Southern Voices: Poems by William H. Holcombe, M. D. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1872.

We hail this volume as a beautiful presage of the future of the South in the department of poetry In saying that it is worthy of the author, who, for several years past, has been a brilliant star in the literary firmament of the South, we give it the highest praise. Dr. Holcombe, in a succession of psychological works, connecting in golden links the noblest and most attractive features of two worlds, has carried English prose style to a high degree of perfection.

His mind is at once logical and creative; but, like all fine writers who have preceded him, he has evidently conned models upon models, and passed through stages of laborious training. All well-balanced minds familiarize themselves with the attainments of the past before they strike out new paths for themselves. In pursuing this course, Dr. Holcombe has only accommodated himself to those inevitable laws of mental and moral progress, the observance of which is sure to secure for the philosopher, the scholar, and the poet, the highest practicable triumphs.

Half a century ago the Englishman, with a curl of contempt upon his lips, and the shred of a laurel on his brow, asked, with an air of triumph that brooked no response, “Who reads an American book?” A reply, however, was ready for him from the pen of the laborious and erudite Robert Walsh, who declared that America was a nation of thinkers, if not of writers, and that the day of her literary renown hastened on apace. He instanced Washington Irving, whose star of golden light had just appeared above the horizon, and which, when it reached the zenith, shone with the lustre and beauty of Addison’s. The intellect of the American people was, at that time, chiefly represented by members of Congress, who, so long as the government was constitutionally administered, performed dramas of the deepest interest on the theatre of public affairs, and became themselves the heroes of epics that have never yet been reduced to verse or rhyme. The Revolution itself constituted one of the greatest epics known to history. The judicial mind of Marshall and the critical grasp of Sparks were directed to this subject, to which they have done full justice. Their works, as well as the splendid histories of Ticknor and Prescott, have been read in England, and are not surpassed by the ponderous tomes of Hume, Gibbon, or Robertson.

It is certain that Northern scholars appeared first in the field and reaped the earliest laurels, and the Southern States of the United States were regarded as unproductive of men of genius. The most ridiculous reasons have been assigned for this imagined inferiority, and, among others, the institution of slavery, and the influence of climate. The last quarter of a century has evinced the utter fallacy of these charges. No historian, in splendor of description, and the artistic grouping of incidents, has surpassed the history of Philip II of Spain, by Hon. Charles Guyarre, of New Orleans; no critic has equalled, in erudition and classical learning, the lamented Hugh L. Legare, of South Carolina; and no poet of the North has appeared upon the scene who has displayed the originality of Edgar A. Poe, of Virginia; while, in statesmanship and eloquence, the Senators and Representatives of the South are admitted, on all hands, to have taken the precedence, from the very origin of the government, over those from the colder regions of the country. If the scholars and writers of all classes of the South have been less numerous than those of the North, it is because the South has had fewer universities, fewer and smaller cities, and a sparser population than the North, and, literally, no publishing houses, which are always apt to encourage, if not to create, a literature where they exist.

A temperate climate, like that of the South, is favorable to the production of artists and poets. Witness the chef-d’oeuvres of the geniuses of Southern Europe — Dante, Tasso, Ariosto, Alfieri, Calderon, Lopez de Vegas, Michael Angelo, Raphael, Titian, Paul Veronese, the Carraccis, and Canova. Why, in a similar latitude, should not genius be equally creative and triumphant in the Southern States of North America, where, under the genial rays of Apollo, Diana sounds the tocsin to the chase, where the scenery of hill, dale, river, and forest, with rich and lustrous foliage, charms the eye and imagination of poet and painter; and sunsets, glowing with all the colors of the rainbow, kindle rapture in the breast of the beholder equally with those of Italy? Great intellectual results spring out of popular convulsions. When society is agitated to its centre, a quickening impulse is imparted to the faculties, of which the results are seen in the new tone given to literature. The effects of the Conquest of William of Normandy were felt for centuries in the radical changes that took place in the English language. The feudal system gave birth to the beautiful poetry of the mediaeval ages, and the wars in Palestine, for the recovery of the Holy Land, to The Jerusalem Delivered of Tasso, and gradually prepared the way for the moral and intellectual revival in Europe that succeeded.

