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Henry Timrod by F.V.N. Painter

by F.V.N. Painter

In some respects there is a striking similarity in the lives of the three Southern poets, Hayne, Timrod, and Lanier. They were alike victims of misfortune, and in their greatest tribulations they exhibited the same heroic patience and fortitude.

  "They knew alike what suffering starts
    From fettering need and ceaseless pain;
  But still with brave and cheerful hearts,
  Whose message hope and joy imparts,
    They sang their deathless strain."

The fate of Timrod was the saddest of them all. Gifted with uncommon genius, he never saw its full fruitage; and over and over again, when some precious hope seemed about to be realized, it was cruelly dashed to the ground. There is, perhaps, no sadder story in the annals of literature.

Henry Timrod was born in Charleston, South Carolina, December 28, 1829. He was older than his friend Hayne by twenty-three days. The law of heredity seems to find exemplification in his genius. The Timrods, a family of German descent, were long identified with the history of South Carolina. The poet's grandfather belonged to the German Fusiliers of Charleston, a volunteer company organized in 1775, after the battle of Lexington, for the defense of the American colonies. In the Seminole War, the poet's father, Captain William Henry Timrod, commanded the German Fusiliers in Florida. He was a gifted man, whose talents attracted an admiring circle of friends. "By the simple mastery of genius," says Hayne, "he gained no trifling influence among the highest intellectual and social circles of a city noted at that period for aristocratic exclusiveness."

[Illustration: HENRY TIMROD.]

Timrod's father was not only an eloquent talker, but also a poet. A strong intellect was associated with delicate feelings. He had the gift of musical utterance; and the following verses from his poem, To Time —the Old Traveler, were pronounced by Washington Irving equal to any lyric written by Tom Moore:—

  "They slander thee, Old Traveler,
    Who say that thy delight
  Is to scatter ruin far and wide,
    In thy wantonness of might:
  For not a leaf that falleth
    Before thy restless wings,
  But in thy flight, thou changest it
    To a thousand brighter things.

* * * * *

  "'Tis true thy progress layeth
    Full many a loved one low,
  And for the brave and beautiful
    Thou hast caused our tears to flow;
  But always near the couch of death
    Nor thou, nor we can stay;
  And the breath of thy departing wings
    Dries all our tears away!"

On his mother's side the poet was scarcely less fortunate in his parentage. She was as beautiful in form and face as in character. From her more than from his father the poet derived his love of Nature. She delighted in flowers and trees and stars; she caught the glintings of the sunshine through the leaves; she felt a thrill of joy at the music of singing birds and of murmuring waters. With admirable maternal tenderness she taught her children to discern and appreciate the lovely sights and sounds of nature.

Timrod received his early education in a Charleston school, where he sat next to Hayne. He was an ambitious boy, insatiable in his desire for knowledge; at the same time, he was fond of outdoor sports, and enjoyed the respect and confidence of his companions. His poetic activity dates from this period. "I well remember," says Hayne, "the exultation with which he showed me one morning his earliest consecutive attempt at verse- making. Our down-East schoolmaster, however, could boast of no turn for sentiment, and having remarked us hobnobbing, meanly assaulted us in the rear, effectually quenching for the time all aesthetic enthusiasm."

When sixteen or seventeen years of age he entered the University of Georgia. He was cramped for lack of means; sickness interfered with his studies, and at length he was forced to leave the university without his degree. But his interrupted course was not in vain. His fondness for literature led him, not only to an intelligent study of Virgil, Horace, and Catullus, but also to an unusual acquaintance with the leading poets of England. His pen was not inactive, and some of his college verse, published over a fictitious signature in a Charleston paper, attracted local attention.

After leaving college Timrod returned to Charleston, and entered upon the study of law in the office of the Hon. J. L. Petigru. But the law was not adapted to his tastes and talents, and, like Hayne, he early abandoned it to devote himself to literature. He was timid and retiring in disposition. "His walk was quick and nervous," says Dr. J. Dickson Bruns, "with an energy in it that betokened decision of character, but ill sustained by the stammering speech; for in society he was the shyest and most undemonstrative of men. To a single friend whom he trusted, he would pour out his inmost heart; but let two or three be gathered together, above all, introduce a stranger, and he instantly became a quiet, unobtrusive listener, though never a moody or uncongenial one."

