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Paul Hamilton Hayne by F.V.N. Painter

by F.V.N. Painter

The poetry of Paul Hamilton Hayne is characterized by a singular delicacy of sentiment and expression. There is an utter absence of what is gross or commonplace. His poetry, as a whole, carries with it an atmosphere of high-bred refinement. We recognize at once fineness of fiber and of culture. It could not well be otherwise; for the poet traced the line of his ancestors to the cultured nobility of England, and, surrounded by wealth, was brought up in the home of Southern chivalry.

The aristocratic lineage of the Hayne family was not reflected in its political feelings and affiliations in this country. They were not Tories; on the contrary, from the colonial days down to the Civil War they showed themselves stoutly democratic. The Haynes were, in a measure, to South Carolina what the Adamses and Quincys were to Massachusetts. A chivalrous uncle of the poet, Colonel Arthur P. Hayne, fought in three wars, and afterwards entered the United States Senate. Another uncle, Governor Robert Y. Hayne, was a distinguished statesman, who did not fear to cross swords with Webster in the most famous debate, perhaps, of our national history. The poet's father was a lieutenant in the United States navy, and died at sea when his gifted son was still an infant. These patriotic antecedents were not without influence on the life and writings of the poet.

In the existing biographical sketches of Hayne we find little or no mention of his mother. This neglect is undeserved. She was a cultured woman of good English and Scotch ancestry. It was her hand that had the chief fashioning of the young poet's mind and heart. She transmitted to him his poetic temperament; and when his muse began its earliest flights, she encouraged him with appreciative words and ambitious hopes. Hayne's poems are full of autobiographic elements; and in one, entitled To My Mother, he says:—

  "To thee my earliest verse I brought,
    All wreathed in loves and roses,
  Some glowing boyish fancy, fraught
    With tender May-wind closes;
  Thou didst not taunt my fledgling song,
    Nor view its flight with scorning:
  'The bird,' thou saidst, 'grown fleet and strong,
    Might yet outsoar the morning!'"

Paul Hamilton Hayne was born in Charleston, South Carolina, January 1, 1830. At that time Charleston was the literary center of the South. Among its wealthy and aristocratic circles there, was a literary group of unusual gifts. Calhoun and Legaré were there; and William Gilmore Simms, a man of great versatility, gathered about him a congenial literary circle, in which we find Hayne and his scarcely less distinguished friend, Henry Timrod.

Hayne was graduated with distinction from Charleston College in 1850, receiving a prize for superiority in English composition and elocution. He then studied law; but, like many other authors both North and South, the love of letters proved too strong for the practice of his profession. His literary bent, as with most of our gifted authors, manifested itself early, and even in his college days he became a devotee of the poetic muse. The ardor of his devotion found expression in one of his early poems, first called Aspirations, but in his later works appearing under the title of The Will and the Wing:—

  "Yet would I rather in the outward state
    Of Song's immortal temple lay me down,
  A beggar basking by that radiant gate,
    Than bend beneath the haughtiest empire's crown.

  "For sometimes, through the bars, my ravished eyes
    Have caught brief glimpses of a life divine,
  And seen a far, mysterious rapture rise
    Beyond the veil that guards the inmost shrine."

Hayne served his literary apprenticeship in connection with several periodicals. He was a favorite contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger, for many years published in Richmond, Virginia, and deservedly ranking as the best monthly issued in the South before the Civil War. He was one of the editors of the Southern Literary Gazette, a weekly published in his native city. Afterwards, as a result of a plan devised at one of Simms's literary dinners, Russell's Magazine, with Hayne as editor, was established, to use the language of the first number, as "another depository for Southern genius, and a new incentive, as we hope, for its active exercise." It was a monthly of high excellence for the time; but for lack of adequate support it suspended publication after an honorable career of two years.

An article in Russell's Magazine for August, 1857, elaborately discusses the ante-bellum discouragements to authorship in the South. Indifference, ignorance, and prejudice, the article asserted, were encountered on every hand. "It may happen to be only a volume of noble poetry, full of those universal thoughts and feelings which speak, not to a particular people, but to all mankind. It is censured, at the South, as not sufficiently Southern in spirit, while at the North it is pronounced a very fair specimen of Southern commonplace. Both North and South agree with one mind to condemn the author and forget his book."

Hayne's critical work as editor of Russell's Magazine is worthy of note. In manly independence of judgment, though not in ferocity of style, he resembled Poe. He prided himself on conscientious loyalty to literary art. He disclaimed all sympathy with that sectional spirit which has sometimes lauded a work merely for geographical reasons; and in the critical reviews of his magazine he did not hesitate to point out and censure crudeness in Southern writers. But, at the same time, it was a more pleasing task to his generous nature to recognize and praise artistic excellence wherever he found it.

