Among the Hills


John Greenleaf Whittier

This poem, when originally published, was dedicated to Annie Fields, wife of the distinguished publisher, James T. Fields, of Boston, in grateful acknowledgment of the strength and inspiration I have found in her friendship and sympathy. The poem in its first form was entitled The Wife: an Idyl of Bearcamp Water, and appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for January, 1868. When I published the volume Among the Hills, in December of the same year, I expanded the Prelude and filled out also the outlines of the story.


ALONG the roadside, like the flowers of gold
That tawny Incas for their gardens wrought,
Heavy with sunshine droops the golden-rod,
And the red pennons of the cardinal-flowers
Hang motionless upon their upright staves.
The sky is hot and hazy, and the wind,
Vying-weary with its long flight from the south,
Unfelt; yet, closely scanned, yon maple leaf
With faintest motion, as one stirs in dreams,
Confesses it. The locust by the wall
Stabs the noon-silence with his sharp alarm.
A single hay-cart down the dusty road
Creaks slowly, with its driver fast asleep
On the load’s top. Against the neighboring hill,
Huddled along the stone wall’s shady side,
The sheep show white, as if a snowdrift still
Defied the dog-star. Through the open door
A drowsy smell of flowers-gray heliotrope,
And white sweet clover, and shy mignonette—
Comes faintly in, and silent chorus lends
To the pervading symphony of peace.
No time is this for hands long over-worn
To task their strength; and (unto Him be praise
Who giveth quietness!) the stress and strain
Of years that did the work of centuries
Have ceased, and we can draw our breath once more
Freely and full. So, as yon harvesters
Make glad their nooning underneath the elms
With tale and riddle and old snatch of song,
I lay aside grave themes, and idly turn
The leaves of memory’s sketch-book, dreaming o’er
Old summer pictures of the quiet hills,
And human life, as quiet, at their feet.

And yet not idly all. A farmer’s son,
Proud of field-lore and harvest craft, and feeling
All their fine possibilities, how rich
And restful even poverty and toil
Become when beauty, harmony, and love
Sit at their humble hearth as angels sat
At evening in the patriarch’s tent, when man
Makes labor noble, and his farmer’s frock
The symbol of a Christian chivalry
Tender and just and generous to her
Who clothes with grace all duty; still, I know
Too well the picture has another side,—
How wearily the grind of toil goes on
Where love is wanting, how the eye and ear
And heart are starved amidst the plenitude
Of nature, and how hard and colorless
Is life without an atmosphere. I look
Across the lapse of half a century,
And call to mind old homesteads, where no flower
Told that the spring had come, but evil weeds,
Nightshade and rough-leaved burdock in the place
Of the sweet doorway greeting of the rose
And honeysuckle, where the house walls seemed
Blistering in sun, without a tree or vine
To cast the tremulous shadow of its leaves
Across the curtainless windows, from whose panes
Fluttered the signal rags of shiftlessness.
Within, the cluttered kitchen-floor, unwashed
(Broom-clean I think they called it); the best room
Stifling with cellar damp, shut from the air
In hot midsummer, bookless, pictureless,
Save the inevitable sampler hung
Over the fireplace, or a mourning piece,
A green-haired woman, peony-cheeked, beneath
Impossible willows; the wide-throated hearth
Bristling with faded pine-boughs half concealing
The piled-up rubbish at the chimney’s back;
And, in sad keeping with all things about them,
Shrill, querulous-women, sour and sullen men,
Untidy, loveless, old before their time,
With scarce a human interest save their own
Monotonous round of small economies,
Or the poor scandal of the neighborhood;
Blind to the beauty everywhere revealed,
Treading the May-flowers with regardless feet;
For them the song-sparrow and the bobolink
Sang not, nor winds made music in the leaves;
For them in vain October’s holocaust
Burned, gold and crimson, over all the hills,
The sacramental mystery of the woods.
Church-goers, fearful of the unseen Powers,
But grumbling over pulpit-tax and pew-rent,
Saving, as shrewd economists, their souls
And winter pork with the least possible outlay
Of salt and sanctity; in daily life
Showing as little actual comprehension
Of Christian charity and love and duty,
As if the Sermon on the Mount had been
Outdated like a last year’s almanac
Rich in broad woodlands and in half-tilled fields,
And yet so pinched and bare and comfortless,
The veriest straggler limping on his rounds,
The sun and air his sole inheritance,
Laughed at a poverty that paid its taxes,
And hugged his rags in self-complacency!