We have scarcely begun to recover from the terrible shock of the political and military struggle through which we have recently passed in this country. It is doubtful, as yet, whether we shall be able to save our government and our free institutions. God only knows the future, and, from present appearances, we should tremble to lift the veil. Of the past and its memories, of the skill of our generals and the gallantry of our soldiers, displayed on many a battle-field, nothing can deprive us. The history of our old homesteads, of the patriarchal relations that once subsisted between the master and his dependants, of the hospitality that characterized the Southern planter all the year round, of the sports of the chase, and the merriment of the Christmas holidays—this history still remains to us. The South is covered all over with vestiges of romance, which even the tread of the warrior, with garments dyed in blood, cannot obliterate. While the storm-cloud darkens the political heavens, we may turn to the past for consolation, for agreeable and heroic reminiscences. If we are mortified with the changes that have come over the face of American society; if we despair of reform, when the floodtide of corruption is sweeping over the land with a continually accumulating force; if the present terrifies and alarms us with its prognostications and omens of worse times to come, we may still turn with pride and pleasure to the past. People who feel that they have been deeply wronged never remain stationary. They gather strength from their very afflictions. Their intellectual power is quickened by the passions that agitate and the griefs that assail them, and the mind, in its effort to extricate itself from impending difficulties, strains every nerve, and strikes out new paths to distinction. So the deepest darkness precedes the dawn, and the blackest cloud covers the sun that shines behind it. The simile is an old one, but it inculcates a great lesson. Genius never sleeps when it sheds tears, but plumes itself for some lofty flight.

Voices of the South is the offspring of the late war. Had our poets been silent on the occasion, the very stones would have cried out against them. The full soul is always eloquent. The voice pours itself forth in song when the heart remembers. The hand seizes hold of the harp to quiet the agitations of the spirit. A down-trodden people sometimes rises higher for its fall, and expresses itself in numbers. What though the verses of Dr. Holcombe, here and there, exhibit evidences of haste in composition? The man of impulse does not always measure his words with nice exactness. He does not write so much for the gratification of the mere critic as for the man of deep feeling, who ardently loves his country and sympathizes with her misfortunes. In the main, the poetry of our author bears evidence of artistic skill, and will pass successfully through the ordeal to which the most cynical reviewer may subject it. It comes from the heart, and speaks to the heart of the South, in truthful tones that linger pleasingly on the ear. We could wish, indeed, that some of his lines, and some of his stanzas, had been more elaborately wrought, but time waits for no man, least of all for the fastidious critic; and we may well pardon the venial errors of one who is at once a real poet and a busy physician, whose time does not belong to himself but to an exacting public, and who has no leisure to reexamine his own writings and adapt them to the varying caprices of judges, especially of those who never felt a single impulse of poetic inspiration, nor penned a single line of poetry. It should never be forgotten that gifted minds are allowed a certain license, and that the Muses themselves do not submit to arbitrary rules in all their eccentric flights. Even Byron and Scott, those undoubted sons of song, did not always do it. We shall, therefore, leave the spots on the sun of our rising poet unnoticed, leaving it to the carping critic to snarl over a halting foot in the rapid march of his muse, if he chance to find one. When the soul of the poet breathes through every line, we adopt the motto, de minimis non est disputandum. None can deny that Southern Voices are thoroughly Southern in feeling, while they are sufficiently natural and cosmopolitan. They are songs of brotherhood and peace, well adapted to soften the acerbities of a recently distracted country. The lyrics are connected by subtle threads of thought, representing almost every phase of Southern sentiment. Listen to the description of the South after the war:


‘In a strange country has my spirit been,
Through day-dreams and the watches of the night;
Hither and thither, like a wandering storm;
Hither and thither, like the moaning sea,
That ever casteth up her pleading hands;
Through a strange country, dim and desolate,
Lurid with light of sunsets dipped in blood,
And full of shadowy mountains gray with mist,
And sheeted cataracts, and wailing woods,
And valleys dusky with the smoke of war;
“Down-toppled cities, tracts of smouldering fire,
And golden palaces half sunk in sand;
All blown across by many howling winds,
And wildly kissed by ever-troubled seas,
And haunted by fierce whispers, and the sound
Of ghostly banners in the air, and tread
Of feet that were invisible, and the roll
Of muffled cannon echoing round the world,
And all the gunners dead beneath the wheels.’

What Southerner does not feel the old love and the old despair when listening to the following lines:


‘A fair young body trampled to death —
This beautiful, glorious Lady of ours!
Bring spices and wine and all the spring’s breath, And bathe her with kisses and shroud her with flowers.

