Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Secondary Scholarship | 2006
Transcription THE MUSE OF SOUTHERN LITERATURE

WILLIAM LAMAR CAWTHON, J R.

Literature was the love of William Gilmore Simms's life, his
profession, his calling, and his duty. Southern literature was his special
province, the garden. one might say devoted to his care, to the cultivation of
which he consecrated his life. Many a scholar has strongly criticized Simms
for his ardent devotion to what they consider became a defensive Southern
literature, seeing in this a provinciality, an abandonment of the "republic of
letters" for the Republic of the South. Of present scholars, Louis Rubin and
Lewis P. Simpson have been particularly critical of Simms in this regard; as
was C. Hugh Holman in the past.2
Simms would be quite surprised to hear that he was provincial, in
the sense of being limited and narrow of understanding and vision. For
Simms considered himself a vatic poet who saw above and beyond any one
time or nation to, the universal in the human condition.3 Simms considered
himself to be first and foremost a poet.4 Though Simms himself wrote
approximately 2,000 poems, he considered the poet to include "all who
conceive freshly, combine boldly, discover greatly, invent wisely, and
exhibit especially, new combinations of the Sublime and Beautiful." Poetry
was the work of "abstract idea...the power in highest human. perfection..."5
For Simms, art is "the true nature of man," for "in this one
characteristic... he differs from all living creatures. It is the vital property of
his intellect."6 Art is set in motion by imagination, which is the creative
faculty of man, who, under the guidance of imagination, "combines,
constructs, conceives, invents,"7 not just material things, but works of art
such as literature, which penetrate an understanding of the human condition.
Simms regarded "fiction... as embodying the largest amount of
truth in possession of the race" and saw "in the design of Poet-and Romancer
nothing less than a constant struggle to grasp at the most universal and
inflexible of the laws of nature, and to establish the most invariable of types
of humanity... These types," Simms continues; "—as shown in the passions,
the sensibilities, the aims, the desires, the hopes, fears, and ambition of men
– constitute truths that maintain their integrity, superior to all the changes,
customs, fashions, and habits, of mankind -- truths that survive races and
empires, and are totally unaffected by their vicissitudes. Hence the poetical
survives all other forms of literature. Historians and philosophers lacking the
Imaginative—which is the motive faculty – succeed each other and
disappear. The Poet, alone, transmits the records of his people to Posterity."8
Simms clearly believed in the universal truths of literature, and he
admitted that these truths, and the imagination which yield them, all "belong

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