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Gilberts' Panama

James Stanley Gilbert
“The Poet of Panama”
From the book, "Locks, Crocs & Skeeters" some background about him:

"James Stanley Gilbert was one of the few people to write about life in tropical Panama. He was born in Middletown, Connecticut, and educated at the Skinner School in Chicago. After graduation he worked as a cashier and bookkeeper. In 1886 he went to Panama and worked for several years in the commissary department of the Panama Railroad Company at Cristobal. He later became a partner in a steamship agency representing, among others, the United Fruit Company. Gilbert was described by a British diplomat friend as a 'man who lived lustily as men did in those times when life in the tropics meant death hovering around the corner.'

'Gilbert had begun to write poetry about Panama while employed as shipping agent, and he continued to so so for the rest of his life. From "Away down south in the Torrid Zone,' the first line of his first poem, readers were captivated by Gilbert's vision of the tropical pre-canal Panama. His poems in Panama Patchwork, the book in which "Beyond the Chagres" appeared, were called 'documents of life on the Isthmus' by a New York Times reviewer in 1906. His fans called him the 'poet laurete of the Isthmus of Pamama' and compared him to Rudyard Kipling. But the double life of businessman-poet did not please his critics, who thought he should spend more time improving his poems.

Gilbert never lived to see the Panamanian jungle tamed and its diseases conquered, or the opening of the Panama Canal. He died on August 15, 1906, in Colon hospital, a victim of 'yellow eyes', his nickname for the deadly malaria. He is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, the old 'Monkey Hill,' just outside the city of Colon, Isthmus of Panama."

I'd like to add that Gilbert's closest friend in Panama was his mentor, Tracy Robinson, an American businessman who had moved to Colon in 1861. [Comments from Dave Furlong] His autobiography, "Panama: A Personal Record of Forty-Six Years (1861-1907)" is in my collection.

Robinson published a book of poetry, "Song of the Palm," in 1889, and inspired the talented Gilbert to do so as well.

Robinson was present at Gilbert's death, and spoke the eulogy at his funeral. The two were buried side-by-side on Monkey Hill (Mt. Hope). The burial site (including Gilbert's obelisk with the distinctive "Panama Patchwork" palm-tree logo and Robinson's tall headstone) are lost today -- most likely to a collector.

Robinson published Gilbert's "Panama Patchwork" many times after the poet's death in 1906 (shortly after the first printing).There are 13 different editions published 1906-1935, the last being the commemorative Star & Herald edition. {End of note from Dave].
[Note: I heard that his burial site was moved from Mt. Hope - possibly/probably to Corozal(?) Re: Info from my Tio Willie, in a letter to me]

To the Second Edition.
By Tracy Robinson

In a foreword, written for an edition of Mr. Gilbert’s poems, published in 1894, I said:
“Live on the Isthmus of Panama has some interesting and peculiar features. The geographical isolation being practically complete, except by sea, it follows that a narrow strip of country along the Panama Railroad is all that modern civilization can boast of having captured. Nor is there evidence that any astonishing advances have yet been made within even this limited zone. The jungle still holds sway and defies the schoolmaster.
“Among those who have from time to time held official positions in the different companies, or who have engaged in other business pursuits, there has now and then been one who has caught the spirit of the place and has had the surprising energy to write interestingly of his surroundings. That this has been the case with my friend, the writer of the following pages, is my own firm conviction, and it gives me pleasure to believe that the public will agree with me.
“These poems have been evolved from an inner consiousness, the visible and outward environment of which has been an active business life.
“They have been penned while others slept or were engaged in some other engrossing tropical employment quite as intellectual. The somewhat limited local audience to which they were addressed has been greatly pleased, and it will give the numerous friends of their author much gratification to know that a wider public has endorsed their verdict.

Little more need be said at the present time. There will be a larger audience, owing to a greatly increased Isthmian population, and a wider acquaintance with the poems which the former editions, now out of print, has given. The maturing gift of the author will be recognized in the additional poems, nearly twenty in number, in the present volume: and it is my steadfast faith that, for “local color” as well as poetic form and completeness, nothing better has been written.
- Tracy Robinson, Colon, October, 1905.

Born at Middletown, Connecticut, U.S.A.
July 20, 1885
Died at Colon, Isthmus of Panama
August 14, 1906

The following is from a short address, read at this grave, by one who knew him well:

“Let his faults and mistakes die with the mortal life he has forsaken, and let his many virtues be for us who remain as guiding stars of excellence and fidelity on our brief journey towards the unknown world whither his bright, brave spirit has departed.
“Goodby, dear Gilbert, good-bye! Under the palms I watched the clustered Pleiades, fading with the dawn-star and waning moon in the east this morning, and wondered where you were! Silent and sorrowful I asked the merciful gods of pity and forgiveness to guard you well! We shall not forget, dear friend that
“Our dead are ours and hold in faithful keeping,
Safe forever all they took away.’”


Away down south in the Torrid Zone,
North latitude nearly nine,
Where the eight months’ pour once past and o’er,
The sun four months doth shine;
Where ‘tis eighty-six the year around,
And people rarely agree;
Where the plantain gorws and the hot wind blows,
Lies the Land of the Cocoanut-Tree.

‘Tis the land where all insects breed
That live by bite and sting;
Where the birds are quite winged rainbows bright,
Tho’ seldom one doth sing!
Here radiant flowers and orchids thrive
And bloom perennially -
All beauteous, yes - but ordorless!
In the Land of the Cocoanut-Tree.

