March 2, 2012

Birth of Chapman: Into a blaze

"I was born on March 2, 1862, in New York City, in a house on Eighteenth Street near Fourth Avenue." Thus begins "Retrospections," an autobiographical essay by John Jay Chapman (the grandson of abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman). He reflected that he must have been a "horrid child." He remembered, for example, that he approached a classmate for no other reason than to tell him: "If you know how I hated you, you'd cry." Chapman's mother laughed at the incident, asking her son why the other boy should care what he thought.

His wily ways did not die down while a student at Harvard. At one meeting of the student literary society, he presented a paper on a new Scandinavian poet, along with translations of his work. When the other members agreed he was a fine poet, Chapman admitted he fabricated the whole thing.

In his adult years, Chapman befriended major intellectuals and writers like Owen Wister, William James, and Edith Wharton (who called him "a very fine man of letters and a remarkable writer"). Many of his own writings were essays, including his thoughts on various educational concerns, societal questions, and major influences on American culture (including famous writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Julia Ward Howe). He also wrote poetry, including this one, "A Prayer," which was written in 1883 while he was an undergraduate before later modification for publication in 1919:

O God, when the heart is warmest,
And the head is clearest,
      Give me to act —
Turn the purposes Thou formest
      Into fact.
When I feel the love Thou sharest,
      Cast out fear.
O God, when what is dearest
      Seems most dear —
And the path of life lies straight
      With neither chance nor fate
         In my career —
When the spirit is lifted
      For a moment and can see
      Through dark mists brightly rifted
         Its true felicity —
Then let me act - the wicker gate
In view — let me not wait — not wait.

      We do not always fight —
         There is a lull
And nervous watching — after night
Follows dim dawn before the day is full —
      How can we see till there be light?
But there's a time to speak as to be dumb
      O God, when mine shall come
         And I put forth.
My strength for blame or praise
Blow Thou the fire in my heart's hearth
      Into a blaze
(Who kindled it but Thou?)
And let me feel upon that day of days
      As I feel now — as I feel now.

Only a couple years after this poem was written, Chapman was wooing a woman named Minna Timmins. The two often read Dante's Divine Comedy together at the Boston Athenaeum. When another man vied for her attention, Chapman gave him "a savage thrashing." Shocked at his own actions, Chapman punished himself by setting his left hand on fire. It was so badly burned that it was amputated. When the doctor asked him if he was insane, he responded, "That is for you to find out." Timmins and Chapman eventually married. As for his hand, he said, "I am perfectly well and happy. Don't mind it a bit — it shall not make the least difference in my life."

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