Sidney Lanier Lanier, Sidney (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sidney Lanier 1842-1881

American poet, critic, essayist, novelist, editor, and travel writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Lanier from 1903 through 1985. For further discussion of Lanier's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 6.

Amongst the foremost poets of the Reconstruction South, Lanier is a significant, if embattled, figure in American literature. His first passion was music, and his early years were spent as a professional flutist, for which he received considerable praise, despite being largely self-taught. This passion for music was always intermingled with Lanier's poetics, and his best-know poems, “The Symphony” (1875) and “The Marshes of Glynn” (1878) exemplify his conviction that verse is governed by the laws of music. In his later years, Lanier added literary critic to his accomplishments, presenting numerous public lectures and publishing his criticism on English literature. Popularly recognized as an important American literary voice during his own time, modern critics have been less enthusiastic towards Lanier.

Biographical Information

Born in 1842 and raised in Macon, Georgia, Lanier mastered numerous musical instruments as a child and read the chivalric romances of Sir Thomas Malory and the medieval chronicles of Jean Froissart. While his imagination was captured by the chivalric romances, an interest in which he parlayed into later literary pursuits, his early inclination was towards a career in music, with particular talent for the flute. Matriculating at Oglethorpe University, a local Presbyterian institution, in 1857, he came under the tutelage of Professor James Woodrow. A natural scientist educated at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, Woodrow encouraged his protégé's interest in the German Romantic writers, and engendered in Lanier an enthusiasm for nature and science that would inform his poetry and criticism. From this enthusiasm, Lanier later developed his theory of etherealization, whereby there can be no beauty without moral goodness, arguing that the senses must be abandoned for the soul. Shortly after graduation from the university, Lanier, along with his brother Clifford, enlisted in the Confederate Army. The hardships that he endured during the Civil War permanently undermined his health: he returned to Macon in 1865 afflicted with tuberculosis. Lanier remained in the South until 1873 and while music remained an important interest and his vocation, he made several tentative attempts to establish himself as a writer. In 1867 he published his only novel, Tiger-Lilies, contributed minor poems to periodicals, and worked on his poem “The Jacquerie,” which he never completed.

In 1873, prompted by the need for money and sensing that Southern writers needed to assert their voices in the new America, Lanier travelled North to dedicate his life to music and literature. He moved to Baltimore, where he was hired by the Peabody Orchestra as their first flutist. In 1875 Lanier received national recognition for his poems “Corn” and “The Symphony.” In the following year, he was awarded the very prestigious commission to represent the South by composing lyrics to accompany Dudley Buck's music for a cantata commemorating the country's centennial. While the performance of the piece at the opening of the national Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia was a popular success, the critical reaction to Lanier's text was harsh—a reaction that haunted Lanier, but that he would become accustomed to with subsequent poetic endeavors. His publishing career never brought him the financial success he needed to devote himself entirely to his art, and he was frequently called upon to do what some have called “hack work.” Struggling with poor health and financial insecurity, but with a respected reputation, Lanier turned to academia in his final years. He supplied introductions to several volumes of works for young boys, and presented public lectures on Shakespeare and English literature. His lectures were collected and published posthumously in 1902 as Shakspere and His Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and Its Development from Early English. Lanier had long sought a permanent professorship, and while Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore did not hire him to the permanent faculty, he did present numerous lectures with the school's sponsorship. In August 1881, seeking relief from his hectic activities and his recurring attacks of tuberculosis, Lanier retreated to Lynn, North Carolina, where he died at 39 years of age.

