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.
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.
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.
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.