| Well-versed Dylan brings poet new fame
(03.10.06 - 23:26) In his pitiful 19th-century lifetime, South Carolina poet Henry Timrod suffered from tuberculosis, lived in perpetual poverty and watched his hometown burn at Sherman´s hands. Timrod lost two sisters and an infant son within a single month, and he died in obscurity before reaching his 40th birthday.
By Nick Marino
"You ask me to tell you my story of the last year," he once wrote, in a letter to fellow poet Paul Hamilton Hayne. "I can embody it all in a few words —- beggary, starvation, death, bitter grief, utter want of hope."
On the bright side, Bob Dylan apparently likes his stuff.
News recently surfaced that Dylan devoted some of his chart-topping new album "Modern Times" to "borrowing" language from the man known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy. For example, both men describe a wisdom that "grows up in strife" and rhyme "lover´s breath" with "a temporary death."
Beyond the usual moral and intellectual property debates, the Dylan flap has provided an unexpected opportunity to examine the life of a largely forgotten man of Southern letters.
"I´m excited about any writer who suffered like Timrod did and fell into oblivion for so long becoming a rock star," said James Kibler, a genteel University of Georgia literature professor who has taught Timrod on and off for more than 30 years. "I mean all poets want to be rock stars, don´t they? And when you´re dead, this is the only chance you´ve got."
Born in 1828, Timrod was a handsome man with a long nose, a high forehead, a cleft chin and a flowing head of hair. His eyes were penetrating, almost arrogant. He sported a colossal mustache shaped like a boomerang.
He studied at UGA in 1845 and ´46. "A large part of my leisure at college," he wrote in a letter, "was occupied in the composition of love verses, frantic or tender. Every pretty girl´s face I met acted upon me like an inspiration!" Apparently, some things in Athens never change.
According to Timrod biographer Walter Brian Cisco, a retired tire salesman who published the poet´s life story in 2004, Timrod probably left the school due to financial constraints, a lifelong issue. Cisco´s book quotes Timrod´s friend and colleague William Gilmore Simms on the subject: Timrod, he said, "always suffers from the sin of impecuniosity."
A career in law flopped —- "He was just not a practical fella," Cisco said —- and Timrod was unable to make much money as a poet or plantation tutor. But he would gather with friends in the back of a bookstore, Cisco said, sitting around a coal-burning stove and reading poetry.
The work he produced was Romantic, passionate and deeply Southern. Timrod worked for a time as a war correspondent, and poems such as "A Cry to Arms" championed the Confederate cause:
The despot roves your fairest lands,
And till he flies or fears,
Your fields must grow but armed bands,
Your sheaves be sheaves of spears!
Give up to mildew and to rust
The useless tools of gain,
And feed your country´s sacred dust
With floods of crimson rain!
"We roll our eyes at these dead white poets, especially those that are tarred with the Confederacy," said Harlan Greene, an archivist in Charleston. "But, you know, they used language well. It´s just as basic as that."
Using language well, however, hasn´t exactly brought Timrod a wide audience. Marjory Heath Wentworth, South Carolina´s poet laureate, described Timrod as "a little off to the side." In other words, he´s not a mainstream poet. "But what Civil War poet is?" Wentworth said. "Is there another Civil War poet that we read?"
Curtis Worthington, a Charleston neurosurgeon and editor of the anthology "Literary Charleston," put Timrod in perspective, calling him "one of the three big names of the first half of the 19th century in local literature," the other two being Simms and Paul Hamilton Hayne.
Over the years, bits of posthumous recognition trickled Timrod´s way. In 1901, a Timrod monument was erected in a Charleston park. In 1911, a musical version of Timrod´s poem "Carolina" was honored as South Carolina´s state song. (Today it´s joined by a song called "South Carolina on My Mind.")
But Timrod was hardly celebrated in his lifetime. Cisco´s biography quotes at length the poet´s despairing letter to his colleague Hayne:
"Both my sister [Emily] and myself are completely impoverished. We have lived for a long period, and are still living, on the gradual sale of furniture and plate. We have eaten two silver pitchers, one or two dozen forks, several sofas, innumerable chairs, and a bedstead. . . . I feel perfectly indifferent to the fate of what I have written. I would consign ever[y] line I wrote to eternal oblivion for one-hundred dollars in hand."
Cisco´s book also contains a detailed account of the poet´s death in 1867, after the onset of tuberculosis and pneumonia symptoms. After Dr. Robert Gibbes told Timrod that he saw no chance of recovery, the ailing writer spoke to his sister.
"And is this to be the end of all?" he asked. "So soon, and I have achieved so little?"