May 5, 2014

Bierce on Bowman: groping in the night

James F. Bowman (pictured) was at the center of California's burgeoning literary culture, and was one of the main figures in founding the Bohemian Club. That organization was made up of several men who frequently crossed between literature and journalism, including Ambrose Bierce. When Bowman died of stomach cancer in April 1882, Bierce wrote a sonnet to his friend, published in the May 5, 1882 issue of the San Francisco Wasp, and given the title "J.F.B.":

How well this man unfolded to our view
    The world's beliefs of Death and Heaven and Hell—
    This man whose own convictions none could tell,
Nor if his maze of reason had a clew.
Dogmas he wrote for daily bread, but knew
    The fair philosophies of doubt so well
    That while we listened to his words there fell
Some that were strangely comforting if true.
Marking how wise we grew upon his doubt,
    We said: "If so, by groping in the night,
    He can proclaim some certain paths of trust,
How great our profit if he saw about
His feet the highways leading to the light."
    Now he sees all. Ah, Christ! his mouth is dust!

Bowman had been known for his kind and genial nature. Years earlier, as editor of the Californian, Bowman included the first poem Bierce ever published, "Basilica." He had also assisted in collecting and published the works of California poet Edward Pollock after his death. As the above sonnet attests, Bowman was a bit of an armchair philosopher and was particularly a religious skeptic. The poem concludes with the irony that Bowman was, at least among this circle of friends, the first to know the truth of the afterlife.

Bowman was also a writer and poet himself. It was reported that his poem "Nature's Paraclete" was written only a few days before his death. The poem concludes:

And oft at midnight's solemn time,
   Waking, I know a presence near,
And feel my spirit's altered clime,
   And breathe a rarer atmosphere.
And, lo! the thoughts I thought by day
Have changed and vanished quite away.
   In this new light, so wondrous clear,
   All things transfigured do appear

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