December 1, 2013

Simms: our Muses reassume their powers

William Gilmore Simms refused to act like an old man. In his last full year of life, he continued working, contributing articles and poems to the newly founded Nineteenth Century magazine; he did not receive pay for his contributions but hoped to help this new organ of Southern culture. Still, he was weary. He admitted he lived only for his children (six of fifteen survived) and grandchildren (three of six were then living). Perhaps his biggest contribution in this period was a prologue written for the opening of the new Charleston Academy of Music. It earned him $55.

The address was delivered by another on December 1, 1869. "I was quite too unwell to attend the theatre at the opening," Simms wrote two days later, "but am told that the Lady who delivered the address did so with grace, spirit & propriety." On the same day, to Evert Augustus Duyckinck, Simms admitted he had not left the house in three days but heard his address was delivered "with excellent effect." The Academy, in a re-appropriated building from the 1850s, was the talk of the town. One local newspaper reported it seemed, "Everybody was going." Everybody except for Simms, apparently. In his place "a graceful blonde" named Lillie Eldridge read his poem (excerpted here from its printing in the Charleston Daily News the next day):

This once proud city, seated by the sea,
With subject realm as boundless and as free,
Though prostrate long beneath an adverse Fate
That left her homes and temples desolate,
Hath yet such wondrous gifts in sea and shore,
It needs but will her fortunes to restore;
The stern resolve; With Labor in her marts,
Hope in her homes and courage in her hearts,
To prove superior to the hostile blast,
And all repair, so glorious in her Past!

Not now in arms, but arts, we seek the strife;
The arts alone illume the paths of life;
Labor, but blindly gropes along the way,
Till Art lets in the glorious Light of Day!
'Tis she informs us with the sweet desire,
Uplifts the soul till all its wings aspire;
Trains Fancy's height, assiduous, to explore,
Our boundless realm of rock, and wood, and shore...

Such are Art's beautified toils, and such be ours!
To-night our Muses reassume their powers:
This is their temple! Bright the forms arise,
And all the world of magic fills our eyes!
There Genius comes upon his beamy car,
And lo! the crowds that gather from afar!

...To you who love the beautiful and true,
Friends of the Drama, we appeal to you!
Come with your smile, the virtuous and the wise,
And cheer the servants of the scene ye prize;
Bring fearless judgment, nail with heartiest laud;
Denounced the Wrong, and still the Right applaud;
Touch'd by the Poet's truth, embrace the True,
And be yourselves, the nobly great ye view;
Spurn shameless Vice; pluck vain presumption down,
And tear from sly Hypocrsy his gown;
Cheer infant Merit in his toilsome strife;
And crown achievement with the palm of Life;
So shall the virtues bless your name and age,
And find their noblest ally in the Stage.

Clearly, Simms saw the opening of the Academy of Music, which was really a concert hall and theater, as a stepping stone to improving the cultural literacy of the South — a cause he often considered. Particularly in the years following the Civil War, the poet/novelist hoped his fellow Southerners would make something of themselves.

Incidentally, in the month that followed, Simms was surprisingly open in discussing his ailments. In a letter to his friend and fellow Southern author Paul Hamilton Hayne, Simms admitted to having: "Dyspepsia, in its most aggravated forms,  Indigestion, Constipation, Nausea, frequent vomitings, occasional vertigo, and, as a safety valve to this, hemorrhoids." He died about six months later. The Charleston Academy of Music honored him with a tribute eight years to the month after his opening address was presented.

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