October 22, 2012

Birth of Berryhill: settled down in a wilderness

Though he was born in Pickens County, Alabama on October 22, 1832, Samuel Newton Berryhill is best remembered as a Mississippi poet. He moved to Webster Country in that state before the age of two. By the time he was a teenager, polio left him disabled and he spent the rest of his life in a wheel chair.

Berryhill's condition did not slow him down. An ambitious self-taught learner, he became adept in Latin, German, French, mathematics, and the law. He worked as a lawyer for a time but he was also an editor and published his first and only book, Backwoods Poems in 1878. The book, though self-published, was popular enough that he became known locally as "The Backwoods Poet." As might be assumed from such a nickname, his poems were infused with a deep appreciation and interest in nature. He explains in his preface:

The little book here presented embraces the rhymes and poems written by me in a period of thirty years, beginning with my boyhood... It is not through affectation that I have given my book the title it bears. I chose this title in my boyhood, when I first conceived the design of publishing, some day, a book of poems. Nor is the title inappropriate. While I was yet an infant, my father, with his family, settled down in a wilderness, where I grew up...

Much of his work also has a strong Southern bias. Writing in the era of Reconstruction, Berryhill deeply supported the "Old South" and suggested they were oppressed by Northerners (he went so far as saying that Northern poets like Longfellow, Bryant, and Whittier "curse the South in song" in the poem "The South's Response"). From his poem "The South of the North":

Give us the Union that our fathers made
    In the purer days of long ago,
When revolution's red, right arm had laid
    Old England's rampant lion low.

Ah! "there were giants in those days" of old —
    Giants in nerve, and mind, and heart —
Men who would scorn for fame or gold
    To play the demagogue's base part.

They stood together in the bloody fight;
    And when their noble work was done,
None did dispute his brother's equal right
    In all their common toil had won.

The humblest and the greatest in the land
    Were of the self-same rights possessed;
And the feeblest member in the shining band
    Of States, was peer unto the rest.

How, then, shall we be asked to yield
    The equal rights our sires possessed —
The rights they earned upon the battle-field,
    And left to us — a rich bequest!

Give us our cherished father's Union, then —
    'Tis all we ask when you oppress;
And by the memory of those noble men
    We never will submit with less!

*I am heavily indebted to the substantial entry on Berryhill by Michael P. Clark in James B. Lloyd's Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967 (2009).

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