Sidney Lanier

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5006

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 flute, guitar, violin, piano, and organ. He organized his boyish playmates into an amateur minstrel band; and when in early manhood he began to confide his most intimate thoughts to a notebook, he wrote, “The prime inclination—that is, natural bent (which I have checked, though)—of my nature is to music, and for that I have the greatest talent; indeed, not boasting, for God gave it me, I have an extraordinary musical talent, and feel it within me plainly that I could rise as high as any composer.”

This early bent and passion for music never left him. His thought continually turned to the subject of music, and in the silences of his soul he frequently heard wonderful melodies. In his novel, Tiger Lilies, he lauds music in a rapturous strain:

“Since in all holy worship, in all conditions of life, in all domestic, social, religious, political, and lonely individual doings; in all passions, in all countries, earthly or heavenly; in all stages of civilization, of time, or of eternity; since, I say, in all these, music is always present to utter the shallowest or the deepest thoughts of man or spirit—let us cease to call music a fine art, to class it with delicate pastry cookery and confectionery, and to fear to make too much of it lest it should make us sick.”

At a later period, while seeking to regain his health by a sojourn in Texas, he wrote to his wife:

“All day my soul hath been cutting swiftly into the great space of the subtle, unspeakable deep, driven by wind after wind of heavenly melody. The very inner spirit and essence of all wind-songs, bird-songs, passion-songs, folk-songs, country-songs, sex-songs, soul-songs, and body-songs, hath blown upon me in quick gusts like the breath of passion, and sailed me into a sea of vast dreams, whereof each wave is at once a vision and a melody.”

This predominance of music in the genius of Lanier is at once the source of his strength and of his weakness in poetry. In his poems, and in his work entitled The Science of English Verse, it is the musical element of poetry upon which the principal emphasis is laid. This fact makes him the successor of Poe in American letters. Both in theory and in practice Lanier has, as we shall see, achieved admirable results. But, after all, the musical element of poetry is of minor importance. It is a means, and not an end. No jingle of sound can replace the delicacy of fancy, nobleness of sentiment and energy of thought that constitute what we may call the soul of poetry. Rhapsody is not the highest form of poetic achievement. In its noblest forms poetry is the medium through which great souls, like Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, give to the world, with classic self-restraint, the fruitage of their highest thought and emotion.

The life of Lanier was a tragedy. While lighted here and there with a fleeting joy, its prevailing tone was one of sadness. The heroic courage with which he met disease and poverty impart to his life an inspiring grandeur. He was born at Macon, Georgia, February 3, 1842. His sensitive spirit early responded to the beauties of Nature; and in his hunting and fishing trips, in which he was usually accompanied by his younger brother Clifford, he caught something of the varied beauties of marsh, wood, and sky, which were afterwards to be so admirably woven into his poems. He early showed a fondness for books, and in the well-stored shelves of his father's library he found ample opportunity to gratify his taste for reading. His literary tastes were doubtless formed on the old English classics—Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Addison—which formed a part of every Southern gentleman's library.

At the age of fifteen he entered the Sophomore class of Oglethorpe College, near Milledgeville, an institution that did not have sufficient vitality to survive the Civil War. He did not think very highly of the course of instruction, and found his chief delight, as perhaps the best part of his culture, in the congenial circle of friends he gathered around him. The evenings he spent with them were frequently devoted to literature and music. A classmate, Mr. T. F. Newell, gives us a vivid picture of these social features of his college life. “I can recall,” he says,

“my association with him with sweetest pleasure, especially those Attic nights, for they are among the dearest and tenderest recollections of my life, when with a few chosen companions we would read from some treasured volume, it may have been Tennyson, or Carlyle, or Christopher North's Noctes Ambrosianœ, or we would make the hours vocal with music and song; those happy nights, which were veritable refections of the gods, and which will be remembered with no other regret than that they will nevermore return. On such occasions I have seen him walk up and down the room and with his flute extemporize the sweetest music ever vouchsafed to mortal ear. At such times it would seem as if his soul were in a trance, and could only find existence, expression, in the ecstasy of tone, that would catch our souls with his into the very seventh heaven of harmony.”

Lanier was a diligent student, and easily stood among the first of his classes, particularly in mathematics. His reading took a wide range. In addition to the leading authors of the nineteenth century, he showed a fondness for what was old and quaint in our literature. He delighted in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and in the works of “the poet-preacher,” Jeremy Taylor. At this time, too, his thoughtful nature turned to the serious problem of his life work. He eagerly questioned his capabilities as preliminary, to use his own words, “to ascertaining God's will with reference to himself.” As already learned from his notebook, he early recognized his extraordinary gifts in music. But his ambition aimed at more than a musician's career, for it seemed to him, as he said, that there were greater things that he might do.

