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Poets of Portsmouth

James Kennard, Jr. (1816- 1847) died in agony at the age of 31, but his poems always end in joy. By 16 he was lame in his right leg which, he writes in one autobiographical essay, became possessed by the devil. His aching leg made him feel so angry and sorry for himself, that he had the limb cut off, casting it and devil away.

But the pain only grew worse as his remaining leg, then his arms and his fingers were stricken by rheumatoid arthritis. He grew almost blind and was unable to stand noise above the whisper of friends. Trapped in his room, caged in his body, his mind soared. Kennard's "Ballad of Jack Ringbolt" tells of a Portsmouth sailor who, after being weighted with cannon shot and buried at sea by Fort Point, rises to the surface again, radiant in flames as the body flies out to sea.

Kennard's writing, clearly therapeutic, often begins in pain and moves toward hope in, what one of his editors called a brave spirit of "Christian resignation." His complete works were published in a single volume with a short biography by his friend, pacifist Unitarian minister Andrew Peabody.

In his final years, unable even to move, the poet was required to painfully dictate, in whispered exhausted phrases, his words of hope and redemption. The first two poems below were discovered in manuscript form at the Portsmouth Athenaeum and transcribed by local historian Louise Tallman. The second is an early love poem. The third explores Kennard's near rapturous love of the Piscataqua, an emotion he shared with fellow poets Thomas P. Moses and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. "Luff When You Can" is a lyric waiting for a melody, and hints at the poet's untapped potential, cut down by disease. And in "Midnight Musings" Kennard again shows how he transforms self-pity and sorrow by imagining the plight of others less fortunate than himself. -- JDR

READ ALSO: The Ballad of Jack Ringbolt
READ ALSO:  Deathbed Masterpiece of James Kennard
READ ALSO:  The Wreck of the Sgumtum

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Portsmouth, NH (1816-1847)


By James Kennard, Jr
Written 4 March, 1839, Unpublished

Oh bury me not in the crowded churchyard,
    Surrounded by traffic and din,
Where the rattling car is forever heard,
And the horrid oath and the angry word
    The city's eternal din!

But carry me far away from the town,
     To the dell where I loved to roam,
And there, where the graceful elm tree bends,
And the stream, to the air sweet music lends,
     Oh, there make my last long home.

The robin shall build in the tree o'er my head,
     And sing through the summer day,
And the sweet scented violet on my grave,
And the gorgeous golden-rod over me wave
     And the brook ripple ever and aye.

I know it is vain, when the spirit has fled,
     To care for the cast-off clay;
But I've worn this garment of flesh so long,
That my heart is filled with a wish too strong
     To be coldly reasoned away.

'Tis feeling, not reason, that sways my whole soul,
     And urge this last request;
When the solemn church bell tolls my funeral knell
Then carry me fourth to that beautiful dell
     And there let me take my long rest.

And come when the grass is green 'neath thy feet
     And the leaves rustle low on each tree,
And the birds are in song, and the earth is in bloom,
Then come, but come not to mourn o'er my tomb,
Sweet nature shall rob the grave of its gloom,
     And death shall seem pleasant to thee.


By James Kennard, Jr.
Written 1838, Unpublished

I prize not beauty unadorned
    By intellectual graces,
I see no fascinating charms
    In merely pretty faces;
A lovely form and countenance
    A graceful step and air
Would never steal my heart from me,
     If mind were wanting there.

To beauty, valueless alone,
     A magic power is lent,
By goodness, intellect, and taste;
     It seems by Nature meant
To give a charm to moral worth
     And a grace to mind;
Lady, thou art her favorite,
     In thee they are combined.


By James Kennard, Jr.
Published 1848

Doth the sullen surge of sorrow
O'er my troubled spirit roll?
Is the prospect for to-morrow
Darker, storimer for my soul.

Whiter are the sands of ocean,
Beaten by the raging tide;
So by sorrow's sad emotion
Is the spirit purified.


Bu James Kennard, Jr.
Published June 1848

O'er the dear Piscataqua
     Gaily is our light boat dancing;
Brightly on its crystal waves,
     Lo! the morning sun is glancing.

Portsmouth Bridge is left behind;
     Now we're past the "Pulpit" pressing;
Lift your hat, and bend your head
     To the Parson for his blessing.

Stationed on the rocky bank,
     From his Pulpit, as we near him,
Through the pine-tress whispers he,
     Solemn words, would we but hear him.

This sweet Nature everywhere
     Truth reveals to all who need it;
Thus on life's tumultuous tide
     Borne along, we lightly heed it.

Far and near, on either hand,
     See the trees like giants striding
Past each other, up and down,
    With a ghostly motion gliding.

From the rocky pass emerged,
Sinking cliffs and shelving beaches,
Far receding ushers us
To the loveliest of reaches.

Stretching wide, a beauteous lake,
     To the raptured eye is given;
Far beyond, the blue hills melt
     In the clearer blue of heaven.

Rustic dwellings, clumps of trees,
     Upland swells, and verdant meadows
Lie around, and over all
     Flit the summer lights and shadows.

O'er the river's broad expanse
     Here and there, a boat is darting,
Swelling sails and foaming bows
     Life unto the scene imparting.