Major Works

His first major publication, and his only novel, Lanier's Tiger-Lilies is set during the American Civil War. A series of intrigues follows the main characters, a genteel southern couple, through a series of events including murder, duels, and the Civil War. The plot has been largely dismissed by critics, and Lanier himself claims to have eschewed plot in favor a different conception of “the Novel.” While praised for its realism, this work has nevertheless been largely forgotten, although it is of interest to Lanier scholars for its place in his body of work. In 1875 Lanier wrote the travel guide Florida: Its Scenery, Climate, and History, which was intended to boost interest in and tourism to Florida. This work remained the premier guidebook to Florida into the early twentieth century, but his didacticism and poetics rendered the work uncharacteristic of its genre. Some argue that its continued success stemmed less from its own value and more from a lack of competition. In his critical work, The Science of English Verse (1880), Lanier defined poetry as a succession of sounds and silences regulated by the temporal laws of music, and he employed musical notation to illustrate his scansion. He also devoted a significant portion of his treatise to the analysis of the tonal qualities of language and their application in verse. Lanier neglected the idea-content of poetry in The Science of English Verse, a weakness often criticized in his poems. His theory of etherealization—his belief in the ascendancy of spiritual values in life and literature—takes root in his The English Novel and the Principle of Its Development (1883). It is this concern with etherealization that informs much of his poetry, which is often preoccupied with large abstractions, such as love and beauty. In his highly regarded poem “The Symphony,” for example, Lanier protested against the materialism of his age by denouncing the inhumanity of commercialism and promoting the beneficent forces of love. This poem also employs some of his favorite musical poetic devices, including onomatopoeia, alliteration, run-on lines, metrical substitutions, and internal rhyming to simulate the “voices” of various orchestral instruments. His poem “The Marshes of Glynn” is another of Lanier's most recognized poems. Originally intended as part of a larger collection of Hymns to the Marshes, this poem celebrates the transcendent spirit within nature. Sickness kept him from completing the larger work, but this piece represents his theory of etherealization in its loving tribute to nature and spirituality. Amongst Lanier's earlier poems rejoicing in nature, “Corn” celebrates the distinctive Southern scenery while lamenting the destruction it underwent with war. The poem describes the barren hills of Georgia and the devastated condition of the South and its people, and looks forward to its redemption through restored agriculture. Lanier's poem “Sunrise” (1880), written as he was suffering from his progressively worsening tuberculosis, is a rhapsodic poem that looks to the eternal cycle of sunrise for comfort as death approaches. This poem is infused with Lanier's sense of musicality, accompanying the rapturous embrace of the sunlight as symbol for the human soul. Much of his poetry is no longer read, however, either because it speaks to a different sensibility than modern culture's or because it simply does not match the work of his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Critical Reception

While Lanier has received little attention in the last decades of the twentieth century, there was significant interest in Lanier in the 1950s-70s. Critics from the early decades of the twentieth century focus largely on Lanier's experiences first as a musician, and then as an artist struggling to define himself as a premier poet of his time. The tragedy of his illness and early death, as well as the triumph of his assertion of the voice of the New South, characterize the critical inquiries of F. V. N. Painter, and prominent Lanier biographer Edwin Mims. Aubrey Starke delves deeper into the nature of Lanier's poetics, reading his Florida guide as a unique representation of Lanier's artistic style. The influence of German literature and thought on Lanier's work is studied by Hans Galinsky and Richard Harwell, with Galinsky furthering the inquiry into the corresponding German reception of Lanier's work. The Shakespeare lectures, and Lanier's critical scholarship have led Thomas Daniel Young and Elmer Havens to consider his criticism and literary theory, which have merit but are also products of the scholarship of the age. Lanier's poetry and its mixed reception from contemporary reviewers has sparked close readings from many critics to reevaluate the merit of his work. Lanier's poetry and his infusion of music into verse gained him his reputation as an important American poet, and his criticism, including his essays and the lectures collected in Shakespeare and His Forerunners, have marked his place in the history of American letters. His scholarship, and his position as the poet of the New South, assure a degree of critical interest in Lanier as a literary figure that his poetry alone has had difficulty sustaining into the twentieth century and beyond.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Tiger-Lilies (novel) 1867

Florida: Its Scenery, Climate, and History (travel guide) 1875

*The Centennial Meditation of Columbia (poetry) 1876

Poems (poetry) 1877

The Science of English Verse (criticism) 1880

The English Novel and the Principle of Its Development (criticism) 1883

Poems (poetry) 1884

Poems (poetry) 1891

Music and Poetry: Essays upon Some Aspects and Inter-Relations of the Two Arts (essays) 1898

Letters of Sidney Lanier: Selections from his Correspondence, 1866-1881 (letters)...

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F. V. N. Painter (essay date 1903)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Painter, F. V. N. “Sidney Lanier.” In Poets of the South: A Series of Biographical and Critical Studies with Typical Poems, Annotated, pp. 81-101. New York: American Book Company, 1903.

[In the following excerpt, Painter examines Sidney Lanier's life, poetry, and literary criticism.]

Lanier's genius was predominantly musical. He descended from a musical ancestry, which included in its line a “master of the king's music” at the court of James I. His musical gifts manifested themselves in early childhood. Without further instruction in music than a knowledge of the notes, which he learned from his mother, he was able to play, almost by intuition, the...

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Edwin Mims (essay date 1905)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mims, Edwin. “The Beginning of a Literary Career.” In Sidney Lanier, pp. 152-81. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905.

[In the following excerpt, Mims discusses Lanier's early poetic works, including “Corn” and “The Symphony” and uses Lanier's letters to explore his growing interest in the poetic medium.]