‘Tis a land profusely rich, ‘tis said,
In mines of yellow gold,
That, of claims bereft, the Spaniards left
In the cruel days of old!
And many a man hath lost his life
That treasure-trove to see.
Or doth agonize with streaming eyes
In the Land of the Cocoanut-Tree!

‘Tis a land that still with potent charm
And wondrous, lasting spell
With mighty thrall enchaineth all
Who long within it dwell;
‘Tis a land where the Pale Destroyer waits
And watches eagerly;
‘Tis, in truth but a breath from life to death,
In the Land of the Cocoanut-Tree.

Then, go away if you have to go,
Then, go away if you will!
To again return you will always yearn
While the lamp is burning still!
You’ve drank the Chagres water,
And the mango eaten free,
And, strange tho’ it seems, ‘twill haunt your dreams -
This Land of the Cocoanut-Tree!

I sit on my lofty piazza,
O’erlooking the restless sea;
(A spider glides over my forehead,
A cockroach runs over my knee!)

The god of the day is preparing
His bed for another night;
(A swarm of pestiferous sand-flies
Is obscuring the glorious sight!)

He’s piling his cloud-blankets round him,
Of crimson embroidered with gold;
(That ant crawling under my collar,
Down my spine sends a shiver of cold!)

He’s nodding - but with eyes still half open
Tips a distant sail with his fire;
(Dios mio! another mosquito
Is twanging his dissonant lyre!)

He’s sleeping - the night-lamps are twinkling
All around his limitless bed;
(A bat, darting hither and thither,
Has just missed hitting my head!)

Farewell till to-morrow, old fellow!
Thou warmest, most tropical friend!
(A centipede’s slowly approaching -
‘Tis time for my reverie to end!)

Beyond the Chagres River
Are paths that lead to death -
To the fever’s deadly breezes,
To malaria’s poisonous breath!
Beyond the tropic foliage,
Where the alligator waits,
Are the mansions of the Devil -
His original estates!

Beyond the Chagres River
Are paths fore’er unknown,
With a spider ‘neath each pebble,
A scorpion ‘neath each stone.
‘Tis here the boa-constrictor
His fatal banquet holds,
And to his slimy bosom
His hapless guest enfolds!

Beyond the Chagres River
Lurks the cougar in his lair,
And ten hundred thousand dangers
Hide in the noxious air.
Behind the trembling leaflets,
Beneath the fallen reeds,
Are ever-present perils
Of a million different breeds!

Beyond the Chagres River
‘Tis said - the story’s old -
Are paths that lead to mountains
Of purest virgin gold;
But ‘tis my firm conviction,
Whatever tales they tell,
That beyond the Chagres River
All paths lead straight to hell!

To bow and scrape and shake your hand,
To greet you with a smile so bland
That you will think no other friend
Can toward you half the good intend;
But still to cherish in one’s heart
Enough rank hate to fill a cart -
This is the Isthmian way.

To buy for gold and silver pay;
To answer yea while thinking nay,
To borrow some one’s little wealth,
And leave the country for one’s health;
To plot and scheme and slyly seek
To make some decent man a sneak -
This is the Isthmian way.

To kiss the man who wins success,
And kick the man whose luck is less;
to make of vice beatitude,
And virtue of ingratitude!
Accept all favors, but omit
To e’er return the benefit -
This is the Isthmian way.

To curry favor with the great,
And pander to one’s meanest trait;
To smash the Decalogue to bits,
But give your neighbor’s weakness fits!
Oppress the weak, uphold the strong -
In short, do everything that’s wrong -
This is the Isthmian way.

To wage a miasmatic strife,
And suffer all the ills of life;
To eat and drink one’s self to death,
And curse God with one’s latest breath;
And then a “heavenly mansion” fill
Prepared for one on Monkey Hill -
This is the Isthmian way.

God grant that haply some of us
Escape the general animus,
And travel, though but falteringly,
The nobler path of charity;
Tho’ stumbling often, still to find
More cleanly records left behind
Than by the Isthmian way.

A quaint old moke is John Aspinwall,
Who lives by the Dead-House gate,
And quaint are his thoughts, if thoughts at all
Ever lurk in his wooly pate.
For he’s old as the hills is this old black man -
Thrice doubled with age is he;
And the days when his wanderings first began
Are shrouded in mystery.

Perhaps he was living when Morgan’s crew
Came lusting for Spanish gold,
And drenched the Isthmus with bloody dew
In the brave, bold days of old.
Perhaps he was here when the pioneers
Of the days almost forgot
Made a trail o’er the land with their bitter tears
And the bones they left to rot.

Perhaps he was here when Totten came
And Baldwin and all the rest,
To build thro’ the swamps their pathway to fame
From Chagres to Ancon’s crest.
And many a night he has lain, no doubt,
By the side of some comrade ill.
Whose corpse, in the morn, he has carried out
To its rest on Monkey Hill.

For years upon years he has seen the tide
Of adventurers ebb and flow -
Success and improvidence, side by side,
Seen ceaselessly come and go.
He has seen the gamut of passion run,
Oh, thousands and thousands of times!
And witnessed the brightest, purest sun
Uncover the darkest of crimes.

Yet never a word will he answer me
Whenever he pases by,
Though often a curious light I see
In his fathomless, coal-black eye.
Oh, a quaint old moke is John Aspinwall,
Who lives by the Dead-House gate;
And quaint are his thoughts; if thoughts at all
Ever lurk in his wooly pate!