He aspired to a college professorship, for which he made diligent preparation in the classics; but in spite of his native abilities and excellent attainments, he never secured this object of his ambition. Leaving Charleston, he became a tutor in private families; but on holiday occasions he was accustomed to return to the city, where he was cordially welcomed by his friends. Among these was William Gilmore Simms, a sort of Maecenas to aspiring genius, who gathered about him the younger literary men of his acquaintance. At the little dinners he was accustomed to give, no one manifested a keener enjoyment than Timrod, when, in the words of Hayne:—

      "Around the social board
      The impetuous flood tide poured
  Of curbless mirth, and keen sparkling jest
  Vanished like wine-foam on its golden crest."

During all these years of toil and waiting the poetic muse was not idle. Under the pseudonym "Aglaus," the name of a minor pastoral poet of Greece, he became a frequent and favorite contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia. Later he became one of the principal contributors, both in prose and poetry, to Russell's Magazine in Charleston. It was in these periodicals that the foundation of his fame was laid.

Timrod's first volume of poetry, made up of pieces taken chiefly from these magazines, appeared in 1860, from the press of Ticknor & Fields, Boston. It was Hayne's judgment that "a better first volume of the kind has seldom appeared anywhere." It contains most of the pieces found in subsequent editions of his works. Here and there, both North and South, a discerning critic recognized in the poet "a lively, delicate fancy, and a graceful beauty of expression." But, upon the whole, the book attracted little attention—a fact that came to the poet as a deep disappointment. In the words of Dr. Bruns, who was familiar with the circumstances of the poet, "success was to him a bitter need, for not his living merely, but his life was staked upon it."

When this volume appeared, Timrod was more than a poetic tyro. Apart from native inspiration, in which he was surpassed by few of his contemporaries, he had reflected profoundly on his art, and nursed his genius on the masterpieces of English song. In addition to Shakespeare he had carefully pondered Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. From Wordsworth especially he learned to appreciate the poetry of common things, and to discern the mystic presence of that spirit,—

  "Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
  And the round ocean, and the living air,
  And the blue sky, and in the mind of man."

Timrod, like Poe, formulated a theory of poetry which it is interesting to study, as it throws light on his own work. It reveals to us the ideal at which he aimed. In a famous essay Poe made beauty the sole realm and end of poetry. To Timrod belongs the credit of setting forth a larger and juster conception of the poetic art. To beauty he adds power and truth as legitimate sources of poetry. "I think," he says, "when we recall the many and varied sources of poetry, we must, perforce, confess that it is wholly impossible to reduce them all to the simple element of beauty. Two other elements, at least, must be added, and these are power, when it is developed in some noble shape, and truth, whether abstract or not, when it affects the common heart of mankind."

Timrod regarded a poem as a work of art. He justly held that a poem should have "one purpose, and that the materials of which it is composed should be so selected and arranged as to help enforce it." He distinguished between the moment of inspiration, "when the great thought strikes for the first time along the brain and flushes the cheek with the sudden revelation of beauty or grandeur, and the hour of patient, elaborate execution." Accordingly he quoted with approval the lines of Matthew Arnold:—

  "We cannot kindle when we will
    The fire that in the heart resides;
  The spirit bloweth and is still;
    In mystery our soul abides;
  But tasks in hours of insight willed,
  May be through hours of gloom fulfilled."

Timrod's poetry is characterized by clearness, simplicity, and force. He was not a mystic; his thoughts and emotions are not obscured in voluble melody. To him poetry is more than rhythmic harmony. Beneath his delicate imagery and rhythmical sweetness are poured treasures of thought and truth. In diction he belongs to the school of Wordsworth; his language is not strained or farfetched, but such as is natural to cultured men in a state of emotion. "Poetry," he says in an early volume of Russell's Magazine, "does not deal in abstractions. However abstract be his thought, the poet is compelled, by his passion-fused imagination, to give it life, form, or color. Hence the necessity of employing the sensuous or concrete words of the language, and hence the exclusion of long words, which in English are nearly all purely and austerely abstract, from the poetic vocabulary."

