The first poetic writer of this country had his home at Jamestown. He was GEORGE SANDYS who came to Virginia in 1621, and succeeded his brother as treasurer of the newly established colony. Amid the hardships of pioneer colonial life, in which he proved himself a leading spirit, he had the literary zeal to complete his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which he had begun in England. After the toilsome day, spent in introducing iron works or in encouraging shipbuilding, he sat down at night, within the shadow of surrounding forests, to construct his careful, rhymed pentameters. The conditions under which he wrote were very far removed from the Golden Age which he described,—
And without rule, in faith and truth, excelled."
The promise of this bright, heroic beginning in poetry was not realized; and scarcely another voice was heard in verse in the South before the Revolution. The type of civilization developed in the South prior to the Civil War, admirable as it was in many other particulars, was hardly favorable to literature. The energies of the most intelligent portion of the population were directed to agriculture or to politics; and many of the foremost statesmen of our country—men like Washington, Jefferson, Marshall, Calhoun, Benton—were from the Southern states. The system of slavery, while building up baronial homes of wealth, culture, and boundless hospitality, checked manufacture, retarded the growth of cities, and turned the tide of immigration westward. Without a vigorous public school system, a considerable part of the non-slaveholding class remained without literary taste or culture.
The South has been chiefly an agricultural region, and has adhered to conservative habits of thought. While various movements in theology, philosophy, and literature were stirring New England, the South pursued the even tenor of its way. Of all parts of our country, it has been most tenacious of old customs and beliefs. Before the Civil War the cultivated classes of the Southern states found their intellectual nourishment in the older English classics, and Pope, Addison, and Shakespeare formed a part of every gentleman's library. There were no great publishing houses to stimulate literary production; and to this day Southern writers are dependent chiefly on Northern publishers to give their works to the public. Literature was hardly taken seriously; it was rather regarded, to use the words of Paul Hamilton Hayne, "as the choice recreation of gentlemen, as something fair and good, to be courted in a dainty, amateur fashion, and illustrated by aproposquotations from Lucretius, Virgil, or Horace." Thus it happened that before the Civil War literature in the South, whether prose or poetry, had a less vigorous development than in the Middle States and New England.
Yet it has been common to undervalue the literary work of the South. While literature was not generally encouraged there before the Civil War,—a fact lamented by gifted, representative writers,—there were at least two literary centers that exerted a notable influence. The first was Richmond, the home of Poe during his earlier years, and of the Southern Literary Messenger, in its day the most influential magazine south of the Potomac. It was founded, as set forth in its first issue, in 1834, to encourage literature in Virginia and the other states of the South; and during its career of twenty-eight years it stimulated literary activity in a remarkable degree. Among its contributors we find Poe, Simms, Hayne, Timrod, John Esten Cooke, John R. Thompson, and others—a galaxy of the best-known names in Southern literature.
The other principal literary center of the South was Charleston. "Legaré's wit and scholarship," to adopt the words of Mrs. Margaret J. Preston, "brightened its social circle; Calhoun's deep shadow loomed over it from his plantation at Fort Hill; Gilmore Simms's genial culture broadened its sympathies. The latter was the Maecenas to a band of brilliant youths who used to meet for literary suppers at his beautiful home." Among these brilliant youths were Paul Hamilton Hayne and Henry Timrod, two of the best poets the South has produced. The Southern Literary Gazette, founded by Simms, and Russell's Magazine, edited by Hayne, were published at Charleston. Louisville and New Orleans were likewise literary centers of more or less influence.
Yet it is a notable fact that none of these literary centers gave rise to a distinctive group or school of writers. The influence of these centers did not consist in one great dominating principle, but in a general stimulus to literary effort. In this respect it may be fairly claimed that the South was more cosmopolitan than the North. In New England, theology and transcendentalism in turn dominated literature; and not a few of the group of writers who contributed to the Atlantic Monthly were profoundly influenced by the anti-slavery agitation. They struggled up Parnassus, to use the words of Lowell,—
"With a whole bale of isms tied together with rime."
