Lanier, Sidney (Poetry Criticism)
Sidney Lanier 1842-1881
American poet, critic, essayist, novelist, editor, and travel writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Lanier's works from 1905 through 2002.
Lanier was a nineteenth-century American poet and essayist of the Reconstruction South. A musician as well as a writer, Lanier is remembered for his theory that music and poetry are reciprocally governed by the same metrical principles and characteristics of form and structure.
Lanier was born February 3, 1842, to an educated family in Macon, Georgia. During his childhood he studied several musical instruments and developed an interest in literature. In 1857 he began studies at Oglethorpe College, where he demonstrated talent in his flute studies and skill as a debater of literary ideas. In 1860 the outbreak of the Civil War interrupted Lanier's post-graduation plans to pursue a doctoral degree at Heidelberg University, the alma mater of natural scientist James Woodrow, who had inspired Lanier's undergraduate enthusiasm for nature and science, as well as literature and music. During his Confederate Army enlistment, Lanier endured hardships including his capture and imprisonment by the Union Army in 1864. Upon his release in 1865, Lanier returned to Macon, suffering from exhaustion and tuberculosis, from which he would suffer the rest of his life. He married in 1867 and practiced law for several years to support his family. In 1872, Lanier left Georgia, traveled, and then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1873, where he joined the Peabody Orchestra as first flutist. By 1879, Lanier's occasional public lectures on literary topics led to an appointment as a lecturer in English literature at Johns Hopkins University. Although he had begun writing verse before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lanier's first collection of poems was not published until 1877. This was just four years before his death, at the age of thirty-nine, of the tuberculosis he contracted during his months in a wartime prison camp.
Although Lanier is remembered primarily as a poet, his first published work was the novel Tiger-Lilies (1867) an antiwar novel based on his Civil War experiences. Lanier also explored the interrelationships of music, poetry, emotion, and moral action. These would later emerge as primary themes governing both his poetry and his works of literary criticism. Lanier's nonfiction writing helped produce the income he needed to continue to write verse. A travel handbook about Florida published in 1876 was one such publication. He also edited several classical works for young readers and wrote books of literary criticism including The Science of English Verse (1880) and the posthumously published The English Novel and the Principle of its Development (1883), and Music and Poetry: Essays upon Some Aspects and Inter-Relations of the Two Arts (1898).
Published collections of Lanier's poetry include Poems (1877), Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife (1884), and Hymns of the Marshes (1907). Among Lanier's individual works of poetry, “The Symphony” (c. 1877) is notable for exemplifying his interest in the reciprocal nature of music and poetry. In this work the poet created musical effects through alliteration, assonance, meter, and rhyme for the speaking parts he assigned to various orchestral instruments. Public attention for “The Symphony” led to an invitation from the Philadelphia Centennial Commission to write the libretto for a cantata to be performed in 1876 on the occasion of the centenary anniversary of the founding of the United States. This work came to be known as The Centennial Meditation of Columbia. Another well known poem is “The Marshes at Glynn” (c. 1880), in which Lanier celebrates the transcendent spirit of nature as revealed through the physics of sound.
At the end of his own century and during the early decades of the twentieth century, Lanier was considered a noteworthy post-Civil War southern writer, although by some accounts, this assessment was perhaps based more on his artistic dedication and earnestness than on his literary achievements. By the 1930s, Agrarian critics John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren dismissed Lanier's contribution to American literature, calling his poetic theories and images vague and eccentric. Later twentieth-century critics and scholars generally agree that Lanier was a significant if minor figure in post-Civil War literature of the American South.
The Centennial Meditation of Columbia 1876
Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife 1884
Hymns of the Marshes 1907
Poem Outlines 1908
The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier 1945
Tiger-Lilies (novel) 1867
Florida: Its Scenery, Climate, and History (travel guide) 1875
The Science of English Verse (criticism) 1880
The English Novel and the Principle of Its Development (criticism) 1883
Music and Poetry: Essays upon Some Aspects and Inter-Relations of the Two Arts (essays) 1898
Retrospects and Prospects: Descriptive and Historical Essays (essays) 1899
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SOURCE: Mims, Edwin. “The Achievement in Criticism and in Poetry.” In Sidney Lanier, pp. 340-75. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905.
[In the following essay, Mims offers an enthusiastic, early twentieth-century assessment of Lanier's contributions to American poetry and literary criticism.]
