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"Our Town" By James W. Tucker
Hampton Union, Thursday, September 29, 1960
For thirty years before the Civil Wars, no one opposed the enslavement of the Negro more valiantly or more effectively than our own gentle Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. He personally was active in anti-slavery organizations, but his pen was eager and militant in the campaign against slavery as it then existed in America and elsewhere.
His anti-slavery poems, which numbered more than half a hundred, were a powerful help in organizing world sentiment against this evil institution -- an institution once thought so well of in our own state that Whittier was mobbed in our capital city because of his sturdy opposition to it.
Peace of Mind
With the end of the Civil War and with the Emancipation Proclamation there came to Whittier a peace of mind that is reflected in his verses -- poems that are no longer militant but gentle -- narrative poems like "Snow-Bound" and "The Tent on the Beach." We particularly like the latter poem for three reasons: first, the locale is the south end of our own beach in the area of what is now the state bathhouse; second, the poet frankly discusses his own life and his fight against slavery and third, we have a description of Hampton Beach as it looked right after the Civil War in 1867, the year the poem was written.
Tent at White Rock
It was in 1843 that Whittier wrote "Hampton Beach", so when he pitched his tent in the White Rock section in 1867, he had been intimately acquainted with our town's beautiful coast for over two decades. In his introduction to "The Tent on the Beach," he writes as follows: "It can scarcely be deemed necessary to name as the two companions whom I reckoned with myself in this poetical picnic; Fields, the lettered magnate, and Taylor, the free cosmopolite.
The Green Bluff
"The long line of sandy beach which defines almost the whole of the New Hampshire sea-coast is especially marked near its southern extremity by the salt-meadows of Hampton. The Hampton river winds through these meadows and the reader may, if he choose, imagine my tent pitched near its mouth, where also was the scene of the 'Wreck of the Rivermouth.' The green bluff to the northward is Great Boar's Head; southward is the Merrimac, with Newburyport lifting its steeples above brown roofs and green trees on its banks."
Our Beach in 1867
In the poem itself are descriptions of our beach as it looked 93 years ago:
"Untouched as yet by wealth and pride,
That virgin innocence of beach;
No shingly monster, hundred-eyed
Stared its gray sand birds out of reason;
Unhoused, save where, at intervals,
The white tents showed their canvass reach;
Where brief sojourners, in the cool, soft air,
Forgot their inland heats, hard toil and year-long care."
"Sometimes along the wheel-deep sand
A one-horse wagon slowly crawled,
Deep laden with a youthful band,
Whose look some homestead old recalled;
Brothers perchance, and sisters twain;
And one whose blue eyes told more plain
Than the free language of her rosy lip,
Of the still dearer claim of love's relationship."
We wonder how Whittier would like our Beach today -- a Beach most assuredly touched by wealth and pride -- a Beach where hundreds of many windowed, "shingly monsters" (hotels) look out on gulls and sandpipers -- a Beach that no longer retains its virgin innocence.
Crank of Opinion Mill
It was this poem, "The Tent on the Beach," that our Quaker poet describes that episode in his own full life when he deserted temporarily the type of writing he liked best to fight a personal war against slavery -- slavery in America and all over the world:
"And one there was, a dreamer born,
Who, with a mission to fulfill,
Had left the Muses' haunts to turn
The crank of an opinion mill,
Making his rustic reed of song
A weapon in the war with wrong,
Yoking his fancy to the breaking-plough.
That beam-deep turned the soil for truth to spring and grow.
"Too quiet seemed the man to ride
The winged Hippogriff Reform;
Was his a voice from side to side
To pierce the tumult of the storm
A silent, shy, peace-loving man,
He seemed no fiery partisan
To hold his way against the public frown,
The ban of church and state, the fierce mob's hounding down."
In his poem, "The Wreck of the Rivermouth," written in 1864 Whittier gives poetical descriptions of landmarks still famous in our town, and his own ideas of the appearance of Goody Cole, that unfortunate woman of colonial days who was falsely accused of witchcraft. This description might well have been written today:
"And fair are the sunny isles in view
East of the grisly Head of the Boar,
And Agamenticus lifts its blue
Disk of a cloud the woodlands o'oer;
And southerly, when the tide is down,
Twixt white sea-waves and sand hills brown,
The beach-birds dance and the gray gulls wheel
Over a floor of burnished steel."
"Poor Old Soul"
Whittier's thoughts concerning Goody Cole parallel the universal ideas held locally concerning the poor old soul:
"'Fie on the Witch!' cried a merry girl,
As they rounded the point where Goody Cole
Sat by her door with her wheel atwirl,
A bent and blear-eyed poor old soul.
"'She's cursed,' said the Skipper; 'speak her fair;
I'm scary always to see here shake
Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
And more like a hawk, and eyes like a snake.'
But merrily still, with laugh and shout,
From Hampton River the boat sailed out,
Till the huts and flakes on Star seemed nigh,
And they lost the scent of the pines of Rye."
Storm and Wreck
Then the poem goes on to relate how the party of young folks "dropped their lines in the lazy tide, drawing up haddock and mottled cod," never noticing the storm in the west which eventually wrecked their boat and took their lives. But the "Witch of Hampton" noticed:
"Goody Cole looked out from her door;
The Isles of Shoals were drowned and gone,
Scarcely she saw the Head of the Boar
Toss the foam from tusks of stone.
She clasped here hands with a grip of pain;
The tear on his cheek was not of rain
'They are lost,' she muttered, 'boat and crew!
Lord forgive me! My words were true.'"
He Knew Hampton
John Greenleaf Whittier knew and loved our town and its sandy shore, divided by the bold promontory which, in his day resembled the head of a huge boar-snout, tusks, ears and all. He knew our famous people, our history and our legends and he sang about them all in verses that today have a vivid meaning for all of us who love Hampton.
Worthy of Memorial
His poems which relate to our town, and which we have barely touched upon, are an important part of our heritage. Because of them, this valiant Quaker poet, who warned our nation of the curse of slavery, should not only be enshrined in our hearts, but his memory should be indelibly impressed upon our future generations by the erection of a suitable and permanent memorial in his honor.
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