February 9, 2013

Chapman on Roosevelt: Life seems belittled

Theodore Roosevelt had been dead for about a month when his fellow Harvard alumnus John Jay Chapman presented a poem in his honor at the Harvard Club dinner in New York on February 9, 1919.

Life seems belittled when a great man dies;
The age is cheapened and time's furnishings
Stare like the trappings of an empty stage.
Ring down the curtain! We must pause, go home
And let the plot of the world reshape itself
To comprehensive form. Roosevelt dead!
The genial giant walks the earth no more,
Grasping the hands of all men, deluging
Their hearts, like Pan, with bright Cyclopean fire
That dizzied them at times, yet made them glad.

Chapman and Roosevelt had become friends as early as during the future President's tenure as a police commissioner in New York. They shared sorrow in the death of their respective first wives and, much later, the death of their sons during World War I. As such, Chapman's tribute to Roosevelt is emotional, personal and recognizes both the man's public life and his private life:

Where dwells he? Everywhere! In cottages,
And by the forge of labor and the desk
Of science. The torn spelling book
Is blotted with the name of Roosevelt,
And like a myth he floats upon the winds
Of India and Ceylon. His brotherhood
Includes the fallen kings. Himself a king,
He left a stamp upon his countrymen
Like Charlemagne.

                         Yes, note the life of kings!
A throne's a day of judgment in itself,
And shows the flaw within the emerald.
For every king must seem more than he is;
Ambition holds her prism before his eye,
Burlesques his virtues, rides upon his car
Clouded with false effulgence, till the man
Loses his nature in a second self,
Which is his role. Yet Theodore survived—
Resumed his natural splendor as he sank
Like Titan in the ocean.

                                       The great war
Was all a fight for Paris—must she fall
And be a heap of desolation ere
Relief could reach her? Sad America
Dreamed in the distance as a charmed thing
Till Roosevelt, like Roland, blew his horn.
Alone he did it! By his personal will.
Alone—till'others echoed—bellowing
From shore to shore across the continent,
Like a sea monster to the sleeping seals
Of Pribylov. Then, slowly wakening,
The flock prepared for war. 'Twas just in time
One blast the less, and our preparedness
Had come an hour too late.

                                           Ay, traveller,
Who wanderest by the bridges of the Seine,
Past palaces and churches, marts and streets,
Whose names are syllables in history,
'Twas Roosevelt saved Paris. There she stands!
Look where you will—the towers of Notre Dame,
The quays, the columns, the Triumphal Arch—
To those who know, they are his monument.

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