Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 17: Nos 1-2) >> Philosophical Aesthetics and Simms's Poetry and the Practical >> Page 70

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Secondary Scholarship | 2009
Transcription 70 THE SIMMS REVIEW

Poe's paraphrase of Kant's philosophy is really very accurate,
as far as it goes, but it perhaps gives the impression that poetry ought
to be properly sequestered in a realm shut off from all other concerns.
However, as we have seen, according to both Schiller and Kant, poetry's
real function is to illuminate the complexity of our being so that we
can realize ourselves in our true nature and orient ourselves properly to
our own rightful place in the great scheme of things. Simms's lectures
in Poetry and the Practical seem to me to be more in keeping with the
original aesthetic philosophy of Schiller and Kant than is Poe's precis of
the same set of ideas. Indeed, Simms's whole point is to show that poetry
has a vital educative function to perform, even though it may seem at first
marginal or irrelevant to our other concerns. Poetry activates our creative
or imaginative powers and allows us to experience an enlargement of
mind, rather than a narrowing. Simms describes it as a cultivation of
spiritual resources that includes and extends the cultivation of the mate-
rial resources of the American nation. To the extent that we neglect our
poetry and focus our attention on "mere material acquisition," we "learn
to confound possession with powers; accumulations with developments;
enjoyments with endowments; and to place the very faculties that con-
duct us to the conquest, in subordinate relation to the spoils which they
acquire" (8). Accordingly, Simms invites us to acknowledge that we have
not availed ourselves of "all the endowments of the soul," (8) and that
"we must learn to value a thousand uses in man's nature which we now
refuse to recognize" (13-14).
In many passages, Simms calls attention to aesthetic experience
as to a mode of experience that, in a peculiar way, instigates a multitude
of mental operations (unlimited and unpredictable in application), whose
ultimate effect is to produce a new self-awareness and a new way of
being related to things, just as Kant and Schiller earlier maintained. As
Simms puts it, the poet is:
[T]he person most largely connected, in every way,
with the universal nature; and so unfolds her secrets as
to bring, more than any other person, the largest circle
of his fellow men into communion and connection with
the universal. And this is the great work to which he
is dedicated from the first; a work which requires him
to grasp the whole heart of humanity, and study all its
pulses,—every nerve, every throb, every pleasure, every
pang. (46)