Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 17: Nos 1-2) >> The Eagle Unhooded: Poetic Technique in Simms's Poetry and the Practical >> Page 33

image of pageExplore Inside

Page 33

Secondary Scholarship | 2009
Transcription 33 THE SIMMS REVIEW

Simms's simile for the utilitarian teacher who advocates an exclu-
sively material philosophy is Circe, she who enchants men with a wand
to "imbrute the race" (75). Like Circe, he turns men into swine, making
them lower than ox and buffalo. These utilitarian teachers thus practice a
false education. Simms declares that it is often the professedly great that
keep a people from the knowledge of their prophets. The poet seeks to
establish what is the only permanent, while his enemy lives for the here
and now and the gratification of the moment. Momentary material man
finds his power solely in the weight of his money bags. He writes that a
good education is hostile to money making because "the sensibilities are
apt to lessen the profits" (78). Utilitarians want to eliminate any obstacle
to their gaining wealth, and thus the poet is ignored. Poets must be sub-
verted because they stand in the way of making money.
Simms's final major image in depicting the utility of poetry is
the poet as clother and feeder of the soul. The utilitarian plumps the body
during life. Then in death his naked soul appears before his Maker "poor,
mean, shrivelled, and starving" (86). Simms concludes, "To be really
practical," the utilitarian should have spent more time in clothing his
soul so that he could appear before his Maker unashamed. Simms asks,
"which has been the most practical; he who strove successfully for the
body, as if he never had a soul; or he, who, in considering the claims of
the soul, seemed to forget wholly those of the body" (97). Simms com-
ments that we err in calling Death the great leveler, when it's actually the
great discriminator.
Simms himself wrote a summation of what he was trying to do
in Poetry and the Practical: "to show how poetry must elevate the whole
heart and nature of society, without which men degenerate" and "sink
under the burdens of their own material acquisitions" (69). He calls this
folly "self-degradation," and America's fatal flaw, which if not corrected,
will bring its destruction.
Simms wrote Poetry and the Practical in a time of buoyant
optimism in the North, when self-congratulation, nationalistic fervor, so-
called progress, bourgeois philistinism, and boosterism were at a fever
pitch in cities like New York, a place Simms knew very well. One need
only read Whitman and Emerson to take the pulse of the time. It is no
wonder that Simms's great critique of American materialism and his dire
predictions for the future went unpublished. The work was decidedly
against the grain of the day. It thus remained in manuscript a century and
a half until its publication in 1996.