Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Early Lays

Poetry | A.E. Miller | 1827

            The year 1827 was an eventful one for William Gilmore Simms.  He completed reading law in the office of boyhood friend Charles Rivers Carroll and was appointed as a magistrate for Charleston; his first child, Anna Augusta Singleton, was born, and he published two volumes of collected poetry.[1]  Early Lays was the second of those volumes and it was published by A.E. Miller of Charleston in the fall of 1827.[2]  In his dedication Simms noted, however, that the material in Early Lays was “principally compiled from a surplus quantity of matter left from the publication of ‘Lyrical and other Poems’ ” and that he had actually written many of the poems contained in Early Lays before those that he included in his earlier publication (vi).  In a review in the Western Monthly Review, Timothy Flint saw evidence of real talent amidst the “chaotic mass” of material that comprised Early Lays, even if its author had “written too much and too carelessly.”[3]    While Simms likely bristled at such references to the lack of a coherent theme within the volume, the criticism was valid.  Still, Flint might have excused the lack of coherence, given the nature of the volume, comprised as it was from poems that Simms had written over a period of several years with no intention, at least at the time, of collecting them into a single volume.  But where Flint saw only chaos we might see Simms’s early, and still nascent, engagement with themes of cultural nationalism.

            In the six-page dedication, which really serves more as an introductory note, Simms begs leave to answer the critics of American literature who claimed that it was lacking in both richness and originality.  Citing Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) as having already vanquished the notion that humanity degenerated when placed upon the North American continent, Simms’s offered a similar rebuke to those who would suggest that American letters were, and would always remain, inferior to European productions.  Like Jefferson, Simms turned to Native Americans as an exemplar of the simplicity and promise, if still untapped, of the American continent.  His ode to the Green Corn Dance of the Creek nation celebrated that simplicity, and really that connectedness to nature, that, he argued, was “far superior in the Poetry of genuine feeling … to all the unnatural and strained extravagancies—the vague conceits, and epigrammatic labors of the first days of British poetry” (vi).  Indeed, it was the natural world itself, what Simms celebrated as “the rich, glowing and Hebe-like beauties of Nature before us,” that both differentiated America from Europe and gave it a deep history, one stretching back through geologic time.[4]  Simms would later engage more deeply with these themes of cultural nationalism, as would other writers of the Young America Movement, but even in these early poems we can see an interest in, and attempt to define, a uniquely American character.[5] 

            Simms dedicated this volume to Charles Carroll, his mentor, advisor, and friend.  This first edition has undergone repair and has been rebound in modern red cloth covers with the original tan paper wrappers bound inside.  The stamp on the front flyleaf indicates that the work was completed by Joseph Ruzicka Bookbinders of Baltimore, Washington, and Greensboro.  The front flyleaf recto bears the signature of A.S. Salley and indicates that Salley received the copy from the bookbinders on 27 October 1938.[6]  While Early Lays enjoyed only one edition and one printing, many of the poems would reappear, often in revised form, in later publications by Simms, including Southern Passages and Pictures (1839), Grouped Thoughts and Scattered Fancies (1845), Areytos (1846, 1860), and Lays of the Palmetto (1848).[7] 


Todd Hagstette


[1] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 25.

[2] The date of the dedication was 1 August 1827 and the first review of the volume was published on 20 September 1827 so Early Lays most likely first appeared in print in either late August or early September.  James Everett Kibler, Jr., The Poetry of William Gilmore Simms: An Introduction and Biography (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979), 58.

[3] Timothy Flint [1780-1840] was the editor of the Western Monthly Review from 1827-1830.  His review of Lyrical and other Poems and Early Lays is reprinted in Letters, 2:362, n. 274.

[4] On the connections between nature, time, and nationalism in 19th century thought see Thomas M. Allen, A Republic in Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). 

[5] On Simms’s engagement with the Young America Movement and cultural nationalism see David Moltke-Hansen, “Southern Literary Horizons in Young America,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 42 (Spring 2009): 1-31.  Moltke-Hansen argues that Simms’s nationalism was always expressed through the lens of regional identity and that by the late 1840s he had begun to imagine the possibility of an independent Southern nation.  Already in 1827 we can see the dual tensions of being both American and Southern pulling on Simms.  He wondered aloud whether he could sustain himself as a writer in America and also whether his work might receive a fairer hearing if he was not born south of the Potomac. In these cases he clearly felt himself an exile within a larger world (iii-viii).  This sense of exile may have fueled his desire to construct both a regional and a national identity, or rather a national identity through a regional literature.    

[6] Alexander S. Salley (1871-1961) was a native of Orangeburg, South Carolina and an avid Simms collector.  Salley served as secretary of the South Carolina Historical Society and in April 1905 became the first secretary of the South Carolina Historical Commission, the precursor to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.  http://www.palmettohistory.org/exhibits/centennial/centennial.htm <accessed 21 July 2010>

[7] Kibler, Poetry, 195, 235-236, 252, 265, 306, 342, 350.