Speculations as to what Lanier might have done with fewer limitations and with a longer span of years inevitably arise in the mind of any one who studies his life. If, like the late Theodore Thomas, he had at an early age been able to develop his talent for music in the musical circles of New York; if, like Longfellow, he had gone from a small college to a German university, or, like Mr. Howells, from the provinces to Cambridge, where he would have come in contact with a group of men of letters; if, after the Civil War, he had, like Hayne, retired to a cabin and there devoted himself entirely to literary work; if, like Lowell, he could have given attention to literary subjects and lectured in a university without teaching classes of immature students or without resorting to “pot-boilers,” “nothings that do mar the artist's hand;” if, like Poe, he could have struck some one vein and worked it for all it was worth,—if, in a word, the varied activity of his life could have given way to a certain definiteness of purpose and concentration of effort, what might have been the difference! Music and...
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SOURCE: Lenhart, Charmenz S. “Sidney Lanier.” In Musical Influence on American Poetry, pp. 210-92. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1956.
[In the following excerpt, Lenhart offers a study of the role of music in the development and content of Lanier's poetry.]
[Sidney] Lanier is the only professional musician in the annals of American poetry to achieve real fame as a poet. From 1873 on, a substantial portion of his income depended upon his abilities as an orchestral flutist and as a soloist. He was a kind of musical phenomenon, for when he came to Baltimore, he lacked the professional training that most orchestral musicians had, and he could scarcely sight-read orchestral material when he was hired to play the first flute with the Peabody Orchestra.1 But he had a flawless technique and a beautiful tone, and in literally a matter of weeks he was sight-reading material with the best of them.2 He had the signal honor of being asked by Theodore Thomas to play with the New York Philharmonic, and he was fortunate to have Leopold Damrosch encourage him as a composer of flute music. Because we have no recordings of Lanier's playing, it is easy to forget that he achieved high rank as a musician in a matter of four years, having come virtually untrained among the virtuosi of the century. There can be no doubt of his talent for music, and it is hardly conjecture what his musical future...
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SOURCE: England, Kenneth. “Sidney Lanier in C Major.” In Reality and Myth: Essays in American Literature in Memory of Richmond Croom Beatty, edited by William E. Walker and Robert L. Welker, pp. 60-70. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1964.
[In the following essay, England portrays Lanier as an unsuccessful poet and a minor literary figure whose limited accomplishments were influenced by sentimentality and a romantic nostalgia for the pre-Civil War “Old South” of his youth.]
In both his poetry and his prose, Sidney Lanier exhibits a bifold attitude in his view of the affairs of life in the South after the War. He does after the War condemn the slavery system which he has fought to preserve, but he would have the slave in freedom overseen by a beneficent master who would look after the welfare of the mentally and morally limited colored people. He does condemn soul-killing trade, but he thinks that with love a system of trade in the South may do good. He does object to large land-owning, all the while approving the man who does not let go of any of his land after the War. He does dispraise strict Christian faith and substitutes somewhat pantheistic and humanitarian notions, but he cannot adhere to the pantheism and the humanitarianism and returns to Christ as his chief reality and symbol. He does deplore circumscribing the intellectual and the physical domain of women; yet he cannot approve...
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SOURCE: Leary, Lewis. “The Forlorn Hope of Sidney Lanier.” In Southern Excursions: Essays on Mark Twain and Others, pp. 131-41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1971.
[In the following essay, Leary offers a brief survey of critical opinion about Lanier's poetry and prose.]
Some years ago three prominent Southern poets set upon Sidney Lanier with vehemence which might be supposed to have silenced him and his disciples forever. “His poetry,” said Allen Tate, “has little to say to this century either in substance or technique.” Lanier's was a “commonplace and confused mind,” intellectually and morally insincere, irresponsible, and incapable of precise expression. Robert Penn Warren called him “The Blind Poet,” so full of self and egocentric theory that his aesthetic perception was atrophied. Sentimental, sensual, and effeminate, his poetry, said Mr. Warren, was at best absurd. Finally, John Crowe Ransom, spokesman for a new Southern agrarianism, disowned Lanier as an apostate who had sold his rebel birthright for a mess of Yankee praise.
This was honest reaction, inevitable and healthy. It was reaction against a man who in the nineteenth century did not think and write as articulate intellectuals from their perspective in the twentieth century saw that he might have thought and written. It was reaction, also, against a reputation which had been swollen by what...
