John Greenleaf Whittier: A Man Who Loved Hampton
By Mike Bisceglia, Jr.
Hampton Union, Tuesday, September 18, 2007
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
A smitten lover may write a line of verse and shyly hand it to the object of his or her affection. John Greenleaf Whittier had two loves — Hampton Village and Hampton Beach. He wrote six poems in or about the region.
He was born on the family homestead in Haverhill, Mass., in 1807. His mother was Abiagail Hussey of Dover, but Whittier believed he was related to the Husseys of Hampton. Aside from this erroneous belief that Hampton was the town of his ancestors and existing family, the area certainly did have a calming influence on him. One of his prime enjoyments was being able to write his poetry from his pitched tent on the beach.
Whittier's works were not always serene. A highly principled man, Whittier was an editor for several New England newspapers. In both his editorials and poetry, he championed the cause of abolition. Later, he espoused the many plights of working men in his poetry and essays.
Whittier did love the stories and legends of the coastal region. One of his favorites was the legend of the witchery of Goody Cole. She is mentioned by name in at least two of his poems, "The Wreck of Rivermouth" and "The Changeling."
Longfellow referred to Whittier as the "Hermit of Amesbury," but Whittier may have been more private than reclusive. He kept close contact with what might be termed "The Dead Poets Society of New England."
This circle of writers included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Whittier and Oliver Wendall Holmes. Holmes was the last survivimg member of the group. He said of Whittier:
"Lift from its quarried ledge a flawless stone:
Smooth the green turf and bid the tablet rise,
And, on its snow-white surface carve alone
These words — he needs no more — Here Whittier lies."
Whittier's survivors agreed with Holmes and marked his Amesbury grave at Friends Cemetery with only the last three words of that brief poem.
Whittier died of a cerebral hemorrhage while at the Goves residence, named Elmfield, in Hampton Falls in the summer of 1892. The residence was a favorite haunt of Whittier, particularly since the second floor of the house was essentially given over to scholars and students. Intellectual exchange over dinner or in the halls was a favorite pastime of the poet, and he relished being there.
He arrived at Elmfield in time for dinner; the table had been set for 12. Whittier made the 13th diner and he chuckled and joked that it was his misfortune to be "unlucky number 13."
His words were prophetic.
Following dinner and a lively conversation, Whittier rose from the table to retire for the night.
He wended his way up the stairs, walking past the old grandfather clock that hadn't chimed in 40 years. That night it chimed once, as Whittier passed it. It never chimed again.
Whittier, however, was not well. This fact was well-known by the press who hounded him, much as the paparazzi of today pursue the rich and famous.
Whittier believed that he had escaped the media crush in Amesbury by leaving his residence by the back door. However, one stealthy reporter followed the poet to Hampton Falls. It was there that the reporter befriended a nurse at Elmfield who arranged to signal him with one lamp in the window if tragedy should befall Whittier. At 4:30 a.m., Sept. 7, 1892, the lamp was placed in the window. The reporter was outside to scoop the story.
It was well established that Whittier loved the Hampton region, and it was assumed that he would be buried in the a cemetery not far from Applecrest Farms. The belief was so strong that a burial permit was issued by Hampton Falls and is still on file for the burial of the poet.
There is no statue to mark the Hampton paths and trails trod by one of America's foremost poets. A simple bronze plaque is affixed to one of the stone markers in front of Currier's Leather Furniture in Hampton Falls. The plaque denotes the location of the house in which Whittier died. But more on the history of Elmfield in the next article.
[Mike Bisceglia Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Hampton.]