Simms and the Sonnet
Brennan, Matthew, The Mississippi Quarterly
WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS IS BEST KNOWN TODAY AS THE PROLIFIC AUTHOR of such antebellum novels as The Yemassee (1835), Martin Faber(1837), and Woodcraft (1854). In his own time contemporaries lauded these works; for instance, Edgar Allan Poe praised Simms as having no equal among American writers "in the aggregate of the excellences of fiction" (42). Despite this acclaim, Simms always considered poetry his forte and thought that he would eventually "rank" higher as a poet than as a novelist (Letters 3:190). William P. Trent, the nineteenth-century biographer who buried Simms's reputation, considered Simms ignorant of the workings of the sonnet (145-46). Simms, however, not only produced scores of sonnets but also believed his were the best yet written in American literature (Letters 3:111). He offered this self-evaluation in the mid-1840s when he brought out Grouped Thoughts and Scattered Fancies (1845), a collection of sonnets first appearing in the Southern Literary Messenger and then printed and circulated as a book by the Messenger's office.
Simms's claim is a big one, considering that by this point the canon in US literary history comprises Poe's Shakespearean sonnet "To Science" (1829), Bryant's "Sonnet--To an American Painter" (1832), which is nearly Petrarchan, and Longfellow's Petrarchan sonnet "Mezzo Cammin" (written 1842). In his twenties Simms published several sonnets, but if his reputation as a sonneteer rested solely on his youthful efforts, his judgment would be easy to dismiss. For example, his first published poem, "Sonnet--To My Books," compares to Keats's sonnet on "Chapman's Homer" in its theme and use of metaphor in the sestet, as James Kibler has noted (Selected Poems 314); still, most of the early sonnets also recall Keats's initial poems, work marred by the influence of Leigh Hunt, a minor romantic writer remembered for his friendship to Keats and not for his flowery, forgettable verse. (1) But when Simms revisits the sonnet in his thirties he begins to exercise what he rightly realized would prove to be one of the greatest strengths of his poetic career. "The Wreath" (1838) reveals an authentic voice and a denser, more disciplined style that enable Simms to "load every rift of" his "subject with ore," as Keats urged Shelley to do in his poetry (Letters 390). "The Wreath," then, signals that the sonnet has become for Simms a vehicle for artistic shaping of both personal experience and private beliefs. Consequently, consideration of Simms's experimental poetics and comparison of his more mannered early sonnets to those published in his thirties and after reveal his true accomplishment in the form: inventive, flexible rhyming that organically follows--at the same time it contains--the flow of emotion.
Simms's poetics of the sonnet provides context for what he attempts with the form. Mostly because Simms's sonnets in Grouped Thoughts avoid the traditional patterns of the Elizabethan archetypes, Trent dismisses them. He implies that Simms has little idea of what a sonnet is since "the wonder is that he did not see that the stricter his form, the better his poetry became" (145). In truth, he was perfectly aware of tradition and responded to it in creating his own poetics of the form. Though Kibler suggests that Keats influenced Simms's first sonnet, Simms from the beginning was more interested than Keats in diverging from the Petrarchan--or "Legitimate"--form. In writing his first forty-one sonnets in the strict Petrarchan manner, Keats betrays the mentoring of Leigh Hunt, who argued for the superiority of this "Sonnet Called the Legitimate," as he titled one of his essays. Keats, of course, soon shook off Hunt's bias and experimented greatly with the sonnet form, a creative practice Simms may have imbibed from Keats. Simms, however, always disliked the rigidity of the Petrarchan rhyme scheme. Late in life, in an 1867 review in the Charleston Courier of Leigh Hunt and S. Adams Lee's The Book of the Sonnet, Simms attacked Hunt's preference. …