During the winter of 1873-74, the first winter in Baltimore, Lanier had, as has been seen, given his entire time to music. The only poetry he had written had been inspired by love for his absent wife,—poems breathing of the deepest and tenderest affection. Scarcely less poetical were the letters written to her giving expression to his joy...

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Aubrey Harrison Starke (essay date 1933)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Starke, Aubrey Harrison. “Florida and India.” In Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study, pp. 223-34. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

[In the following excerpt, Starke examines Lanier's Florida: Its Scenery, Climate, and History and “Sketches of India,” which most critics consider to be substandard works. Starke argues that these works are important because of the ways Lanier either infused the work with his poetic style, as in the case of the former, or absented himself from the text, as with the latter.]


The way in which fame, invoked so long before, had come to Lanier could hardly...

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Aubrey Harrison Starke (essay date 1933)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Starke, Aubrey Harrison. “Lark of the Dawn.” In Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study, pp. 390-411. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

[In the following excerpt, Starke chronicles the scholarship, poetry, and prose of Lanier's final years.]


But in considering together the four books for boys, ignoring the fact that work on them extended from 1879, possibly from 1878, through the last days at Camp Robin in the early fall of 1881, we have overlooked some interesting work on which Lanier was engaged while the manuscripts of the King Arthur, the Mabinogion and the Percy remained...

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Paul H. Bowdre, Jr. (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bowdre, Paul H. Jr. “Eye Dialect as a Literary Device in the Works of Sidney Lanier.” In Papers in Language Variation: SAMLA-ADS Collection, edited by David L. Shores and Carole P. Hines, pp. 247-51. Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1964, Bowdre reads Lanier's dialect poems for his use of Eye Dialect, or the use of “quasi-phonetic spellings” to represent regional speech.]

When William Faulkner has a black servant say to Colonel Thomas Sutpen, “Hyer I am, Kernel,” using the nonstandard spelling kernel for colonel, he is using Eye Dialect. The same may be said about...

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Kenneth England (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: England, Kenneth. “Sidney Lanier in C Major.” In Reality and Myth: Essays in American Literature in Memory of Richard Croom Beatty, edited by William E. Walker and Robert L. Welker, pp. 60-70. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, England considers how many critics have called Lanier a poet of the New South, and uses selections of his poetry to build an argument that Lanier is in fact a poet of the Old South.]

In both his poetry and his prose, Sidney Lanier exhibits a bifold attitude in his view of the affairs of life in the South after the War. He does after the War condemn the slavery system which he has fought to...

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Edd Winfield Parks (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parks, Edd Winfield. “Lanier as Poet.” In Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell, edited by Clarence Gohdes, pp. 183-201. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, Parks considers Sidney Lanier as a poet, examines some of Lanier's better-known poems, and argues that he was never considered a major American poet because his poor health, sketchy education, and didacticism impaired his work.]

Sidney Lanier hoped to become a major poet, and desired that his work be judged on that basis. Overpraise of regional literature disgusted him; as early as 1869 he attacked the “insidious evil … of regarding our...

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John S. Edwards (essay date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edwards, John S. “Sidney Lanier: Musical Pioneer.” The Georgia Review 22, no. 4 (winter 1968): 473-81.

[In the following essay, Edwards examines Lanier as a musician and explores three distinct periods of his creative output, the Early Period (1841-1864), the Middle Period (1864-1873), and the Late Period (1873-1881) for both his musical and literary compositions.]

Although Sidney Lanier has enjoyed wide reputation as an American poet, his importance as a musical figure has been based on conjecture and reputation. References to this subject are usually anecdotal, referring to his virtuosic performances and his youthful serenading of young ladies. Though a...

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Elmer A. Havens (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Havens, Elmer A. “Lanier's Critical Theory.” ESQ 55 (1969): 83-89.

[In the following essay, Havens discusses Lanier's theory that there can be no beauty without moral goodness, and traces this theory of etherealization through Lanier's literary criticism.]

Although Sidney Lanier wrote much about form and the technique of literature, he understood beauty best within a moral context, which in his case is tinged by his own peculiar brand of Calvinism. He would have the “beauty of holiness” become the “holiness of beauty.” In fact, these terms may be mutually transposed when considering his judgment of any work of art as a thing of beauty.1...

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Richard Harwell (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harwell, Richard. Introduction to Tiger-Lilies: A Novel, by Sidney Lanier, pp. vii-xxiii. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Harwell examines Lanier's only novel Tiger-Lilies, arguing that while it has no great intrinsic merit, it is interesting to the Lanier scholar looking for insight into his literary style. The critic also examines the Germanic influence on the novel.]

In 1863, while serving with his brother Clifford in the Signal Corps of the Confederate Army at Burwell's Bay, just above Hampton Roads in Virginia, Sidney Lanier began writing a novel. He kept the manuscript with him throughout...

