August 4, 2011

Birth of McCabe

William Gordon McCabe was born on August 4, 1841 in Richmond, Virginia. When the Civil War began, he left his educational pursuits at the University of Virginia and joined the Confederate Army. He eventually rose to the rank of Captain.

After the war, he pursued the life of a poet, translator, and editor, became President of the Virginia Historical Society, and founded his own school in Virginia, where he remained for four decades (during which he received several academic honors, including several honorary degrees). Among his many works was an anthology of poetry, Ballads of Battle and Bravery (1879). One of his most well-known poems was "Dreaming in the Trenches," which dates to 1864:

I picture her there in the quaint old room,
     Where the fading fire-light starts and falls,
Alone in the twilight's tender gloom
     With the shadows that dance on the dim-lit walls.

Alone, while those faces look silently down
     From their antique frames in a grim repose —
Slight scholarly Ralph in his Oxford gown,
     And stanch Sir Alan, who died for Montrose.

There are gallants gay in crimson and gold,
     There are smiling beauties with powdered hair,
But she sits there, fairer a thousand-fold,
     Leaning dreamily back in her low arm-chair.

And the roseate shadows of fading light
     Softly clear steal over the sweet young face,
Where a woman's tenderness blends to-night
     With the guileless pride of a knightly race.

Her small hands lie clasped in a listless way
     On the old Romance — which she holds on her knee—
Of Tristram, the bravest of knights in the fray,
     And Iseult, who waits by the sounding sea.

And her proud, dark eyes wear a softened look
     As she watches the dying embers fall:
Perhaps she dreams of the knight in the book,
     Perhaps of the pictures that smile on the wall.

What fancies I wonder are thronging her brain,
     For her cheeks flush warm with a crimson glow!
Perhaps — ah! me, how foolish and vain!
     But I'd give my life to believe it so!

Well, whether I ever march home agen
     To offer my love and a stainless name,
Or whether I die at the head of my men, —
     I'll be true to the end all the same.


  1. Hello Rob,

    Hope I'm not asking the obvious, but who is the woman of whom McCabe wrote? I'm assuming a sweetheart? And as a pendant, who are "slight scholarly Ralph in his Oxford gown" and "stanch Sir Alan, who died for Montrose"?

    Thanks for any light you might shed ("fire-light," "twilight," or otherwise...).

  2. I feel like this was a generic life in the trenches snapshot, so there isn't necessarily a real-life woman McCabe was addressing. I'm not sure about Ralph yet, but a footnote to one anthology refers to "Sir Alan" as "James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612-1650), the poet, and great soldier and supporter of Charles I."

  3. Thanks. I at first wondered if the subject was just an idealized woman-figure, but the specific references to "Ralph" and "Sir Alan" threw me a bit. Appreciate the extra info.