Humble market-wherry there
    Lags along with lazy oar;
Here. The lordly packet-boat
    Dashes by, with rushing roar.

Comrades look! the west wind lulls;
    Flags the sail; the waves grow still;
Rouse of Aeolus from his sleep!
    Whistle, whistle whistle shrilly!

See, obedient to the call,
    Q'er the beach, the breeze approaching!
Now our little bark careens
    Leeward gunwale nearly touching.

Luff a little! Ease the sheet !
    On each side the bright foam flashes;
In her mouth she holds a bone,
    O'er her bow the salt spray dashes.

To and from; long tack and short;
    Rapidly we work up river.
Comrades, seems it not to you,
    That we thus could sail forever?


By James Kennard, Jr.
Published February 1847

When the mariner sees, far ahead on the ocean,
By the yeasty white waves, in their wildest commotoin,
That breakers are lying direct in his path,
He dashes not onward to brave all their wrath,

But, still in his compass and helm placing trust,
Luffs, luffs if he can, bears away when he must.
Mid the lightning's sharp flash, mid the thunder's deep roar,When the foaming waves dash on the rocky lee shore,

When Hope disappears, and the terrible form
Of Death rides triumphant upon the dark storm,
In God and their ship the bold mariner's trust,
Luff, luff while they can, yield a point when they must.

Then make it your rule, on the billows of life,
So to sail as to shun all commotion and strife;
And thus your voyage of existence by pleasant,
Hope smile on the future, Joy beam on the present,

If you in the rule of the mariner trust,
Luff, luff while you can, bear away when you must.
And when the lee-shore of grim Death is in view,
And the tempests of fate your lone vessel pursue, --

Even while your last prayers unto God are addressed,
Though prepared for the worst, still hope on for the best;
Carry sail till the last stitch of canvas is burst, --
Luff, luff while you can, bear away when you must.


By James Kennard, Jr.
Published November 1845

In at the open window shine
    The far-off solemn stars of heaven:
With sleepless eyelids, I recline
    Upon my couch, to musing given.

A holy silence fills the air;
    In sleep repose earth's sons and daughters;
One voice alone is heard afar,--
    The rushing "sound of many waters."

Piscataqua! I know full well
    Thine old, familiar tone, dear river!
To thee, as by a mighty spell,
    My inmost heart is bound for ever.

In boyhood, while life's morning dew
    Still moistened hope's delusive blossom,
In sail-boat, or in light canoe,
    I loved to sport upon thy bosom.

And when the summer sun sank down,
    At eve, among his gorgeous pillows,
Far from the hot and dusty town,
    I've bathed amid thy cooling billows.

Full many a river may, I fear,
     In point of length be ranked before thee;
But thou art broad, and deep, and clear,
     And blue as are the heavens o'er thee.

Of Mississippi they may speak
     Who find t' explore him time and season;
But I have pierced thine every creek,
     And love thee for that very reason.

No mighty common sewer art thou,
    To do the drainage of the nation,
But thy pure waters ebb and flow
     With Ocean's every heart-pulsation.

Oft sound the echoes on thy side,
     With music, song, and laughter hearty,
As o'er they breast, at even-tide,
     Floats the returning water-party.

And oft, as now, when summer night
     The harsher din of daylight hushes,
I listen to they voice of might,
     As seaward they strong current rushes.

Anon, above thy solemn bass,
     A sound like Fate's dread step approaches,
As o'er they bridge, at hurrying pace,
     Come tramping steeds and rumbling coaches.

That midnight train hath come and gone,
    From silence sprung, in silence ended;
But further, naught to me is known,
     Of whence it came, or whither tended.

From voiceless gloom thus suddenly
     Emerges man, --a solemn marvel!
From mystery to mystery,
     Thus o'er the bridge of Life we travel.

O, what a bitter mockery
     Were this brief span to mortals given,
Had we, O God! No faith in thee,
     No stuff on earth, no hope of heaven!

O, no! there lies beyond the tomb
     No "silent land," awaiting mortals;
A land of melody and bloom
    Spreads out behind Death's gloomy portals.

Then bravely bide the doom that waits;
    Bear all of earth, for all of heaven;
Step, like a conqueror, through those gates,--
    Not like a captive, chained and driven.

O river! rushing to the sea
    With eager and impetuous motion,
Soon they pent waters shall be free
    To roam the deep and boundless ocean.

Then, while thou murmurest in mine ear,
    Let me accept the lesson given:
Dost thou pant for a wider sphere?
    So should my spirit long for heaven.

Though in the silence of the night,
    I thus discourse with thee, dear river!
Though flowing almost in my sight,
    Loved stream! we meet no more for ever !

For ever? When the ties which chain
    My soul to clay kind Death shall sever,
Free as the wind I'll roam again
    Along they banks, delightful river!

Source: Selections from the Writings of James Kennard, Jr., with an itroduction on his life by Rev. Andrew Peabody, William D. Ticknor & Co., Boston, 1849. Plus unpublished manuscripts found in a copy of the book at the Portsmouth Athenaeum and transcribed by Louise Tallman, 1990.

Introduction copyright 2002 All rights reserved.

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