James Stanley Gilbert“The Poet of Panama”
"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."
Gilbert's closest friend in Panama was his mentor, Tracy Robinson, an American businessman who had moved to Colon in 1861.
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.
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.
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,