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SOURCE: Gabin, Jane S. “The Musicality of Lanier's Later Poetry.” In A Living Minstrelsy: The Poetry and Music of Sidney Lanier, pp. 157-66. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Gavin examines the relationship between music and poetry in Lanier's work, focusing particular attention on three poems: “Song of the Chattahoochee,” “The Marshes of Glynn,” and “Sunrise.”]
Lanier found in music and musicians a natural focus for the tribute of words; yet it was also just as natural for music to become so involved in his writing process that he was eventually composing poetry not just about melody and tone, but with it. In the dozen years between “Life and Song” (1868) and “Sunrise” (1880), Lanier's poetry absorbed music steadily and increasingly, transforming it from a subject to a creative process until the verse was no longer a vehicle for describing music, but music itself.
Most of these poems were written while he was in Baltimore. Accordingly, Lanier never wrote about music from afar, except “Life and Song,” but always under its direct influence and inspiration. Perhaps with the strains of a recently played symphony still reverberating in his consciousness, Lanier began to compose so that his nature-poetry became musical creations. In some cases, the extreme emotionality that music always created within Lanier spilled over onto the...
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SOURCE: Richman, Stephen M. “Sidney Lanier and the Poetry of Legal Morality.” Cumberland Law Review 25, no. 2 (1995): 309-29.
[In the following essay, Richman discusses the jurisprudential value of Lanier's poetry and the influence of Lanier's legal training on his literary pursuits.]
While the Courts of Chivalry may be dead,1 American courts still remain attuned to the concept of chivalry, even in commercial contexts.2 The concept is more than a casual topic of discussion. On occasion, it can rise to a level of judicial concern. For example, in Lee v. Commissioner,3 Judge Cameron, in dissent, wrote in a case involving review of income tax deficiencies and fraud penalties:
It is fundamental in the Anglo-Saxon scheme of justice, recognized at common law and by statutes in practically all the states, that those who are not able to speak for themselves shall be accorded protection by the sealing of the lips of their adversaries as to transactions between them. We ought to apply such a principle of rudimentary justice here. We ought to avoid giving color to the thesis that the exigencies of the exchequer are such that those employed to keep it replenished may deal with taxpayers in any spirit not dominated by absolute fairness, tinctured even by a touch of chivalry and...
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SOURCE: Kerkering, Jack. “‘Of Me and of Mine’: The Music of Racial Identity in Whitman and Lanier, Dvořák and DuBois.” American Literature 73, no. 1 (March 2002): 147-84.
[In the following essay, Kerkering compares the American Centennial-era poetry of Sidney Lanier and Walt Whitman, noting significant contrasts in form, structure, voice, and historic vision.]
With Reconstruction entering its tenth year in 1875, plans were underway in Philadelphia for a gala event to mark the following year's national centennial. Opening ceremonies would feature a choral cantata with music by Northerner Dudley Buck and words by Southerner and former Confederate soldier and poet Sidney Lanier. This collaboration between North and South was deliberately meant to symbolize the national unity that Reconstruction had so far failed to restore.1 Lanier's poem “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” or the Centennial Cantata, asserts national continuity by personifying America as a single entity, the goddess Columbia, whose declaration “I was: I am: and I shall be” asserts a national will to endure.2 Lanier was not the only poet, however, to mark the centennial, for Walt Whitman's 1876 “Preface” also references “the Centennial at Philadelphia,” describing Leaves of Grass as “my contribution and outpouring to celebrate … the first Centennial of our New World...
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Bradford, Gamaliel. “Sidney Lanier.” In American Portraits: 1875-1900, pp. 61-83. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1922.
Examination of Lanier's inner life as revealed in his letters, biography, and poems.
Brooks, Van Wyck. “Sidney Lanier.” In A Chilmark Miscellany, pp. 297-303. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1948.
Comments on the originality of Lanier's experiments in verse form, but also notes that Lanier “struck one in later times as more important in the role of a personage and thinker than he was as a poet.”
De Bellis, Jack. “The Poetry of Freedom.” In Sidney Lanier. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
In De Bellis' general introduction to Lanier's life and works, this chapter focuses on individual poems that celebrate American democracy, from the perspective of Lanier's post-Civil War southern perspective.
Introductions to The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, Vols. I-X, edited by Charles R. Anderson. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945.
Thorough, scholarly introductions to Lanier's works and letters.
Coulson, Edwin R. “Lanier's Place as American Poet and Prosodist.” Sidney Lanier: Poet and Prosodist, by Richard Webb and Edwin R. Coulson, pp. 73-103. Athens, Ga.: The...
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