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DocSouth Celebrates National Poetry Month

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Documenting the American South highlights the rich poetic tradition represented in its collections. The following is a sampling—in order of author's last name—of the volumes of poetry available on DocSouth:

Paul Hamilton Hayne (1830-1886)
Poems of Paul Hamilton Hayne (1882)

Charleston native Paul Hamilton Hayne began writing poetry at the age of nine, and among his early literary influences were Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Edgar Allan Poe. Poems of Paul Hamilton Hayne (1882) is a complete edition that showcases Hayne's antebellum juvenile poetry, his war poems, and post-Civil War pieces published previously in Legends and Lyrics (1872) and The Mountain of the Lovers; With Poems of Nature and Tradition (1875). Featuring lyrical poems, sonnets, odes, and narrative verse, the collection testifies to Hayne's tremendous range as a poet. Sentimental and fervent in tenor, the poems tend to be rather personal and non-intellectual, distinguishing Hayne as a Southern poet characteristic of his time, memorializing the Old South—its land, people, and ideals.

George Moses Horton (1798?-1880?)
The Hope of Liberty (1829)

George Horton was bonded to a Chatham county farmer but was well known to students at the University of North Carolina for his poetic skills. By selling acrostic love poems to students for their sweethearts, Horton earned money to help purchase his freedom. Horton's fame on the campus led a professor's wife to send one of his poems to The Lancaster Gazette, the Massachusetts newspaper that first published his poetry. Later, Horton published several poetry collections, including Poems by a Slave (1837) and The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845). Despite these publications, which Horton and his supporters hoped would secure his freedom, he remained enslaved until the Civil War, when he left the state with Union soldiers from Michigan.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
God's Trombones. Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927)

James Weldon Johnson was a prominent social activist during the Harlem Renaissance and co-wrote—with his brother Rosamond— "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which would come to be known as the African American national anthem. Coupled with stunning illustrations by Aaron Douglas, Johnson's God's Trombones celebrates African American folk culture by presenting poetic versions of Biblical stories, including "The Creation" and "The Prodigal Son." Johnson's poems capture the beauty of the black sermonic tradition and are clearly meant to be read aloud.

Cornelia J.M. Jordan (1830-1898)
Flowers of Hope and Memory: A Collection of Poems (1861)

Cornelia Jane Matthews Jordan is most famous for her nationalistic, pro-Confederacy second volume Corinth and Other Poems of the War (1865). Union General Alfred Howe Terry found the work so dangerous that he deemed it treasonous and ordered it burned publicly in Lynchburg, Virginia. Jordan's first volume, Flowers of Hope and Memory, is less overtly political but does include war-oriented poems, including "The Soldier's Dream" and "A National Hymn for the New Year."

Southern Poems. Selected, Arranged and Edited with Biographical Notes, selected and edited by Charles William Kent (c. 1913)

Charles William Kent's (1860-1917) compilation Southern Poems offers a representative sampling of Southern poetry that expresses the particularity of the Southern experience. In his preface Kent attempts to moderate the radical tone of certain poems, specifically those related to the Civil War, while elevating Southern literature to its appropriate place among American letters. As he explains, "These poems are selected from the wide range of Southern poetry, [so] that the South's contribution to our national literature may be in part apprehended." Kent continues praising Southern verse, even asserting that for certain literary periods and movements, "literature in the South has been the dominant and controlling factor."

Sidney Lanier (1842-1881)
Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by his Wife (1884)

Sidney Lanier's musical training profoundly influenced his poetry, and he sought to infuse his poems with a decidedly melodious quality. His 1880 book of criticism, The Science of English Verse, argued for the musical foundations of poetry, suggesting that music and poetry were inextricably linked. In addition to evoking intense human emotion, he argued, both use similar techniques of rhythm, harmony, meter, and variation. His 1884 collection, The Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife, was published posthumously. Much of Sidney Lanier's poetry celebrates nature's glory, which in poems such as "Sunrise" and "The Marshes of Glynn" is presented in deeply resonant tones that musically imitate natural sounds.

