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  • A Nation of the Continual Present:Timrod, Tennyson, and the Memorialization of the Confederacy
  • Christina Henderson (bio)

A New York Times article dated May 13, 1899, quotes Alfred Lord Tennyson praising Henry Timrod as "the poet laureate of the South" (Thomas BR315).1 Though the story is difficult to verify—Tennyson had been dead for seven years when the review was published—the title clung to Timrod and is still regularly used to describe the nineteenth-century South Carolinian poet. Less well known than Tennyson, Great Britain's Poet Laureate, Timrod nonetheless played a significant role in articulating southern identity during and after the Civil War. The anecdote illustrates an important link between Tennyson and Timrod: each man served as a national spokesperson for his geographical region—Victorian England for Tennyson and the Confederate South for Timrod—in the midst of an unstable political era.

While James W. Hood has recently identified connections between the gender politics in Timrod's southern community and Tennyson's imaginary world, little has been said about correlations between the poets' visions of nationalism. In fact, current scholarship overlooks most connections between the two writers. This is surprising because in the late nineteenth century, the literary world rarely mentioned Timrod without referencing Tennyson. In an 1886 article in Columbia's State, for instance, Maud Dickson describes Timrod as "the Tennyson of South Carolina" [End Page 19] (9). Similarly, American discussions about Tennyson often note his influence on Timrod. In The Sewanee Review of 1893, for example, Henry E. Shepherd compares Timrod's writing to Tennyson's In Memoriam, pointing to Timrod's appropriation of the "the peculiar rhyming combination" of the poem (407). Shepherd writes: "this renowned stanza has been thrilled with the breath of a new life by a Southern poet, whose lips were touched by a live coal from off the altar" (408).2 With rare exceptions like Hood, however, these numerous associations of the two poets have largely been left unexamined by recent scholarship. As a result, it is easy to minimize the complexity both of Timrod's work and the context in which it was read in the postbellum South.

After publishing one favorably received book, Poems, in 1859, Timrod's writing became increasingly political as tensions between the North and South escalated. His poems appeared in publications ranging from local Charleston newspapers to Russell's Magazine to the influential Southern Literary Messenger, giving him a broad southern readership (Barrett and Miller 311). At the beginning of the Civil War, Timrod's poems imagined a South that had successfully seceded from the North and established itself as a thriving state. He used a poetic model to express his political argument and reflect the common rhetoric of southern secession.

In "Overreading Tennyson: Antebellum American Appropriations of the Lady Poems," Hood asserts that Timrod and other "American appropriators in the antebellum South" used Tennyson's poetry to advance their own political purposes by promoting a strict gender hierarchy (76). Hood contends that poems such as Timrod's "Isabel" (inspired by Tennyson's poem of the same name) replace complex females with flat, over-idealized ones. Where Tennyson presents a woman who is paradoxically "active and passive, strong and weak, assertive and submissive," Timrod gives readers a "less complicated . . . ethereally divine and completely submissive" Isabel (79). While Hood maintains that such adaptations of Tennyson's "lady poems" point to Timrod's political agenda of subduing women, I suggest that these poems represent a desire to regulate not only women, but people in several social positions, including the African American slave. I argue that Timrod patterns his independent southern nation after the Camelot of Tennyson's "The Epic / Morte d'Arthur" (1842) and "Guinevere" (1859), and that his vision extends beyond gender. He appropriates Tennyson's language and Camelot motifs for two related but distinct visions: first, in poems such as "Ethnogenesis" (1861), he imagines an independent southern political community characterized by a white patriarchy dependent on slavery. By aligning slaves with [End Page 20] Tennyson's Arthurian subjects, Timrod erases the institutionalized violence and injustice that enables Confederate nation-building. In doing so, he enacts the historical amnesia Ernest Renan describes in his landmark...