Southern Poets and Poems, Part I

A Series By Clyde Wilson

If the South would’ve won, we’d’ve  had  it made.” –Hank Williams, Jr., of Alabama

“The South’s  gonna do it again.”–Charlie Daniels  of  North Carolina

1

INTRODUCTION

This collection is made, not from the viewpoint of a critic of literature, but that of a student of history interested in how the experiences of the Southern people have been reflected in verse.  This collection is made in the belief that poetry conveys a kind of truth not found in other forms of human discourse. Of course, such a sample cannot give a full account of the quality and range of such world-class Southern geniuses in poetry as Poe, Simms, Warren, Davidson, Middleton, Chappell, and Berry. 

Poetry, of course, is akin to music—music in words.  Mostly formal verse is collected here, although it  should  not be overlooked that a great deal of Southern (and American) life and spirit is reflected in the Southern popular songs of the 19th and 20th centuries, among which gospel, a subject in itself, is an important part. We have only occasionally looked into those realms, although without exception every original and important form of American music has its origins in the South and reflects the Southern spirit.  Southern “country music” was the only natural and creative source of American lyrics in the later 20th century.   (At least until  it was commercialised by people who wish to profit from Southern creativity without understanding  or acknowledging it.)

Occasionally we have included documents that are not verse but that have  poetic sentiments about Southern people and events.

The series is generally constructed chronologically.

Southern verse presents an astounding  proof of what the South has meant  to many good and intelligent people over many generations.

The Alabama poet Alexander Beaufort Meek wrote in the Preface to his Songs and Poems of  the South in 1857:

The Poetry of a country should be a faithful expression of its physical and moralcharacteristics. The imagery, at least, should be drawn from the indigenous objects of the region, and the sentiments be such as naturally arise under the influence of its climate, its in­stitutions, habits of life, and social condition. Verse, so fashioned and colored, is as much the genuine product and growth of a Land, as its trees or flowers. It partakes of the raciness of the soil, the purity of the atmosphere, the brilliancy of its skies, its mountain pictures, and its broad sweeps of level and undulating territory. The Scenery infuses itself into the Song; and the feelings and fancies are modulated by the circumstances amid which they had their birth.

These opinions have formed the poetic Faith of the writer of the present volume. He has not attempted to sing in a mere spirit of imitativeness, or in the tropes and metaphors of foreign Art and Precedent. Gazing upon the delightful Land about him—the Land of his birth and affections—he has endeavored to depict its beauties,—to weave its illustrative objects into the tissues of his imagination, and to give utterance to the thoughts and emotions congenial to a mind  impressed by such  associations,  and  loving at once the Patriotic and the Beautiful.

William Gilmore Simms, the father of Southern literature, expressed  similar ideas in his preface to War Poetry of the South:

The emotional literature of a people is as necessary to the philosophical historian as to the mere details of events in the progress of a nation.  This is essential to the reputation of the Southern people, as illustrating their feelings, sentiments, ideas and opinions—the motives which influenced their actions, and the objects which they had in contemplation, and which seemed to them to justify the struggle in which they were engaged.

Henry Timrod in an 1859 essay and lecture, “The Literature of the South,”   pointed out that Southern writing in his time had not quite reached universal and timeless status. Certainly Poe, Simms, and Timrod himself as well as a number of prose writers show evidence of a maturing Southern culture that was brutally truncated by defeat.  Not until the 20th century century did Southern writing reach the universal and timeless.           

* * * * * *

MICHAEL DRAYTON (1563-1631), English Renaissance poet, never came to the New World.  In 1606 he wrote this ode “To the Virginian Voyage,” in honour of Sir Walter Raleigh’s first expedition to plant a permanent settlement of English people in North America. The poem illustrates the culture out of which the first Southerners came and almost uncannily anticipates the South that was soon to be founded.  Spelling has been somewhat modernised for clarity.

To the Virginian Voyage

 You brave heroic minds,

Worthy your country’s name,

     That honor still pursue,

     Go, and subdue,

 Whilst loit’ring hinds

 Lurk here at home, with shame.

 

 Britons, you stay too long;

 Quickly aboard bestow you,

     And with a merry gale

     Swell your stretched sail,

 With vows as strong

 As the winds that blow you.

 

 Your course securely steer,

 West and by south forth keep,

     Rocks, lee-shores, nor shoals,

     When AEolus scowls

 You need not fear,

 So absolute the deep.

 

 And cheerfully at sea,

 Success you still entice,

     To get the pearl and gold,

     And ours to hold, Virginia,

 Earth’s only paradise.

 

 Where nature hath in store

 Fowl, venison, and fish,

     And the fruitful’st soil

     Without your toil

 Three harvests more,

 All greater than your wish.

 

 And the ambitious vine

 Crowns with his purple mass,

     The cedar reaching high

     To kiss the sky,

 The cypress, pine

 And useful sassafras.

 

 To whose the golden ag,

 Still nature’s laws doth give,

     No other cares that tend,

     But them to defend

 From winter’s age,

 That long there doth not live.

 

 When as the luscious smell

 Of that delicious land,

     Above the seas that flows,

     The clear wind throws,

 Your hearts to swell

 Approaching the dear strand,

 

 In kenning of the shore,

 Thanks to God first given,

     O you, the happi’st men,

     Be frolic then,

 Let cannons roar,

 Frighting the wide heaven.

 

 And in regions far

 Such heroes bring ye forth

     As those from whom we came

     And plant our name

 Under that star,

 Not known unto our north.

 

 And as there plenty grows

 Of laurel everywhere,

     Apollo’s sacred tree,

     You it may see

 A poet’s brows

 To crown, that may sing there.

 

 The voyages attend

 Industrious Hakluyt,

     Whose reading shall enflame

     Men to seek fame,

 And much commend

 To after times thy wit.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

You might also enjoy these articles...