The opportunity for a reconsideration, indeed a reconstruction, of literary history is, in the case of William Gilmore Simms’ poetry, both enticing and rewarding. In Matthew Brennan’s analytical volume, we find the basis, fully elaborated, for reengaging with a body of work, the worth of which has only recently been reevaluated.
William Gilmore Simms (1806-70) has worn three hats as far as his literary repute is concerned. In working under the first hat, he was too conveniently classified as the Southern Cooper, the author of historical romances about the Revolutionary War and about the frontier, the biographer of Francis Marion, “the Swamp Fox,” and so on. And in a sense, he was the Southern analogue of James Fenimore Cooper, if Cooper was the American Sir Walter Scott. All three of these writers were prodigious workers, and they paid a price for it in the quality of their work. But it is also true that the three were visionaries who encoded in their words a sense of class and character and history that has left its mark on many an imagination. Scott inspired literate Europe in the early 19th century, and even modern America, with his romantic vision of dialectical history. Yes, William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell owe much to the tradition of Scott. Cooper showed us a white man who lived with and like the Indians, the tragedy of America’s settlement, and military adventures on land and sea. But he did not, like Scott, write verse.
Simms did. And though he was highly productive as a novelist and short-story writer, he was even more of a poet than Scott was. And he thought that his best work was poetry, not prose. So we will let pass the subject of Simms’ fiction, pausing only to say that there has recently been a revival of interest in those works and in their exposition, by Mary Ann Wimsatt in particular.
But before we turn to the poetry, we must at least glance at Simms’ second hat: the regional-political one. As tensions mounted before the War Between the States, he participated in a dialogue, or dialectic, that was spinning out of control. He wrote a fictional rebuttal of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and otherwise articulated the Southern cause well before Sherman’s army entered South Carolina. The name of Simms was on a Northern hit list that included various political figures, with the result that Simms’ house was incinerated along with his library of some 10,000 volumes and a collection of priceless manuscripts from the Revolutionary War. Fleeing the destruction, Simms headed for Columbia, arrived in time to watch that city go up in flames, and wrote a book about the event.
So we reach the third hat of the dispossessed writer: the poetic one. And the poetry is something. The republication of Kibler’s scholarship is an education in itself, for it changes our sense of the history of poetry in America. Simms wrote much poetry of high quality—quality to challenge the respect given to the established poets of the Romantic age in America. Poe, for example, respected Simms, and well he should have, for Simms’ achievement in poetry makes Poe’s look overwrought, in one sense, and underwrought, in another. Emerson, the most overrated of American writers, can hardly compare as a poet, though I will concede that he wrote two poems of excellence. Longfellow and Whittier and others will have to move over a bit, at least.
Kibler’s edition gives us, first, an extensive, annotated volume of the poetry of an educated and sensitive man—the author of nearly 2,000 poems, a classicist with a romantic bent, one who earlier than any other American poet reflected a thorough knowledge of the scene in England. Selected Poems is a feast of verse from a man who knew his Byron, and his Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats as well. This poet was a lyricist, a sonneteer, a paraphraser of Horace, a teller of tales from ancient Greece as well as from the stories of the Indians and the frontiersmen. This poet knew what a poet was or should be, as in his poem, “The Poet”:
Thou art a Poet, and thy aim has been
To draw from every thought, and every scene
Psychal, and natural, that serene delight
Wherewith our God hath made his worlds so bright,
The sense of Beauty—the immortal thrill
Of intuitions throned above our Will—
The secret of that yearning, dim, but strong
Which yields the pulse to Hope—the wings to Song.
Simms was a poet with his feet on the ground and his eye on the genius loci. He was a regionalist in the best sense, and his Southern commitment reflects that. Indeed, he has been seen as an ecologist, celebrating the created environment, the nature—the rivers, the land, the flora—as well as the history and the heroes of South Carolina.
William Gilmore Simms was too intelligent to live only in the realm of culture—nature was primary, and culture followed. But the realm of culture was where poetry lived, and so he lived there as well. Matthew Brennan’s expert analysis of Simms’ dialogue with the British romantics is not only a brilliant book on Simms’ poetry but a magisterial approach to romantic poetry in English altogether. The professor’s knowledge both of Simms and of all the romantic poets is comprehensive and intensely fused. The Poet’s Holy Craft—the phrase is from one of Simms’ poems—is one of the best books about poetry I have ever seen. Christopher Ricks’ Keats and Embarrassment comes to mind as a possible comparison.
These two scholarly presentations are related by more than their subject: Kibler’s edition set up Brennan to synthesize and relate as broadly as he has done. And with these two volumes, Simms the poet has arrived fully fledged. Now he will have to run the gantlet of politics and editorial selection to find his rightful place in the American canon, 140 years after his death.
[Selected Poems of William Gilmore Simms, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, edited by James Everett Kibler (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press) 448 pp., $29.95]
[The Poet’s Holy Craft: William Gilmore Simms and Romantic Verse Tradition, by Matthew C. Brennan (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press) 168 pp., $39.95]