The Deathbed Masterpiece
The legend of Jack Ringbolt
Jack Ringbolt died, but he adamantly refused to be buried. That's the story, as told in the stirring 1846 "Ballad of Jack Ringbolt," by James Kennard, Jr. of Portsmouth. This work, for my money, is a lost Seacoast classic that kicks the slats off much of the area's best-known maritime literature.
The story opens with Jack Ringbolt on his deathbed at the Seaman's Home in Portsmouth. Ringbolt hates dry land, he says, loves only the ocean. The ultimate sailor, he was born at sea in the raging din of a violent storm a thousand miles from here. His mother died in childbirth and, within moments of his arrival, baby Jack Ringbolt was carried aboard a lifeboat with the captain and crew as they escape their sinking vessel. He first finds succor from a woman on the passing ship that rescues them at dawn.
The only thing Jack Ringbolt fears, he says, is dying on land and being buried in the earth. He begs those in attendance to put him aboard a sailing ship in Portsmouth Harbor, but then suddenly, cursing to the end, Jack dies. His friends sew the sailor's corpse into his own hammock with a 42-pound shot to weight the body down.
Rowing a league up the Piscataqua past Fort Constitution, the mourners toss the body into the black swirling river where it sinks 20 fathoms - then returns. The sailors are stunned to see, half-risen from the ocean, the flaming corpse of Jack Ringbolt. His hammock has fallen away revealing the grisly stone face as the body, propelled by unseen forces, speeds out to sea.
The scene in the ballad shifts and we're aboard a trading ship outside Cadiz. Impossibly, because there is not a gust of wind, a light approaches at great speed, bobbing in and out of sight among the waves. The crew gathers on deck as the specter approaches. It is the same swaddled figure and without moving a lip, still surrounded in flames, the cadaver demands to know the identity of the ship. "The Glendoveer of Portsmouth!" the captain shouts back fearfully.
"A livid glare, a ghastly face
The cadaver spoke, then sank in the floodlight of its own flame, Silence fell again upon the sea, poet Kennard concluded, leaving me with a chilly line of goosebumps up my arm. It was midnight when I first found "The Ballad of Jack Ringbolt" tucked in an old anthology on the dark upper balcony of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, where I've become as familiar as furniture lately. There I've read scads of old local ditties - odes to sea moss, prayers for eternal forgiveness, sexless love songs - always digging through the muck for just one pearl.
It isn't a perfect poem; the rhyme scheme is copped from Coleridge's famous ballad of the ancient mariner who killed a sacred albatross and was doomed to sail a ghostly ship with a crew of zombies. Kennard's verse has the stale whiff of Dante and the plodding gait of Milton, but it beats sea moss hands down.
No mention of an actual Jack Ringbolt has surfaced in my study; he seems to have sprung from the author's rich imagination. There was a real ship Glendoveer, a square-rigger built at Badger's Island in 1841. The author's father, it turns out, was a well known Portsmouth merchant, who had sailed to Cadiz, as Portsmouth ships of the cotton trade routinely did. James Kennard Sr. was a very early proprietor of the Athenaeum, and his son had certainly stood in awe beside the towering shelves of leather-bound books, many standing now just as they did nearly two centuries before.
Born in 1815, James Jr. was just 16 when his formal Portsmouth schooling ended and he went to work as a clerk in the family business. I found this biographical tidbit in another dusty book, a privately printed collection of Kennard's essays and a few poems - just two dozen, published a year after his death in 1848. James died when he was only 32. I assumed, at first, he had been an adventurer like his dad -- killed perhaps in some foreign intrigue -- a Portsmouth Melville, maybe, to have such vivid tales. So I read on, drilling for more details of this neglected bard.
After only a year in his father's business, James Jr. developed lameness in his right knee. The pain, at times, was excruciating and he was forced into his mother's care at home. His father traveled frequently on long sea voyages. It was about this time that James Sr. became a busy agent for two ill-fated Portsmouth whaling companies, and ironically, a partner with Thomas Laighton, father of poet Celia Thaxter.
If Celia lived isolated with her family on the Isles of Shoals, James Kennard Jr's private isolation was deeper still. The leg worsened and, after he languished four months as a patient at a Boston hospital, it had to be amputated. In an essay called simply "My Leg", the highly religious young writer explained that Satan had been living in his right leg, so he cut it off. To be "useful" the young Kennard took to writing. "Rambler" Charles Brewster published his work in the Portsmouth Journal, though often anonymously as the poet preferred. A literary magazine in Boston loved Kennard's work. A career was born.
Then his left leg went lame and the devastating pain returned. James lost the use of his elbows and became so sensitive to the pain that he could not longer be carried up and down stairs at home. But he read, consumed volumes of literature, and wrote. With only the use of two or three fingers in his right hand, he wrote essays and poems and letters and prayers --- until his eyes went. First one eye, then the other became so sensitive to light that the young author had to live in almost total darkness in his upstairs room. Friends helped out willingly, his mother and his sister too, reading and transcribing his work. And then it was his ears, stinging so badly that any voice above a whisper was like the crash of the North Church bell.
And still, to the outside world, he kept his humor, even when his beloved mother now died and his father's whaling business collapsed. To see how I live, he wrote to a friend, "Just shut up your eyes, chop off your hands, and try it."
But his biographer, AP Peabody, like others, was fooled. While James appeared contented, despite his afflictions, he was a tortured soul. Cold, sound, motion and light became mortal enemies. Nights were a sleepless agony.
More transcribed Kennard poems, found recently tucked in an Athenaeum volume, read more of torture than peace. The author longs for death and demeans himself for being unable to ignore the suffering. A decade before his death he writes: "But thus to linger on from day to day/ Oh! Torturing suspense!"
So into this sad history, the Glendoveer was launched at Portsmouth. James must have heard the name from his father who likely knew the ship's captain, another disappointed whaler. Somehow, curled and cramped in constant pain, his head throbbing, the young poet dictated his seafaring masterpiece. Bed-ridden, trapped in his rotting body in a darkened, soundless cocoon of a room - James Kennard, Jr grew practically incandescent with passion and, unstoppable, wrote his ballad, then wrote more and more, as if possessed to reach a grail known only to himself.
"The Ballad of Jack Ringbolt" was published six months before the
author's death. He asked Charles Brewster not to print any memorial in
the newspaper, so his obituary appeared on July 28, 1847 as just a
single line. He asked his family, in a poem, if he might be buried in a
dell, some distance from downtown Portsmouth because the traffic along
the city cemetery was much too noisy for his ears. After a long journey
of almost ceaseless pain, the poet wanted only to disappear, to sink
forever into obscurity, like the sailor in his finest story. And had it
not been for the fascinating legend of Jack Ringbolt, pulled from some
deep dark library shelf, James Kennard might have gotten his wish.
By J. Dennis Robinson
Engravings from the popular late 19th century Gustav Dore illustrations to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" from SeacoastNH Image Library.
Source: Poem and biography information from: Selections from the Writings of James Kennard, Jr with a memoir on his life and character by A.P. Peabody, Privately Printed, William D. Ticknor & Company, Boston, 1846.
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
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