It all began in August 2006 when a New Mexico disc jockey, Scott Warmuth, found dozens of lines in musician Bob Dylan’s album Modern Times taken from a dead poet whom nobody knew. National Public Radio interviewed Warmuth, and on Sept. 14 and 17, The New York Times featured articles, “Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines from Henry Timrod?”, “The Ballad of Henry Timrod,” and “The Answer, My Friend, Is Borrowin’.”
This small tempest about “plagiarism” by Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature a decade later, resulted in resurrecting into the international eye a long-recognized poet whose reputation had been quietly persevering, most particularly in South Carolina. His bust could be seen in Charleston’s Washington Park and his words were the state song, “Carolina.”
A writer from the Times contacted me and asked my opinion on the plagiarism hullabaloo. My answer was, “If I were Timrod, I would love it,” because borrowing is the highest compliment for a poet. I added half seriously that Dylan was the only way for this slumbering poet to be a rock star.
That poet, in fact, slumbers quietly today in the graveyard of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia. While the Hamptons and other grandees have pride of place at the cemetery’s front, Timrod’s grave is against the back wall.
The slumbering poet’s new fame via Dylan fanned out to The Atlanta Journal and Constitution on Oct. 2, 2006, with Nick Marino’s “Well-Versed Dylan Brings Poet New Fame. Could Obscure Poet become ‘Rock Star’?” The feature outlined the poet’s struggles, accomplishments, and deep commitment to poetry. The rock star image for a dead poet captured the imagination long enough to give Timrod new life in such far-off reaches as London, Poland, Brazil, and the Czech Republic.
As luck would have it, Brian Cisco had just published a well-written biography of Timrod in 2004. He was also interviewed by the Times. People from around the world were asking, “Who is this Henry Timrod?” The public had the solid new biography to guide their interest.
Timrod was born in Charleston in December 1828. His grandfather was a German immigrant whose son, William, was a poet-bookbinder on King Street, where he hosted a literary circle that included the then-young author William Gilmore Simms. William Timrod celebrated the birth of “our little blue-eyed boy” in a poem, “To Harry.”
William died when Henry was 9. His family had enough money to send him to school, where he studied Greek and Latin verse. He sat by Paul Hamilton Hayne, who would also become a poet and remain Timrod’s closest friend for life. Another classmate was the future classicist Basil Gildersleeve. All three lads wrote poetry. Timrod was disciplined when the schoolmaster confiscated a poem he was sharing with his buddy, Hayne.
A Charleston patron paid Henry for a year at the University of Georgia in 1845. Timrod recalled, “A large part of my leisure at college was occupied in the composition of love verses. Every pretty girl’s face I met acted upon me like an inspiration.” The money ran out, and at age 19, he returned home to study law but found its routine tedious. He continued to publish poems, often under the name “Aglaus,” an ancient Greek pastoral poet, and succeeded in getting a job as a tutor at various plantations from 1850 to 1858. He had no home of his own and was never a slaveholder.
In 1858, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The same year, Katie Goodwin came from Suffolk, England, and, orphaned, lived with her brother, who was married to Timrod’s sister, Emily. They lived near what is now Florence, South Carolina. Katie was 16. Timrod taught her in the little one-room schoolhouse restored today in Florence’s Timrod Park, named for him.
Timrod’s friend Hayne became editor of Russell’s Magazine in Charleston in 1857, and Timrod published many poems there and met with the literary group in the back of John Russell’s Bookstore on King Street. In 1859, Timrod published his Poems. Before the volume appeared, his widowed sister Emily Goodwin had moved to Columbia with Katie, 18 at the time. Timrod visited often in 1860 but took a job as teacher in Bluffton, South Carolina, even though the tubercular pain in his chest had grown sharper.
After South Carolina seceded in December 1860, tuberculosis kept Timrod from the battlefield, but he did office work. In March 1862, in the midst of the invasion of Beaufort, he wrote “Carolina,” which was made into the state song in 1911.
In April 1862, he and Katie became engaged. Previously, two well-to-do Columbia ladies whom he had courted turned down a “poor poet struggling with day-to-day poverty.” Katie, however, was an orphan in an adopted country.
As a war correspondent beginning in April 1862, Timrod witnessed the Battle of Shiloh. Thereafter, sick and traumatized, he returned to Columbia in June 1862. Paul Hayne wrote that his friend “staggered homeward, half-blinded, bewildered, with a dull red mist before his eyes, and a shuddering horror at heart.” Timrod had several hemorrhages. He took his “shattered nerves” to his sister’s house in Columbia. Later that month, Mary Boykin Chesnut reported in her diary that he was well enough to meet Hayne at her cottage on Hampton Street.
In mid-1862, Timrod’s Charleston friends planned an English edition of his poetry if they could get it through the blockade. His poem “Charleston” appeared in December 1862. By Christmas 1862, the bells of St. Michaels had been sent to Columbia because the church was used in siting the city for bombardment. His poem on the subject, “Christmas,” appeared on Christmas Day 1862. During this somber time, Timrod asks in his verses, “How could we bear the mirth,/ While some loved reveler of a year ago/ Keeps his mute Christmas now beneath the snow,/ In cold Virginian earth?”