His ability and scholarship made a favorable impression on the college authorities, and immediately after his graduation he was elected to a tutorship. From this position, so congenial to his scholarly tastes, he was called, after six months, by the outbreak of the Civil War. In his boyhood he had shown a martial spirit. With his younger brother he joined the Macon Volunteers, and soon saw heavy service in Virginia. He took part in the battles of Seven Pines, Drewry's Bluffs, and Malvern Hill, in all of which he displayed a chivalrous courage. Afterward he became a signal officer and scout. “Nearly two years,” he says, in speaking of this part of his service, “were passed in skirmishes, racing to escape the enemy's gunboats, signaling dispatches, serenading country beauties, poring over chance books, and foraging for provender.” In 1864 he became a blockade runner, and in his first run out from near Fort Fisher, he was captured and taken to Point Lookout prison.

It is remarkable that, amid the distractions and hardships of active service, his love of music and letters triumphantly asserted itself. His flute was his constant companion. He utilized the brief intervals of repose that came to him in camp to set some of Tennyson's songs to music and to prosecute new lines of literary study. He took up the study of German, in which he became quite proficient, and by the light of the camp fire at night translated from Heine, Schiller, and Goethe. At the same time his sympathy with the varied aspects of Nature was deepened. Trees and flowers and ferns revealed to him their mystic beauty; and like Wordsworth, he found it easy, “in the lily, the sunset, the mountain, and rosy hues of all life, to trace God.”

It was during his campaigns in Virginia that he began the composition of his only novel, Tiger Lilies, which was not completed, however, till 1867. It is now out of print. Though immature and somewhat chaotic, it clearly reveals the imaginative temperament of the author. War is imaged to his mind as “a strange, enormous, terrible flower,” which he wishes might be eradicated forever and ever. As might be expected, music finds an honored place in its pages. He regards music as essential to the home. “Given the raw materials,” he says,

“to wit, wife, children, a friend or two, and a house,—two other things are necessary. These are a good fire and good music. And inasmuch as we can do without the fire for half the year, I may say that music is the one essential. After the evening spent around the piano, or the flute, or the violin, how warm and how chastened is the kiss with which the family all say good night! Ah, the music has taken all the day cares and thrown them into its terrible alembic and boiled them and rocked them and cooled them, till they are crystallized into one care, which is a most sweet and rare desirable sorrow—the yearning for God.”

After the war came a rude struggle for existence—a struggle in which tuberculosis, contracted during his camp life, gradually sapped his strength. Hemorrhages became not infrequent, and he was driven from one locality to another in a vain search for health. But he never lost hope; and his sufferings served to bring out his indomitable, heroic spirit, and to stimulate him to the highest degree of intellectual activity. Few men have accomplished more when so heavily handicapped by disease and poverty. The record of his struggle is truly pathetic. In a letter to Paul Hamilton Hayne, written in 1880, he gives us a glimpse both of his physical suffering and his mental agony. “I could never tell you,” he says,

“the extremity of illness, of poverty, and of unceasing toil, in which I have spent the last three years, and you would need only once to see the weariness with which I crawl to bed after a long day's work, and after a long night's work at the heels of it—and Sundays just as well as other days—in order to find in your heart a full warrant for my silence. It seems incredible that I have printed such an unchristian quantity of matter—all, too, tolerably successful—and secured so little money; and the wife and the four boys, who are so lovely that I would not think a palace good enough for them if I had it, make one's earnings seem all the less.”

During all these years of toil he longed to be delivered from the hard struggle for bread that he might give himself more fully to music and poetry.

In 1867, while in charge of a prosperous school at Prattville, Alabama, he married Miss Mary Day, of Macon, Georgia. It proved a union in which Lanier found perpetual inspiration and comfort. His new-found strength and happiness are reflected in more than one of his poems. In “Acknowledgment” we read:—

“By the more height of thy sweet stature grown,
          Twice-eyed with thy gray vision set in mine,
I ken far lands to wifeless men unknown,
          I compass stars for one-sexed eyes too fine.”

And in “My Springs,” he says again, with great beauty:—

“Dear eyes, dear eyes and rare complete—
Being heavenly-sweet and earthly-sweet—
I marvel that God made you mine,
For when He frowns, 'tis then ye shine!”

