Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Poetry and the Practical

Speech | The University of Arkansas Press | 1996

         Poetry and the Practical was published in 1996 by The University of Arkansas Press as part of The Simms Series.  Edited with an introduction and notes by James Everett Kibler Jr., the book contains a lecture written by Simms between the years of 1851-54, which expanded from one to three parts.  Kibler summarizes the lecture as “a clear, forceful, inspired defense of poetry against those who would relegate it to the margins of life.”[1]  In a 12 November 1850 letter to Evert Augustus Duyckinck, Simms made first mention of the lecture: “I recieve [sic] another application for a public Lecture at Augusta; and the quasi pledge given a year before, when I excused myself to the same applicants for a similar duty, was impressively urged upon me.  I have no escape.”[2]  His host for the Augusta trip, Marcus Claudius Marcellus Hammond, brother to the famous James Henry Hammond, was urged by Simms in a 14 December 1850 letter leading up to his trip to not attend the lecture, which he would “treat in a style as far removed from the merely essayical as possible.”[3]  Simms delivered the Augusta lecture on 6 January 1851 before the Lyceum.[4]  The Augusta Constitutionalist reviewed it favorably in an 8 January edition: “The Lecture was a truly magnificent one, and was delivered in a style of impressiveness and oratorical power, not often equaled. . . . He triumphantly demonstrated that the mission of Poets on earth was both noble and preeminently useful, and that poetry exercised offices of the highest practical utility.”  Charleston’s Courier, Mercury, and Daily Sun also praised the lecture.  James Henry Hammond wrote a 21 January 1851 letter to Simms to regret having missed the lecture: “I have never known any speech to produce such a sensation in Augusta & if I had not heretofore positively declined to Lecture for that Society myself, I would not venture to do it after yours.”[5]

         Simms wrote to Duyckinck on 10 March 1851 that he had no intention of publishing the lecture because it needed “dilation and for this I need leisure.”[6]  What actually transpired were a series of lectures and tours that afforded Simms opportunities to expand the oration into three parts between the years of 1851-54.  As biographer William P. Trent points out, Simms made a “short but successful lecturing tour to Washington, Richmond, and perhaps other places” in the early part of 1854.[7]  In a 3 January 1854 correspondence with John Reuben Thompson, Simms accepted a request to deliver the lecture to the Richmond Atheneum; it was at this point Simms suggested that the “revised discourse which I delivered to the people of Augusta, & which was singularly successful with them,” now be given in two parts.[8]  Also in January, Simms informed Duyckinck that he would deliver the lecture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.; he repeatedly inquired for the next couple of months about other societies around New York that would be interested in paying him a “modest sum” to hear his lectures.[9]  “Poetry & the Practical” was delivered on February 9-10 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and was sponsored by the Young Men’s Christian Association.  Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer provided another favorable review: “The general tone and spirit of Mr. Simms’s philosophy are truly elevating and inspiring. . . . His phraseology is well chosen, ornate, and often forcible, with frequent sallies of wit, humor, and happy sarcasm.”[10]  Simms was scheduled to give his lectures at the Richmond Hall of Athenaeum on 28 February 1854; however, his trunk was lost, and the lectures were rescheduled to be delivered March 2-3 (again in two parts).[11]  Simms followed up by delivering the two lectures at St. Andrews Hall in Savannah, Georgia, under the auspices of the Georgia Historical Society on March 28-29.[12]  It is clear that by the middle of the year, Simms had not only honed his craft as a lecturer, but he also enlarged “Poetry & the Practical” to three lectures when he delivered them at Hibernian Hall in Charleston on May 31, June 2, and June 8, 1854. 

         Kibler’s notes on the text indicate that the “copytext for this edition comes from the three-part manuscript in Simms’s hand—his last known version polished and rewritten for the lectures given in Charleston […] the text here presented was thus written shortly before 31 May 1854.”[13]  The 9 June issue of the Mercury characterized the lecture series by its “elevation of tone, boldness and originality of thought, and the copious illustration of a rich and poetical mind.”[14]  The lecture was to remain in three parts, as 27 June 1856 correspondence with Benson John Lossing illustrated in the planning stages of what would later become the contentious and failed northern lecture tour of 1856.[15]  The published 1996 Poetry and the Practical, housed at the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina, features modern binding with green boards and spine.  The front cover features gilt lettering and reads: POETRY | AND THE | PRACTICAL | [divider] | WILLIAM GILMORE | SIMMS.  Spine features: [reading horizontally:] SIMMS | [divider] | [title reading down the spine:] POETRY AND THE PRACTICAL | [reading horizontally:] ARKANSAS | [publisher symbol].  The title page reads: POETRY | AND THE | PRACTICAL | [divider] | WILLIAM GILMORE | SIMMS | Edited with an introduction and notes by | JAMES EVERETT KIBLER JR. | THE UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS PRESS | Fayatteville 1996.  All the manuscripts of the lecture—both early and later expanded versions that were consulted, collected, and edited by Kibler—are in the Simms Collection at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.

Michael Odom

[1] James Everett Kibler Jr., introduction to Poetry and the Practical by William Gilmore Simms (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1996), xii-xiii.  Kibler continues: “In proving poetry’s centrality, Simms uses all the tools of persuasion open to him: his wide reading, his considerable knowledge of the history of cultures and civilizations, his understanding of the values of place and traditional culture, and, above all, an eloquence and inspiration which allow his words to leave his page in a rush of prophecy, for Simms also believed in the poet as vates.”

[2] Letters, 3:73.

[3] Ibid., 3:80-81.

[4] Ibid., 3:73, 79.

[5] See Letters, 3:86n for reviews.

[6] Ibid., 3:96.

[7] William P. Trent, William Gilmore Simms, American Men of Letters (Cambridge: 1892), 206.

[8] Letters, 3:272.

[9] Ibid., 3:276.

[10] Ibid., 280-81.

[11] Ibid., 3:284.

[12] Ibid., 3:292

[13] Poetry and the Practical, 115.

[14] Letters, 3:301.

[15] Ibid., 3:437.