George A. Trenholm backed Timrod’s projected English edition in 1863 while Timrod, despite tubercular hemorrhages, was writing some of his best verse. “Spring” appeared in April. It describes the beauties of the season but is tinged with the pathos of knowing that beauty and joy are transient, made apparent by the deaths occurring all around on battlefields where nature “lifts bloody daisies to the sky.” It begins, “Spring, with that nameless pathos in the air/ Which dwells with all things fair.”
There exists no better description of the yellow jessamine than “Out in the lonely woods the jasmine burns/ Its fragrant lamps, and turns/ Into a royal court with green festoons/ The banks of dark lagoons.”
One of his finest poems, “The Unknown Dead,” appeared on July 4, 1863. The poem deals with nature’s indifference to man’s suffering, a theme far ahead of its time.
In January 1864 Timrod moved to Columbia to help edit a newspaper. Despite his struggle with tuberculosis, Timrod wrote editorials with graceful, well-reasoned, philosophical prose. Katie and he were married on Feb. 16 at George Edward Walker’s new Christ Episcopal Church, which burned exactly one year later.
On Christmas Eve, 1864, Timrod’s son, Willie, was born. Timrod called him “our little Christmas gift from God.” Although struggling for funds, battling illness, and sometimes working day and night, he said that the months after his son’s birth were among the most joyous in his life.
Then the avalanche of sorrow began. The last three years of his life rival those of famed English poet John Keats in being among the saddest in literary history. In 1865, two of Timrod’s sisters and a niece died in his household. When Columbia was burned in February, he lost his home and job. The crowning blow was the death of Willie on Oct. 23, 1865 from health problems due to starvation; there had not been enough food in the burned city. Hayne wrote, “In that little grave, a large portion of the father’s heart was buried. He was never his old self again.”
Despite his grief, Timrod wrote two memorable poems about Willie’s death. “Addressed to the Old Year” appeared on Dec. 31. It begins, “Art thou not glad to close/ Thy saddened eyes, O saddest child of Time.”
The homeless Timrods moved in with two families on Lady Street in March 1866. Both he and Katie were sick. Timrod wrote, “I go to bed hungry every night.” On March 30, he wrote to Hayne: “You ask me to tell you my story of the last year. I can embody it all in a few words — beggary, starvation, death, bitter grief, utter want of hope. Both my sister and myself are completely impoverished. We have lived on the gradual sale of furniture and plate. We have eaten two silver pitchers, one or two dozen forks, several sofas, innumerable chairs, and a bedstead … I would consign every line I ever wrote to eternal oblivion for one hundred dollars.”
Still fighting tuberculosis, he took what odd jobs he could find. He sometimes labored day and night when he landed one. In the midst of hunger, exhaustion, and turmoil, he wrote his most famous poem, an ode in chaste Horatian form for the dead at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, June 16, 1866. The poem’s simplicity and classical restraint make it one of the great odes in the language, and it deserves the praise it still receives from literary critics.
In December 1866, Timrod’s hemorrhages increased. A gift of money from Gen. Wade Hampton kept the Timrods from starving, and William Gilmore Simms collected donations. In January 1867, the Timrods moved again to a small cottage on Henderson Street. The house exists today, although enlarged with a second story.
One hemorrhage shot out “jets of blood” so that he almost suffocated. Recovering a few days later, he wrote to Hayne, “It is an awkward time for me to be sick — we are almost out of food.” He was still struggling to write poems. Of the latest hemorrhage, he wrote, “I had just thought out a verse of what would have been a fine poem when I was seized.” He had convulsions in which it took two men to hold him down. Katie told him that considering his suffering, perhaps it would be sweet to die, but he told her in famous words, “But love is sweeter than death.” He said he did not want to leave her. His thirst became tremendous, and Katie and Emily fed him water by the spoonful. At the last, he rejected Katie’s spoonful and said, “Never mind. I shall soon drink of the river of eternal life”— his last words.
He died Oct. 7, 1867, at the age of 38. Edgar Allan Poe had died impoverished on the same day 18 years earlier at age 39. At Timrod’s funeral, General Hampton was a pallbearer. Timrod was buried beside his son, Willie.
To the end of his life, Timrod hoped to see a new edition of his poetry. He was revising proofs for Trenholm’s project into his final year. The pages are spattered with the blood of his hemorrhages. These pages became the basis for Hayne’s edition of 1873. Charleston Mayor William Courtenay had met Timrod during the war and promised him that if he survived, he would see his poetry published. Courtenay created the Timrod Memorial Association, which published the promised volume in April 1899. With the book’s royalties in 1901, the association erected the bust of Timrod in Charleston and a granite marker at Timrod and Willie’s graves at Trinity.
Praised even by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson, Timrod carried the true poet’s fire as a vivid nature poet, a poet effectively celebrating love and the bonds of family, and as a memorable poet of tender affection and deep feeling. It is not odd that a reader like Bob Dylan, as removed from Timrod as possible in some ways, could respond with appreciation. It is fitting that Dylan would breathe new life into the poet’s words. The two, after all, were singers in the same craft. One wonders how Timrod’s legacy might now affect future generations of poets through Bob Dylan.
When next visiting Trinity’s graveyard, one might appropriately seek out Timrod’s grave and pause a quiet moment in the city’s noise and bustle to remember, “Here lies a poet.” It would not be foolish, even in our unsentimental day, to shed a tear for one who suffered so nobly for his art.