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William J. Kimball (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kimball, William J. “Realism in Sidney Lanier's “Tiger-Lilies.” South Atlantic Bulletin 36, no. 2 (1971): 17-20.

[In the following essay, Kimball reads Lanier's only novel, Tiger-Lilies, for its realism, arguing that had Lanier's use of realism been more consistent, the novel would have been more effective and more successful.]

Although Tiger-Lilies has been referred to as a Civil War novel, it can hardly meet the qualifications of that genre. It is concerned in part with accounts of some of Lanier's experiences in the war. But it is concerned with other things, too. When it appeared in 1867 critics were “baffled or smothered by the jumble...

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Jack De Bellis (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: De Bellis, Jack. “Southern Knight-Errant: Chivalry in the Early Poetry.” In Sidney Lanier, pp. 32-45. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.

[In the following excerpt, De Bellis examines Lanier's use of the chivalric tradition in his work, utilizing his novel Tiger-Lilies and the unfinished poem “The Jaquerie” as examples. The critic believes this tradition offered the young poet models in symbolism, setting, and morality which complemented another of his influences—the Southern literary tradition.]


William Gilmore Simms thought Southern literature “need not feel ashamed” of...

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Jack De Bellis (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: De Bellis, Jack. “Sunrise and Sunset: ‘Obedience to the Dream.’” In Sidney Lanier, pp. 126-45. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.

[In the following excerpt, De Bellis explores The Science of English Verse for Lanier's literary criticism and his discussion of the relationship between music and poetry.]

In his last years Lanier matched the tuberculosis that scorched his lungs to a white-hot pen. Though he wrote in a continuous streak, he was often forced by necessity to depart from projects which might have continued the philosophical, psychological, and esthetic investigations of “The Marshes of Glynn.” In his last three years only a few...

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Alice Hall Petry (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Petry, Alice Hall. “Death as Etherealization in the Poetry of Sidney Lanier. South Dakota Review 17, no. 1 (spring 1979): 46-55.

[In the following essay, Petry examines Lanier's theory of etherealization, or abandonment of the senses for the soul, as presented in his essay “Retrospects and Prospects.” The critic also considers the representation of death in his poetry.]

It was in the Spring of 1871 that the Southern poet, essayist, critic, and flutist Sidney Lanier published an essay entitled “Retrospects and Prospects” in successive issues of the Southern Magazine. In this little essay, which has been quite ignored by otherwise enthusiastic...

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Jane S. Gabin (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gabin, Jane S. “The Centennial Cantata.” In A Living Minstrelsy, pp. 89-104. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Gabin retraces both the negative critical reaction and the positive public response to Lanier's Centennial Meditation of Columbia, demonstrating that the verses read alone, without the musical accompaniment, warrant much of the negative critique.]

In Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, seventy-five acres of frozen ground were being prepared for the construction of almost two hundred buildings, statues, and fountains. The land had been leveled, drained, marked into streets, and planted with utility poles...

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Hans Galinsky (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Galinsky, Hans. “Northern and Southern Aspects of Nineteenth Century American-German Interrelations: Dickinson and Lanier.” In American-German Literary Interrelations in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Christoph Wecker, pp. 124-25, 139-50. Munich: Fink, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Galinsky examines both Emily Dickinson's and Sidney Lanier's understanding of and influence by German literature. Galinsky considers Lanier's knowledge of Germany and German literature, and conversely, Germany's relative disinterest in Lanier's work.]


Why is it that on the one hand we know so surprisingly little about Emily Dickinson's knowledge...

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Thomas Daniel Young (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Thomas Daniel. “Lanier and Shakespeare.” In Shakespeare and Southern Writers: A Study in Influence, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 49-61. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

[In the following essay, Young examines Lanier's public lectures on Shakespeare, which were posthumously published as Shakspere and his Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry, and calls this criticism evidence that Lanier was “a child of his age.”]

During the last few years of his relatively short life, while he was occupying the chair of first flutist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Sidney Lanier gave a series of public lectures at...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Abernathy, Cecil. “Lanier in Alabama.” Alabama Review 17, no. 1 (January 1964): 5-21.

Biographical account of Lanier's time in Alabama, with a focus on his romance with Mary Day, the future Mrs. Lanier.

Bradford, Gamaliel. “Sidney Lanier.” In American Portraits 1875-1900, pp. 61-83. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920.

Biographical portrait of Lanier's life.

Brenner, Rica. “Sidney Lanier.” In Twelve American Poets Before 1900, pp. 296-320. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1933.

Biographical essay focusing on Lanier's life and...

(The entire section is 349 words.)