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 8

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Secondary Scholarship | 2006
Transcription his people may aspire" (Poetry 59). As in the previous excerpts, word choice
is crucial. By invoking words like "national march" and "standard" (the latter
carrying the weight of a double entendre), Simms portrays the poet as a kind
of warrior in the cause of nationhood.
In his third lecture, Simms frames the poet in the familiar Victorian
role of reformer: "The Imaginative Genius is always a reformer; and his toils
necessarily imply collision with some existing social error, deficiency, or
usurpation '(Poeti ) 84). Above all else, it is the poet's responsibility to correct
the wrongs of society. In this particular instance, the "deficiency" in question
is the absence of a national literature, the only possible corrective for which is
the poet's obligation to create what Simms elsewhere refers to as "dazzling
outlawries of imagination" (Letters I, 216).
What I intend to argue here is that Simms not only wrote extensively
about the need for a national literature, but also created it in his own poetry
through his innovations in the sonnet tradition. That is, Simms revises the
sonnet on a formal level enough to distinguish it from its European tradition.
In order to argue my point successfully, I will not seek to discuss what role the
form plays in relating the themes of the poems at hand. Instead, I am
concerned with an intertextual reading of the form and how it differs from the
prevailing tradition of the day, and how Simms constructs an original poetics
of nationhood.
Of course, many critics have addressed Simms's concern for an
American literature. Both John McCardell and David Newton remind us of
Simms's affiliation with the Young America Movement (McCardell 195,
Newton 27). McCardell goes so far as to call Simms a "romantic literary
nationalist," a label which seems rather appropriate considering the passages
quoted above. In stark contrast to the scholarly material concerning his
literary nationalism, only two scholars, David Newton and James E. Kibler,
Jr., have paid any attention to Simms's innovative contributions to prosody.
Newton argues for Simms's prosodic abilities, stating that his "poems clearly
reveal his knowledge of poetic technique and his remarkable success in
appropriating traditional poetic forms and meters" (27). However, Newton
does not expand this point, largely because the parameters of his article will
not allow for such a digression. Though Simms's prosody is only a minor
point in his argument, Newton creates an implicit link between Simms's
"technique" and his national concerns. James Kibler, in the notes to his
selection of the poetry, often comments on Simms's meter; but his most
significant contribution to this much ignored aspect of Simms is his essay,
"Sound and Sense in Simms' Poetry," to which I will return shortly.
Before any analysis of the poetry can begin in earnest, we must first
establish Simms's interest in ideas concerning poetic form. In a letter to
Thomas Holley Chivers concerning Chivers's volume The Lost Pleiad, and
Other Poems, Simms remarks: