December 28, 2011

Timrod: the Southron and his English bride

A poem came to Henry Timrod as an early Christmas gift; as he told a friend on Christmas day, "The Goddess knocked at my door... and handed me a poem titled 'Katie'." Within about a week of its composition The Charleston Mercury for December 28, 1861 published the love poem, "Katie":

It may be through some foreign grace,
And unfamiliar charm of face;
It may be that across the foam
Which bore her from her childhood's home,
By some strange spell, my Katie brought,
Along with English creeds and thought—
Entangled in her golden hair—
Some English sunshine, warmth, and air!
I cannot tell—but here to-day,
A thousand billowy leagues away
From that green isle whose twilight skies
No darker are than Katie's eyes.
She seems to me, go where she will,
An English girl in England still!

The "Katie" in question was Katie Godwin, a British woman who was also the sister of his own sister's husband. According to the poem, as she walks, nature responds and comes to life. They walk together through this pictorial scene, "through rippling waves of wheat" and "mats of clover sweet," first in an Ancient Saxon town, then in the town where she was born. Together they visit a church and other scenes from her youth ("Some spot that's sacred to her Past"). All the while, the world around is an ideal paradise:

Has not the sky a deeper blue,
Have not the trees a greener hue,
And bend they not with lordlier grace
And nobler shapes above the place
Where on one cloudless winter morn
My Katie to this life was born?
Ah, folly! long hath fled the hour
When love to sight gave keener power,
And lovers looked for special boons
In brighter flowers and larger moons.
But wave the foliage as it may,
And let the sky be ashen gray,
Thus much at least a manly youth
May hold—and yet not blush—as truth:
If near that blessed spot of earth
Which saw the cherished maiden's birth
No softer dews than usual rise,
And life there keeps its wonted guise,
Yet not the less that spot may seem
As lovely as a poet's dream...

Timrod, in the form of his narrator, soon realizes that he is a stranger in these lands across the sea and they are transported to his own native land in the American South. Bewitched by her beauty, he barely recognizes his homeland, however, and mistakes it for another town in England. This, he realizes, is precisely why he hopes she will join him there:

Such is the land in which I live,
And, Katie! such the soul I give.
Come! ere another morning beam,
We'll cleave the sea with wings of steam;
And soon, despite of storm or calm,
Beneath my native groves of palm,
Kind friends shall greet, with joy and pride,
The Southron and his English bride!

Timrod excused himself for the poem's highly romantic notions. As he described in a letter, "Katie and I are by no means on the lover-like terms implied in my verse. Nor indeed are we likely to become so." The real-life Katie was equally modest, noting that the poem "invested me with attributes I never possessed. Many is the time, that I have urged him to see me as I really was." Even so, Timrod and Katie Godwin married in February 1864.

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