But the leading writers of the South, as will be seen later, have been exempt, in large measure, from the narrowing influence of one-sided theological or philosophical tenets. They have not aspired to the rôle of social reformers; and in their loyalty to art, they have abstained from fanatical energy and extravagance.
The major poets of the South stand out in strong, isolated individuality. They were not bound together by any sympathy other than that of a common interest in art and in their Southern home. Their genius was nourished on the choicest literary productions of England and of classic antiquity; and looking, with this Old World culture, upon Southern landscape and Southern character, they pictured or interpreted them in the language of poetry.
The three leading poets of the Civil War period—Hayne, Timrod, and Ryan —keenly felt the issues involved in that great struggle. All three of them were connected, for a time at least, with the Confederate army. In the earlier stages of the conflict, the intensity of their Southern feeling flamed out in thrilling lyrics. Timrod's martial songs throb with the energy of deep emotion. But all three poets lived to accept the results of the war, and to sing a new loyalty to our great Republic.
The South has not been as unfruitful in literature as is often supposed. While there have been very few to make literature a vocation, a surprisingly large number have made it an avocation. Law and literature, as we shall have occasion to note, have frequently gone hand in hand. A recent work on Southern literature [*] enumerates more than twelve hundred writers, most of whom have published one or more volumes. There are more than two hundred poets who have been thought worthy of mention. More than fifty poets have been credited to Virginia alone; and an examination of their works reveals, among a good deal that is commonplace and imitative, many a little gem that ought to be preserved. Apart from the five major poets of the South—Poe, Hayne, Timrod, Lanier, and Ryan—who are reserved for special study, we shall now consider a few of the minor poets who have produced verse of excellent quality. [Footnote *: Manly'sSouthern Literature.]
FRANCIS SCOTT KEY (1780-1843) is known throughout the land as the author of The Star-spangled Banner, the noblest, perhaps, of our patriotic hymns. He was born in Frederick County, Maryland, and was educated at St. John's College, Annapolis. He studied law, and after practicing with success in Frederick City, he removed to Washington, where he became district attorney.
During the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, he was detained on board a British vessel, whither he had gone to secure the release of a friend. All night long he watched the bombardment with the keenest anxiety. In the morning, when the dawn disclosed the star- spangled banner still proudly waving over the fort, he conceived the stirring song, which at once became popular and was sung all over the country. Though a volume of his poems, with a sketch by Chief-Justice Taney, was published in 1857, it is to The Star-spangled Banner that he owes his literary fame.
"O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
"And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"
Few poems written in the South have been more popular than My Life is like the Summer Rose. It has the distinction of having been praised by Byron. Its author, RICHARD HENRY WILDE (1789-1847), was born in Dublin, Ireland, but brought up and educated in Augusta, Georgia. He studied law, became attorney general of his adopted state, and later entered Congress, where he served for several terms. He was a man of scholarly tastes and poetic gifts. He spent five years abroad, chiefly in Italy, where his studies in Italian literature afterwards led to a work on Torquato Tasso. It was on the occasion of this trip abroad that he wrote A Farewell to America, which breathes a noble spirit of patriotism:—
"Farewell, my more than fatherland!
Home of my heart and friends, adieu!
Lingering beside some foreign strand,
How oft shall I remember you!
How often, o'er the waters blue,
Send back a sigh to those I leave,
The loving and beloved few,
Who grieve for me,—for whom I grieve!"
On his return to America, he settled in New Orleans, where he became a professor of law in the University of Louisiana. Though the author of a volume of poems of more than usual excellence, it is the melancholy lyric, My Life is like the Summer Rose, that, more than all the rest, has given him a niche in the temple of literary fame. Is it necessary to quote a stanza of a poem so well known?
"My life is like the summer rose,
That opens to the morning sky,
But, ere the shades of evening close,
Is scattered on the ground—to die!
Yet on the rose's humble bed
The sweetest dews of night are shed,
As if she wept the waste to see—
But none shall weep a tear for me!"
