The Marshes of Glynn

by Sidney Lanier

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

“The Marshes of Glynn” is dense with religious imagery and meaning. By entering the woods, the narrator is cleansed from his former world outside the marsh and acquires faith, which leads him to a union with the marsh and thus God’s greatness. In observing and considering the marsh and all that is in it, he reaches that point where he can begin to understand—though not fully—the true meaning of this newfound faith. “The Marshes of Glynn” is also a poem about journeys. It examines both the narrator’s search to understand self and his spiritual progress toward a union with God and nature. First, Lanier explores humankind’s journey into the dark depths of self. The poem follows its narrator from the very edge of self-knowledge—the woods—to the depths of the narrator’s questioning soul—the marsh—to discover that self-knowledge is not really possible. The poem also illustrates another kind of journey—the universal search for God and the ultimate truth of life through nature. The narrator desires to “fly in the greatness of God.” By the poem’s end, he has discovered that “from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep/ Roll in on the souls of men.” In this case, the sea represents God, whose tide envelops the marshes or the human soul. As in the narrator’s search for self, he discovers that true knowledge of God and nature is impossible. In both cases, it is during the night in the marshes that the narrator comes to terms with the unknowable and, though it is unknowable, nevertheless gains peace.

The narrator’s journey begins at “noon-day.” At first, it is a journey of fear and hesitancy. This person does not want to leave the warmth of the comfortable world outside the “dim sweet woods.” By twilight, however, he has left behind the comfort he has felt during the day and is drawn by these “dear dark woods” into the midst of all he fears. The unknown presents him with a land beyond his expectations, and he soon comes to prefer the freedom he discovers within the “world of marsh that borders a world of sea.” Ultimately, he must face the night and the tide. Once again, faced with the unknown and unknowable, he must come to terms with the meaning of human existence: “But who will reveal to our waking ken/ The forms that swim and the shapes that creep/ Under the waters of sleep?” Though the narrator never finds the answer to this question, he accepts both this lack of knowledge and, ultimately, the inevitability of death. Like Lanier, the narrator searches for God’s ultimate truth through nature and finds a peace that, though couched in uncertainty, is an answer he can accept.

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