Study Guide

Sidney Lanier

Sidney Lanier Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Although literary historians are correct in maintaining that Sidney Lanier had only minimal influence on other writers, that influence is most apparent in the post-Civil War interest in the recording of regional dialects. Perhaps taking his cue either from James Russell Lowell’s satirical The Biglow Papers (1848, 1867) or Augustus Longstreet’s humorous Georgia Scenes (1835), Lanier wrote several propagandistic poems in southern dialect, in which humor was incidental rather than integral.

“Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land”

Works written in dialect, yet serious in intent, were an innovation in American literature, and one of the first such works was Lanier’s “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land.” Written sometime between 1869 and 1871, the poem was originally published in the Macon Telegraph and Messenger on February 7, 1871, and thereafter in newspapers throughout the South and Midwest. Lanier reworked a local story into a serious statement of what he personally felt was the soundest strategy for the survival of the postwar South: Resist the temptation to emigrate, and diversify crops.

The poem itself (despite the challenges of the dialect) is unusually straightforward for a work by Lanier, not only because of the paucity of imagery but also, more important, because of Lanier’s uncharacteristic avoidance of sentimentality. Written in ten sestets, it recounts how a man named Jones (appropriately enough a resident of Jones County, Georgia) was a failure as a farmer. Jones sold his farm to a man named Brown for $1.50 an acre and moved to Texas where ostensibly “cotton would sprout/ By the time you could plant it in the land.” The redoubtable Brown “rolled up his breeches and bared his arm” and within five years had become a prosperous farmer, “so fat that he wouldn’t weigh.” One day while Brown was sitting down to “the bulliest dinner you ever see,” Jones showed up, having literally walked back to Georgia to try to find work. Brown fed him and provided the moral of the poem: “’whether men’s land was rich or poor/ Thar was more in the man than thar was in the land.’”

In a region of the United States still suffering from a deep depression fully five years after the war, Lanier’s little parable must have been a breath of hope and encouragement. The poem, however, is far more than a paean to the advantages of working hard and staying in Georgia. It is the emphatic statement of an economic reality: Instead of continuing to raise “yallerish cotton” like Jones, one must grow corn and wheat. Thanks to crop diversification, Brown avoided the economic stranglehold that the northern markets had on King Cotton (and, consequently, on the entire South), while enjoying the self-reliance that comes with raising a crop that one could literally consume. Whether or not the southern audience noticed the poem’s horticultural/economic message, they certainly admired “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” and its immense popularity was due in part to its qualities as a poem. By virtue of its sing-songy rhythm, the familiar dialect, the predictable rhyme (generally aabbbc; the c invariably was the word “land”), and the surprisingly subtle humor (such as the broken rhyme “hum-/ Ble” in stanza 9), it was ideally suited to essentially rural, semiliterate readers who were accustomed to a rich oral tradition and who frequently found themselves in situations comparable to that of the unfortunate Jones.

“Corn”

Even the most cursory glance at his letters, poems, and essays reveals that Lanier sincerely regarded poetry as a noble calling, and he resisted the temptation to write broadly popular, potentially remunerative verse. He preferred producing poems that appealed to the finer aspects of individual, regional, or national character, or which expressed his personal views on economic or political matters. There was no affectation inherent in these twin didactic conceptions of poetry, and they were at least partly responsible for the cool reception that his poems often received in his lifetime. Still, Lanier’s poems occasionally did manage to achieve some popularity, and only a few years after the regional success of “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” Lanier received his first national attention with “Corn.”

“Corn” is a reiteration of the ideas presented in “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” but the two poems are handled in strikingly different ways. Lanier apparently began the composition of “Corn” in July, 1874, while he was staying in the hamlet of Sunnyside, Georgia. Evidently he was especially impressed by the extensive cornfields and the terrain. Unlike “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” this poem was definitely not intended for a semiliterate, rural southern audience. In format, it is a sterling example of a Cowleyan ode. Unlike the technically rigid “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” “Corn” is irregular in stanza length, line length, and rhythm. It is so heavily enjambed that at first one may not even be conscious of the extraordinary degree to which Lanier relies on rhyme to give his poem coherence. The rhyming couplets and tercets, the eye rhyme (“hardihood”/“food”), and the leonine rhyme (“Thou lustrous stalk, that ne’er mayst walk nor talk”) are testimonies to Lanier’s fascination with sound—a fascination that, unfortunately, was largely responsible for the charges of obscurity, sentimentality, and even banality that have been leveled against Lanier’s poetry throughout the last century.

One need not look beyond the first stanza of “Corn” to understand what these critics have in mind. The persona passes through some woods before he encounters the field of corn, but the little forest, as is typical of Lanier, has been personified and emotionalized to such an embarrassing degree that the first stanza sounds like a sentimentalized psychosexual dream. The leaves that brush the persona’s cheek “caress/ Like women’s hands”; the “little noises” sound “anon like beatings of a heart/ Anon like talk ’twixt lips not far apart”; and the persona clearly has abandoned himself to the pleasures of the sensuous forest.

The persona proceeds through the concupiscent forest until finally, in stanza 3, he encounters the corn itself, which Lanier had intended to be the controlling image of the poem. In one of his more fortunate metaphors, Lanier likens the field of corn to an army, and although at times that metaphor is strained (one stalk functions as the “corn-captain”), what makes it especially appropriate is that there are in fact three “battles” going on in this poem: The cornstalks are competing for soil with the sassafras and brambles, the antebellum King Cotton economy is clashing with the new diversified crop system, and Lanier is positing life as a battle with The Poet as its hero and the corn-captain as his symbol. It is apparent, then, that Lanier is attempting to make the battle metaphor operate on at least three levels; although it is an interesting concept and Lanier makes a noble effort to realize it, in the final analysis it simply does not work. Instead of being mutually enriching, the various images result in a confusing clutter. This fundamental technical problem and a host of others are readily apparent to even the most sympathetic reader of “Corn.”

In stanza 4, the “fieldward-faring eyes” of the persona do not simply look at the corn, but harvest it in his heart. It is characteristic of Lanier that he favors the use of rather grotesque metaphors. What tends to make the metaphor a bit less dubious, however, is that Lanier is not as interested in the physical corn as he is in the abstract qualities that he believes the corn embodies. Much as people can learn industriousness from bees and contentment from cows, Lanier felt that...

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