Not such should be the homesteads of a land
Where whoso wisely wills and acts may dwell
As king and lawgiver, in broad-acred state,
With beauty, art, taste, culture, books, to make
His hour of leisure richer than a life
Of fourscore to the barons of old time,
Our yeoman should be equal to his home
Set in the fair, green valleys, purple walled,
A man to match his mountains, not to creep
Dwarfed and abased below them. I would fain
In this light way (of which I needs must own
With the knife-grinder of whom Canning sings,
“Story, God bless you! I have none to tell you!”)
Invite the eye to see and heart to feel
The beauty and the joy within their reach,—
Home, and home loves, and the beatitudes
Of nature free to all. Haply in years
That wait to take the places of our own,
Heard where some breezy balcony looks down
On happy homes, or where the lake in the moon
Sleeps dreaming of the mountains, fair as Ruth,
In the old Hebrew pastoral, at the feet
Of Boaz, even this simple lay of mine
May seem the burden of a prophecy,
Finding its late fulfilment in a change
Slow as the oak’s growth, lifting manhood up
Through broader culture, finer manners, love,
And reverence, to the level of the hills.

O Golden Age, whose light is of the dawn,
And not of sunset, forward, not behind,
Flood the new heavens and earth, and with thee bring
All the old virtues, whatsoever things
Are pure and honest and of good repute,
But add thereto whatever bard has sung
Or seer has told of when in trance and dream
They saw the Happy Isles of prophecy
Let Justice hold her scale, and Truth divide
Between the right and wrong; but give the heart
The freedom of its fair inheritance;
Let the poor prisoner, cramped and starved so long,
At Nature’s table feast his ear and eye
With joy and wonder; let all harmonies
Of sound, form, color, motion, wait upon
The princely guest, whether in soft attire
Of leisure clad, or the coarse frock of toil,
And, lending life to the dead form of faith,
Give human nature reverence for the sake
Of One who bore it, making it divine
With the ineffable tenderness of God;
Let common need, the brotherhood of prayer,
The heirship of an unknown destiny,
The unsolved mystery round about us, make
A man more precious than the gold of Ophir.
Sacred, inviolate, unto whom all things
Should minister, as outward types and signs
Of the eternal beauty which fulfils
The one great purpose of creation, Love,
The sole necessity of Earth and Heaven!

.     .     .     .     .

For weeks the clouds had raked the hills
    And vexed the vales with raining,
And all the woods were sad with mist,
    And all the brooks complaining.

At last, a sudden night-storm tore
    The mountain veils asunder,
And swept the valleys clean before
    The bosom of the thunder.

Through Sandwich notch the west-wind sang
    Good morrow to the cotter;
And once again Chocorua’s horn
    Of shadow pierced the water.

Above his broad lake Ossipee,
    Once more the sunshine wearing,
Stooped, tracing on that silver shield
    His grim armorial bearing.

Clear drawn against the hard blue sky,
    The peaks had winter’s keenness;
And, close on autumn’s frost, the vales
    Had more than June’s fresh greenness.

Again the sodden forest floors
    With golden lights were checkered,
Once more rejoicing leaves in wind
    And sunshine danced and flickered.

It was as if the summer’s late
    Atoning for it’s sadness
Had borrowed every season’s charm
    To end its days in gladness.

I call to mind those banded vales
    Of shadow and of shining,
Through which, my hostess at my side,
    I drove in day’s declining.

We held our sideling way above
    The river’s whitening shallows,
By homesteads old, with wide-flung barns
    Swept through and through by swallows,—

By maple orchards, belts of pine
    And larches climbing darkly
The mountain slopes, and, over all,
    The great peaks rising starkly.

You should have seen that long hill-range
    With gaps of brightness riven,—
How through each pass and hollow streamed
    The purpling lights of heaven,—

Rivers of gold-mist flowing down
    From far celestial fountains,—
The great sun flaming through the rifts
    Beyond the wall of mountains.

We paused at last where home-bound cows
    Brought down the pasture’s treasure,
And in the barn the rhythmic flails
    Beat out a harvest measure.

We heard the night-hawk’s sullen plunge,
    The crow his tree-mates calling:
The shadows lengthening down the slopes
    About our feet were falling.

And through them smote the level sun
    In broken lines of splendor,
Touched the gray rocks and made the green
    Of the shorn grass more tender.

The maples bending o’er the gate,
    Their arch of leaves just tinted
With yellow warmth, the golden glow
    Of coming autumn hinted.

Keen white between the farm-house showed,
    And smiled on porch and trellis,
The fair democracy of flowers
    That equals cot and palace.

