Sidney Lanier Biography

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Sidney Clopton Lanier was born on February 3, 1842, in Macon, Georgia, a small city that was at the time the thriving center of the cotton industry. Both his parents were of good, long-established Virginia families who had settled comfortably into the urban, middle-class lifestyle of antebellum Macon. His father, Robert Sampson Lanier, was a graduate of Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College and a practicing attorney; his mother, Mary Jane Anderson Lanier, was a devout Scottish Presbyterian who fostered in her children a deep appreciation for the writings ofSir Walter Scott. Sidney was the eldest child, with a sister Gertrude (born 1846) and a brother Clifford (born 1844), who occasionally collaborated with Sidney and who earned a minor literary reputation with the publication of his novel Thorn-Fruit (1867).

Lanier was a happy, bookish child noted for his good behavior and piety as well as for his love of literature, including works by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, John Keats, and the perennially popular Scott. He also demonstrated exceptional musical ability at a very early age and eventually became expert at playing the violin, guitar, organ, and flute. In certain respects, Lanier’s musical talent was unfortunate: The distinctive musicality of his verse too often overpowers the meaning, and his desire to become a professional musician often diverted his time and energies away from his career as a poet. At any rate, music was an integral part of his formal education. Evidently, Macon had no public-supported schools during Lanier’s youth, so he was educated at private academies run by local clergymen. It is unclear how solid an education he received in this fashion, but at a time when only one out of thirteen adult white southerners could read or write, it was certainly adequate to gain him admittance into a relatively new Presbyterian college, Oglethorpe University. Lanier matriculated at the age of fifteen: He was a good student, being especially adept at mathematics, and was named covaledictorian of his class. He returned to Oglethorpe in the fall after his graduation to serve as a tutor, a position secured for him by Professor James Woodrow. Woodrow (the uncle of Woodrow Wilson) possessed a degree of open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism that was unusual for Oglethorpe and something of a revelation for Lanier.

Before Lanier could explore the new worlds opened to him by Woodrow, however, the Civil War broke out. Lanier joined the Confederate Army in June, 1861, serving first as a private with the Macon Volunteers and later in the Mounted Signal Service. In 1864, while on signal duty on a blockade-runner, Lanier was captured and sent to a prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. Although Lanier was able to solace himself by playing his flute (which he had smuggled into prison inside his sleeve) and translating German poetry, the months spent at Point Lookout in 1864 and 1865 activated the latent tuberculosis that eventually killed him.

In 1867, Lanier married Mary Day, whom he had met while on furlough in 1863. It was not love at first sight: Lanier, a ladies’ man of sorts, did not seem to notice Day until after his current sweetheart, one Gussie Lamar, jilted him. Day, an invalid, reportedly was advised by her physician that a marriage would improve her health (apparently it did: She outlived her husband by half a century, dying in 1931 at the age of eighty-seven). Despite the inauspicious circumstances surrounding the wedding, the marriage was a good one, and Lanier spent much of their fourteen years together attempting simultaneously to support his growing family (four sons), to satisfy his creative urges, and to find relief from his tuberculosis. From 1868 to 1873, he read law and clerked in his father’s law office, an occupation for which he was temperamentally ill-suited, and which was all the more intolerable because of his worsening health and the frustration of having no time to write. He spent the winter and spring of 1872...

(The entire section is 1,946 words.)