Timrod was born on December 8, 1828, in Charleston, South Carolina, to a family of German descent. His grandfather Heinrich Dimroth emigrated to the United States in 1765 and Anglicized his name. His father was an officer in the Seminole Wars and a poet himself. The elder Timrod died on July 28, 1838, at the age of 44; his son was nine. A few years later, their home burned down, leaving the family impoverished.
Timrod studied at the University of Georgia beginning in 1847 with the help of a financial benefactor. He was soon forced by illness to end his formal studies, however, and returned to Charleston. He took a position with a lawyer and planned to begin a law practice. From 1848 to 1853 he submitted a number of poems to the Southern Literary Messenger under the pen name Aglaus, where he attracted some attention for his abilities. He left his legal studies by December 1850, calling it "distasteful", and focused more on writing and tutoring.
In 1856 he accepted a post as a teacher at the plantation of Col. William Henry Cannon in the area that would later become Florence, South Carolina. The single-room school building (still preserved in Timrod Park in Florence) was built to provide for the education of the plantation children. Among his students was the young lady who would later become his bride and the object of a number of his poems – the fair Saxon Katie Godwin.
While teaching and tutoring he continued also to publish his poems in literary magazines. In 1860, he published a small book, which, although a commercial failure, increased his fame. The best-known poem from the book was "A Vision of Poesy".
Civil War period
With the outbreak of American Civil War, Henry returned to Charleston, soon publishing his best-known poems, which drew many young men to enlist in the service of the Confederacy. His best-known poems of the time are "Ethnogenesis", "A Cry to Arms", "Carolina" and "Katie." He was a frequent contributor of poems to Russell's Magazine and to The Southern Literary Messenger.
Timrod soon followed into the military as a private in Company B, 20th South Carolina Infantry, but illness prevented much service, and he was sent home. After the bloody Battle of Shiloh, he tried again to live the camp life as a western war correspondent for the Charleston Mercury, but this too was short lived as he was not strong enough for the rugged task.
He returned from the front and settled in Columbia, South Carolina, to become associate editor of the newspaper, The South Carolinian. In February 1864 he married his beloved Katie, and they soon had a son, Willie, born on Christmas Eve. During the occupation by General Sherman's troops in February 1865, he was forced into hiding, and the newspaper office was destroyed.
The aftermath of war brought his family poverty and to him, increasing illness. He took a post as correspondent for a new newspaper based in Charleston, The Carolinian, but after several months of work he was never paid and the paper folded. His son Willie soon died, and Henry was to join him in death, of consumption, in 1867. He is interred in the churchyard at Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbia.
Criticism and legacy
Timrod's friend and fellow poet, Paul Hamilton Hayne, posthumously edited and published The Poems of Henry Timrod, with more of Timrod's more famous poems in 1873, including his "Ode: Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C., 1867" and "The Cotton Boll".
Later critics of Timrod's writings, including Edd Winfield Parks and Guy A. Cardwell, Jr. of the University of Georgia, Jay B. Hubbell of Vanderbilt University and Christina Murphy, who completed a Ph.D. dissertation on Timrod at the University of Connecticut, have indicated that Timrod was one of the most important regional poets of nineteenth-century America and one of the most important Southern poets. In terms of achievement, Timrod is often compared to Sidney Lanier and John Greenleaf Whittier as poets who achieved significant stature by combining lyricism with a poetic capacity for nationalism. All three poets also explored the heroic ode as a poetic form.
Today, Timrod's poetry is included in most of the historical anthologies of American poetry, and he is regarded as a significant-though secondary-figure in 19th-century American literature.
In 1901, a monument with a bronze bust of Timrod was dedicated in Charleston. Perhaps a greater honor was given to him when the state's General Assembly passed a resolution in 1911 instituting the verses of his poem "Carolina" as the lyrics of the official state anthem.
In September 2006, an article for The New York Times noted similarities between Bob Dylan's lyrics in the album, Modern Times and the poetry of Timrod. A wider debate developed in The Times as to the nature of "borrowing" within the folk tradition and in literature.
- Ode: Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C., 1867
- Cisco, Walter Brian, Henry Timrod: A Biography, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8386-4041-9.
- Parks, Edd Winfield. Henry Timrod. Twayne Publishers, 1964: 19.
- McNeely, Patricia G., Debra Reddin van Tuyll, and Henry H. Schulte. Knights of the Quill: Confederate Correspondents and Their Civil War Reporting. Purdue University Press, 2010: 160. ISBN 978-1-55753-566-5
- Cisco, Walter Brian. Henry Timrod: A Biography. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Company, 2004: 31. ISBN 0-8386-4041-9
- Rich, Motoko (2006-09-14). ""Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines From Henry Timrod?"". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-09-19.
- Vega, Suzanne (2006-09-17). ""The Ballad of Henry Timrod". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- ""The Answer, My Friend, Is Borrowin’ ... (3 Letters)". The New York Times. 2006-09-20. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
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- Faint Falls the Gentle Voice of Prayer – A prayer for peace penned by Timrod after seeing the horrors of war (words and audio)
- Works by Henry Timrod at Project Gutenberg