And weaving garlands for her dog,
    ’Twixt chidings and caresses,
A human flower of childhood shook
    The sunshine from her tresses.

On either hand we saw the signs
    Of fancy and of shrewdness,
Where taste had wound its arms of vines
    Round thrift’s uncomely rudeness.

The sun-brown farmer in his frock
    Shook hands, and called to Mary
Bare-armed, as Juno might, she came,
    White-aproned from her dairy.

Her air, her smile, her motions, told
    Of womanly completeness;
A music as of household songs
    Was in her voice of sweetness.

Not fair alone in curve and line,
    But something more and better,
The secret charm eluding art,
    Its spirit, not its letter;—

An inborn grace that nothing lacked
    Of culture or appliance,
The warmth of genial courtesy,
    The calm of self-reliance.

Before her queenly womanhood
    How dared our hostess utter
The paltry errand of her need
    To buy her fresh-churned butter?

She led the way with housewife pride,
    Her goodly store disclosing,
Full tenderly the golden balls
    With practised hands disposing.

Then, while along the western hills
    We watched the changeful glory
Of sunset, on our homeward way,
    I heard her simple story.

The early crickets sang; the stream
    Plashed through my friend’s narration:
Her rustic patois of the hills
    Lost in my free-translation.

“More wise,” she said, “than those who swarm
    Our hills in middle summer,
She came, when June’s first roses blow,
    To greet the early comer.

“From school and ball and rout she came,
    The city’s fair, pale daughter,
To drink the wine of mountain air
    Beside the Bearcamp Water.

“Her step grew firmer on the hills
    That watch our homesteads over;
On cheek and lip, from summer fields,
    She caught the bloom of clover.

“For health comes sparkling in the streams
    From cool Chocorua stealing:
There’s iron in our Northern winds;
    Our pines are trees of healing.

“She sat beneath the broad-armed elms
    That skirt the mowing-meadow,
And watched the gentle west-wind weave
    The grass with shine and shadow.

“Beside her, from the summer heat
    To share her grateful screening,
With forehead bared, the farmer stood,
    Upon his pitchfork leaning.

“Framed in its damp, dark locks, his face
    Had nothing mean or common,—
Strong, manly, true, the tenderness
    And pride beloved of woman.

“She looked up, glowing with the health
    The country air had brought her,
And, laughing, said: ‘You lack a wife,
    Your mother lacks a daughter.

“‘To mend your frock and bake your bread
    You do not need a lady:
Be sure among these brown old homes
    Is some one waiting ready,—

“‘Some fair, sweet girl with skilful hand
    And cheerful heart for treasure,
Who never played with ivory keys,
    Or danced the polka’s measure.’

“He bent his black brows to a frown,
    He set his white teeth tightly.
‘’T is well,’ he said, ‘for one like you
    To choose for me so lightly.

“You think, because my life is rude
    I take no note of sweetness:
I tell you love has naught to do
    With meetness or unmeetness.

“‘Itself its best excuse, it asks
    No leave of pride or fashion
When silken zone or homespun frock
    It stirs with throbs of passion.

“‘You think me deaf and blind: you bring
    Your winning graces hither
As free as if from cradle-time
    We two had played together.

“‘You tempt me with your laughing eyes,
    Your cheek of sundown’s blushes,
A motion as of waving grain,
    A music as of thrushes.

“‘The plaything of your summer sport,
    The spells you weave around me
You cannot at your will undo,
    Nor leave me as you found me.

“‘You go as lightly as you came,
    Your life is well without me;
What care you that these hills will close
    Like prison-walls about me?

“‘No mood is mine to seek a wife,
    Or daughter for my mother
Who loves you loses in that love
    All power to love another!

“‘I dare your pity or your scorn,
    With pride your own exceeding;
I fling my heart into your lap
    Without a word of pleading.’

“She looked up in his face of pain
    So archly, yet so tender
‘And if I lend you mine,’ she said,
    ‘Will you forgive the lender?

“‘Nor frock nor tan can hide the man;
    And see you not, my farmer,
How weak and fond a woman waits
    Behind this silken armor?

“‘I love you: on that love alone,
    And not my worth, presuming,
Will you not trust for summer fruit
    The tree in May-day blooming?’

“Alone the hangbird overhead,
    His hair-swung cradle straining,
Looked down to see love’s miracle,—
    The giving that is gaining.

“And so the farmer found a wife,
    His mother found a daughter
There looks no happier home than hers
    On pleasant Bearcamp Water.

