Sunday, June 19, 2011

Henry Timrod: Ethnogenesis

Henry Timrod was a famous poet in the mid-19th century South; the Poetry Foundation calls him "after Poe, the most important Southern poet of the nineteenth century...he is not a major poet, but he is a significant minor poet." I'd never heard of him, but I don't know if that's because his strongly pro-Southern sentiment sank his reputation or because American literature is another area I'm not strong in. He was considered the unofficial poet laureate of the South.

"Ethnogenesis" was written upon the occasion of the First Southern Congress in February 1861 and was originally titled "Ode, on the Meeting of the Southern Congress." That extremely boring title does give you a clue about the poem: there are only a few kinds of odes, and this looks like a Pindaric ode, which means that it's a long poem with complex stanzas that don't have to match, which is composed to commemorate some heroic or highly emotional national event. A Pindaric ode may be a musical event with a chorus and dancers. So this poem ought to evoke triumph, national pride, and a general feeling of pageantry.

Timrod calls upon all the natural beauties of the South to celebrate its birth as a country. The cotton plant gets half a stanza to itself and is invoked as "the snow of Southern summers" to protect the land. Should the South be profaned by invasion, the very earth itself will rise up in self-defense to throw off the oppressing North's creed of avarice, while God will fight on the side of honor, purity, and the generosity of the South--which is destined to bless the whole world by giving work to the poor.

Most of Timrod's work sprang directly from the Civil War, and he died only a few years after it ended. I'm going to have to look further at his poetry. Meanwhile I'll quote the fourth and final stanza of "Ethnogenesis" here:

But let our fears -- if fears we have -- be still,
And turn us to the future! Could we climb
Some mighty Alp, and view the coming time,
The rapturous sight would fill

Our eyes with happy tears!

Not only for the glories which the years
Shall bring us; not for lands from sea to sea,
And wealth, and power, and peace, though these shall be;
But for the distant peoples we shall bless,
And the hushed murmurs of a world's distress:
For, to give labor to the poor,

The whole sad planet o'er,

And save from want and crime the humblest door,
Is one among the many ends for which

God makes us great and rich!
The hour perchance is not yet wholly ripe
When all shall own it, but the type
Whereby we shall be known in every land
Is that vast gulf which lips our Southern strand,
And through the cold, untempered ocean pours
Its genial streams, that far off Arctic shores
May sometimes catch upon the softened breeze
Strange tropic warmth and hints of summer seas.

No comments: