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

§ 21. Value and Interest of these Poems

When one tries to make a general estimate of this war poetry as a whole, there are three standpoints from which it may be considered. Judged from the standpoint of absolute criticism, it affords another illustration of the contention that war produces a quantity of mediocre poetry but little of enduring worth. Four or five poems at best have stood the winnowing process of time and judicial criticism. Randall’s My Maryland, Ticknor’s Little Giffen of Tennessee, and Timrod’s Ode on the Confederate dead in Magnolia Cemetery might well be included in any anthology of lyric poetry, ancient or modern. If we consider the poems from the standpoint of either literary or social history, a larger number must be considered significant. They rightly find their place in such a collection as Stedman’s American Anthology as affording material for the comprehensive survey of American poetry; or in the books of Stevenson and Browne, where the various stages of the Civil War are suggested in poems rather than in army orders, political tracts, or newspaper comment. When President Lincoln said at the end of the war that the Northern army had captured Dixie he might have extended his remarks to other poems that have become a part of our national heritage.

Still another interest attaches to it. Much of it is an adequate, if not felicitous and final, expression of the ideas and emotions of Southerners at a time when they felt as one people. The emotional fervour that swept over the South was somehow the inspiration of a literature different from that of any other era in its history. Southern literature before the war had been marked by its absorption in politics, or its divorce from real life, or its amateurishness and sentimentalism. A people that had been all too inclined to underrate poetry and to discourage literary production found their deepest emotions expressed in martial strains, or in meditative lyrics. Written for local newspapers, preserved in scrap-books, collected in volumes like those of Simms and Miss Mason, sifted by the later editors and collectors, they preserve heroes and incidents, landscapes and sentiments that will always endear them to the Southern people.