“Flowers spring to blossom where she walks
    The careful ways of duty;
Our hard, stiff lines of life with her
    Are flowing curves of beauty.

“Our homes are cheerier for her sake,
    Our door-yards brighter blooming,
And all about the social air
    Is sweeter for her coming.

“Unspoken homilies of peace
    Her daily life is preaching;
The still refreshment of the dew
    Is her unconscious teaching.

“And never tenderer hand than hers
    Unknits the brow of ailing;
Her garments to the sick man’s ear
    Have music in their trailing.

“And when, in pleasant harvest moons,
    The youthful huskers gather,
Or sleigh-drives on the mountain ways
    Defy the winter weather,—

“In sugar-camps, when south and warm
    The winds of March are blowing,
And sweetly from its thawing veins
    The maple’s blood is flowing,—

“In summer, where some lilied pond
    Its virgin zone is baring,
Or where the ruddy autumn fire
    Lights up the apple-paring,—

“The coarseness of a ruder time
    Her finer mirth displaces,
A subtler sense of pleasure fills
    Each rustic sport she graces.

“Her presence lends its warmth and health
    To all who come before it.
If woman lost us Eden, such
    As she alone restore it.

“For larger life and wiser aims
    The farmer is her debtor;
Who holds to his another’s heart
    Must needs be worse or better.

“Through her his civic service shows
    A purer-toned ambition;
No double consciousness divides
    The man and politician.

“In party’s doubtful ways he trusts
    Her instincts to determine;
At the loud polls, the thought of her
    Recalls Christ’s Mountain Sermon.

“He owns her logic of the heart,
    And wisdom of unreason,
Supplying, while he doubts and weighs,
    The needed word in season.

“He sees with pride her richer thought,
    Her fancy’s freer ranges;
And love thus deepened to respect
    Is proof against all changes.

“And if she walks at ease in ways
    His feet are slow to travel,
And if she reads with cultured eyes
    What his may scarce unravel,

“Still clearer, for her keener sight
    Of beauty and of wonder,
He learns the meaning of the hills
    He dwelt from childhood under.

“And higher, warmed with summer lights,
    Or winter-crowned and hoary,
The ridged horizon lifts for him
    Its inner veils of glory.

“He has his own free, bookless lore,
    The lessons nature taught him,
The wisdom which the woods and hills
    And toiling men have brought him:

“The steady force of will whereby
    Her flexile grace seems sweeter;
The sturdy counterpoise which makes
    Her woman’s life completer.

“A latent fire of soul which lacks
    No breath of love to fan it;
And wit, that, like his native brooks,
    Plays over solid granite.

“How dwarfed against his manliness
    She sees the poor pretension,
The wants, the aims, the follies, born
    Of fashion and convention.

“How life behind its accidents
    Stands strong and self-sustaining,
The human fact transcending all
    The losing and the gaining.

“And so in grateful interchange
    Of teacher and of hearer,
Their lives their true distinctness keep
    While daily drawing nearer.

“And if the husband or the wife
    In home’s strong light discovers
Such slight defaults as failed to meet
    The blinded eyes of lovers,

“Why need we care to ask?—who dreams
    Without their thorns of roses,
Or wonders that the truest steel
    The readiest spark discloses?

“For still in mutual sufferance lies
    The secret of true living;
Love scarce is love that never knows
    The sweetness of forgiving.

“We send the Squire to General Court,
    He takes his young wife thither;
No prouder man election day
    Rides through the sweet June weather.

“He sees with eyes of manly trust
    All hearts to her inclining;
Not less for him his household light
    That others share its shining.”

Thus, while my hostess spake, there grew
    Before me, warmer tinted
And outlined with a tenderer grace,
    The picture that she hinted.

The sunset smouldered as we drove
    Beneath the deep hill-shadows.
Below us wreaths of white fog walked
    Like ghosts the haunted meadows.

Sounding the summer night, the stars
    Dropped down their golden plummets;
The pale arc of the Northern lights
    Rose o’er the mountain summits,—

Until, at last, beneath its bridge,
    We heard the Bearcamp flowing,
And saw across the mapled lawn
    The welcome home lights glowing;—

And, musing on the tale I heard,
    ’T were well, thought I, if often
To rugged farm-life came the gift
    To harmonize and soften;—

If more and more we found the troth
    Of fact and fancy plighted,
And culture’s charm and labor’s strength
    In rural homes united,—

The simple life, the homely hearth,
    With beauty’s sphere surrounding,
And blessing toil where toil abounds
    With graces more abounding.

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