October 23, 2013

Of that life, and that love, and that early doom

Henry Timrod did all he could to support the Confederacy during the Civil War. Illness forced him to leave the army, as did his attempts to serve as a war correspondent from the war front. Instead, he moved to Columbia, South Carolina and tried to live a domestic life. He married his love Katie Godwin and started a family while serving as a journalist in town.

Then, about a year after his marriage, General William Tecumseh Sherman came to South Carolina and laid waste to Timrod's town. Known as an anti-Union provocateur, Timrod went into hiding. Columbia, the state's capital city, was left in ruins. "The truth is, the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina," Sherman record. "I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her."

Months later, amid the chaos, on October 23, 1865, Timrod's son Willie died. Willie had been born that previous Christmas. With a father's pride, Timrod reported to a friend, "Everybody wonders at him! He is so transparently fair; so ethereal!" But his son's death left Timrod extremely forlorn; coupled with the destruction of his city, the loss of his job (as his newspaper ceased to exist), the Timrod family fell into poverty and despair. "[He] was the sweetest child," Timrod later wrote, "But every body thought him too ethereal to live." Even after the conclusion of the Civil War, the poet never recovered and died destitute in 1867.

Timrod's four-page poem, "Our Willie," serves both as a memorial to the boy as well as a testimonial of the poet's sinking despair. The poem concludes:

How could we speak in human phrase,
Of such scarce earthly traits and ways,
                What would not seem
                A doting dream,
In the creed of these sordid days?
                No! let us keep
                Deep, deep,
In sorrowing heart and aching brain,
This story hidden with the pain,
Which, since that blue October night
When Willie vanished from our sight,
Must haunt us even in our sleep.

In the gloom of the chamber where he died,
And by that grave which, through our care,
From Yule to Yule of every year,
Is made like Spring to bloom;
And where, at times, we catch the sigh
As of an angel floating nigh,
Who longs but has not power to tell
That in that violet-shrouded cell
Lies nothing better than the shell
Which he had cast aside—
By that sweet grave, in that dark room,
We may weave at will for each other's ear,
Of that life, and that love, and that early doom,
The tale which is shadowed here:
To us alone it will always be
As fresh as our own misery;
But enough, alas! for the world is said,
In the brief "Here lieth" of the dead!

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