Sidney Lanier

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3292

Although literary historians are correct in maintaining that Sidney Lanier had only minimal influence on other writers, that influence is most apparent in the post-Civil War interest in the recording of regional dialects. Perhaps taking his cue either from James Russell Lowell’s satirical The Biglow Papers (1848, 1867) or Augustus Longstreet’s humorous Georgia Scenes (1835), Lanier wrote several propagandistic poems in southern dialect, in which humor was incidental rather than integral.

“Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land”

Works written in dialect, yet serious in intent, were an innovation in American literature, and one of the first such works was Lanier’s “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land.” Written sometime between 1869 and 1871, the poem was originally published in the Macon Telegraph and Messenger on February 7, 1871, and thereafter in newspapers throughout the South and Midwest. Lanier reworked a local story into a serious statement of what he personally felt was the soundest strategy for the survival of the postwar South: Resist the temptation to emigrate, and diversify crops.

The poem itself (despite the challenges of the dialect) is unusually straightforward for a work by Lanier, not only because of the paucity of imagery but also, more important, because of Lanier’s uncharacteristic avoidance of sentimentality. Written in ten sestets, it recounts how a man named Jones (appropriately enough a resident of Jones County, Georgia) was a failure as a farmer. Jones sold his farm to a man named Brown for $1.50 an acre and moved to Texas where ostensibly “cotton would sprout/ By the time you could plant it in the land.” The redoubtable Brown “rolled up his breeches and bared his arm” and within five years had become a prosperous farmer, “so fat that he wouldn’t weigh.” One day while Brown was sitting down to “the bulliest dinner you ever see,” Jones showed up, having literally walked back to Georgia to try to find work. Brown fed him and provided the moral of the poem: “’whether men’s land was rich or poor/ Thar was more in the man than thar was in the land.’”

In a region of the United States still suffering from a deep depression fully five years after the war, Lanier’s little parable must have been a breath of hope and encouragement. The poem, however, is far more than a paean to the advantages of working hard and staying in Georgia. It is the emphatic statement of an economic reality: Instead of continuing to raise “yallerish cotton” like Jones, one must grow corn and wheat. Thanks to crop diversification, Brown avoided the economic stranglehold that the northern markets had on King Cotton (and, consequently, on the entire South), while enjoying the self-reliance that comes with raising a crop that one could literally consume. Whether or not the southern audience noticed the poem’s horticultural/economic message, they certainly admired “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” and its immense popularity was due in part to its qualities as a poem. By virtue of its sing-songy rhythm, the familiar dialect, the predictable rhyme (generally aabbbc; the c invariably was the word “land”), and the surprisingly subtle humor (such as the broken rhyme “hum-/ Ble” in stanza 9), it was ideally suited to essentially rural, semiliterate readers who were accustomed to a rich oral tradition and who frequently found themselves in situations comparable to that of the unfortunate Jones.

“Corn”

Even the most cursory glance at his letters, poems, and essays reveals that Lanier sincerely regarded poetry as a noble calling, and he resisted the temptation to write broadly popular, potentially remunerative verse. He preferred producing poems that appealed to the finer aspects of individual, regional, or national character, or which expressed his personal views on economic or political matters. There was no affectation inherent in these twin didactic conceptions of poetry, and they were at least partly responsible for the cool reception that his poems often received in his lifetime. Still, Lanier’s poems occasionally did manage to achieve some popularity, and only a few years after the regional success of “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” Lanier received his first national attention with “Corn.”

“Corn” is a reiteration of the ideas presented in “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” but the two poems are handled in strikingly different ways. Lanier apparently began the composition of “Corn” in July, 1874, while he was staying in the hamlet of Sunnyside, Georgia. Evidently he was especially impressed by the extensive cornfields and the terrain. Unlike “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” this poem was definitely not intended for a semiliterate, rural southern audience. In format, it is a sterling example of a Cowleyan ode. Unlike the technically rigid “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” “Corn” is irregular in stanza length, line length, and rhythm. It is so heavily enjambed that at first one may not even be conscious of the extraordinary degree to which Lanier relies on rhyme to give his poem coherence. The rhyming couplets and tercets, the eye rhyme (“hardihood”/“food”), and the leonine rhyme (“Thou lustrous stalk, that ne’er mayst walk nor talk”) are testimonies to Lanier’s fascination with sound—a fascination that, unfortunately, was largely responsible for the charges of obscurity, sentimentality, and even banality that have been leveled against Lanier’s poetry throughout the last century.