He defends the use of the sonnet, in which, like Hayne, he excelled. He admits that the sonnet is artificial in structure; but, as already pointed out, he distinguishes the moment of inspiration, from the subsequent labor of composition. In the act of writing, the poet passes into the artist. And "the very restriction so much complained of in the sonnet," he says, "the artist knows to be an advantage. It forces him to condensation." His sonnets are characterized by a rare lucidity of thought and expression.

The principal piece in Timrod's first volume, to which we now return, and the longest poem he ever wrote, is entitled A Vision of Poesy. In the experience of the imaginative hero, who seems an idealized portrait of the poet himself, we find an almost unequaled presentation of the nature and uses of poetry. The spirit of Poesy, "the angel of the earth," thus explains her lofty mission:—

  "And ever since that immemorial hour
    When the glad morning stars together sung,
  My task hath been, beneath a mightier Power,
    To keep the world forever fresh and young;
  I give it not its fruitage and its green,
  But clothe it with a glory all unseen."

And what are the objects on which this angel of Poesy loves to dwell?
Truth, freedom, passion, she answers, and—

  "All lovely things, and gentle—the sweet laugh
    Of children, girlhood's kiss, and friendship's clasp,
  The boy that sporteth with the old man's staff,
    The baby, and the breast its fingers grasp—
  All that exalts the grounds of happiness,
  All griefs that hallow, and all joys that bless,

  "To me are sacred; at my holy shrine
    Love breathes its latest dreams, its earliest hints;
  I turn life's tasteless waters into wine,
   And flush them through and through with purple tints.
  Wherever earth is fair, and heaven looks down,
  I rear my altars, and I wear my crown."

Many of the poems in this first volume are worthy of note, as revealing some phase of the poet's versatile gifts—delicate fancy, simplicity and truth, lucid force, or finished art. The Lily Confidante, is a light, lilting fancy, the moral of which is:—

  "Love's the lover's only magic,
    Truth the very subtlest art;
  Love that feigns, and lips that flatter,
    Win no modest heart."

The Past was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger, and afterwards went the rounds of the press. It teaches the important truth that we are the sum of all we have lived through. The past forms the atmosphere which we breathe today; it is—

  "A shadowy land, where joy and sorrow kiss,
    Each still to each corrective and relief,
  Where dim delights are brightened into bliss,
    And nothing wholly perishes but grief.

  "Ah me!—not dies—no more than spirit dies;
     But in a change like death is clothed with wings;
  A serious angel, with entranced eyes,
    Looking to far-off and celestial things."

Timrod possessed an ardent spirit that was stirred to its depths by the Civil War. His martial songs, with their fierce intensity, better voiced the feelings of the South at that time than those of Hayne or any other Southern singer. In his Ethnogenesis—the birth of a nation—he celebrates in a lofty strain the rise of the Confederacy, of which he cherished large and generous hopes:—

                           "The type
  Whereby we shall be known in every land
  Is that vast gulf which lips our Southern strand,
  And through the cold, untempered ocean pours
  Its genial streams, that far off Arctic shores
  May sometimes catch upon the softened breeze
  Strange tropic warmth and hints of summer seas."

But his most stirring lyrics are Carolina and A Cry to Arms, which in the exciting days of '61 deeply moved the Southern heart, but which today serve as melancholy mementos of a long-past sectional bitterness. Of the vigorous lines of the former, Hayne says in an interesting autobiographic touch, "I read them first, and was thrilled by their power and pathos, upon a stormy March evening in Fort Sumter! Walking along the battlements, under the red lights of a tempestuous sunset, the wind steadily and loudly blowing from off the bar across the tossing and moaning waste of waters, driven inland; with scores of gulls and white sea-birds flying and shrieking round me,—those wild voices of Nature mingled strangely with the rhythmic roll and beat of the poet's impassioned music. The very spirit, or dark genius, of the troubled scene appeared to take up, and to repeat such verses as:—

  "'I hear a murmur as of waves
  That grope their way through sunless caves,
  Like bodies struggling in their graves,

  "'And now it deepens; slow and grand
  It swells, as rolling to the land,
  An ocean broke upon the strand,

These impassioned war lyrics brought the poet speedy popularity. For a time his hopes were lifted up to a roseate future. In 1862 some of his influential friends formed the project of bringing out a handsome edition of his poems in London. The war correspondent of the London Illustrated News, himself an artist, volunteered to furnish original illustrations. The scheme, at which the poet was elated, promised at once bread and fame. But, as in so many other instances, he was doomed to bitter disappointment. The increasing stress of the great conflict absorbed the energies of the South; and the promising plan, notwithstanding the poet's popularity, was buried beneath the noise and tumult of battle.

