Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 14: No 2) >> ''Dazzling Outlawries of the Imagination'': William Gilmore Simms and the ''Americanism'' of the Sonnet >> Page 7

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Secondary Scholarship | 2006
Transcription Still more significant than either his lecture or the Magnolia essay is
Simms's most daring critique of American culture and the low regard in which
society holds poetry, his lecture series, Poetry and the Practical (1851-1854).
Simms begins his first lecture by admitting that he had originally wanted to
discuss "the lives and labours of certain of the early English Poets" (Poetry
and the Practical 3). In his brief consideration of the "early English Poets,"
he begins with a discussion of Chaucer, not only as great poet, but also as
patriot:

For Chaucer was a Patriot as well as Poet --indeed, most Poets
have been Patriots --not only because of that element of their
natural habit of fusing in their minds, with their common thoughts
and feelings, all the external aspects in the region where their eyes
first open to the light. The patriotism of Chaucer led to the
restoration of the banished English tongue, then under proscription
of that Norman tyranny which had usurped the country. He
restored the Saxon Genius in restoring the language, and in such
costume as to commend her to the affections even of her
conquerors (Poetry 4).

Simms's rhetoric here is rather telling; he begins by describing Chaucer as a
"Patriot," not only to broaden the field to argue that most poets are, in fact, in
one degree or another, patriots because of the "external aspects in the region"
where they are born, "where their eyes first open to the light." Of course, such
a patriotism as this is superficial, to some extent, and amounts to little more
than a definition of local color, but Simms nonetheless has linked the specific
example of Chaucer with the general idea of the poet, for reasons which
became clear as Simms defines the role or function of the poet throughout the
rest of Poetry and the Practical.
The chief reason why Simms considers Chaucer a patriot has little to
do with the poet's ability to "persuade the loveliest landscapes to his canvas"
(Poetry 3). Instead, Simms is impressed with Chaucer's "restoration of the
banished English tongue." Because of Simms's rhetorical maneuvers, a
dichotomy emerges, revealing the stark difference between "Norman tyranny"
and "Saxon Genius"; such a polarity between imported or imposed tastes and
native genius is a thread which runs through the passages quoted above. In
pitting "Saxon Genius" against "Norman tyranny," Simms transforms
Chaucer the poet into Chaucer the national hero, into an example of the poet as
patriot.
In his second lecture, Simms argues that the aims and trajectories of
the true poet are beneficial and foundational to his nation's well-being and
even its future: "He [the poet] plants the standard of civilization far in advance
of the national march; and, in his ideals, indicates the possible real, to which

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