Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary and Contemplative

Poetry | Redfield | 1853

            William Gilmore Simms’s ultimate ambition for his collected poetical works titled Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative was limited to posterity.  Unlike most of his literary efforts, it was not a money-making operation.  He wrote his friend B.F. Perry in January 1852, “my hope & expectation are not profit.  I seek only to put myself fully on record for the future.”  Remarkably, Simms went on to explain this bid for future acclaim:  “I regard my career as pretty well over, and wish now to revise and make myself as worthy as possible in the eyes of future criticism.”[1]  To this end he collected a large swath of his previously published poetry into a single, two-volume collection.  Poems thus contains a broad selection of the author’s verse works, both those that had appeared periodically and those that had seen prior book publication.  The latter group includes his verse plays Norman Maurice and Atalantis, his ode to Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery City of the Silent, and his collection of nature poetry The Cassique of Accabee.  Perhaps most significant, the collection also contains in its entirety (and dominating the second volume of the collection) Southern Passages and Pictures, the collection of lyric poetry Simms himself often judged his best work.[2]  Because of the heft of this latter work, as well as the pervading atmosphere of the southern character throughout the collection as a whole, John Russell recommended the planned volumes “peculiarly to the South, as illustrating its history—its traditions and legends—its scenery and its sentiments.”[3]  In this way, Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative continued Simms’s increasing interest in linking southern patriotism, as well as sentiment, to his poetics.[4]

            Simms first mentioned his idea for a collection of his poetry in a 9 June 1851 letter to his friend James Henry Hammond.[5]  Originally intending to publish the collection in Charleston, through John Russell, Simms spent the next 18 months soliciting advance subscriptions for the work.  These efforts were apparently not as successful as initially hoped, for by January 1853 he had shipped the first volume of the collection to New York for eventual publication by Redfield, followed shortly thereafter by the second.  The volumes were set in type by 15 May 1853, and by fall of that year Simms wrote to Hammond that he expected the work to be published in short order.[6]  The title page of the published work indicates an 1853 publication date; however, in a letter to James Chesnut dated 12 January 1854, Simms noted that the volumes “are now published & ready for distribution.”[7]  This could imply a publication date as late as 1854.  Simms continued to revise his vision for this collection beyond its initial publication, despite a final collection of poetry, Simms’s Poems Areytos, or Songs and Ballads of the South with other Poems, issuing in 1860.  In two letters from 1867 to Evert Duyckinck, Simms described his plans to expand Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative to a three or four volume collection of his complete verse and dramatic endeavors.[8]  These plans never came to fruition.

            The two-volume 1853 edition features green boards and spine with box border stamping on front and back.  The book one spine features gilt stamped:  SIMMS' POETICAL WORKS | [rule] | VOL. I. | [rule] | [Graphic of vine with leaf and bud] | [flat double un-gilt rule] | REDFIELD | [flat double un-gilt rule].  The book two spine features the same with the exception of the volume number.  The title page for volume one reads:  POEMS | DESCRIPTIVE DRAMATIC, LEGENDARY | AND | CONTEMPLATIVE | BY | WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS, ESQ | IN TWO VOLUMES | VOL. I | I. NORMAN MAURICE, A TRAGEDY | II. ATALANTIS, A TALE OF THE SEA | III. TALES AND TRADITIONS OF THE SOUTH | IV. THE CITY OF THE SILENT | [Circle formed of snake biting its own tail with burning lamp in the center] | REDFIELD | 110 &112 NASSAU-STREET, NEW YORK. | 1853; the volume two title page reads:  POEMS | DESCRIPTIVE, DRAMATIC, LEGENDARY | AND | CONTEMPLATIVE | BY | WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS, ESQ | IN TWO VOLUMES | VOL. II | I. SOUTHERN PASSAGES AND PICTURES | II. HISTORICAL AND DRAMATIC SKETCHES | III. SCRIPTURE LEGENDS | IV. FRANCESCA DA RIMINI | [Circle formed of snake biting its own tail with burning lamp in the center] | REDFIELD | 110 &112 NASSAU-STREET, NEW YORK. | 1853.  Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative was not republished in Simms’s lifetime, but the majority of its contents were published prior to their inclusion in this format.[9]

Todd Hagstette

[1] Letters, 3:155.  The emphasis is in the original.  Simms’s contention here that his career was fairly concluded is ironic considering that Woodcraft and The Cassique of Kiawah, both frequently cited as the author’s masterpieces, were still yet to be published.

[2] See, for example, his letter to James Henry Hammond from 9 June 1851 (Letters, 3:127) and his letter to George Frederick Holmes from 20 July [1843] (Letters, 1:362).

[3] Quoted in James Everett Kibler, Jr., The Poetry of William Gilmore Simms: An Introduction and a Bibliography (Columbia: Southern Studies Program, University of South Carolina, 1979), 95.

[4] He voices the culmination of this view in a 12 November 1860 letter to William Porcher Miles, as Simms’s Poems Areytos, or Songs and Ballads of the South with other Poems was in press (Letters, 4:262-4).

[5] Letters, 3:125-128; here too he mentions as his primary motivation putting himself on record for future assessment.

[6] Kibler, Poetry, 96.

[7] Letters, 6:143.

[8] See his letters of 9 October [1867] and [December 1867] (Letters, 5:89-91, 98-100).

[9] For a detailed breakdown of the publication history of the contents of Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative, see Kibler.