As a critic Hayne was, perhaps, severest to himself. His poetic standards were high. In his maturer years he blamed the precipitancy with which, as a youth, he had rushed into print. There is an interesting marginal note, as his son tells us, in a copy of his first volume of verse, in which The Cataract is pronounced "the poorest piece in the volume. Boyish and bombastic! Should have been whipped for publishing it!" It is needless to say that the piece does not appear in his Complete Poems. This severity of self-criticism, which exacted sincerity of utterance, has imparted a rare average excellence to his work.

In 1852 he married Miss Mary Middleton Michel, of Charleston, the daughter of a distinguished French physician. Rarely has a union been more happy. In the days of his prosperity she was an inspiration; and in the long years of poverty and sickness that came later she was his comfort and stay. In his poem, The Bonny Brown Hand, there is a reflection of the love that glorified the toil and ills of this later period:—

  "Oh, drearily, how drearily, the sombre eve comes down!
    And wearily, how wearily, the seaboard breezes blow!
  But place your little hand in mine—so dainty, yet so brown!
    For household toil hath worn away its rosy-tinted snow;
      But I fold it, wife, the nearer,
      And I feel, my love, 'tis dearer
      Than all dear things of earth,
      As I watch the pensive gloaming,
      And my wild thoughts cease from roaming,
  And birdlike furl their pinions close beside our peaceful hearth;
    Then rest your little hand in mine, while twilight shimmers down,
  That little hand, that fervent hand, that hand of bonny brown—
    The hand that holds an honest heart, and rules a happy hearth."

Two small volumes of Hayne's poetry appeared before the Civil War from the press of Ticknor & Co., Boston. They were made up chiefly of pieces contributed to the Southern Literary MessengerRusssell's Magazine, and other periodicals in the South. The first volume appeared in 1855, and the second in 1859. These volumes were well worthy of the favorable reception they met with, and encouraged the poet to dedicate himself more fully to his art. In the fullness of this dedication, he reminds us of Longfellow, Tennyson, and Wordsworth, all of whom he admired and loved.

Few first volumes of greater excellence have ever appeared in this country. The judicious critic was at once able to recognize the presence of a genuine singer. The poet rises above the obvious imitation that was a common vice among Southern singers before the Civil War. We may indeed perceive the influence of Tennyson in the delicacy of the craftsmanship, and the influence of Wordsworth in the deep and sympathetic treatment of Nature; but Hayne's study of these great bards had been transmuted into poetic culture, and is reflected only in the superior quality of his work. There is no case of conscious or obvious imitation.

The volume of 1859, which bears the title Avolio and Other Poems, exhibits the poet's fondness for the sonnet and his admirable skill in its use. Throughout his subsequent poetical career, he frequently chose the sonnet as the medium for expressing his choicest thought. It is hardly too much to claim that Hayne is the prince of American sonneteers. The late Maurice Thompson said that he could pick out twenty of Hayne's sonnets equal to almost any others in our language. In the following sonnet, which is quoted by way of illustration, the poet gives us the key to a large part of his work. He was a worshiper of beauty; and the singleness of this devotion gives him his distinctive place in our poetic annals.

  "Pent in this common sphere of sensual shows,
    I pine for beauty; beauty of fresh mien,
    And gentle utterance, and the charm serene,
  Wherewith the hue of mystic dreamland glows;
  I pine for lulling music, the repose
    Of low-voiced waters, in some realm between
    The perfect Adenne, and this clouded scene
  Of love's sad loss, and passion's mournful throes;
  A pleasant country, girt with twilight calm,
    In whose fair heaven a moon of shadowy round
      Wades through a fading fall of sunset rain;
  Where drooping lotos-flowers, distilling balm,
    Gleam by the drowsy streamlets sleep hath crown'd,
      While Care forgets to sigh, and Peace hath balsamed pain."

