Annie Field, from “Whittier: Notes Of His Life And Of His Friendships” (1897)

“Whittier: Notes Of His Life And Of His Friendships”

From Annie Field’s Authors and Friends

It was Whittier’s sad experience to be deprived of the companionship of all those most dear to him, and for over twenty years to live without that intimate household communion for the loss of which the world holds no recompense. For several years, before and after his sister Elizabeth’s death, Whittier wore the look of one who was very ill. His large dark eyes burned with peculiar fire, and contrasted with his pale brow and attenuated figure. He had a sorrowful, stricken look, and found it hard enough to reconstruct his life, missing the companionship and care of his sister, and her great sympathy with his own literary work. There was a likeness between the two; the same speaking eyes marked the line from which they sprang, and their kinship and inheritance. Old New England people were quick to recognize “the Bachiler eyes,” not only in the Whittiers, but in Daniel Webster, Caleb Cushing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Bachiler Greene, a man less widely known than these distinguished compatriots. Mr. Greene was, however, a man of mark in his own time, a daring thinker, and one who was possessed of much brave originality, whose own deep thoughtfulness was always planting seeds of thought in others, and who can certainly never be forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to be his friends.

These men of the grand eyes were all descended from a gifted old preacher of great fame in early colonial days, a man of true distinction and devoted service, in spite of the dishonor with which he let his name be shadowed in his latest years. It would be most interesting to trace the line still further back into the past; but when the Bachiler eyes were by any chance referred to in Whittier’s presence, he would look shyly askance, and sometimes speak, half with pride, half with a sort of humorous compassion, of his Hampton ancestor. The connection of the Whittiers of Haverhill with the Greenes was somewhat closer than with other branches of the Bachiler line. One of the poet’s most entertaining reminiscences of his boyhood was the story of his first visit to Boston. Mr. William Greene’s mother was an interesting woman of strong, independent character and wide interests, wonted to the life of cities, and one of the first, in spite of his boyish shyness, to appreciate her young relative. Her kind eagerness, during one of her occasional visits to the Whittiers, that Greenleaf should come to see her when he came to Boston, fell in with his own dreams, and a high desire to see the sights of the great town.

One can easily see how his imagination glorified the natural expectations of a country boy, and when the time arrived how the whole household lent itself to furthering so great an expedition. He was not only to have a new suit of clothes, but they were, for the first time, to be trimmed with “boughten buttons,” to the lad’s complete satisfaction, his mind being fixed upon those as marking the difference between town and country fashions. When the preparations were made, his fresh homespun costume, cut after the best usage of the Society of Friends, seemed to him all that heart could desire, and he started away bravely by the coach to pass a week in Boston. His mother had not forgotten to warn him of possible dangers and snares; it was then that he made her a promise which, at first from principle and later from sentiment, he always most sacredly kept–that he would not enter a playhouse. As he told the story, it was easy for a listener to comprehend how many good wishes flew after the adventurer, and how much wild beating of the heart he himself experienced as the coach rolled away; how bewildering the city streets appeared when he found himself at the brief journey’s end. After he had reported himself to Mrs. Greene, and been received with most affectionate hospitality, and had promised to reappear at tea-time, he sallied forth to the great business of sight-seeing.

“I wandered up and down the streets,” he used to say. “Somehow it wasn’t just what I expected, and the crowd was worse and worse after I got into Washington Street; and when I got tired of being jostled, it seemed to me as if the folks might get by if I waited a little while. Some of them looked at me, and so I stepped into an alleyway and waited and looked out. Sometimes there didn’t seem to be so many passing, and I thought of starting, and then they’d begin again. ‘Twas a terrible stream of people to me. I began to think my new clothes and the buttons were all thrown away. I stayed there a good while.” (This was said with great amusement.) “I began to be homesick. I thought it made no difference at all about my having those boughten buttons.”

How long he waited, or what thoughts were stirred by this first glimpse at the ceaseless procession of humanity, who can say? But there was a sequel to the tale. He was invited to return to Mrs. Greene’s to drink tea and meet a company of her guests. Among them were some ladies who were very gay and friendly; we can imagine that they were attracted by the handsome eyes and quaint garb of the young Friend, and by his quick wit and homely turns of speech, all the more amusing for a rustic flavor. They tried to tease him a little, but they must have quickly found their match in drollery, while the lad was already a citizen of the commonwealth of books. No doubt the stimulus of such a social occasion brought him, as well as the strangers, into new acquaintance with his growing gifts. But presently one of the ladies, evidently the favorite until this shocking moment, began to speak of the theatre, and asked for the pleasure of his presence at the play that very night, she herself being the leading player. At this disclosure, and the frank talk of the rest of the company, their evident interest in the stage, and regard for a young person who had chosen such a profession, the young Quaker lad was stricken with horror. In after years he could only remember it with amusement, but that night his mother’s anxious warnings rang in his ears, and he hastened to escape from such a snare. Somehow this pleasant young companion of the tea party hardly represented the wickedness of playhouses as Puritan New England loved to picture them; but between a sense of disappointment and homesickness and general insecurity, he could not sleep, and next morning when the early stage-coach started forth, it carried him as passenger. He said nothing to his amazed family of the alarming episode of the playing-woman, nor of his deep consciousness of the home-made clothes, but he no doubt reflected much upon this Boston visit in the leisure of the silent fields and hills.