‘O breasts, whose twin lilies arc purpled with blood!
O face, whose twin roses with ashes are white!
O dead golden hair, at whose far splendor stood
Millions of true souls entranced with delight!

‘Wailing in silence, as brave men wail,
An army of lovers around her stands,
With fierce bitten lips and brows all pale,
With broken swords and with manacled hands!’

We cannot forbear transcribing the 1st, 4th, 6th, and 7th verses from the requiem on General Lee:

‘The chieftains bewail their Chief,
The wisest and best of them all;
And his old brigades are pale with grief.
While a nation weeps at the pall.

‘The sword has dropped from his hand;The prayer has died on his lips;
A splendor has passed from all the land,
And the States grow dark in eclipse.

‘He needs not the cannon’s boom,
Nor the drum, nor the funeral bell;
The world’s great heart is the hero’s tomb,
And Fame is the sentinel!

‘He lived without stain or fear,
And to death no prey is given.
The sunset at which we are weeping here
Is a sunrise — hailed in heaven!’

We quote the following stanzas from ‘ The Future,’ a song of hope, worthy the pen of Longfellow:

‘All evil things will disappear,
And every voice that echoes here
Be sweet as children’s laughter;
For Christ shall tread all curses down,
And bless’d Love shall take the crown,
And rule the world thereafter.

‘Then faint not, pause not, aching heart!
But meekly, bravely do thy part, To speed the future coming.
Our Christ-like yearnings are the powers
Which sow the land with living flowers, And set the world a blooming.

‘For Spirit is the final cause —
Our spirits modify the laws Whereby the earth is moving:
The tropic storms would cease to beat.
The frozen poles would melt with heat, If all men’s hearts were loving.

‘Bright flowers will spring at every door,
When sweet affections outward pour
To cause their gentle springing; When we become as angels are,
We shall commune with every star.
And hear the angels singing.’

In our opinion, Southern Voices proper, notwithstanding the high, tender, and chivalrous spirit that pervades them, are not the best pieces in the book — not those that touch the universal heart of humanity. Of such is ‘ The Bereaved,’ a series of lyrics on the death of children, a concentrated In Memoriam. We cite, for example, the first of them:

‘I rose from the troubled dream of night To read at the morning hours
What God had written in letters of light
In the open Book of Flowers;

‘But out of my soul, alas I there came
A mist of sorrow and pain,
That blurred the pages of golden flame,
And I pondered the lines in vain!

‘My heart — it failed like a trembling bird’s, And I bitterly wept to see
That God had either withdrawn his words,
Or had hidden their meaning from me.’

Again, take the fourth lyric. How many skeptical, dissatisfied spirits, all the world over, have propounded, unanswered, the following sad and perplexing queries:

‘Oh why does the sunshine warm the earth,
And mock the green with a golden kiss?
Why comes the spring with her childish mirth,
And her fragrance, to such a world as this?

‘Where love is the prey of moth and rust, And death-worms feed on all that is fair;
Where the sweet face falls away to dust —
And the roseate lips, and the golden hair;

‘Where the soul in secret sorrow keeps Its inner world to the world unknown —
A realm of shadows, in which it weeps,
And of echoes, echoing moan to moan.’

‘Afflictions spring not from the dust.’ They are the divine lot of humanity. ‘Man is made to mourn.’ The poet has solved the dark and knotty problem. Deeply wounded, and feeling profoundly himself, he grasps the hands of all sympathizers, and, leading them directly up to the portals of heaven, reveals the merciful designs of the great Creator:

‘God schemes to lead aright — To redeem, reshape, and recall —
Unfelt, perhaps, when helping the most,
Unseen when nearest of all.

‘We may ponder and ponder in vain, We may weep till our eyes grow dim:
Oh, trust that God is Infinite Love,
And leave the burden to Him!’

‘The Dead Soul’ (what a word! as if the soul could ever die!) displays all our poet’s power. He has taken a dead soul — dead to all the great aims of life; he has found a dead man — dead to all the nobler impulses of humanity, and, with more than Promethean skill, breathes the spirit of immortal life into his bosom. No! not his skill, but that of Him who converted water into wine at the marriage feast. We have not space — we wish we had — to insert the whole of this grand poem; but some extracts will suffice to unravel the mystery of a dead soul restored to life:

‘O a painful thing it is to see
The smallest flower drop from the tree,
And think it never more shall be!
The saddest, sweetest watch we keep
Is o’er a babe from its mother riven.
The very angels who took it to heaven
Must return to its cradle and weep.
But exceeding all human grief
Is the death of a soul that has died of sin —
Of evil and wrong and unbelief— The victim of passion and doubt, Perhaps a marble of splendor without,
And a reeking charnel within —
A spirit bereft of heavenly breath,
A world in chaos, void of light, Something which angels cannot see From the lucid depths of their purity,
But shudder as they strain their sight,
Start back and call it nothing! darkness! Death.