GEORGE D. PRENTICE (1802-1870) was a native of Connecticut. He was educated at Brown University, and studied law; but he soon gave up his profession for the more congenial pursuit of literature. In 1828 he established at Hartford the New England Weekly Review, in which a number of his poems, serious and sentimental, appeared. Two years later, at the age of twenty-eight, he turned over his paper to Whittier and removed to Louisville, where he became editor of the Journal.
He was a man of brilliant intellect, and soon made his paper a power in education, society, and politics. Apart from his own vigorous contributions, he made his paper useful to Southern letters by encouraging literary activity in others. It was chiefly through his influence that Louisville became one of the literary centers of the South. He was a stout opponent of secession; and when the Civil War came his paper, like his adopted state, suffered severely.
Among his writings is a Life of Henry Clay. A collection of his witty and pungent paragraphs has also been published under the title of Prenticeana. His poems, by which he will be longest remembered, were collected after his death. His best-known poem is The Closing Year. Though its vividness and eloquence are quite remarkable, its style is, perhaps, too declamatory for the taste of the present generation. The following lines, which express the poet's bright hopes for the political future of the world, are taken from The Flight of Years:—
"Weep not, that Time
Is passing on—it will ere long reveal
A brighter era to the nations. Hark!
Along the vales and mountains of the earth
There is a deep, portentous murmuring
Like the swift rush of subterranean streams,
Or like the mingled sounds of earth and air,
When the fierce Tempest, with sonorous wing,
Heaves his deep folds upon the rushing winds,
And hurries onward with his night of clouds
Against the eternal mountains. 'Tis the voice
Of infant Freedom—and her stirring call
Is heard and answered in a thousand tones
From every hilltop of her western home——
And lo—it breaks across old Ocean's flood——
And Freedom, Freedom! is the answering shout
Of nations starting from the spell of years.
The dayspring!—see—'tis brightening in the heavens!
The watchmen of the night have caught the sign——
From tower to tower the signal fires flash free——
And the deep watchword, like the rush of seas
That heralds the volcano's bursting flame,
Is sounding o'er the earth. Bright years of hope
And life are on the wing.—Yon glorious bow
Of Freedom, bended by the hand of God,
Is spanning Time's dark surges. Its high arch,
A type of love and mercy on the cloud,
Tells that the many storms of human life
Will pass in silence, and the sinking waves,
Gathering the forms of glory and of peace,
Reflect the undimmed brightness of the Heaven."
WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS (1806-1870), a native of Charleston, was a man of remarkable versatility. He made up for his lack of collegiate training by private study and wide experience. He early gave up law for literature, and during his long and tireless literary career was editor, poet, dramatist, historian, and novelist. He had something of the wideness of range of Sir Walter Scott; and one can not but think that, had he lived north of Mason and Dixon's line, he might occupy a more prominent place in the literary annals of our country. He has been styled the "Cooper of the South"; but it is hardly too much to say that in versatility, culture, and literary productiveness he surpassed his great Northern contemporary.
Simms was a poet before he became a novelist. The poetic impulse manifested itself early; and before he was twenty-five he had published three or more volumes of verse. In 1832 his imaginative poem, Atalantis, a Story of the Sea, was brought out by the Harpers; and it introduced him at once to the favorable notice of what Poe called the "Literati" of New York. His subsequent volumes of poetry were devoted chiefly to a description of Southern scenes and incidents.
As will be seen in our studies of Hayne and Timrod, Simms was an important figure in the literary circles of Charleston. His large, vigorous nature seemed incapable of jealousy, and he took delight in lending encouragement to young men of literary taste and aspiration. He was a laborious and prolific writer, the number of his various works— poetry, drama, history, fiction—reaching nearly a hundred. Had he written less rapidly, his work might have gained, perhaps, in artistic quality.
Among the best of Simms's novels is a series devoted to the Revolution. The characters and incidents of that conflict in South Carolina are graphically portrayed. The Partisan, the first of this historic series, was published in 1835. The Yemassee is an Indian story, in which the character of the red man is less idealized than in Cooper's Leather- stocking Tales. In The Damsel of Darien, the hero is Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific.
