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The Agony and the Ecstasy of James Kennard Jr

 

Slipping into darkness

Two years before his own death, James’ mother died and his father grew constantly ill. The crippled poet, wracked with seizures, coughing and inflamed joints, and unable to move or feed himself, was left to the care of his sisters and friends -- and to an ever-faithful nurse. Among his poems is a loving ode to "Nancy", in reality, Nancy Sherburne was an elderly unschooled cook who became a godsend to the dying poet. Andrew Peabody describes Nancy reverently.

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"She lifted him as if he had been an infant, and with a grasp as gentle as it was firm. There were frequently times, when even the adjustment of his pillows by a less skilful hand than hers would have given him excruciating torture, and the hour- long process by which alone he could be conveyed from his bed to his chair, a process as delicate as if his frame had been strung with threads of glass, demanded more than a common man's strength, and all of a woman's love."

To the astonishment of all, no matter how difficult life became, James Kennard never complained. His darkened room was constantly filled with friends who came, one wrote, not out of sympathy, but to be uplifted by his conversation and wit and unflagging optimism. Refusing to dwell on his own condition, James kept abreast of his friend’s activities and offered endless encouragement and advice. Despite a stabbing pain in his one remaining eye (as if the "socket was filled with red hot iron") he would ask to have his shade lifted so he could see the face of a visitor.

After he had gone blind, while dictating to his sister, James joked to a friend: "I intend soon to commence writing my life, and expect to become as renowned as Milton, and to get more for my book, to be entitled, 'The Life of an Invalid,' than he did for his Paradise Lost, to say nothing of the fame."

Proof of the immortal soul

"Yet we have never known a happier person," Rev. Peabody wrote. "A word of discontentment, murmuring, or repining never escaped him. His countenance, though thin and wan, bore no trace of grief or care, but to the very last wore an expression, not only of serenity, but even of joyousness"

Soon after the posthumous publication of Selected Writings in 1849, philosopher Frances Bowen discovered Peabody’s moving memoir of the late Portsmouth poet. Lecturing in the factory city of Lowell, MA, Bowen referred to James Kennard as proof of the immortality of man. The Materialists, Bowen argued, had dissected one human body after another in search of the human soul -- and found nothing. But James Kennard, trapped in a body that was little more than a torture chamber, still lived his life for the good of others and the glorification of God. If the soul could thrive inside James and remain pure, Bowen argued, it could survive anything. Rev. Peabody of Portsmouth described his friend this way:

"Never did the spirit achieve a more entire conquest over the body, never can the independence of the soul on the mortal frame have been more fully manifested, never can more of heaven have been witnessed on earth."

James objected to paintings that depicted Death as a frightening monster on a horse or as a hooded skeleton carrying a scythe. Death, he wrote in his poems, is nothing to fear. Death "watches over each struggling spirit" and then, tenderly, plucks the "ripened soul" like a flower, he wrote. James Kennard, according to one Christian writer, exhibited a perfect example of "submissive cheerfulness". And his book should be "broadcast over the land, in a cheap form, for the instruction and edification of all".

Not wishing to upset his friends by his own death, James Kennard’s last wish was that no lengthy obituary about him should appear in the Portsmouth Journal. Honoring his request, his friend Charles Brewster printed only a single line, listing the poet’s date of birth, followed by the date that his tortured soul was finally set free.

 

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the award-winning regiona history web site SeacoastNH.com. His column appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald.

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