The great civil conflict of '61-'65 naturally stirred the poet's heart. He was a patriotic son of the South. On the breaking out of hostilities, he became a member of Governor Pickens's staff, and was stationed for a time in Fort Sumter; but after a brief service he was forced to resign on account of failing health. His principal service to the Southern cause was rendered in his martial songs, which breathe a lofty, patriotic spirit. They are remarkable at once for their dignity of manner and refinement of utterance. There is an entire absence of the fierceness that is to be found in some of Whittier's and Timrod's sectional lyrics. Hayne lacked the fierce energy of a great reformer or partisan leader. But nowhere else do we find a heart more sensitive to grandeur of achievement or pathos of incident. He recognized the unsurpassed heroism of sentiment and achievement displayed in the war; and in an admirable sonnet, he exclaims:—

  "Ah, foolish souls and false! who loudly cried
    'True chivalry no longer breathes in time.'
    Look round us now; how wondrous, how sublime
  The heroic lives we witness; far and wide
  Stern vows by sterner deeds are justified;
    Self-abnegation, calmness, courage, power,
    Sway, with a rule august, our stormy hour,
  Wherein the loftiest hearts have wrought and died—
  Wrought grandly, and died smiling. Thus, O God,
    From tears, and blood, and anguish, thou hast brought
    The ennobling act, the faith-sustaining thought—
  Till, in the marvelous present, one may see
  A mighty stage, by knights and patriots trod,
  Who had not shunned earth's haughtiest chivalry."

The war brought the poet disaster. His beautiful home and the library he has celebrated in a noble sonnet were destroyed in the bombardment of Charleston. The family silver, which had been stored in Columbia for safe-keeping, was lost in Sherman's famous "march to the sea." His native state was in desolation; his friends, warm and true with the fidelity which a common disaster brings, were generally as destitute and helpless as himself. Under these disheartening circumstances, rendered still more gloomy by the ruthless deeds of reconstruction, he withdrew to the pine barrens of Georgia, where, eighteen miles from Augusta, he built a very plain and humble cottage. He christened it Copse Hill; and it was here, on a desk fashioned out of a workbench left by the carpenters, that many of his choicest pieces, reflecting credit on American letters, and earning for him a high place among American poets, were written.

This modest home, which from its steep hillside—

"Catches morn's earliest and eve's latest glow,"—

the poet has commemorated in a sonnet, which gives us a glimpse of the quiet, rural scenes that were dear to his heart:—

  "Here, far from worldly strife, and pompous show,
    The peaceful seasons glide serenely by,
    Fulfill their missions, and as calmly die,
  As waves on quiet shores when winds are low.
  Fields, lonely paths, the one small glimmering rill
    That twinkles like a wood-fay's mirthful eye,
    Under moist bay leaves, clouds fantastical
  That float and change at the light breeze's will,—
    To me, thus lapped in sylvan luxury,
    Are more than death of kings, or empires' fall."

His son, Mr. W. H. Hayne, has thrown an interesting light upon the poet's methods of composition. Physical movement seemed favorable to his poetic faculty; and many of his pieces were composed as he paced to and fro in his study, or walked with stooping shoulders beneath the trees surrounding Copse Hill. He was not mechanical or systematic in his poetic work, but followed the impulse of inspiration. "The poetic impulse," his son tells us, "frequently came to him so spontaneously as to demand immediate utterance, and he would turn to the fly leaf of the book in hand or on a neighboring shelf, and his pencil would soon record the lines, or fragments of lines, that claimed release from his brain. The labor of revision usually followed,—sometimes promptly, but not infrequently after the fervor of conception had passed away." The painstaking care with which the revising was done is revealed in the artistic finish of almost every poem.

Hayne's life at this time was truly heroic. With uncomplaining fortitude he met the hardships of poverty and bore the increasing ills of failing health. He never lost hope and courage. He lived the poetry that he sang:—

  "Still smiles the brave soul, undivorced from hope;
    And, with unwavering eye and warrior mien,
    Walks in the shadow dauntless and serene,
  To test, through hostile years, the utmost scope
    Of man's endurance—constant, to essay
    All heights of patience free to feet of clay."

And in the end he was not disappointed. Gradually his genius gained general recognition. The leading magazines of the country were opened to him; and, as Stedman remarks, "his people regarded him with a tenderness which, if a commensurate largess had been added, would have made him feel less solitary among his pines."

In 1872 a volume of Legends and Lyrics was issued by Lippincott & Co. It shows the poet's genius in the full power of maturity. His legends are admirably told, and Aëthra is a gem of its kind. But the richness of Hayne's imagination was better suited to lyric than to narrative or dramatic poetry. The latter, indeed, abounds in rare beauty of thought and expression; but somehow this luxuriance seems to retard or obscure the movement. The lyric pieces of this volume are full of self- revelation, autobiography, and Southern landscape. Hayne was not an apostle of the strenuous life; he preferred to dream among the beauties or sublimities of Nature. Thus, in Dolce far Niente, he says:—

  "Let the world roll blindly on!
  Give me shadow, give me sun,
  And a perfumed eve as this is:
      Let me lie
  Where the last quick sunbeams shiver
  Spears of light athwart the river,
  And a breeze, which seems the sigh
  Of a fairy floating by,
      Coyly kisses
  Tender leaf and feathered grasses;
  Yet so soft its breathing passes,
  These tall ferns, just glimmering o'er me,
  Blending goldenly before me,
      Hardly quiver!"