One need not look beyond the first stanza of “Corn” to understand what these critics have in mind. The persona passes through some woods before he encounters the field of corn, but the little forest, as is typical of Lanier, has been personified and emotionalized to such an embarrassing degree that the first stanza sounds like a sentimentalized psychosexual dream. The leaves that brush the persona’s cheek “caress/ Like women’s hands”; the “little noises” sound “anon like beatings of a heart/ Anon like talk ’twixt lips not far apart”; and the persona clearly has abandoned himself to the pleasures of the sensuous forest.

The persona proceeds through the concupiscent forest until finally, in stanza 3, he encounters the corn itself, which Lanier had intended to be the controlling image of the poem. In one of his more fortunate metaphors, Lanier likens the field of corn to an army, and although at times that metaphor is strained (one stalk functions as the “corn-captain”), what makes it especially appropriate is that there are in fact three “battles” going on in this poem: The cornstalks are competing for soil with the sassafras and brambles, the antebellum King Cotton economy is clashing with the new diversified crop system, and Lanier is positing life as a battle with The Poet as its hero and the corn-captain as his symbol. It is apparent, then, that Lanier is attempting to make the battle metaphor operate on at least three levels; although it is an interesting concept and Lanier makes a noble effort to realize it, in the final analysis it simply does not work. Instead of being mutually enriching, the various images result in a confusing clutter. This fundamental technical problem and a host of others are readily apparent to even the most sympathetic reader of “Corn.”

In stanza 4, the “fieldward-faring eyes” of the persona do not simply look at the corn, but harvest it in his heart. It is characteristic of Lanier that he favors the use of rather grotesque metaphors. What tends to make the metaphor a bit less dubious, however, is that Lanier is not as interested in the physical corn as he is in the abstract qualities that he believes the corn embodies. Much as people can learn industriousness from bees and contentment from cows, Lanier felt that the cornstalk could teach readers about virtuous living.

One may reasonably question how a technically and thematically weak poem such as “Corn” could possibly attract a national audience. Part of the answer lies in the very matter of technique: At the time he was writing, Lanier was sufficiently innovative to generate interest. The second part of the answer is more a matter of sociology than of poetics. During the Reconstruction period, and in particular during the 1870’s, when Centennial enthusiasm was running high, there was an impulse toward reconciliation in the United States—an impulse that frequently took the form of northern readers responding enthusiastically to any piece of writing from, or about, the South. Even though Lanier initially had some difficulty finding northern periodicals that would publish his work, the fact is that these journals were far more receptive to southern writers after the Civil War than they were at any time before it. Lanier’s career actually came during an ideal time, for he was clearly, insistently a southern writer, and nowhere is his southern influence more apparent, perhaps, than in his two best-known poems, “Song of the Chattahoochee” and “The Marshes of Glynn.”

“Song of the Chattahoochee”

