- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

Of the poets and lyricists who championed the South, one name in particular stands out, and although his poems may be seldom read today, such is their quality that they do not deserve to fade from public memory. He was Henry Timrod, and had he not been laid low by a wasting disease (as also happened to Sidney Lanier) he might well have achieved an international reputation.

The son of a bookbinder, Timrod was born in Charleston, S.C., on Dec. 8, 1828, and attended Franklin College, later to become the University of Georgia. He studied law but dropped out, apparently because of poor health and straitened circumstances. Briefly a schoolteacher, supplementing his income by providing private tutoring, he soon chose to derive a hardly adequate income from his poetry.

His poetic gifts manifested themselves early, ensuring him a welcome in Charleston’s literary circle. A pleasant-featured young man with dark, wavy hair, he was clean-shaven save for a full mustache. In 1859 or 1860 (authorities differ), he had a book of verse published, but by then, war clouds were darkening. A fervent secessionist, he enlisted in the winter of 1861-62 as a private in the 13th South Carolina regiment, and in the spring of 1862, he became secretary to Col. Lawrence Massillon Keitt of the 20th South Carolina.

Keitt had resigned from the House of Representatives when South Carolina left the Union. He held several civilian posts in the Confederacy, forming an intense dislike of Jefferson Davis, whom he frequently criticized. Keitt was killed at Cold Harbor when he led his disorganized brigade to a disastrous defeat.

It would seem that Timrod was given leave of absence, as he became a war correspondent for the Charleston Mercury, sent to cover Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s activities in Northern Mississippi. When Timrod and other reporters were ordered to leave, he rejoined his regiment, but by then he was suffering from tuberculosis, and he was discharged in December 1862.

Resuming his career as a poet, he praised the Southern victory at Chancellorsville in the curiously titled “Carmen Triumphale” (1863). In 1864, he became editor and part owner of the South Carolinian, a Columbia newspaper, but the entry of Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops on Feb. 17, 1865, followed by a fire the same night, destroyed his livelihood, as it did much of the city. From then on, he lived in poverty.

Timrod’s poetry is easy to read, always stylish and often evocative. He avoided the emotional excesses of his contemporaries. In “Charleston,” he told of a city soon to endure an assault by Federal troops. In fact, it was an attack from the sea by Adm. Samuel Francis Dupont on April 7, 1863. “Calm as that second summer which precedes/The first fall of the snow/In the broad sunlight of heroic deeds/the city bides the foe.”

This is the opening quatrain of 11, and the seventh verse also reflects an optimistic mood, referring to the defenses put in by Beauregard in anticipation of the inevitable attack. “Thus girt without and garrisoned at home/Day patient following day/Old Charleston looks from roof and spire and dome/Across the tranquil bay.”

Dupont’s attack failed, but that by Gen. Quincy Adams Gillmore did great damage to the city during a two-day cannonade beginning Aug. 21, 1863. Gillmore’s arsenal included the Swamp Angel, an 8-inch Parrott gun that threw 36 balls from Morris Island, 7,900 yards distant, a truly formidable weapon until it blew up.

Not all of Timrod’s poetry was inspired by the war. “Spring” has 12 four-line stanzas of a limpid beauty, of which this is the first: “Spring, with that nameless pathos in the air/Which dwells with all things fair/Spring, with her golden suns and silver rain/Is with us once again.”

Timrod must have been seriously ill when he penned his “Ode: Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead, Magnolia Cemetary, Charleston.” He is said to have read this five-stanza poem at a Memorial Day ceremony in April 1867. If this is true, it must have been a physical ordeal for him.

He had never married, and perhaps it is significant that in “Quatorzain,” a 14-line sonnet, he wrote: “Most men know love but as a part of life/They hide it in some corner of the breast/Even from themselves.” Perhaps love of the Southland was enough for this idealistic man, who had been dubbed the “laureate of the Confederacy.” But one wonders how much more his undoubted poetic gifts would have developed and how wide his fame would have spread had he been granted good health and found secure employment, and perhaps a supportive wife. He died in his defeated South on Oct. 6, 1867.

Three of his poems, “At Magnolia Cemetery” (a simplification of the original title), “Spring” and “Quatorzain,” are included in “The Little Book of American Poets,” edited by Jessie B. Rittenhouse and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1915. Several other poets who wrote of the Civil War or its aftermath are also to be found therein: Julia Ward Howe, Walt Whitman, Francis Miles Finch, Ethel Lynn Beers and Will Thompson. Herself a poet, Miss Rittenhouse had chosen well.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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