December 13, 2011

Through fortune's bitterest hour

Photo by Randy Garsee, used with permission
The Charleston Academy of Music hosted an evening of "Dramatic Entertainment" on December 13, 1877 in support of the memorial fund for William Gilmore Simms, the Southern novelist/critic/poet who had died about seven years earlier. One year before his death, an aging Simms had written a special poem for the opening of the Academy, despite being essentially retired. Now, so long after his death, he was recognized as an important icon of South Carolina by the people of that state — including fellow writer and personal friend Paul Hamilton Hayne.

Hayne presented a long monody to Simms, simply titled in his collected works as "W. Gilmore Simms: A Poem." Somewhat shocked at how time has gone away so quickly, Hayne writes that "the past becomes the present to our eyes." The "dismal years" in between have been full of "anguished desolation," "veiled tears," and "despondent sighs." Their "curbless mirth" which once exited has since "vanished like wine-foam." But, summoning the "faithful eyes" that once beamed back at the assembled crowd, they remember the hero who can bring them back to happier days:

The man who toiled through fortune's bitterest hour,
As calmly steadfast and supremely brave,
As if above a fair life's tranquil wave.
Brooded the halcyon with unruffled breast;
The man whose sturdy frame upheld aright,
We meet, (O friends), to consecrate tonight!

In honoring Simms, Hayne recreates him in a form resembling a larger-than-life mythological warrior-poet: he was imbued with "imagination, robed in mystical flame" by angels and nymphs, who give him not only intellect but humor as well. Yet, all this manifested for one purpose according to Hayne:

All that he was, all that he owned, we know
Was lavished freely on one sacred shrine,
The shrine of home and country! from the first
Fresh blush of youth, when merged in sanguine glow,
His life-path seemed a shadowless steep to shine,
Leading forever upward to the stars...

Despite being "shadowless," however, Hayne acknowledges that Simms's life was full of "desperate and embittered strife." Still, Simms's soul was "unconquered and majestic" as he mad it his goal:

           ...not that he might rise
Alone and dominant; but that all men's eyes
Might view, perchance through much brave toil of his,
His country stripped of every filthy weed
Of crime imputed; in thought, word, and deed,
A noble people, none would dare despise.

The poem is, without a doubt, over the top (the italics above are his) and, to a degree, matches the same boisterous style of Simms's own poetry. Hayne refers to Simms as a "vanished genius," a "Titan" with "a Viking mien." When Simms's summoned spirit arises, Hayne refers to him as the "stalwart-statured Simms!" Certainly, the poem must have been inspirational enough to encourage monetary donations. The memorial fund eventually was large enough to commission a bust by John Quincy Adams Ward; it stands today at Battery Park in Charleston, South Carolina.

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