“Song of the Chattahoochee” was written in Baltimore at the end of November, 1877, and its first verifiable publication (December, 1883) was in the Independent, a New York-based weekly paper with a wide circulation. It became so popular that for decades it was a staple of elementary school reading books, the only poem by Lanier with which many people were even vaguely familiar. That distinction is a dubious one, for in fact, “Song of the Chattahoochee” is not one of Lanier’s better efforts, and yet the very qualities that tend to weaken it were those responsible for its popularity. In typical Lanierian fashion, its most striking feature is its sound. Ostensibly the Chattahoochee River itself is speaking the poem (an earlier version reprinted by F. V. N. Painter in his Poets of the South, 1903, is in the third person), and this provides a golden opportunity for Lanier to use diction that conveys the sound of moving water. Words featuring liquid consonants and alliteration are so common that at times the poem reads like a tongue-twister: “The willful waterweeds held me thrall,/ The laving laurel turned my tide.” This effect is compounded by Lanier’s heavy reliance on repetition, not only of individual words but also of phrases: Each of the five stanzas begins and ends with some variation of the opening couplet, “Out of the hills of Habersham, Down the valleys of Hall.” Clearly Lanier is seeking to depict moving water onomatopoeically, and to a certain extent he succeeds, but in such a short poem (fifty lines) one simply does not need the phrases “the hills of Habersham” and “the valleys of Hall” repeated ten times each. The effect of soothing musicality that Lanier was trying to create becomes monotonous. It is so overwhelming that the reader may very well fail to detect either the structure of the poem or the theme.

“Song of the Chattahoochee” begins with the river explaining how it rises in Habersham County (in northeastern Georgia) and travels through Hall County on its way to “the plain.” In stanza 2, the speaker/river provides a catalog of the various small plants that attempt to delay it; stanza 3 is a catalog of the trees that seek to distract the river; stanza 4 reveals the rocks and minerals that try either to retard the flowing of the river or to dazzle it with their beauty. Then in stanza 5, readers learn why the river resists these sensuous distractions: Compelled by a strong sense of Duty (with a capital d), it must both make itself useful through “toil” and allow itself to “be mixed with the main.” It is possible to infer that the personified river represents a human being whose life is purposefully active and who willingly acknowledges the “rightness” of death (here conveyed as the merging of one’s identity with the vastness of the ocean—an idea explored more fully in “The Marshes of Glynn”); but if this analogy were central to Lanier’s purpose, he certainly did not handle it well, and as a result the depiction of the river as “dutiful” seems to be nothing more than a romantic imposition on the part of Lanier.

Despite its didactic impulse, Lanier’s poem retained its popularity in elementary schools for many years and, consequently, among several generations of Americans. Brief and strikingly musical, it is ideally suited to introducing poetry to youngsters. “Song of the Chattahoochee” also had the dubious but undeniable advantage of posthumous publication: To be frank, Lanier’s career was never stronger than in the years immediately following his early death. Even so, he did enjoy some nationwide popularity in his lifetime, most notably with “The Marshes of Glynn.”

“The Marshes of Glynn”

It is unclear when Lanier began the composition of “The Marshes of Glynn,” although it is possible that it had been evolving over at least a three-year period before Lanier actually wrote it in the summer of 1878. The Glynn of the title is Glynn County, Georgia, noted for its salt marshes near the coastal village of Brunswick, a favorite haunt of the Lanier family for many years. Like “Corn,” “The Marshes of Glynn” had its origins in Lanier’s personal response to a specific element of the Georgia landscape, but it is notably more private and esoteric than that early effort. Both as an artist and as a man, Lanier had changed significantly during the four years following the composition of “Corn.” For one thing, he had discovered Walt Whitman. Although Lanier (despite the distinctive sensuality of his imagery) was singularly reticent about sexual matters, he nevertheless was deeply impressed with Whitman’s work, even going so far as somehow to amass the requisite five dollars and order a copy of Leaves of Grass (1855) from the Good Gray Poet himself. In a letter to Bayard Taylor in February, 1878, Lanier described that book as a source of “real refreshment” to him, and likened its effect, significantly, to “rude salt spray in your face.” It is probably no coincidence that Lanier made that comparison only a few months before the composition of “The Marshes of Glynn,” for the poem can justifiably be termed Whitmanesque in its remarkable range and sweep.