The verse of Simms is characterized by facile vigor rather than by fine poetic quality. The following lines, which represent his style at its best, bear a lesson for the American people to-day:—
"This the true sign of ruin to a race—
It undertakes no march, and day by day
Drowses in camp, or, with the laggard's pace,
Walks sentry o'er possessions that decay;
Destined, with sensible waste, to fleet away;—
For the first secret of continued power
Is the continued conquest;—all our sway
Hath surety in the uses of the hour;
If that we waste, in vain walled town and lofty tower!"
EDWARD COATE PINKNEY (1802-1828) died before his poetic gifts had reached their full maturity. He was the son of the eminent lawyer and diplomatist, William Pinkney, and was born in London, while his father was American minister at the court of St. James. At the age of nine he was brought home to America, and educated at Baltimore. He spent eight years in the United States navy, during which period he visited the classic shores of the Mediterranean. He was impressed particularly with the beauty of Italy, and in one of his poems he says:—
"It looks a dimple on the face of earth,
The seal of beauty, and the shrine of mirth;
Nature is delicate and graceful there,
The place's genius feminine and fair:
The winds are awed, nor dare to breathe aloud;
The air seems never to have borne a cloud,
Save where volcanoes send to heaven their curled
And solemn smokes, like altars of the world."
In 1824 he resigned his place in the navy to take up the practice of law in Baltimore. His health was not good; and he seems to have occupied a part of his abundant leisure (for he was not successful in his profession) in writing poetry. A thin volume of poems was published in 1825, in which he displays, especially in his shorter pieces, an excellent lyrical gift. The following stanzas are from A Health:—
"I fill this cup to one made up
Of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex
The seeming paragon;
To whom the better elements
And kindly stars have given
A form so fair, that, like the air,
'Tis less of earth than heaven.
"Her every tone is music's own,
Like those of morning birds,
And something more than melody
Dwells ever in her words;
The coinage of her heart are they,
And from her lips each flows
As one may see the burdened bee
Forth issue from the rose."
PHILIP PENDLETON COOKE (1816-1850), like most Southern writers before the Civil War, mingled literature with the practice of law. He was born at Martinsburg, Virginia, and educated at Princeton. He early manifested a literary bent, and wrote for the Knickerbocker Magazine, the oldest of our literary monthlies, before he was out of his teens. He was noted for his love of outdoor life, and became a thorough sportsman. In 1847 he published a volume entitled Froissart Ballads and Other Poems. The origin of the ballad portion of the volume, as explained in the preface, is found in the lines of an old Roman poet:—
"A certain freak has got into my head,
Which I can't conquer for the life of me,
Of taking up some history, little read,
Or known, and writing it in poetry."
The best known of his lyrics is Florence Vane which has the sincerity and pathos of a real experience:—
"I loved thee long and dearly,
My life's bright dream, and early,
Hath come again;
I renew, in my fond vision,
My heart's dear pain,
My hope, and thy derision,
"The ruin lone and hoary,
The ruin old,
Where thou didst hark my story,
At even told,—
That spot—the hues Elysian
Of sky and plain—
I treasure in my vision,
"Thou wast lovelier than the roses
In their prime;
Thy voice excelled the closes
Of sweetest rhyme;
Thy heart was as a river
Without a main.
Would I had loved thee never,
THEODORE O'HARA (1820-1867) is chiefly remembered for a single poem that has touched the national heart. He was born in Danville, Kentucky. After taking a course in law, he accepted a clerkship in the Treasury Department at Washington. On the outbreak of the Mexican War he enlisted as a private soldier, and by his gallant service rose to the rank of captain and major. After the close of the war he returned to Washington and engaged for a time in the practice of his profession. Later he became editor of the Mobile Register, and Frankfort Yeoman in Kentucky. In the Civil War he served as colonel in the Confederate army.
The poem on which his fame largely rests is The Bivouac of the Dead. It was written to commemorate the Kentuckians who fell in the battle of Buena Vista. Its well-known lines have furnished an apt inscription for several military cemeteries:—
"The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
The soldier's last tattoo;
No more on Life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
"On Fame's eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead."