The well-known friendship existing between Hayne and his brother poet Timrod was a beautiful one. As schoolboys they had encouraged each other in poetic efforts. As editor of Russell's Magazine, Hayne had welcomed and praised Timrod's contributions. For the edition of Timrod's poems published in 1873, Hayne prepared a generous and beautiful memoir, in which he quoted the opinion of some Northern writers who assigned the highest place to his friend among the poets of the South. In the Legends and Lyrics there is a fine poem, Under the Pine, commemorative of Timrod's visit to Copse Hill shortly before his death:—

  "O Tree! against thy mighty trunk he laid
    His weary head; thy shade
  Stole o'er him like the first cool spell of sleep:
    It brought a peace so deep,
  The unquiet passion died from out his eyes,
    As lightnings from stilled skies.

  "And in that calm he loved to rest, and hear
    The soft wind-angels, clear
  And sweet, among the uppermost branches sighing:
    Voices he heard replying
  (Or so he dreamed) far up the mystic height,
    And pinions rustling light."

As illustrating his rich fancy and graphic power of diction, a few stanzas are given from Cloud Pictures. They are not unworthy of Tennyson in his happiest moments.

         "At calm length I lie
  Fronting the broad blue spaces of the sky,
  Covered with cloud-groups, softly journeying by:

  "An hundred shapes, fantastic, beauteous, strange,
  Are theirs, as o'er yon airy waves they range
  At the wind's will, from marvelous change to change:

  "Castles, with guarded roof, and turret tall,
  Great sloping archway, and majestic wall,
  Sapped by the breezes to their noiseless fall!

  "Pagodas vague! above whose towers outstream
  Banners that wave with motions of a dream—
  Rising or drooping in the noontide gleam;

  "Gray lines of Orient pilgrims: a gaunt band
  On famished camels, o'er the desert sand
  Plodding towards their prophet's Holy Land;

  "Mid-ocean,—and a shoal of whales at play,
  Lifting their monstrous frontlets to the day,
  Through rainbow arches of sun-smitten spray;

  "Followed by splintered icebergs, vast and lone,
  Set in swift currents of some arctic zone,
  Like fragments of a Titan world o'erthrown."

In 1882 a complete edition of Hayne's poems was published by D. Lothrop & Co. Except a few poems written after that date and still uncollected, this edition contains his later productions, in which we discover an increasing seriousness, richness, and depth. The general range of subjects, as in his earlier volumes, is limited to his Southern environment and individual experience. This limitation is the severest charge that can be brought against his poetry, but, at the same time, it is an evidence of his sincerity and truth. He did not aspire, as did some of his great Northern contemporaries, to the office of moralist, philosopher, or reformer. He was content to dwell in the quiet realm of beauty as it appears, to use the words of Margaret J. Preston, in the "aromatic freshness of the woods, the swaying incense of the cathedral- like isles of pines, the sough of dying summer winds, the glint of lonely pools, and the brooding notes of leaf-hidden mocking-birds." But the beauty and pathos of human life were not forgotten; and now and then he touched upon the great spiritual truths on which the splendid heroism of his life was built. For delicacy of feeling and perfection of form, his meditative and religious poems deserve to rank among the best in our language. They contain what is so often lacking in poetry of this class, genuine poetic feeling and artistic expression.

The steps of death approached gradually; for, like two other great poets of the South, Timrod and Lanier, he was not physically strong. Though sustained through his declining years by "the ultimate trust"—

"That love and mercy, Father, still are thine,"—

he felt a pathetic desire to linger awhile in the love of his tender, patient, helpful wife:—

  "A little while I fain would linger here;
    Behold! who knows what soul-dividing bars
    Earth's faithful loves may part in other stars?
  Nor can love deem the face of death is fair:
  A little while I still would linger here."

Paul Hamilton Hayne passed away July 6, 1886. As already brought out in the course of this sketch, he was not only a gifted singer, but also a noble man. His extraordinary poetic gifts have not yet been fully recognized. Less gifted singers have been placed above him. No biography has been written to record with fond minuteness the story of his admirable life and achievement. His writings in prose, and a few of his choicest lyrics, still remain unpublished. Let us hope that this reproach to Southern letters may soon be removed, and that this laureate of the South may yet come to the full inheritance of fame to which the children of genius are inalienably entitled.

Book: Shattered Sighs