1869 Letter from Leila Seward to Her Mother Describing a Visit to the Poet John Greenleaf Whittier

This letter was written in 1869 by 23-year-old Leila Seward, daughter of Rev. D. M. Seward, to her mother, Lydia Huntington (North) Seward. It sounds as though she and her father were spending some time in Bethel, Maine during the summer. Leila was born April 27, 1846 in West Hartford, Connecticut as Lydia E. Seward. They moved to Yonkers, N.Y. in 1851. (Source: Genealogy and Ecclesiastical History [of the First Church in New Britain, Conn.] by Alfred Andrews (Hartford, Conn.: Case, Lockwood and Co., 1867.)

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Chandler House
Bethel, Me.
Sept. 2nd '69

My Dearest Mother,

Before I had been long at Hampton Beach, I found to my surprise that the ocean rivalled the sky in the brilliancy & variety of its color. Purple, green, crimson, mauve, orange, bronze flash out upon the waves & then go under, as though to shine & then to sink, were all their wish. Sometimes an intense blue, stretching as far as the eye could reach, made us think that before us lay the sapphire pavement which Moses & the seventy elders saw under the feet of the God of Israel. Sometimes

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a dazzling rose color flowing equally on clouds & waves, reminded us of the day on which Scotland's maiden martyr, Margaret Wilson, died, "when there was glory over all the earth, & glory over all the sea, - a flood of glory." Then the white crests! crowning alike billows of every hue, little heeding whether the sun made them crowns of glittering gold, or the moon diadems of flashing jewels. You need not wonder that having my home for five weeks on the sand beach which God has placed for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, I came to think most lovingly of the dear Quaker poet whose rhythmic thoughts are inseparably linked with the beaches of New Hampshire.

"Rivermouth rocks, so fair to see,"

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were only three miles south of us. The "Isles of Shoals," I have often seen as they lay "clear in the light". I have stood right at the "Head of the Boar," as he " tossed the foam from tusks of stone. "The scent of the pines of Rye," has scarcely left me yet. I have walked & ridden over the ashes of "Goody Cole," as she lie sleeping face downward in defiance of the resurrection in front of the old meeting house. We found the beauty of "the fairest maid in Hampton," had not yet died out of memory in the old town.

Reading Whittier where the waves "beat the rhythm & kept the time," filled me with longing to see him, who to my mind "his human heart hath laid to nature's bosom nearer," than

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any other American poet. I felt as though I must look upon his face, & as we heard that he received strangers with the heart of a Friend, we ventured to call upon him. His home is at Amesbury Mills among plain country folk, who think Mr. Whittier a right pleasant man for a near neighbor. He cannot stand the pressure brought upon him in literary society & rarely spends a night in Boston. Perhaps you remember that his coming down there to hear Dickens read winter before last, was spoken of by the papers as a remarkable occurrence. He never attended a Lyceum lecture in his life, though it is his constant habit to entertain lecturers at his house. He prefers to live, & finds it necessary to live, where he is considered

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simply as a man among men. When his brain is weary & his heart aches from writing overmuch poetry, he throws aside this pen & goes out to mingle among the farmers, & for a while has no interest above the best ways of raising potatoes & cabbage.

Whittier lives in a low buff-colored house on Friend St. The vines & flowers outside did not exhibit special esthetic taste. I fancied that I perceived a "dearth of woman's care" around the house of the lonely poet. He came to the door himself & welcomed us in with true Quaker hospitality. His study into which he bid us, is a pleasant sunny room with low ceilings & plainly

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furnished. A number of pictures of real artistic merit, & groups of flowers here & there take away the matter of fact air the room might otherwise have. Most of his books are scattered over the house he told us, but in one corner is a library blossoming from floor to ceiling with blue & gold poets. There is none of that dreamy, half-poetic, suggestive air about the room, which visitors tell us they found in Mrs. Browning's Italian home.

Whittier's likenesses do him no justice. There is a tenderness & subdued sadness in his face which they utterly fail to give. His forehead is finely developed both in the perceptive & in the

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reasoning faculties. His head all tends to the front, there being scarcely any development of the back part. In figure he is tall & slender, no breadth & no depth, made a little after the pattern of Uncle Simeon [probably Simeon North]. He is the most modest unassuming man I almost ever saw, reminding me forcibly of President Woolsey of Yale, who bows his head like a bulrush before the plaudits of the alumni. His lowliness & humility of manner are almost a mar upon his greatness. Such shrinking insensitiveness & evident diffidence, scarcely become the man who taught war songs to a whole nation.

When Father spoke to him of his war poems which were many times as "drawn swords,"

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he said that he deserved more credit for what he kept back than for what he said. He told us that when a boy he always picked out the warlike portions of the Bible for his own pleasure. He confessed that he had many times doubts whether if he had not been brought up a Quaker, he should have become one.

Father spoke of the rapturous joy expressed in "My Psalm." (You remember it commences "The windows of my soul I throw wide open to the sun.") "Ah," said he, "a man can seldom feel like that." "You hardly felt like that yourself when you wrote "My soul & I," I said to him, & with a

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sad look he responded, "No indeed." (Do you remember the hopelessness of that poem? No emerging into light at the end, as in Tennyson's "Two Voices.")

When I told him the "The Last Walk in Autumn," brought fresh joy to me every returning Fall, the sunshine broke over his face, & he said that he was better pleased with that than with most of his poems but such he thought was not the popular verdict. We alluded to whole poems, & to single verses, which had struck responsive chords in our hearts, & become as household words in our homes, & the lowly minded man seemed surprised & humbled

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by our words. I cannot think of a man to whom fulsome praise would be more revolting. He said he had written many poems he would like to take out of the memory of people if such a thing were possible. When I told him that his poems had made a difference with my life he seemed unable to reply. He spoke most humbly of his life, as having accomplished but little good, & spoke of longing to live parts of it over again.

He gave us a message for Mr. Randolph testifying to his appreciation of his poems, which it will be very pleasant to carry. When we came away & he saw us picking leaves as mementoes, he stepped from

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the door into his study & brought out a bouquet from which he handed us mignionette & sweet peas.

Dear Quaker poet with the lowly mien! I love him better than ever now that I have seen him. He told us that his first remembrance was that of having pain in his head, which he inherited from his father, & all his life long he has had this foe to contend with. All the brave war poems, all the sweet home verses, "Barbara Fritchie," equally with "Maud Muller," "Tent on the Beach" as well a "Snow Bound," have been wrought out with keen bodily anguish. The more excited his brain became, the greater, so he told us, his physical pain; another reminder to

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us, careless readers of poets' verses that they "learn in suffering what they teach in song."

Henceforth to me Whittier will be invested with the pathos of suffering; & the poet seems doubly brave now that I know he dares to struggle against & conquer his own weakness, as well as attack a nation's sin.

No more today from

Yours ever,


More on Whittier and Hampton

A copy of this letter was made available to the library by Carol Mayer, a descendant of Leila Seward, who possesses the original.