Henry Timrod died in 1867 at the age of 39 from tuberculosis—his end aggravated and hastened by inadequate food and the rigors of eking out a living amidst the charred ruins of South Carolina’s capital city. The newspaper that had provided the only income for himself, his wife, his child, and his widowed sister’s large family had gone up in Sherman’s fire. Timrod described the last period of his life as “beggary, starvation, death, bitter grief, utter want of hope” and added: “I would consign every line I ever wrote to eternal oblivion for one-hundred dollars in hand.” The man who spoke thus may well have been America’s greatest poet living at the time.
Consider the first and last stanzas of his “ode” sung in 1866 as ladies brought flowers to the otherwise undecorated graves of 600 Confederates killed in the long siege of Charleston:
Sleep sweetly in your humble graves,
Sleep, martyrs of a fallen cause!
Though yet no marble column craves
The pilgrim here to pause.
. . .
Stoop, angels, hither from the skies!
There is no holier spot of ground,
Than where defeated valour lies
By mourning beauty crowned.
For my money, no better lines of verse came out of the great American bloodletting of the 1860’s. The experts, of course, would say that we should prefer as a dirge the lines from the—shall we say—flamboyant Walt Whitman in “O Captain! My Captain!”:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Perhaps the experts are right in their preference for the most representative, if not the best, American poet.
Timrod was well recognized from the 1850’s onward as a powerful, profound, versatile, and subtle poet, though he is best known for the poems that expressed the deepest sentiments of the Southern people during and after the war. Whittier described Timrod’s verse as “very powerful & impressive. . . . He had the true fire within.” The Gentle Quaker poet looked forward to the time “when no sectional feeling will interfere with the recognition of his genius.” Longfellow concurred, predicting that, in the future, Timrod’s verse “will have a place in every cultivated home in the United States.” These were generous sentiments, especially as Timrod had a greater range and depth as poet than either of the New England laureates.
Their predictions did not come true. A volume of Timrod’s collected verse was never published in his lifetime and, then, not until six years after his death—only because of the extraordinary efforts of friends. The popular anthologies are hardly aware that he ever existed.
Timrod has had to wait even longer for a biographer, but the wait was worth it. Cisco has written extensively on South Carolina notables. (He has a new biography of the neglected military and political giant, Gen. Wade Hampton, in press.) He gives us the life of the man and poet straightforwardly and from primary sources. This is a proper biography without any of the distorting theorizing (actually dime-store Marxism) that pervades so much historical writing these days. We have the opportunity to recover Timrod and some lost elements of American culture as well.
[Henry Timrod: A Biography, by Walter Brian Cisco (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) 168 pp., $38.50]