December 3, 2012

Timrod: wait and watch for blood

As the Union's military forces were blockading Charleston, South Carolina, that town's most famous native poet Henry Timrod was composing a verse on the historic Civil War event. "Charleston" was published in the Charleston Mercury on December 3, 1862. The poem is able to express a heroic strength for ordinary South Carolinians who carry on their daily routines, while still maintaining a sense of foreboding and of uncertainty, particularly in its final lines:

Calm as that second summer which precedes
    The first fall of the snow,
In the broad sunlight of heroic deeds,
    The City bides the foe.

As yet, behind their ramparts stern and proud,
    Her bolted thunders sleep —
Dark Sumter, like a battlemented cloud,
    Looms o'er the solemn deep.

No Calpe frowns from lofty cliff or scar
    To guard the holy strand;
But Moultrie holds in leash her dogs of war
    Above the level sand.

And down the dunes a thousand guns lie couched,
    Unseen, beside the flood —
Like tigers in some Orient jungle crouched
    That wait and watch for blood.

Meanwhile, through streets still echoing with trade,
    Walk grave and thoughtful men,
Whose hands may one day wield the patriot's blade
    As lightly as the pen.

And maidens, with such eyes as would grow dim
    Over a bleeding hound,
Seem each one to have caught the strength of him
    Whose sword she sadly bound.

Thus girt without and garrisoned at home,
    Day patient following day,
Old Charleston looks from roof, and spire, and dome,
    Across her tranquil bay.

Ships, through a hundred foes, from Saxon lands
    And spicy Indian ports,
Bring Saxon steel and iron to her hands,
    And Summer to her courts.

But still, along yon dim Atlantic line,
    The only hostile smoke
Creeps like a harmless mist above the brine,
    From some frail, floating oak.

Shall the Spring dawn, and she still clad in smiles,
    And with an unscathed brow,
Rest in the strong arms of her palm-crowned isles,
    As fair and free as now?

We know not; in the temple of the Fates
    God has inscribed her doom;
And, all untroubled in her faith, she waits
    The triumph or the tomb.


  1. Oh ye Timrod, great supplier of lines to, of all people, Bob Dylan. Huffy Henry was never able to wield the patriot's blade as lightly as his pen, and then some would say that he didn't even handle his pen all that lightly either. He was one of those grave, thoughtful men mentioned in stanza 5, and while this is not one of his better poems, even here there's some indication of his skill--I like the frail, floating oak and the sense of misty doom it carries. Thanks for posting.

  2. I really like this piece - there's something unspoken in all of this imagery, a sort of tension that's best implied by knowing the circumstances. I've written quite a few Timrod posts, hoping that he earns a couple new fans.