O'Hara died in Alabama in 1867. The legislature of Kentucky paid him a fitting tribute in having his body removed to Frankfort and placed by the side of the heroes whom he so worthily commemorated in his famous poem.
FRANCIS ORRERY TICKNOR (1822-1874) was a physician living near Columbus, Georgia. He led a busy, useful, humble life, and his merits as a poet have not been fully recognized. In the opinion of Paul Hamilton Hayne, who edited a volume of Ticknor's poems, he was "one of the truest and sweetest lyric poets this country has yet produced." The Virginians of the Valley was written after the soldiers of the Old Dominion, many of whom bore the names of the knights of the "Golden Horseshoe," had obtained a temporary advantage over the invading forces of the North:—
"We thought they slept!—the sons who kept
The names of noble sires,
And slumbered while the darkness crept
Around their vigil fires;
But aye the 'Golden Horseshoe' knights
Their Old Dominion keep,
Whose foes have found enchanted ground,
But not a knight asleep."
But a martial lyric of greater force is Little Giffen, written in honor of a blue-eyed lad of East Tennessee. He was terribly wounded in some engagement, and after being taken to the hospital at Columbus, Georgia, was finally nursed back to life in the home of Dr. Ticknor. Beneath the thin, insignificant exterior of the lad, the poet discerned the incarnate courage of the hero:—
"Out of the focal and foremost fire,
Out of the hospital walls as dire;
Smitten of grape-shot and gangrene,
(Eighteenth battle and he sixteen!)
Specter! such as you seldom see,
Little Giffen of Tennessee!
* * * * *
"Word of gloom from the war, one day;
Johnson pressed at the front, they say.
Little Giffen was up and away;
A tear—his first—as he bade good-by,
Dimmed the glint of his steel-blue eye.
'I'll write, if spared!' There was news of the fight;
But none of Giffen.—He did not write."
But Ticknor did not confine himself to war themes. He was a lover of Nature; and its forms, and colors, and sounds—as seen in April Morning, Twilight, The Hills, Among the Birds—appealed to his sensitive nature. Shut out from literary centers and literary companionship, he sang, like Burns, from the strong impulse awakened by the presence of the heroic and the beautiful.
JOHN R. THOMPSON (1823-1873) has deserved well of the South both as editor and author. He was born in Richmond, and educated at the University of Virginia, where he received the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1845. Two years later he became editor of the Southern Literary Messenger; and during the twelve years of his editorial management, he not only maintained a high degree of literary excellence, but took pains to lend encouragement to Southern letters. It is a misfortune to our literature that his writings, particularly his poetry, have never been collected.
The incidents of the Civil War called forth many a stirring lyric, the best of which is his well-known Music in Camp:—
"Two armies covered hill and plain,
Where Rappahannock's waters
Ran deeply crimsoned with the stain
Of battle's recent slaughters."
The band had played "Dixie" and "Yankee Doodle," which in turn had been greeted with shouts by "Rebels" and "Yanks."
"And yet once more the bugles sang
Above the stormy riot;
No shout upon the evening rang—
There reigned a holy quiet.
"The sad, slow stream its noiseless flood
Poured o'er the glistening pebbles;
All silent now the Yankees stood,
And silent stood the Rebels.
"No unresponsive soul had heard
That plaintive note's appealing,
So deeply 'Home, Sweet Home' had stirred
The hidden founts of feeling.
"Or Blue or Gray, the soldier sees,
As by the wand of fairy,
The cottage 'neath the live-oak trees,
The cabin by the prairie."
On account of failing health, Thompson made a visit to Europe, where he spent several years, contributing from time to time to Blackwood's Magazine and other English periodicals. On his return to America, he was engaged on the editorial staff of the New York Evening Post, with which he was connected till his death, in 1873. He is buried in Hollywood cemetery at Richmond.
"The city's hum drifts o'er his grave,
And green above the hollies wave
Their jagged leaves, as when a boy,
On blissful summer afternoons,
He came to sing the birds his runes,
And tell the river of his joy."