Disqualified by feeble health from serving in the ranks, Timrod, shortly after the battle of Shiloh, went to Tennessee as the war correspondent of the Charleston Mercury. To his retiring and sympathetic nature the scenes of war were painful. "One can scarcely conceive," says Dr. Bruns, "of a situation more hopelessly wretched than that of a mere child in the world's ways suddenly flung down into the heart of that strong retreat, and tossed like a straw on the crest of those refluent waves, from which he escaped as by a miracle."

In 1863 he went to Columbia as associate editor of the South Carolinian. He was scarcely less happy and vigorous in prose than in verse. A period of prosperity seemed at last to be dawning; and, in the cheerful prospect, he ventured to marry Miss Kate Goodwin of Charleston, "Katie, the fair Saxon," whom he had long loved and of whom he had sung in one of his longest and sweetest poems. But his happiness was of brief duration. In a twelvemonth the army of General Sherman entered Columbia, demolished his office, and sent him adrift as a helpless fugitive.

The close of the war found him a ruined man; he was almost destitute of property and broken in health. He was obliged to sell some of his household furniture to keep his family in bread. "We have," he says, in a sadly playful letter to Hayne at this period, "we have—let me see!—yes, we have eaten two silver pitchers, one or two dozen silver forks, several sofas, innumerable chairs, and a huge—bedstead!" He could find no paying market for his poems in the impoverished South; and in the North political feeling was still too strong to give him access to the magazines there. The only employment he could find was some clerical work for a season in the governor's office, where he sometimes toiled far beyond his strength. In this time of discouragement and need, the gloom of which was never lifted, he pathetically wrote to Hayne: "I would consign every line of my verse to eternal oblivion for one hundred dollars in hand."

In 1867 his physicians recommended a change of air; and accordingly he spent a month with his lifelong friend Hayne at Copse Hill. It was the one rift in the clouds before the fall of night. There is a pathetic beauty in the fellowship of the two poets during these brief weeks, when, with spirits often attuned to high thought and feeling, they roamed together among the pines or sat beneath the stars. "We would rest on the hillsides," says Hayne, "in the swaying golden shadows, watching together the Titanic masses of snow-white clouds which floated slowly and vaguely through the sky, suggesting by their form, whiteness, and serene motion, despite the season, flotillas of icebergs upon Arctic seas. Like lazzaroni we basked in the quiet noons, sunk in the depths of reverie, or perhaps of yet more 'charmed sleep.' Or we smoked, conversing lazily between the puffs,—

  'Next to some pine whose antique roots just peeped
   From out the crumbling bases of the sand.'"

Timrod survived but a few weeks after his return to Columbia. The circumstances of his death were most pathetic. Though sustained by Christian hopes, he still longed to live a season with the dear ones about him. When, after a period of intense agony that preceded his dissolution, his sister murmured to him, "You will soon be at rest now," he replied, with touching pathos, "Yes, my sister, but love is sweeter than rest." He died October 7, 1867, and was laid to rest in Trinity churchyard, where his grave long remained unmarked.

Two principal editions of his works have been published: the first in 1873, with an admirable memoir by Hayne; the second in 1899, under the auspices of the Timrod Memorial Association of South Carolina. A number of his poems and his prose writings still remain uncollected; and there is yet no biography that fully records the story of his life. This fact is not a credit to Southern letters, for, as we have seen, Timrod was a poet of more than commonplace ability and achievement.

For the most part, his themes were drawn from the ordinary scenes and incidents of life. He was not ambitious of lofty subjects, remote from the hearts and homes of men. He placed sincerity above grandeur; he preferred love to admiration. He was always pure, brave, and true; and, as he sang:—

  "The brightest stars are nearest to the earth,
  And we may track the mighty sun above,
  Even by the shadow of a slender flower.
  Always, O bard, humility is power!
  And thou mayest draw from matters of the hearth
  Truths wide as nations, and as deep as love."