The Poet Laureate of the Lost Cause

DanielBLucas

It was the fate of much Southern poetry to have been written during the stormy period of our Civil War and hence to have been overlooked and neglected. War may furnish incitement to the production of poetry, but it does not generate that attitude of quiet and content most conducive to gentle, poetic reading. Indeed misfortune befell much poetry of this period, for when it was not ignored, it was frequently disparaged because of sectional alignments and prejudices.

Fortunately much of this poetry has in the last generation or so been rediscovered, and, of course, more justly appraised. Some of it that owed its popularity in the first instance to transient hostility and disturbing passion has found its true level, and is now valued, if valued at all, because of its historical significance. Far more of it has been given a higher place because of its inherent or essential value. Under the surface disturbed by emotions sometimes violent in their nature depths of genuine poetic sentiment have been sounded. Sidney Lanier was the first of these poets to be recognized because so little of his poetry rooted itself in polemic soil and all of it seemed so free from taint and so fascinating in its artistry. William Gilmore Simms in his poetry and prose alike has been disassociated from his environment of controversy and declared a prolific and original author. Paul Hamilton Hayne is now acknowledged to be one of our most consistent sonnetteers in both sentiment and grace, and a poet of flowing art and frequent excellences. Henry Timrod claims a place among our finest lyric artists and other poets have gained merited recognition.

Calm criticism has discriminated unflinchingly between the good and bad in these poets, for there is no fixed standard of accomplishment reached by all of them at all times. Later editors have been disposed to reject totally the unworthy portions that the better parts may receive then proper emphasis. Sometimes loyalty to hallowed memories has demanded that the editions be complete even where inequalities have been clearly detected. Judgments about poetry are so variable that frequently it seems best to leave to the reader the exercise of his own discrimination.

Many Southern poets, sometimes called minor because they never aspired to be included in that small circle of the very best, still remain unknown and unexploited. It may be that the poems are totally inaccessible to the general reader as were those of John R. Thompson before the publication of the Library of Southern Literature, or obtained with great difficulty as those of Judge Daniel Bedinger Lucas whose volumes now lying before me are rare and precious. These are copies presented with his own autograph to his Alma Mater, the University of Virginia.

Daniel Bedinger Lucas was born in Charlestown, Virginia, March 16, 1836. It would be irrelevant here to trace his distinguished ancestry through which he inherited both taste and talent, and unnecessary to linger on a discussion of his environment save to say that it brought him all the advantages of the Virginia youth of his day. Among these he counted educational privileges in the University of Virginia with the friendships and associations of this unsullied period. His four years were filled with academic successes, oratorical achievements and social delights. Trained later for the law under a distinguished teacher, Judge Brockenbrough, of Lexington, he entered upon the practice of his profession just before tie Civil War broke out. He responded promptly to the call of his State but was prevented by bodily weakness from following all of the military campaigns of his command. The most dramatic and pathetic episode of his military career came just before the close of the war when he ran the blockade under great difficulties and made his way to New York in an effort to save his old college friend, John Yates Beall. Beall had been captured, tried as a spy, and, in spite of the endeavors of his friends, was executed at Governor’s Island. Mr. Lucas was unable to return to his native State, but took up for the remaining months of the war his residence in Canada. It was here that he wrote his most famous poem, “The Land Where We Were Dreaming.” This poem attracted much attention at the time and deserves today its high place among the lyrics produced by that noble struggle. When he returned after the war to his home, he found himself no longer a resident of Virginia but of West Virginia, which as a war measure had been torn from the mother State. By the test oath of this new State he was precluded from the practice of his profession until 1870. To follow his career as a lawyer would be to record many of the most noted cases in the higher courts of West Virginia. From the Bar he ultimately went to the Bench and closed his legal career as President of the Supreme Court of Appeals of his State. Many other honors had come to him on the way to this preferment. He had been a Presidential Elector, Member of the House of Delegates and by appointment a United States Senator, and in all public positions had displayed marked ability in his grasp of public questions and his unswerving loyalty to the true spirit of democracy. All of the honors and distinctions that came to him, however, he subordinated to the happiness of his own home over which presided his cultivated wife to whom he was married in 1869. His widow and one daughter, named after his native state, still survive the husband and father who died in 1909. It is to the loyalty of these two representatives of his family, and especially to the industry and devotion of his daughter, that this volume is due.

