Tales of Tuscaloosa: Three Poets Featured

The gardens surrounding the Battle-Friedman House inspired Robert Loveman’s poem The Rain Song. Image from the Historic American Building Survey 1934 courtesy of the Library of Congress. The gardens surrounding the Battle-Friedman House inspired Robert Loveman’s poem The Rain Song. Image from the Historic American Building Survey 1934 courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tuscaloosa was widely known as the home of three prominent poets— Alexander B. Meek, Robert Loveman, and Samuel Minturn Peck.

The earliest of these, Alexander Beaufort Meek (1814-1865), was a member of the first University of Alabama graduating class. He became an attorney, newspaper editor, politician, literary journal founder, militia officer, chess master, and poet. In 1845, he wrote a poem that earned the distinction of being one of the first literary works with a Native-American protagonist. The following excerpt is from The Red Eagle, A Poem of the South, a book length narrative poem about William Weatherford, a mixed-race chief in the Creek War of 1813-1814.

 

He whirls the frantic steed around:

One moment totters o’er the brink, 

And then, with sudden spur and bound, 

Like lightening, down the void they sink! 

Down, down, the steed and rider fly, --- 

And hark! Comes back the steed’s wild scream! 

Now lost they are to ear and eye, 

And sink beneath the plashing stream! 

Gaze o’er the cliff, the baffled foe, --- 

Struck mute, the gaze with doubt and fear, 

How still the distant waters flow! --- 

Nor steed nor rider re-appear. 

 

This passage describes a legendary event from 1813 that is known to generations of Alabama school children. According to archaeologists, “Weatherford’s Leap” into the Alabama River after the Battle of Holy Ground to escape American and militia troops was from a height of 10 to 15 feet. But he has been romanticized as jumping on horseback from 50 to 60 or even 100 feet. 

Weatherford’s Leap has been romanticized for generations. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Almost half a century later, Samuel Minturn Peck (1854-1938) gained fame as a poet. A native Tuscaloosan, he graduated from Bellevue Hospital’s Medical School in New York, but never practiced, instead studying literature at Columbia University and in Europe. Being of independent means, he preferred the life of a poet, traveling extensively and, in 1896, touring France by bicycle. 

He published several volumes and is noted for nostalgic and sentimental views of his Southern childhood. Late in life, he was designated Alabama’s first Poet Laureate. The following excerpt is from perhaps his best-known and most widely read work, The Grapevine Swing:

Oh, to be a boy 

With a heart full of joy, 

Swinging in the grapevine swing! 

I'm weary at noon, I'm weary at night, 

I'm fretted and sore of heart, 

And care is sowing my locks with white 

As I wend through the fevered mart. 

I'm tired of the world with its pride and pomp, 

And fame seems a worthless thing. 

I'd barter it all for one day's romp, 

And a swing in the grapevine swing. 

Swinging in the grapevine swing, 

Laughing where the wild birds sing - 

I would I were away 

From the world today, 

Swinging in the grapevine swing. 

 

Robert Loveman (1864-1923) was a University of Alabama graduate with connections to Tuscaloosa’s Friedman family. While a student and living at the Battle-Friedman Home on Greensboro Avenue, he was inspired by the surrounding garden to write The Rain Song, perhaps his best-known work. It later served as the inspiration for Al Jolson’s April Showers.

It isn’t raining rain to me, 

It’s raining daffodils; 

In every dimpled drop I see 

Wild flowers on the hill. 

 

The clouds of grey engulf the day 

And overwhelm the town; 

It isn’t raining rain to me, 

It’s raining roses down. 

 

It isn’t raining rain to me, 

But fields of clover bloom, 

Where any a buccaneering bee 

May find a bed and room. 

 

A health unto the happy 

A fig to him who frets. 

It isn’t raining rain to me, 

It’s raining violets. 

 

Many Tuscaloosans and others with strong local connections have since gained national and international literary or journalistic distinction. However, over a century ago, the influence of Meek, Peck, and Loveman extended far beyond Tuscaloosa. Their works represent significant contributions to American cultural development. 

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

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