The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

III. Poets of the Civil War II

§ 1. Southern Poetry before the War

AMONG the many reasons that have been suggested for the lack of literature in the ante-bellum South—the absorption in politics, the pre-eminence of the spoken word as compared with the written, the absence of centres of thought and life—must be considered the failure of the people as a whole to appreciate the literary efforts of their writers, and, what is more important, the failure of writers of talent to devote themselves to literature as a profession. The popular orator, William L. Yancey, expressed the views of many when he said in a grandiose way: “Our poetry is our lives; our fiction will come when truth has ceased to satisfy us; as for our history, we have made about all that has glorified the United States.” A. B. Meek, author of The Land of the South, in the preface to a volume of his poems (1857) said: “The author is not a poet by profession or ambition; he has written only at long intervals or at the instigation of trivial or transient causes. The present volume is composed of occasional effusions through many years of my life.” Some years later Margaret J. Preston wrote to Hayne:

  • Poetry has been only my pastime, not the occupation or mission of my life, which has been too busy a one with the duties of wifehood, motherhood, mistress, hostess, neighbor, and friend.… I think I can truly say that I have never neglected the concoction of a pudding for the sake of a poem, or a sauce for a sonnet. Art is a jealous mistress and I have served her with my left hand only.
  • Of a great many Southern poets, then, it may be said that they were “amateurs quick to feel the poetic instinct and the influence of other poets, content with an occasional poem or a single volume, and thenceforth prone to lead a life of culture rather than of creative activity.”