December 28, 2012

Hayne: looked down upon with contempt

Southern writing suffered a slow development in the early history of the United States, and certainly in the first half of the 19th century. Literary culture was sparse at the time; Southern authors who were successful typically relied on Northern readers for their popularity. Worse, those who did write in the South were scoffed at by their neighbors.

On December 28, 1859, struggling Southern poet Paul Hamilton Hayne complained about it to the highly successful Northern poet and editor James Russell Lowell: The "very profession [of poet] ... is looked down upon with contempt." Hayne was particularly bitter because he hoped to use poetry as his sole source of income.

By the date on his letter, Hayne was less than a month shy of his 30th birthday, though he had already published two volumes of poetry and was working on his third. The first, simply titled Poems, was published in 1855 in Boston — not the South. Two years later, his Sonnets, and Other Poems was published in his native Charleston, receiving little attention. Hayne's third book would be printed by Lowell's Boston publishers, Ticknor and Fields.

By the time he died in 1886, Hayne was recognized as the "Poet Laureate of the South" and one of the writers most responsible for a "new South" which respected literature. Some of his works were printed in the Atlantic Monthly while Lowell was the magazine's editor. Here is one of his earlier poems, "The Poet's Trust in His Sorrow":

O God! how sad a doom is mine,
    To human seeming:
Thou hast called on me to resign
So much—much!—all—but the divine
    Delights of dreaming.

I set my dreams to music wild,
    A wealth of measures;
My lays, thank Heaven! are undefiled,
I sport with Fancy as a child
    With golden leisures.

And long as fate, not wholly stern,
    But this shall grant me,
Still with perennial faith to turn
Where Song's unsullied altars hum
    Nought, nought shall daunt me!

What though my worldly state he low
    Beyond redressing;
I own an inner flame whose glow
Makes radiant all the outward show;
    My last great blessing!

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