Lanier also had changed as a result of his discovery of Ralph Waldo Emerson. During his stay in Tampa in the winter of 1877, Lanier apparently read Emerson in earnest, an undertaking at least partly attributable to the precarious state of his health. By the late 1870’s, Lanier was finally beginning to admit to himself that the tuberculosis with which he had struggled for a decade would probably kill him within a very few years, as indeed it did. This admission of imminent death, coupled with his lack of orthodox religious faith, apparently generated his interest in Emerson and fostered significant changes in the themes and techniques of his poems. These changes are especially evident in “The Marshes of Glynn,” which shows Lanier in far better control of his material than was the case in “Corn.”

The two poems begin in a similar fashion with an extensive catalog of the elements one encounters while walking through a forest, but in “The Marshes of Glynn” Lanier has carefully pruned the embarrassingly overwritten sensual passages that are so striking in the opening of “Corn.” True, he mentions “Virginal shy lights/ Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whispers of vows,” but this is as purple a passage as one finds in the opening of “The Marshes of Glynn.” Then with remarkable skill, the orientation is shifted from the association of the forest with love to that of religious faith, and from this point on, the rather long ode is devoted to spiritual matters. Unlike the irrelevant opening of “Corn,” that of “The Marshes of Glynn” almost immediately presents Lanier’s two concerns: the traditional belief that Nature is the great refresher of people’s souls, and the contemporary Emersonian view that one may find the true God in the natural world. The intimate relationship between nature (specifically the forest) and the persona (transparently Lanier himself) is first overtly presented in line 20, and it is at this point that the reader realizes that the previous nineteen lines were actually an exceptionally elaborate apostrophe to the forest. The persona’s love for the beauties and mysteries of the wood is palpable, and that love is conveyed through Lanier’s characteristic compound adjectives (“myriad-cloven”), alliteration (“beautiful-braided”), and assonance (“oaks”/“woven”).

It is made abundantly clear, however, that the forest experience represents merely a phase in the persona’s life that has now passed, a phase that was associated with “the riotous noon-day sun.” It is impossible to determine whether this represents a point in the persona’s maturation (most likely his young manhood) or an earlier moment in his shifting orientation (when his concerns were more material or “earthly” than spiritual), or a combination of the two; but perhaps this is a moot point. What matters is that one phase of his existence (represented by the forest) is over, and that a new one (represented initially by the marshy beach) has begun. In keeping with the previous association of the forest with noon, the new locale is associated with the setting sun, whose “slant yellow beam” seems “Like a lane into heaven.” That this sunset is to be associated with an overwhelming spiritual experience (most likely death) is clear from the persona’s observation that “now, unafraid, I am fain to face/ The vast sweet visage of space”—a space that a few lines later is depicted, significantly, as the “terminal” sea. Although the persona finds himself “drawn” to “the edge of the wood . . ./ Where the gray beach glimmering runs,” he willingly submits and soon finds himself “Free/ By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.”

There is nothing even remotely frightening about the beach: It is gray (reportedly Lanier’s favorite color), and it forms the transitional zone between something the persona has voluntarily rejected and something that he deeply desires. The Emersonian element of the poem is most evident as the persona reacts to the new freedom of the beach. At this point, the persona conveys his reaction to his spiritual freedom through two similes. First, “As the marsh hen secretly builds on the watery sod,/ Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God,” and he also will fly as she does; second, “By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod/ I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God.” The two metaphors are perfect in their appropriateness and simplicity, and they usher in the third movement of the poem: the shift from sunset to night, and from marshy beach to ocean. Much as the persona’s identity was blurred with that of the beach as he likened himself to the bird and grass, the identity of the beach is blended with that of the ocean as the tide rises, until finally “the sea and the marsh are one” and “it is night.” The poem has progressed so steadily to this climax that the final stanza sounds almost like a postscript.

It is unfortunate that Lanier did not live long enough to complete the series of projected “Hymns of the Marshes” of which “The Marshes of Glynn” was to be only a small part. Experimental in subject, scope, and technique (note the logaoedic dactyls and the long, loose Whitmanesque lines), “The Marshes of Glynn” is one of Lanier’s best poems, revealing an intellectual maturity and a technical expertise that, had they been allowed to flower, might well have placed him among the foremost American poets of the nineteenth century.

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Lanier, Sidney (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)