Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1192
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).
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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 to 1873 in Texas, and the trip, which had been undertaken because of his health, proved beneficial in another way. The Germans who played such a prominent role in San Antonio’s cultural life encouraged him to pursue a career in music.
In 1873, with financial assistance from his brother Clifford, Lanier began his career as first flautist with the Peabody Orchestra of Baltimore. An extraordinarily talented player, Lanier was able to maintain his position with the orchestra intermittently for the next seven years. When his musical engagements were completed in the spring of 1874, he went to Sunnyside, Georgia, to spend a few months, and there he was deeply impressed with the region’s cornfields. This led to the composition of “Corn,” and his career as a poet began in earnest. “Corn,” published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1875 after a devastating rejection by The Atlantic Monthly, was so successful that it resulted in commissioned work (including the guidebook Florida) and the opportunity to meet the writer-diplomat Bayard Taylor and Gibson Peacock, the editor of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, both of whom helped to further Lanier’s career. In the first half of 1876, Lanier worked on two long poems: “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” an assignment for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, secured through the influence of Taylor, and “Psalm of the West,” commissioned by the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine. They are not among his best works (“The Centennial Meditation of Columbia” in particular was roundly criticized for its obscurity), but they did gain Lanier national attention.
In the summer of 1876, the exhausted Lanier moved with his family to a farm in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he wrote a series of potboiling essays. That fall, his health broke completely, and the generous Peacock financed a three-month vacation for Lanier in Tampa. While in Florida, Lanier felt sufficiently well to write eleven poems, including “The Stirrup-Cup,” but, homesick for Georgia, he left Tampa in April, 1877. Unsuccessful in his bid for a position in the U.S. Treasury, Lanier attempted to support his wife and children by borrowing from his brother and selling the family silver. He was fortunate enough, however, to be able to resume his position with the Peabody Orchestra. A few months later, in March, 1878, he began an intensive study of English literature at the Peabody Library in Baltimore in the hope that it would lead to a teaching position at The Johns Hopkins University. For once his hope was realized, and in the fall of 1879, he began to teach poetry and the English novel at the new Baltimore university.
The last few years of his life (from approximately 1877 to 1881) were remarkably full and productive. In addition to his research and teaching, Lanier was writing his best-known poems (including “Song of the Chattahoochee” in November, 1877, and “The Marshes of Glynn” in 1878), The Science of English Verse, and the series of books for children known as The Boy’s Library of Legend and Chivalry. He also had published in 1877 his first and only book of verse, Poems, a slim volume (ninety-four pages; ten poems) issued by Lippincott’s Magazine. The attempt to compress a lifetime’s work into a few months was, however, ultimately self-defeating: Lanier’s final bout with tuberculosis began late in 1880, and he died in the mountains of North Carolina in September, 1881.