But the true purpose of this memoir is not to estimate the legal abilities of this distinguished barrister but to enumerate and value in a general way his literary productions. As was mentioned above, it was in 1865, while he was in Canada that he first attracted attention by his most famous poem, “The Land Where We Were Dreaming,” a poem singularly expressive of the life and sentiments of his fellow citizens in the far away South. Soon after this, appeared his Memoir of John Yates Beall, his noted college mate and unfortunate comrade in arms, whose simple story focuses the horrors of internecine strife in a single episode. In 1869 he pubh’shed, with his talented sister, his first volume of poems, “The Wreath of Eglantine,” containing among other things the poem already referred to and his long narrative poem, “St. Agnes of Guienne.” It was this poem that was so handsomely received by the critics soon after its publication. Ten years later (1879) appeared his next volume, a play based upon the Civil War and entitled “The Maid of Northumberland.” Perhaps our author has not been altogether free from the sensational and mysterious in this production but he has succeeded in telling an interesting story in most favorable form. Five years later (1884) appeared “Ballads and Madrigals” the last collection of his poetry but by no means his last poems, for among others, there was a remarkable series of poems written for special occasions; for example, in 1865, on the Confederate Cemetery at Winchester and in 1875 as the selected laureate at the University of Virginia which was then celebrating its semicentennial. His selection for this task was probably due to the merits of his poem read before the Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity in 1874. In 1882 he was again invited to read a poem on the Confederate Monument at Charlestown, and in 1887 he appeared again before his fraternity, but this time at a large national convention. His last long poem was read before the New York Southern Society. In all of these poems he shows the double power of saying the thing that was interesting at the moment and of making what he said of lasting value. Perhaps no other Southern poet, save James Barren Hope, was ever invited to fill so many important places on significant programs. He collaborated with J. Fairfax McLaughlin on the Southern Metropolis, a paper which Alexander Stephens pronounced the nearest approach to the London Saturday Review of any paper on this continent. Among the papers contributed to the Southern Metropolis or lectures delivered were those on Jackson, John Brown, John Randolph, Henry Clay and Daniel O’Connell. We may dismiss his prose, without, however, doing it even meagre justice, by noting its fullness, its lucidity, and its oratorical fervor. Judge Lucas wrote freely with a ready command of his resources and with natural ease hi expression. His speeches and lectures show careful study and elaborate preparation but not to the exclusion of a warmth and naturalness reflected in his own conversational power. His oration on Daniel O’Connell was declared by those who had the privilege of hearing it, to be “masterly as an analysis of the character and exhaustive as an historical picture of the time of the Irish liberator.”

But to us his poetry is of more permanent and present interest, for it is of the nature of poetry to have persistent vitality while prose serves its transient purpose and is then dismissed. Reverting to “The Land Where We Were Dreaming,” we find in this attractive lyric the redolence of a self-satisfied but charmingly attractive civilization. The poem is instinct with Southern loyalty but with no intolerance or bootless repining. War was of necessity the theme of many of his poems. How could it be otherwise with an author whose young manhood was thrilled by the stirring events in which he had an occasional share or in which he had a deep personal participation through sympathy. Yet it is significant that in his martial strains there is rarely acute feeling or any severity of tone. His adjustment to the changed conditions after the war was delayed by the arbitrary action of his State not by any belligerency in his mood. Therefore his poems after the war were not marred by lack of quietness or self poise. Occasionally it is true he trifles and not always with easy grace, but generally his sentiments whether of universal friendship or of personal and passionate love are highly worthy of his poetic heart. His earliest studies of female character remind the reader forcibly both in matter and manner of Tennyson’s similarly impersonal types, but with Mr. Lucas the tendency is to go over from these impersonal types to personal tributes. From Tennyson, too, or from any other of the poets comtemporary with his youth, he may have learned his love of nature, best of all the nature of his own environment. His fondness for local color did not have to be satisfied by far wanderings, though on these journeys he discovered fascinating subjects for recital or description. In his love of flowers or those flowers of the Empyrean, the stars above, he revels in his quiet, gentle fashion, finding in them themes always ready to hand but never stale or commonplace.

It almost follows from this nature love that his own nature was religious and that this religious element found expression in his devotional poems; for his attitude is devotional, whether he is half revealing, half concealing his sacred emotions or whether he is boldly formulating them in versified prayers. Nor did his religion turn always heavenward; for that he was too human, too surely inspired by the conception of the fraternity of mankind. His attachments were strong, whether for individuals or for institutions, as is apparent in the occasional poems already mentioned. In them one discovers his unswerving loyalty to the Southern cause, his confident love of his Alma Mater, the University of Virginia, his attachment to the friends and associates of his college days, symbolized for him by his fraternity. In these poems partaking of the nature of poetic addresses there is always freedom and onrush of manner mounting at times to genuine oratory.

In all of his poems metrical skill in the readiness with which he passes from one verse form to another, and his sure grasp of each, command recognition. His essential capability, marred rarely by the inattention due to haste, is attested by poem after poem with its variety of measure and responsiveness of rhyme. Some of these poems have a Poesque melody, others a lilt less graceful and flexible, but nevertheless firm and determined. In all of his works he proves himself a student of good poetry and if not always a consummate master of his art, at least a loyal and worthy disciple of his own great masters.

A perusal of Judge Lucas’s life fills one with wonder that in the midst of his numerous and absorbing preoccupations he found any time to indulge his talent for poetical composition; and a study of his poems gives us no less surprise that so much of his work done in these spare moments is so well worthy of our acclaim and praise. It is not contended that all of it is equally good but that none of it need be omitted and that much of it should enjoy a long and merited popularity.

IN THE LAND WHERE WE WERE DREAMING

Fair were our nation’s visions, and as grand
As ever floated out of fancy-land;
Children we were in simple faith,
But god-like children, whom nor death,
Nor threat of danger drove from honor’s path—
In the land where we were dreaming!

Proud were our men as pride of birth could render,
As violets our women pure and tender;
And when they spoke, their voices thrill
At evening hushed the whip-poor-will,
At morn the mocking bird was mute and still,
In the land where we were dreaming!

And we had graves that covered more of glory,
Than ever taxed the lips of ancient story;
And in our dreams we wove the thread
Of principles for which had bled,
And suffered long our own immortal dead,
In the land where we were dreaming!

Tho’ in our land we had both bond and free,
Both were content, and so God let them be;
Till Northern glances, slanting down,
With envy viewed our harvest sun—
But little recked we, for we still slept on,
In the land where we were dreaming!

Our sleep grew troubled; and our dreams grew wild;
Red meteors flashed across our heaven’s field;
Crimson the Moon; between the Twins
Barbed arrows flew in circling lanes
Of light, red Comets tossed their fiery manes
O’er the land where we were dreaming!

Down from her eagle height smiled Liberty,
And waved her hand in sign of victory;
The world approved, and everywhere,
Except where growled the Russian bear,
The brave, the good and just gave us their prayer,
For the land where we were dreaming!

High o’er our heads a starry flag was seen,
Whose field was blanched, and spotless in its sheen;
Chivalry’s cross its union bears,
And by his scars each vet’ran swears
To bear it on in triumph through the wars,
In the land where we were dreaming!

We fondly thought a Government was ours—
We challenged place among the world’s great powers;
We talk’d in sleep of rank, commission,
Until so life-like grew the vision,
That he who dared to doubt but met derision,
In the land where we were dreaming!

A figure came among us as we slept—
At first he knelt, then slowly rose and wept;
Then gathering up a thousand spears,
He swept across the field of Mars,
Then bowed farewell and walked behind the stars,
From the land where we were dreaming!

We looked again, another figure still
Gave hope, and nerved each individual will;
Erect he stood, as clothed with power;
Self-poised, he seemed to rule the hour,
With firm, majestic sway,—of strength a tower,
In the land where we were dreaming!

As while great Jove, in bronze, a warder god,
Gazed eastward from the Forum where he stood,
Rome felt herself secure and free,—
So Richmond, we, on guard for thee,
Beheld a bronzed hero, god-like Lee,
In the land where we were dreaming!

As wakes the soldier when the alarm calls,—
As wakes the mother when her infant falls,—
As starts the traveler when around
His sleepy couch the fire-bells sound,—
So woke our nation with a single bound—
In the land where we were dreaming!

Woe! Woe! is us, the startled mothers cried,
While we have slept, our noble sons have died!
Woe! Woe! is us, how strange and sad,
That all our glorious visions fled,
Have left us nothing real but our dead,
In the land where we were dreaming!

And are they really dead, our martyred slain?
No, Dreamers! Morn shall bid them rise again,
From every plain,—from every height,—
On which they seemed to die for right,
Their gallant spirits shall renew the fight,
In the land where we were dreaming!

Unconquered still in soul, tho’ now o’er-run,
In peace, in war, the battle’s just begun!
Once this Thyestean banquet o’er,
Grown strong the few who bide their hour,
Shall rise and hurl its drunken guests from power,
In the land where we were dreaming!

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