Henry Timrod: A Biography
Walter Brian Cisco

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Walter Brian Cisco succeeds in writing a balanced account of the life of Henry Timrod, the poet laureate of the wartime South. In one hundred and twenty pages of narrative, Cisco captures the heart and soul of Timrod, a poet who wrote poignantly of his native region and the struggle of the Confederacy to survive as a nation. Timrod’s poetry is interspersed throughout the text, and Cisco informs his readers of the context and background of each literary creation.

Henry Timrod’s life and work were both brief: he died at age thirty-nine, after a nine-year struggle with tuberculosis. Cisco reveals Timrod as a man with a fragile body and a sensitive soul. The opening of the monograph is moving and sets the tone for what is to come. Rather than inserting photographs within the text, Cisco places them at the front, ahead of the written word. The photographs, placed chronologically, span the last twelve years of Timrod’s short life. Te daguerreotype shot at age twenty-seven in 1855 reveals a youthful and hopeful poet. Though he is aware of his disease, the 1861 photograph reflects the countenance of a mature and confident young man, and his smile reflects his hopes and dreams for himself and his fledging nation. The 1863 miniature photograph made for a locket shows the haunted and wracked look of one who is suffering great physical pain ad emotional trauma because of ill health and the impact of war. The final pose, taken in Columbia a few months before his death, reveals, as Cisco eloquently describes, “the eyes of one who has suffered so much” (p. 20). Ironically, Timrod died on the eighteenth anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death, October 7, 1867.

The narrative begins with the 1901 ceremony dedicating the statue of Timrod in Charleston’s Washington Park and then moves backward to the story of Timrod’s life. Though Cisco’s book is not a thesis-driven work, there is a foreshadowing that Timrod’s impending death is central to understanding his life and work. The author quotes from the third stanza of a poem written by Henry’s father, William Henry Timrod, about his infant son entitled To Harry, which Cisco refers to as a “dark prophecy” (p. 24). The stanza reads as follows: “For gazing on thee, do I sigh / That these most happy hours will flee, / And thy full share of misery / Shall fall in life on thee!” (p. 25). At age four, young Timrod, awed by the sight of a lightening storm, spoke with eloquence about the event rare for such a small child. Upon hearing his son’s words, his father declared that little Henry would be a poet, “if he lives” (p. 26).

Afflicted with both a romanticized view of life and a frail body, Timrod found his mood elevated by each new love interest, only to suffer rejection due to his poverty. Timrod supported himself through tutoring the children of wealthy planters, working for local newspapers, ad other jobs that demanded writing skill, but he never found any of them rewarding or lucrative. He eventually married, and by all accounts, the marriage was a happy one, but his only child died in infancy.

Timrod enlisted in 20th South Carolina Infantry Regiment, but his health prevented active service. It did not matter, as Cisco remarks: “It was a musket” (p. 73). He worked briefly as a war correspondent for the Charleston Mercury covering the western theater of the conflict, but he returned from the experience a physical and emotional wreck.

The final chapter, which centers on Timrod’s death, is full of pathos; Cisco’s description transports the reader to the poet’s bedside. The narrative ends as it began, with the dedication of Timrod’s statue in Charleston’s Washington Park in May 1901. As the closing of his narrative, the author inserts the entire inscription of the bronze panel attached to the west side of the monument’s base. The last two sentences of the inscription are fittingly the final sentences of the book, which include a quote from the biblical text Acts 26:19: “To his poetic mission he was faithful to the end. In life and death he was not disobedient unto the Heavenly vision” (p. 129).

Readers of the South Carolina Historical Magazine and collectors of South Carolina history and biography will find much of interest within the pages of this brief biography.

James S. Baugess, Wright State University

The South Carolina Historical Magazine, (Nov. 2005)

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Photograph courtesy of Louise Dell-Bene Stahl © 2001

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