‘Alas! alas!
And said I that the Soul was dead?
That its vital spark had fled?
That it could not live again?
Oh, shallow, false, and vain 1
How could I lose the spiritual light
That floods across my inner sight?
Life is eternal;
Love is supernal:
Love and life beat in the heart of decay. Nothing that is can cease to be,
But chance as it may from day to day,
It ever remains by God’s decree
A power, a form, a mystery.
In uttermost bitter there is sweet;
In coldest crystals there is heat;
In ebon blackness there is light,
And a day-germ in the sunless night.
In everything we feel or see,
From the mountain’s crown to the valley’s clod,
From man to beast,
From greatest to least,
In nerve and vessel and bone,
In water and iron and stone
There lurks some trace of elemental fire,
Which will not let it quite expire,
But gives it being and draws it higher,
And binds it to the the Living God’

The poet proceeds to give the solution of the great problem, how light may be eliminated from darkness — life from death. No human power is adequate to the performance of such a miracle:

‘Who, then, can save
Our souls from the grave?
He — none but He— who created and gavel
For this, in the shadowy ages gone, The God-Man clove the trembling spheres,
Planted His awful brow with thorn, And watered his steps with tears;
For this he prayed on the mountain height,
And blazoned the temple with words of light;
For this He strove, ‘mid the destrt’s glooms,
Till the powers of darkness fell;
And He raised the dead men out of their tombs,
And the lost ones out of their hell.’

We cannot refrain from citing the last stanza of ‘ The Dead Soul,’ by our eloquent poet-preacher, which, in the music of its rhythm, and its exquisite but bold touches, reminds us of the finest creations of Shelley:

‘Whatever may be in the land or the sea,
Or the blue dome brooding above,
What Nature reveals in her opening seals,
Of beauty or glory or love;
What Art unrolls on her flaming scrolls,
Or bards in music rehearse —
Are the shadows falling from our souls On the floors of the universe.’

This is poetry — such as the morning stars chanted at the such as the morning stars chanted at the dawn of creation. We need not despair of the fortunes of the South, gloomy as they are at present, when a poet is found in her midst who can tune his lyre to such strains as these! If she has not political freedom and civil rights, she still has Christianity, and the strong faith and lofty expectations and sublime poetry it awakens. ‘

Marie’ is a poem of a different character. All the elements blended in it are of the human type. It is a story not of man, but of woman, rare in loveliness and beauty, fallen, through the wicked arts of man, the tempter—man the demon:

‘Love, sorrow, and death! the old, sad story! —
Old as the tides, old as the march of the sun,
Old as our life, whose woes begun
Soon as the Maker’s work was done
With its infinite beauty and glory.’

The poet proceeds to tell the tale, with a knowledge of frail, erring human nature, gathered not more from the bards of old than from the melancholy proofs furnished by every day observation in the nineteenth century:

‘The tale of love so warmly plighted,
Of love and truth so fast united,
So dream-enraptured, heaven-befriended,
Flush with joys and visions splendid;
Then of love betrayed and blighted,
Truth perverted, slain and lost,
Souls adrift and passion-tossed, A
nd the fall from bliss supernal,
Down through deepening glooms to shame and death eternal.

‘Therefore stood Marie on the bridge,
In the cold, dark night,
Clad all in white —
Standing on the topmost ridge,
That hides the future from the past,
Casting a look, forlorn, aghast,
On the town with its glimmering light;
Therefore she saw in the waves below,
In the cold, dark, dash of their wintry roll,
Some sweet, sweet solace for human woe,
Some sweet, sweet balm for a wounded soul.
Something sweeter than life or love,
That drew her down against her will!
And there passed a gleam in the air above,
And a plash beneath, and all was still!’

The whole account of her passion, her downfall, her ruin, and her death, is given with great force and tenderness. The arts employed by her base betrayer are but too faithfully unfolded:

‘Like the base bee that sucks the flower,
And steals its sweets one sunny hour,
Then spreads his wings and flies away
To other loves and other prey,
The spoiler drew her life and fled.’

