The poetic fame of Sidney Lanier, after Edgar Allan Poe one of the most important nineteenth century poets of the southern United States, rests on a small body of poetry found in the posthumous volume Poems. This contains the verse Lanier included in his earlier Poems, along with a number of pieces that had received only magazine publication before the poet’s death in 1881, plus a group of unrevised early poems that his wife felt were worthy of publication.
Lanier was a poet of both theory and practice. His theory of technique was influenced by his great love for music. Precociously musical, he became a brilliant flutist who played with symphony orchestras in Dallas and Baltimore. His moralistic theory of poetic content was possibly influenced by his early training in a devoutly Christian family as well as by his own fundamentally religious nature. This shows itself in some of his nature poems as a passionate love for God’s plants and creatures that approaches the fervor of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Lanier’s theory of prosody is expounded principally in his work The Science of English Verse (1880), in which he develops in extensive detail and with copious illustration the thesis that the same laws govern both versification and music. Three brief quotations illustrate this thesis: When we hear verse, we hear a set of relations between sounds; when we silently read verse, we see that which brings to us a set of relations between sounds; when we imagine verse, we imagine a set of relations between sounds. When those exact co-ordinations which the ear perceives as rhythm, tune, and tone-color, are suggested to the ear by a series of musical sounds, the result is Music. When those exact co-ordinations which the ear perceives as rhythm, tune, and tone-color, are suggested to the ear by a series of spoken words, the result is . . . Verse. There is absolutely no difference between the sound-relations used in music and those used in verse.
Lanier’s application of his prosodic theory may be studied in many of his poems, but it may be seen easily in such poems as “The Symphony,” “The Marshes of Glynn,” and “Song of the Chattahoochee.” In “The Symphony,” Lanier attempted the difficult task of composing a poem somewhat as a musician would. Such instruments as the violin, flute, clarinet, horn, and hautboy (oboe) are personified and used to develop the theme of love, the enemy of trade (materialism), which pervades the poem. Nowhere is Lanier’s belief in the essential identity of sound relations in music and in verse better illustrated than in the four lines that introduce the horn passage in the poem: “There thrust the bold straightforward horn/ To battle for that lady lorn./ With hearthsome voice of mellow scorn,/ Like any knight in knighthood’s morn.”
It has been objected that Lanier tried the impossible in “The Symphony” and that his achievement, though notable, is successful only in part. Perhaps his theory is better illustrated in “Sunrise” and “The Marshes of Glynn.” In “Sunrise,” the sibilance of the forest can be heard: “Ye lispers, whisperers, singers in storms,/ Ye consciences murmuring faiths under forms,/ Ye ministers meet for each passion that grieves,/ Friendly, sisterly, sweetheart leaves.” In “The Marshes of Glynn,” the sounds and even the silence of the great marshes near Brunswick, Georgia, may be heard and felt by the reader. A passage near the close of the poem describes in this fashion the coming of the high tide of evening:
The creeks overflow: a thousand rivulets run’Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of...
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