The verse of Mrs. MARGARET J. PRESTON (1820-1897) rises above the commonplace both in sentiment and craftsmanship. She belongs, as some critic has said, to the school of Mrs. Browning; and in range of subject and purity of sentiment she is scarcely inferior to her great English contemporary. She was the daughter of the Rev. George Junkin, D.D., the founder of Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, and for many years president of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia. In 1857 she married Colonel J. T. L. Preston of the Virginia Military Institute.
For many years she was a contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger, in which her earlier poems first made their appearance. Though a native of Philadelphia, she was loyal to the South during the Civil War, and found inspiration in its deeds of heroism. Beechenbrook is a rhyme of the war; and though well-nigh forgotten now, it was read, on its publication in 1865, from the Potomac to the Gulf. Among her other writings are Old Songs and New and Cartoons. Her poetry is pervaded by a deeply religious spirit, and she repeatedly urges the lesson of supreme resignation and trust, as in the following lines:—
"What will it matter by-and-by
Whether my path below was bright,
Whether it wound through dark or light,
Under a gray or golden sky,
When I look back on it, by-and-by?
"What will it matter by-and-by
Whether, unhelped, I toiled alone,
Dashing my foot against a stone,
Missing the charge of the angel nigh,
Bidding me think of the by-and-by?
* * * * *
"What will it matter? Naught, if I
Only am sure the way I've trod,
Gloomy or gladdened, leads to God,
Questioning not of the how, the why,
If I but reach Him by-and-by.
"What will I care for the unshared sigh,
If in my fear of lapse or fall,
Close I have clung to Christ through all,
Mindless how rough the road might lie,
Sure He will smoothen it by-and-by.
"What will it matter by-and-by?
Nothing but this: that Joy or Pain
Lifted me skyward,—helped me to gain,
Whether through rack, or smile, or sigh,
Heaven, home, all in all, by-and-by."
In this rapid sketch of the minor singers of the South, it has been necessary to omit many names worthy of mention. It is beyond our scope to speak of the newer race of poets. Here and there delicate notes are heard, but there is no evidence that a great singer is present among us. Yet there is no ground for discouragement; the changed conditions and the new spirit that has come upon our people may reasonably be expected to lead to higher poetic achievement.
In some respects the South affords a more promising field for literature than any other part of our country. There is evident decadence in New England. But the climate and scenery, the history and traditions, and the chivalrous spirit and unexhausted intellectual energies of the South contain the promise of an Augustan age in literature. In no insignificant degree its rich-ored veins have been worked in prose. JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS has successfully wrought in the mine of negro folk-lore; GEORGE W. CABLE has portrayed the Creole life of Louisiana; CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK has pictured the types of character found among the Tennessee mountains; THOMAS NELSON PAGE has shown us the trials and triumphs of Reconstruction days; and Miss MARY JOHNSTON has revived the picturesque scenes of colonial times. There has been an obvious literary awakening in the South; and sooner or later it will find utterance, let us hope, in some strong-voiced, great-souled singer.
It is true that there are obstacles to be overcome. There are no literary magazines in the South to encourage and develop our native talent as in the days of the Southern Literary Messenger. Southern writers are still dependent upon Northern periodicals, in which they can hardly be said to find a cordial welcome. It seems that the South in a measure suffers the obloquy that rested of old upon Nazareth, from which the Pharisees of the metropolis maintained that no good thing could come.
But the most serious drawback of all is the disfavor into which poetry has fallen, or rather which it has brought upon itself. In the remoteness of its themes and sentiments, in its over-anxiety for a faultless or striking technique, it has erected a barrier between itself and the sanity of a practical, truth-loving people. Let us hope that this aberration is not permanent. When poetry returns to simplicity, sincerity, and truth; when it shall voice, as in the great English singers, Tennyson and Browning, the deepest thought and aspirations of our race; when once more, as in the prophetic days of old, it shall resume its lofty, seer-like office,—then will it be restored to its place of honor by a delighted and grateful people.