“The Marshes of Glynn,” consisting of 105 lines, is considered Sidney Lanier’s best long poem. In this poem, he experiments with new rhythms in opposition to the old, established meters of the poetry of his time. Using a form of logaoedic verse, Lanier freely employs iambs, anapests, and dactyls as well as a wide range of patterns from rhyming couplets to single-syllable lines to achieve the desired effect. Because of his interest in both poetry and music, Lanier explores the relationship between these two disciplines in this poem. Consequently, “The Marshes of Glynn” is arranged almost orchestrally, with the elements introduced and arranged much as instruments in a symphony perform together for maximum effect.
“The Marshes of Glynn” follows its first-person narrator from the edge of the marsh into its lush and mysterious depths. Lanier’s use of long, flowing sentences filled with alliteration and assonance gives a sense of lushness to the setting his narrator inhabits. As the narrator contemplates life on the outskirts of the marshes, he is inexplicably drawn “To the edge of the wood// to the forest-dark.” However, the edge of the marsh, though attractive during the “noon-day sun,” is not enough to satisfy the seeking narrator. He has been content to spend the daylight hours on the edge of the wood, but, as twilight approaches, he recognizes the beauty of the “sand-beach” to the east and finally acknowledges his desire to enter the marshes.
As he enters the heart of the marshes, the narrator notes the features of life near the sea and considers their beauty. Any fear he has felt about approaching the depths of the marshes disappears when he enters the wood and sees that it has been touched with the “reverent hand” of the “Lord of the land.” When he sees “what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea,” he realizes that his “soul seems suddenly free.” It is while contemplating this simplicity and the freedom of the marshes that he first sees the marsh-hen and decides that, like her, he will build his “nest on the greatness of God.”
As the narrator contemplates the meaning of life in the marshes, night falls and the tide rushes in. With lush and descriptive language, Lanier describes the swamp at night—the fullness and the quiet—as a place of both ecstasy and uncertainty. While the sea overwhelms the land of the marshes with the “waters of sleep,” the narrator reflects on what is going on underneath the surface. Envisioning the “souls of men” under these powerful, enveloping waters, he wishes that he could understand all that is under the tide that now covers the beautiful marshland he has discovered. However, all he can do is acknowledge that though he has come into the heart of the marsh and experienced it directly, it is not possible to completely understand it.
Lanier’s interest in music is effectively illustrated in “The Marshes of Glynn” through the use of alliteration and assonance as well as through the use of long and flowing sentences to describe the marshlands. In contrast, Lanier also uses short phrases to illustrate the musical aspect of his poetry (for example, the double rhyme and flowing rhythm of the lines “Emerald twilights,—/ Virginal shy lights”). The use of strong, repeated stresses to illustrate the importance of what is being said has the effect of slowing the pace of the poem, while other lines move it forward using shorter, fast-paced dactyls. Throughout the poem, these rhythms work with the poem’s internal rhymes and easy flow of words and phrases to create a sense...
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of ebb and flow that emphasizes the musical quality of the work.
Another important aspect of “The Marshes of Glynn” is Lanier’s rich use of metaphor and imagery. For Lanier, the woods symbolize the kind of paradise inhabited by God. As the narrator nears the woods, he feels a sense of fear and awe common when approaching God. In addition, Lanier describes this paradise by using language suggesting religious imagery: “Closets of lone desire” and “cells for the passionate pleasure of prayer” suggest cloisters or monasteries and thus the kind of reverence and holiness reserved for God and His holy places. When Lanier writes, “I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies,” he equates the marsh-hen with the superiority of God and nature. However, the hen also represents the narrator and his intentions—“As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,/ Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God.” The narrator sees in the marsh-hen a way to live life in relation to God’s greatness. Similarly, Lanier uses the sea as a dual image. Again, the sea symbolizes God, who is “Here and there,/ Everywhere.” At the same time, the waters of the sea eventually flood the marshland with the “waters of sleep,” the tide and its flooding symbolizing both God, who overcomes humanity with His nature, and death, which covers everyone with its “sleep.”