Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 17: Nos 1-2) >> A Note on Simms and Neoclassicism >> Page 23

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Page 23

Secondary Scholarship | 2009
Transcription A Note on Simms and Neoclassicism

Matthew Brennan

Though critics lump Simms the poet with the American
Romantics—and rightly so—he resists easy pigeon-holing. Edd Winfield
Parks argues that Simms adhered to Byron as his major influence in
his early poems (47), and we see this imitation vividly in a work such
as "Apostrophe to Ocean" from Early Lays (1827), which borrows
heavily from Byron's pageant of the bleeding heart, Childe Harold's
Pilgrimage. But Simms also follows Byron in ways that run counter to
the Romanticism that the British poet fostered in his young American
disciple: Just as Byron's first significant poem, English Bards and
Scotch Reviewers, is a Popeian satire in closed heroic couplets, so too
is Simms's first important poem neoclassical rather than Romantic, for
Monody, on the Death of Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1825)
similarly employs the style of Pope and follows Augustan conventions in
its panegyric of the fallen American military hero. Moreover, like Byron
who returns to Pope's influence for his late mock-epic masterpiece Don
Juan, Simms never completely abandoned neoclassicism as part of his
reservoir of formal options.
Monody demonstrates that the young Simms had steeped himself
in neoclassicism. Charleston was heavily influenced by this culture in the
first quarter of the nineteenth century. In literary circles, Hugh Swinton
Legal-6, who has been called the Dr. Johnson of Charleston, encouraged
admiration for the classics, both in conversation and in his writings for
The Southern Review. In his introduction to Simms's Letters, Donald
Davidson makes clear that Legare urged the young Simms to write about
the Ashley River in "heroics," that is in heroic couplets (cxx). Perhaps
even more decisive in inculcating a neoclassical spirit in Simms was
the city's architecture, which in the hands of Robert Mills and Gabriel
Manigault shaped an environment of Greek and Roman buildings exhib-
iting through their porticoes and pillars the essence of classical harmony
and balance. These qualities inhere in Simms's early poems.
Monody, though written by a nineteen year old, displays an
assured control of its style and ideas. Simms crafts couplets manifesting
syntactic balance no doubt absorbed from Pope, and he freely makes