A Series by Clyde Wilson.
WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS (1806-1870) of South Carolina, amazingly prolific novelist, poet, essayist, lecturer, historian, critic, and editor, has been rightly called “The Father of Southern Literature.” Without question Simms is the most important Southern writer of the 19th century after Poe. Without question Simms is in every way one of the most important American writers. It is a scandal that Boston and New York critics have left him out of the canon. Fortunately, a superb edition of Simms’s verse, selected and edited by James E. Kibler, has been published with almost 200 worthwhile poems. Only a small sample can be offered here that seeks to indicate Simms’s range of thought and mastery.
Thou art a Poet, and thy aim has been
To draw from every thought, and every scene
Psychal, and natural, that serene delight
Wherewith our God hath made his words so bright,
The sense of Beauty—the immortal thrill
Of intuitions throned above our Will—
The secret of that yearning, dim, but strong
Which yields the pulse to Hope—the wings to Song.
The mighty master in each page we trace,
Natural always, never common-place;
Forever frank and cheerful, even when woe,
Commands the sigh to speak, the tear to flow;
Sweet without weakness, without storming, strong,
Jest not too strain’d, nor argument too long;
Still true to reason, though intent on sport,
Thy wit ne’er drives thy wisdom out of court;–
A brooklet now, a noble stream anon,
Careering in the daylight and the sun;
A mighty ocean next, broad, deep and wide,
Earth, sun and heaven, all imaged in its tide!–
Oh! when the master bends him to his art,
How the mind follows, how vibrates the heart,
The mighty grief o’ercomes us as we hear,
And the soul hurries, hungering, to the ear;
The willing nature worships as he sings,
And heaven is won when Genius spreads her wings.
These woods have all been haunted, and the power
Of spirits still abides in tree and flower;
They have their tiny elves that dance by night,
When the leaves sparkle in the moonbeam’s light;
And the wild Indian often, as he flew
Along their water in his birch canoe,
Beheld, in the soft light of summer eves,
Strange eyes and faces peering through the leaves;
Nor, are they vanish’d yet.–The woodman sees,
Even now, wild forms that lurk behind the trees;
And the pine forests have a chanted song,
The Indians say, must linger in them long.
The mighty and the massy of the wood
Compel my worship: satisfied I lie,
With nought in sight but forest, earth, and sky,
And give sweet sustenance to precious mood!—
Tis thus from visible but inanimate things,
We gather mortal reverence. They declare
In silence, a persuasion we must share,
Of hidden sources, spiritual springs,
Fountains of deep intelligence, and powers,
That man himself implores not; and I grow
From wonder into worship, as the show,
Majestic, but unvoiced, through noteless hours,
Imposes on my soul, with musings high,
That, like Jacob’s Ladder, lifts them to the sky!
The Swamp Fox
We follow where the Swamp Fox guides,
His friends and merry men are we;
And when the troop of Tarleton rides,
We burrow in the cypress tree.
The turfy hammock is our bed,
Our home is in the red deer’s den,
Our roof, the tree-top overhead,
For we are wild and hunted men.
We fly by day and shun its light,
But, prompt to strike the sudden blow,
We mount and start with early night,
And through the forest track our foe,
And soon he hears our chargers leap,
The flashing sabre blinds his eyes,
And ere he drives away his sleep,
And rushes from his camp, he dies.
Free bridle-bit, good gallant steed,
That will not ask a kind caress
To swim the Santee at our need,
When on his heels the foemen press—
The true heart and the ready hand,
The spirit stubborn to be free,
The twisted bore, the smiting brand—
And we are Marion’s men, you see.
Now light the fire and cook the meal,
The last, perhaps, that we shall taste;
I hear the Swamp Fox round us steal,
And that’s a sign we move in haste.
He whistles to the scouts, and hark!
You hear his order calm and low.
Come, wave your torch across the dark,
And let us see the boys that go.
We may not see their forms again,
God help ’em, should they find the strife!
For they are strong and fearless men,
And make no coward terms for life;
They’ll fight as long as Marion bids,
And when he speaks the word to shy,
Then, not till then, they turn their steeds,
Through thickening shade and swamp to fly.
Now stir the fire and lie at ease—
The scouts are gone, and on the brush
I see the Colonel bend his knees,
To take his slumbers too. But hush!
He ’s praying, comrades; ’tis not strange;
The man that’s fighting day by day
May well, when night comes, take a change,
And down upon his knees to pray.
Break up that hoecake, boys, and hand
The sly and silent jug that’s there;
I love not it should idly stand
When Marion’s men have need of cheer.
’Tis seldom that our luck affords
A stuff like this we just have quaffed,
And dry potatoes on our boards
May always call for such a draught.
Now pile the brush and roll the log;
Hard pillow, but a soldier’s head
That’s half the time in brake and bog
Must never think of softer bed.
The owl is hooting to the night,
The cooter crawling o’er the bank,
And in that pond the flashing light
Tells where the alligator sank.
What! ’tis the signal! start so soon,
And through the Santee swamp so deep,
Without the aid of friendly moon,
And we, Heaven help us! half asleep!
But courage, comrades! Marion leads,
The Swamp Fox takes us out to-night;
So clear your swords and spur your steeds,
There’s goodly chance, I think, of fight.
We follow where the Swamp Fox guides,
We leave the swamp and cypress tree,
Our spurs are in our coursers’ sides,
And ready for the strife are we.
The Tory camp is now in sight,
And there he cowers within his den;
He hears our shouts, he dreads the fight,
He fears, and flies from Marion’s men.