Thursday, November 16, 2017

Amos N. Wilder on Hope and Mrs. Coates

In the Winter (1951-1952) issue of Religion in Life, Amos Niven WilderAmerican poet, minister, theology professor, WWI veteran, and older brother to playwright and novelist Thornton Wilderwrites:

"A man's wisdom is measured by his hope." I used to puzzle over this aphorism cited to me years ago by a choice poet of the last generation, Florence Earle Coates, then in an advanced age, recently widowed, and going blind...

Birch Island, Upper St. Regis Lake
Mrs. Coates' husband Edward died in 1921, and Mrs. Coates would eventually contract and suffer from a form of nephritis—perhaps a contributing factor to her blindness. In a letter from Mrs. Coates to Mr. Wilder dated 22 January 1924, Mrs. Coates states, "your book [Battle Retrospect and Other Poems (1923)] has been before me, and though I can read little at a time, owing to my blindness, I have constantly been charmed by new and eloquent lines." A little more digging led me to a poem by Mr. Wilder written and dedicated to Mrs. Coates and entitled "The Vision of Purgatory." The poem appears in Wilder's collection of verse, Arachne (1928), and is signed, "Birch Island, Upper St. Regis Lake, N. Y. 1923." The Coates' had a summer camp ("Camp Elsinore") also located at Upper St. Regis Lake (in the Adirondacks), and according to a 1923 summer Social Register, Mrs. Coates summered there—along with her granddaughters—that very summer. "The Vision of Purgatory" addresses the theme of hope, and of finding convalescence and absolution:

...I learned how hope could conquer circumstance
And vault the phantom barriers of time,
I learned to mock the incidence of chance

And wait each true conjunction at its prime...

...And through the somber western copses driven
The fires of sunset pierced that nether grove
Where loitering spirits, chastened and new shriven,

Won absolution by a lake of love...

...And after purgatorial pains and trial

Took convalescence in that dim asyle.
"Camp Elsinore," Upper St. Regis Lake.
In Religion and Life, Wilder continues,
The saying ["A man's wisdom is measured by his hope"], affirmed out of adversity, suggested a triumphant insight directed against shallow wisdoms characterized by "realism" or cynicism. It seemed to say: the greater the hope, the greater the wisdom. The man with little hope or fluctuating hope was the fool, no doubt because he was blind to the true character of a situation, blind to the dynamic processes of good at work. As Jesus said to the Sadducees: "Ye know not....the power of God." Hopelessness is ignorance.
Letter to Mr. Wilder where Coates speaks of "a man's wisdom."

The aphorism spoken of by Mrs. Coates to Mr. Wilder likely springs from a sentiment expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson; for in a tribute piece to Matthew Arnold in the April 1894 issue of The Century Magazine, Mrs. Coates cites Arnold citing Emerson:
[Emerson] says himself: "We judge of a man's wisdom by his hope, knowing that the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth". . . His abiding word for us, the word by which being dead he yet speaks to us, is this: "That which befits us, embosomed in beauty and wonder as we are, is cheerfulness and courage, and the endeavor to realize our aspirations." One can scarcely overrate the importance of thus holding fast to happiness and hope. It gives to Emerson's work an invaluable virtue. . . . Carlyle's perverse attitude toward happiness cuts him off from hope. He fiercely attacks the desire for happiness. He is wrong; "We judge of a man's wisdom by his hope." . . . Wise men everywhere know that we must keep up our courage and hope...
Also see: Amos N. Wilder on the "revisioning of the world" after WWI  


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    2. See also: