The Business of Romanticism: Simms's Political Poetry

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Author: John D. Miller
Date: Spring 2009
From: Studies in the Literary Imagination(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: Georgia State University, Department of English
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,795 words
Lexile Measure: 1580L

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William Gilmore Simms occasionally made the claim that his talent as a poet trumped his abilities as a novelist and critic. (1) That antebellum Americans disagreed with him did not surprise him. His reputation from his prose notwithstanding, Simms believed the nation's commercial ethos was largely responsible for the marginalization of his and others' poetry.

Though less well known than Emerson's Nature (1836), Simms's Poetry and the Practical is an equally forceful denunciation of market-driven materialism. Delivered first in 1851, and on several different occasions in 1854, the address makes the case for how an insatiable acquisitiveness encourages the immediate gratification of worldly desires, which Simms believed devalued the relevancy of poets and their craft. (2) "Your utilitarians have so accustomed themselves to the rejection of the Imaginative faculty as frivolous," argues Simms, "that the tobacconist, or dramseller, who ministers to the most vicious appetites is held a much more practical sort of person, and is much more honored as his gains increase, than the Poet who appeals only to the affections and the sentiments" (17). (3)

Like his contemporary in Concord, Simms championed a more prominent, public role for poets in Poetry and the Practical . Both men embraced the Romantic belief that poets were ideally suited to minister to men's spiritual and intellectual needs. Consequently, Simms attempts to reconcile the less-than-tangible properties of poetry with the "utilitarian" character of American society by underscoring the holistic appeal of the former, arguing that

The true uses of the practical its correct definition--consists in its perfect adaptation to all the wants of our nature--not as the nature of an animal,--but as the nature of a God! He is the most practical philosopher who shall teach us to make equal provision for the mixed condition of soul, mind and body, which constitutes our proper humanity. (70).

In other words, good poetry is practical, especially as a means for enabling men and women to lead fulfilling lives beyond the moribund business world.

Aside from promoting the transcendent value of poetry, another debt that Poetry and the Practical owes to Romanticism is its advocacy of Nature as a source of spiritual guidance and inspiration for mankind. Again, the poet is of great importance, this time as the translator of the environment's sublime teachings. Simms claims the poet "is the natural interpreter of nature to his race. The secrets of nature, are, so to speak, sacramental all--types of spiritual truths,--of living ideas.... The Poet is the Interpreter who can best reveal their import, as he is the person most largely connected, in every way, with the universal nature" (46). Similar to the symbolic vision that Emerson describes poets as possessing, Simms, too, believes the poet is endowed with almost preternatural insight. He or she is someone who can see and translate for the worldly the lessons of a higher plane of existence.

Written as a reaction to the consequences of the flourishing commercialism of the antebellum era, this privileging of Nature and of the spiritual qualities of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A215515694