Juan Francisco Manzano, 1797-1854
Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated; Translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden, M.D. With the History of the Early Life of the Negro Poet, Written by Himself; to Which Are Prefixed Two Pieces Descriptive of Cuban Slavery and the Slave-Traffic, by R. R. M. (1840)

Manzano was born a slave in Cuba and is considered one of the founders of Cuban literature. He is the only enslaved writer in Spanish American history to achieve literary success. Poems by a Slave contains a narrative and poems written by Manzano, as well as a collection of anti-slavery materials compiled by Dr. Richard Robert Madden (1798-1886), the abolitionist who translated Manzano's work from Spanish.

Robert Munford (d. 1784)
A Collection of Plays and Poems, by the Late Col. Robert Munford, of Mecklenburg County, in the State of Virginia. Now First Published Together (1798)

This volume was compiled by the author's son, William. It opens with a short prefatory poem and then presents two comedic plays about Virginia politics and society followed by a translation of the first book of Ovid's Metamorphosis. The "Miscellaneous Poems" that comprise the rest of the volume are lengthy verses in a variety of modes, from the comic to the pastoral.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
The Raven and Other Poems (1845)

Throughout his life, Edgar Allan Poe served in a variety of journalistic careers while still writing poems, stories, and a novel. In 1845, Poe published "The Raven," a dark, suspenseful poem about a mysterious bird that haunts the lonely and paranoid narrator on an enchanted, stormy night. This poem and those collected with it in The Raven and Other Poems would guarantee him fame as well as work until his untimely death. Despite his hardships and idiosyncrasies, Poe was one of the first American poets to achieve critical and popular success within his lifetime.

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)
Poems about God (1919)

John Crowe Ransom was the son of a Methodist minister, and Poems About God, his first volume, reflects the importance of religion in his early life. In these poems, Ransom searches for God in the traditional places—in nature, cathedrals, and sick rooms—but he also questions the presence of God in barrooms and impromptu wrestling matches. Honest and ardent in tone, the poems are lyrics with traditional meters (primarily iambic) and regular rhyme. His poetic trademarks were a blending of classical and modern forms, an ironic voice, and a preoccupation with the domestic life, the evanescence of youth, and what he saw as the material and spiritual duality of humans. Ransom's students included Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and others who went on to become leaders in the Southern Literary Renaissance.

Abram Joseph Ryan (1839-1886)
Father Ryan's Poems (1879)

Father Abram Joseph Ryan, a Catholic priest, served as a chaplain in the Confederate Army from 1862 through the end of the Civil War and became famous for the pro-Confederate poems he wrote during and after the war. Ryan's work inspired many soldiers, and some even mention him in their memoirs. One such veteran, John Robson, reprints an original, untitled poem attributed to Ryan that does not appear in any of Ryan's published volumes.

Henry Timrod (1828-1867)
The Poems of Henry Timrod (c. 1872)

Henry Timrod is often called "Poet Laureate of the Confederacy," a title that he may have originally been given by Lord Byron. Timrod worked as a teacher and writer in South Carolina, and was most famous for his poems encouraging men to enlist in the Confederate forces. Timrod's friend and fellow poet Paul Hamilton Hayne (see above) collected Timrod's work in this volume after his untimely death from consumption. Timrod recently received new exposure when it was revealed that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sampled lines from his poems on the 2006 album Modern Times.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave. Dedicated to the Friends of the Africans (1834)

Phillis Wheatley was the first African American and the first enslaved poet to publish a volume of works. She was kidnapped from Africa and brought to Boston aboard a slave ship when she was approximately seven years old. The Wheatley family purchased her to work as a domestic servant; however, she was kept from this station by illness and the family's desire that she pursue her studies, for which she showed an early and profound proficiency. Her first book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in England in 1773. Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley includes a biographical sketch of Wheatley in addition to a collection of her most well-known verses.

Jennifer L. Larson