Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More Great Literature of the Merrimack Valley: Whittier part 1

Long time readers may remember that I am very fond of the works of John Greenleaf Whittier (see "a winter idyll" for one of my reflections on Snowbound). One of the things I've gleaned from reading a lot of 19th century stuff is that once upon a time the Merrimack Valley was a place strongly connected to the larger world both in terms of the locals' involvement in the action and passion of their times and in the prominent visitors who came here. Plus there was and possibly still is, some kind of spiritual pull here. One of my favorite lines from Whittier is:

The heavens are glassed in Merrimack, --
What more could Jordan render back?
-- from Chapel of the Hermits
I even thought of creating a blog called "Glassed in Merrimack" or "Mirrored in Merrimack" but decided the reference was too obscure. So, anyway, the wonderful Harriett Spofford poem I posted last week got me back into thinking about all those great connections. The following passage from John G. Whittier, the poet of freedom by William Sloane Kennedy, published in 1892, really puts Whittier in the context of the Merrimack:

Past Haverhill winds the placid Merrimack, now made classic by the genius of Whittier. Born amid the snows and springs of the White Mountains ; taking tribute of many crystal streams as it flows south; its mountain brawling hushed by a plunge through the deeps of beautiful Winnepesaukee; sliding through the grassy meadows of Concord studded with elms ; fretting and chafing among the rapids of Suncook and Hookset; turning successively the wheels of the huge mills of Manchester, Nashua, Lowell, and Lawrence ; passing by Haverhill, Newbury, Amesbury, the mouth of the winding and narrow Powow, the silver Quasycung, and the bough-hung Artichoke, and at its mouth separating the towns of Newburyport and Salisbury,—it finally falls into the sea at Ipswich Bay.

It is about seventeen miles from Haverhill, down the river, to Newburyport; and about half way down lies Amesbury, at the junction of the Powow with the main stream. Amesbury was the home of Whittier for twenty-five years ; and he still owns his house there, and keeps in it a study, with a few books and pictures and an open fire, as a place of retreat, and for the sake of many precious memories. A horse-railroad connects Amesbury with Newburyport, the birthplace of William Lloyd Garrison. As you go down, you look across at the wide and far-reaching salt meadows of Hampton, emerald green in summer, and purple and brown in autumn. About half way from Amesbury to the sea, your horse-car trundles across Deer Island,—wild, rugged, and picturesque, its huge one-handed pines gripping the weather-stained granite with knotty fingers, their branches the resting-place of hawks and crows, eagles and herons. The only house on the island is the home of Whittier's friend, Harriet Prescott Spofford. Off the mouth of the river, Plum Island lies " like a whale aground." Off to the northeast are discernible the Isles of Shoals, whose fair Calypso (Celia Thaxter) is said to have been introduced to the world of letters by Whittier. On the rocks of Appledore he has often sat, of an evening, to watch the goldlamps kindled in the lighthouses of Portsmouth and White Island. Indeed, this whole sea-region—Hampton beaches, Rivermouth Rocks, Plum Island, the Isles of Shoals—has been sung by Whittier in his classic ballads.

The Quasycung referred to above and also in the Harriet Spofford poem is the Parker River. Deer Island is still sort of picturesque, though not wild and rugged, and is a great place to watch bald eagles in the winter. They congregate there by the Chain Bridge. Harriet Spofford's house is still there. However, to my knowledge there's no historic signage identifying it as such.

Loads of these landmarks are featured in Whittier's poems, most especially Plum Island in The Prophecy of Samuel Sewall.

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