The Minor Poems of our author are brief but comprehensive, and full of beauty. What a moral is conveyed—a moral full of consolation —by the ‘ Two Figures’:

‘I saw two figures in the light Stand out like statues, as I dreamed:
A skeleton — oh, ghastly sight!
And a sweet youth, who sleeping seemed.

‘”Ah! this is hateful Death!” I thought,
“With cold, white bones and sockets deep;
And this our Life, forever wrought
Of dreams, of shadows, and of sleep.”

‘”Your thought is wrong! your thought I’ve read!”
Some spirit spoke; I held my breath.
“This skeleton is Life,” he said,
“And this sweet, sleeping youth is Death!”

‘Your life to us is cold and bare.
We sigh and sorrow for your sake.
Your death we welcome everywhere,
That sweet, sweet sleep from which you wake.’

In his ‘ New Thanatopsis,’ the closing and crowning poem of the work, the poet goes in pursuit of Death, searches for him everywhere, and finds him not. He boldly comes to the conclusion that there is no such thing — that Death, that annihilation, is a nonentity — that the famed King of Terrors is not only without a crown, but that he is a pure myth:

‘Throughout the choral harmony of things,
And all the vast economy of God,
Death has no place or power. There is no Death!
God, God alone, is Life; and all our life,
And all the verging substance of the world,

From Him derived, and vitalized by Him;
And every change, which we ascribe to Death,
Is but a change in form, or place, or state,
Of something which can never cease to live.’

The piece reminds us at once of Mr. Bryant’s’ Thanatopsis,’ and, in many respects, is equal if not superior to the Northern poet, to whom he unquestionably refers in the following lines:

‘In gloom and darkness was the poet lost,
Who calls this earth the mighty tomb of man:
‘Tis but his temporary habitation,
His cradle, and his school of discipline;
The dark, cold ground, in which the seed is sown,
That, struggling upward, slowly germinates
Until its bursts into the shining air.’

If by the term death our author means annihilation, we readily agree with him that it is ‘ a myth.’ But if he uses the word in any one of its ordinary senses, then do we reject his sentiment as utterly false. For death, properly so-called, is no myth; but, on the contrary, he is the ‘ King of Terrors,’ with a most real and awful throne. How could it be otherwise, indeed, under the dominion of a holy and just God? For where sin reigns, by the rebellion of the creature, is it not necessary that death should also reign by the justice of the Creator and Ruler of the world? We learn this from the word of God, to which we cling by faith, spurning the weak conclusions of sense as the spawn of sin and death. We believe, indeed, that the love of God beams from the eye of hell, no less than from the brow of heaven, being, in reality, no other than ‘ the wrath of the Lamb,’ kindled by a regard for that eternal law on which depends the order, the happiness, and the glory of the universe. We seek not, therefore, to soften down the features of God’s awful justice, to make them harmonize with the corrupt and sin-loving propensities of fallen man. We console ourselves, however, with the reflection, that the reign of death, so essential to the highest good of the universe, is partial and limited, while the dominion of life is boundless as creation and beautiful as the sovereignty of God. The following stanza expresses, in one word, the conclusion of our philosophy on this subject — a philosophy which, however pleasing or fascinating to the imagination, we should instantly give to the winds if it did not accord with the teachings of Revelation:

‘O World of worlds! amazing scene of love!
In all thine orbs, in all thy rolling spheres,
That from the primal touch forever move,
No sin, no death, no evil thing appears,
But bliss unbounded every being cheers.
Thus God designed the whole, and made it well,
For in this universe of endless years,
More heavens shine than myriad tongues can tell,
While in the realms of space there groans a single hell.”

We are greatly indebted to Dr. Holcombe for this beautiful addition to the American poetry of the nineteenth century. That it is a contribution from the South, by no means lessens its interest or diminishes its value in our eyes. We trust Voices of the South is but the precursor of its ‘Songs’ from the same poet. It is prophetic of the renaissance of our literature, and convinces us that ‘there is a glorious life in the old land yet.’

Albert Taylor Bledsoe

Albert Taylor Bledsoe (1809-1877) was a leading literary figure in the South after the War. His "The Southern Review" was one of the best magazines on Southern history and culture ever produced. Taylor also wrote several works of philosophy and the premier defense of secession as the right of the States, "Is Davis A Traitor?"

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