October 7, 2011

Timrod: whispers round the body of the dead

The Charleston Mercury's October 7, 1861 issue included the poem "I Know Not Why" (also published as "Sonnet IX") by South Carolina-born poet Henry Timrod:

I know not why, but all this weary day,
Suggested by no definite grief or pain,
Sad fancies have been flitting through my brain:
Now it has been a vessel losing way
Rounding a stormy headland; now a gray
Dull waste of clouds above a wintry main;
And then a banner drooping in the rain,
And meadows beaten into bloody clay.
Strolling at random with this shadowy woe
At heart, I chanced to wander hither! Lo!
A league of desolate marsh-land, with its lush,
Hot grasses in a noisome, tide-left bed,
And faint, warm airs, that rustle in the hush
Like whispers round the body of the dead!

After teaching in other towns, Timrod returned to his native Charleston when the Civil War broke out. He became the unofficial Poet Laureate of the Confederacy, and wrote many war-related poems. The war imagery in the sonnet above is unmistakeable. Timrod served in the Confederate army for only a short time due to chronic illness and, less than a year after this poem, he became a war correspondent on behalf of the Charleston Mercury, inspired by the bloody encounter at Shiloh. Again, his service was short-lived. By the end of the war, his family was left impoverished, despite his fame.

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