The Hills of Sewanee
Sewanee Hills of dear delight,
Prompting my dreams that used to be,
I know you are waiting me still to-night
By the Unika Range of Tennessee.
The blinking stars in endless space,
The broad moonlight and silvery gleams,
To-night caress your wind-swept face,
And fold you in a thousand dreams.
Your far outlines, less seen than felt,
Which wind with hill propensities,
In moonlight dreams I see you melt
Away in vague immensities.
And, far away, I still can feel
Your mystery that ever speaks
Of vanished things, as shadows steal
Across your breast and rugged peaks.
O, dear blue hills, that lie apart,
And wait so patiently down there,
Your peace takes hold upon my heart
And makes its burden less to bear.
— George Marion McClellan (1860-1934)
From The Path of Dreams, Louisville: John P. Morton Co., 1916
Reprinted in The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922.
I will admit that I have never heard of this poem before, much less read it. This astounds me. McClellan’s reference to “The blinking stars in endless space, / The broad moonlight and silvery gleams,” touches closely on an observation of my own made recently and yet, I swear, I only saw the poem two days ago.
Who was George Marion McClellan (pictured above)? Here’s what the Poetry Foundation website has to say about him:
Born in Belfast, Tennessee, the minister, teacher, writer, and poet George Marion McClellan received a BA and an MA from Fisk University and a bachelor of divinity from Hartford Theological Seminary. He married Mariah Augusta Rabb in 1888 and served as a minister in a Nashville, Tennessee, Congregational church from 1892 to 1894.
After his time as a minister, McClellan pursued a career as a teacher and principal at schools in Louisville and Los Angeles. A difficult period in his personal life followed the death of one of his sons and was further complicated by financial difficulty, marital conflict, and a sense of alienation fostered by a society divided sharply along racial lines.
McClellan’s poetry, composed from the 1880s onward, shows a sensitive ear to meter and rhyme and addresses religion, nature, and romantic love while only occasionally revealing an emotional struggle against racial discrimination. He is perhaps best remembered for his blank-verse epic, “The Legend of Tannhauser and Elizabeth.”
McClellan published two collections of poetry: Poems (1895), which was retitled Songs of a Southerner in 1896, and The Path of Dreams (1916). A favorable review of his work, comparing his skill to that of Paul Laurence Dunbar, appeared in the New York Times after his poetry was included in a 1901 exhibit at the Pan-American Exposition.
African-American poetry of this period is surely no forté of mine, but if anybody knows more about McClellan, I’d be interested to hear.
Postscript, September 2017. Still no real reaction to this post. A little further digging: At the end of the introduction of his first collection of privately-printed poems (a section called “Race Literature”), McClellan writes,
Aside from the history of our emancipation and the hardships of our enslavement, of what subjects have we to sing to make a literature peculiarly native to us? To produce a Negro literature, we must have time to produce song-material, as well as singers. In this little attempt of mine I have not tried to sing Negro songs purely, but songs of beautiful landscapes, wherever I have seen them, and felt song-inspired by them, or of touches of human loves and feelings, as I have felt them. McClellan, George Marion. Poems (Nashville: A.M.E. Church Sunday School Union, 1895) 10
The poem to the Hills of Sewanee is evidently among those he was song-inspired to write.