest at hand. In a letter to his daughter he says:--

"That mine is not a longer letter,
The cause is not the want of matter,--
Of that there's plenty, worse or better;
But like a mill
Whose stream beats back with surplus water,
The wheel stands still."

Something of the humor of Burns gleams out occasionally from the sober decorum of his verses. In an epistle to his friend Betton, high sheriff of the county, who had sent to him for a peck of seed corn, he says:--

"Soon plantin' time will come again,
Syne may the heavens gie us rain,
An' shining heat to bless ilk plain
An' fertile hill,
An' gar the loads o' yellow grain,
Our garrets fill.

"As long as I has food and clothing,
An' still am hale and fier and breathing,
Ye 's get the corn--and may be aething
Ye'll do for me;
(Though God forbid)--hang me for naething
An' lose your fee."

And on receiving a copy of some verses written by a lady, he talks in a sad way for a Presbyterian deacon:--

"Were she some Aborigine squaw,
Wha sings so sweet by nature's law,
I'd meet her in a hazle shaw,
Or some green loany,
And make her tawny phiz and 'a
My welcome crony."

The practical philosophy of the stout, jovial rhymer was but little affected by the sour-featured asceticism of the elder. He says:--

"We'll eat and drink, and cheerful take
Our portions for the Donor's sake,
For thus the Word of Wisdom spake--
Man can't do better;
Nor can we by our labors make
The Lord our debtor!"

A quaintly characteristic correspondence in rhyme between the Deacon and Parson McGregore, evidently "birds o' ane feather," is still in existence. The minister, in acknowledging the epistle of his old friend, commences his reply as follows:--

"Did e'er a cuif tak' up a quill,
Wha ne'er did aught that he did well,
To gar the muses rant and reel,
An' flaunt and swagger,
Nae doubt ye 'll say 't is that daft chiel
Old Dite McGregore!"

The reply is in the same strain, and may serve to give the reader some idea of the old gentleman as a religious controversialist:--

"My reverend friend and kind McGregore,
Although thou ne'er was ca'd a bragger,
Thy muse I'm sure nave e'er was glegger
Thy Scottish lays
Might gar Socinians fa' or stagger,
E'en in their ways.

"When Unitarian champions dare thee,
Goliah like, and think to scare thee,
Dear Davie, fear not, they'll ne'er waur thee;
But draw thy sling,
Weel loaded frae the Gospel quarry,
An' gie 't a fling."

The last time I saw him, he was chaffering in the market-place of my native village, swapping potatoes and onions and pumpkins for tea, coffee, molasses, and, if the truth be told, New England rum. Threescore years and ten, to use his own words,

"Hung o'er his back,
And bent him like a muckle pack,"

yet he still stood stoutly and sturdily in his thick shoes of cowhide, like one accustomed to tread independently the soil of his own acres,-- his broad, honest face seamed by care and darkened by exposure to "all the airts that blow," and his white hair flowing in patriarchal glory beneath his felt hat. A genial, jovial, large-hearted old man, simple as a child, and betraying, neither in look nor manner, that he was accustomed to

"Feed on thoughts which voluntary move
Harmonious numbers."

Peace to him! A score of modern dandies and sentimentalists could ill supply the place of this one honest man. In the ancient burial-ground of Windham, by the side of his "beloved Molly," and in view of the old meeting-house, there is a mound of earth, where, every spring, green grasses tremble in the wind and the warm sunshine calls out the flowers. There, gathered like one of his own ripe sheaves, the farmer poet sleeps with his fathers. _



Table of content of Old Portraits and Modern Sketches


Post your review
Your review will be placed after the table of content of this book