Windham Life and Times – November 23, 2018

Whittier Homestead Haverhill MA

Well, as I’ve researched this subject, I have felt like I was on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and its appropriate that I now come full circle back to the beginning. John Greenleaf Whittier was a poet and author who lived in the nearby town of Haverhill. He is one of the most important observers of early 19th century New England and it inhabitants. He broke from the Puritan’s ideals, seeing them as dull and gray while exhibiting a grimness of which he had no desire to be associated. He like Thoreau, rejected the emphasis on the pursuit of heaven and saw the incredible richness and beauty of natural world at hand.

It is from Whittier that we have the best glimpse of the Scotch-Irish and their way of life in southern New Hampshire. In fact, his first poem was published in Robert Dinsmoor’s book of poetry. He was also a keen observer of the Native American and saw them as a lost people who once had inhabited the natural Eden of America.  Therefore, it was incredible to find, in his Prose Works, Volume II, a chapter about New England fairies, entitled, Charms and Fairy Faith.

 

Up the airy mountain,

Down the rushy glen,

We dare not go a hunting

For fear of little men.

Wee folk, good folk,

Trooping all together;

Green jacket, red cap,

Gray cock’s feather.”  ALLINGHAM

 

“…In our cities and large towns children nowadays pass through the opening acts of life’s marvelous drama with as little manifestation of wonder and surprise as the Indian does through the streets of a civilized city which he has entered for the first time. Yet nature sooner or later vindicates her mysteries; voices from the unseen penetrate the din of civilization….”

“But in the green valley of rural New England there are children yet; boys and girls are still to be found not quite overtaken by the march of the mind. There, too, are huskings, and apple bees, and quilting parties, and huge old fireplaces piled with crackling walnut, flinging its rosy light over happy countenances of youth and scarcely less happy age. If it be true according to Cornelius Agrippa, ‘a wood fire doth drive away dark spirits,’ it is nevertheless, also true that around it the simple superstitions of our ancestors still love to linger; and there the half-sportful, half-serious charms of which I have spoken are oftenest resorted to…”

“Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere,—buried, indeed,—for the mad painter Blake saw the funeral of the last of  the little people, and an irreverent English bishop has sung their requiem. It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of the sterner and less poetical kind. The Irish Presbyterians who settled New Hampshire about the year 1720 brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies; but while the former took root and flourished among us, the latter died out, after lingering a few years in a very melancholy and disconsolate way, looking back to their green turf dances, moonlight revels, and cheerful nestling around the shealing fires of Ireland. The last that has been heard of them was some forty or fifty years ago in a tavern house in S——, New Hampshire…”

“It is a curious fact that the Indians had some notion of a race of beings corresponding in many respects to the English fairies. Schoolcraft describes them as small creatures in human shape, inhabiting rocks, crags, and romantic dells, and delighting especially in points of land jutting into lakes and rivers and which were covered with pine trees,  (The exact description of the dwelling place of Tsiennetto.) They were called Puckweedjinees, —little vanishers.”

“In a poetical point of view it is regretted that our ancestors did not think it worth their while to hand down to us more of the simple and beautiful traditions and beliefs of the ‘heathen round about’ them. Some hints of them we glean from the writings of the missionary Mayhew and the curious little book of Roger Williams. Especially would one like to know more of that domestic demon, Wetuomanit, who presided over household affairs, assisted the young squaw in her first essay at wigwam-keeping, gave timely note of danger, and kept evil spirits at a distance—a kind of new-world brownie, gentle and useful…”

“Not far from my place of residence are ruins of a mill, in a narrow ravine fringed with trees. Some forty years ago the mill was supposed to be haunted; and horse-shoes, in consequence, were nailed over its doors. One worthy man, whose business lay beyond the mill, was afraid to pass by it alone; and his wife, who was less fearful of supernatural annoyance, used to accompany him. The little old white-coated miller, who there ground corn and wheat for his neighbors, whenever he made a particularly early visit to his mill, used to hear it in full operation,—the water-wheel dashing bravely, and the old rickety building clattering to the jar of stones. Yet the moment his hand touched the latch or his foot the threshold all was hushed save the melancholy drip of water from the dam or the low gurgle of the small stream eddying amidst the willow roots and mossy stones in the ravine below.”

“… The strange facts of natural history, and sweet mysteries of flowers and forests, and hills and waters, will profitably take the place of the fairy lore of the past, and poetry and romance still hold their accustomed seats of the circle of home, without bringing them the evil spirits of credulity and untruth. Truth should be the first lesson of the child and the last aspiration of manhood…”

In an odd coincidence, I had decided to write about Whittier last week, and this weekend I had a need to travel to Newton NH. My navigation took me through an obscure corner of Haverhill, that I’ve never been to before, on the New Hampshire border, and low and behold, there was the Whittier homestead.

 

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