In 1873, after giving up the study of law in his father's office, he went to Baltimore, where he was engaged as first flute for the Peabody Symphony concerts. This engagement was a bold undertaking, which cannot be better presented than in his own words. In a letter to Hayne he says:

“Aside from the complete bouleversement of proceeding from the courthouse to the footlights, I was a raw player and a provincial withal, without practice, and guiltless of instruction—for I had never had a teacher. To go under these circumstances among old professional players, and assume a leading part in a large orchestra which was organized expressly to play the most difficult works of the great masters, was (now that it's all over) a piece of temerity that I don't remember ever to have equaled before. But I trusted in love, pure and simple, and was not disappointed; for, as if by miracle, difficulties and discouragements melted away before the fire of a passion for music which grows ever stronger within my heart; and I came out with results more gratifying than it is becoming in me to specify.”

His playing possessed an exquisite charm. “In his hands the flute,” to quote from the tribute paid him by his director, “no longer remained a mere material instrument, but was transformed into a voice that set heavenly harmonies into vibration. Its tones developed colors, warmth, and a low sweetness of unspeakable poetry; they were not only true and pure, but poetic, allegoric as it were, suggestive of the depths and heights of being and of the delights which the earthly ear never hears and the earthly eye never sees.”

Henceforth Baltimore was to be Lanier's home. In addition to music, he gave himself seriously to literature. Before this period he had written a number of poems, limited in range and somewhat labored in manner. The current of his life still set to music, and his poetic efforts seem to have been less a matter of inspiration than of deliberate choice. In literary form the influence of Poe is discernible; but in subject-matter the sounds and colors of Nature, as in the poetry of his later years, occupy a prominent place. Of the poems of this early period the songs for “The Jacquerie” are the best. Here is a stanza of “Betrayal”:—

“The sun has kissed the violet sea,
          And burned the violet to a rose.
O sea! wouldst thou not better be
          More violet still? Who knows? Who knows?
          Well hides the violet in the wood:
          The dead leaf wrinkles her a hood,
          And winter's ill is violet's good;
          But the bold glory of the rose,
          It quickly comes and quickly goes—
          Red petals whirling in white snows,
                                        Ah me!”

After taking up his residence in Baltimore, Lanier entered upon a comprehensive course of reading and study, particularly in early English literature. He studied Anglo-Saxon, and familiarized himself with Langland and Chaucer. He understood that any great poetic achievement must be based on extensive knowledge. A sweet warbler may depend on momentary inspiration; but the great singer, who is to instruct and move his age, must possess the insight and breadth of vision that come alone from a profound acquaintance with Nature and human history. With keen critical discernment Lanier said that “the trouble with Poe was, he did not know enough. He needed to know a good many more things in order to be a great poet.” It was to prepare himself for the highest flights possible to him that he entered, with inextinguishable ardor, upon a wide course of reading.

In 1874 he was commissioned by a railroad company to write up the scenery, climate, and history of Florida. While spending a month or two with his family in Georgia, he wrote “Corn,” which deservedly ranks as one of his noblest poems. The delicate forms and colors of Nature touched him to an ecstasy of delight; and at the same time they bodied forth to his imagination deep spiritual truths. As we read this poem, we feel that the poet has reached a height of which little promise is given in his earlier poems. Here are the opening lines:—

“To-day the woods are trembling through and through
With shimmering forms, and flash before my view,
Then melt in green as dawn-stars melt in blue.
          The leaves that wave against my cheek caress
          Like women's hands; the embracing boughs express
                              A subtlety of mighty tenderness;
          The copse-depths into little noises start,
          That sound anon like beatings of a heart,
          Anon like talk 'twixt lips not far apart.
          The beach dreams balm, as a dreamer hums a song;
          Through that vague wafture, expirations strong
          Throb from young hickories breathing deep and long
With stress and urgence bold of prisoned spring
                    And ecstasy burgeoning.”

This poem is remarkable, too, for its presentation of Lanier's conception of the poetic office. The poet should be a prophet and leader, arousing mankind to all noble truth and action:—

“Look, out of line one tall corn-captain stands
Advanced beyond the foremost of his bands,
          And waves his blades upon the very edge
          And hottest thicket of the battling hedge.
Thou lustrous stalk, that ne'er mayst walk nor talk,
          Still shalt thou type the poet-soul sublime
          That leads the vanward of his timid time,
          And sings up cowards with commanding rhyme—
Soul calm, like thee, yet fain, like thee, to grow
By double increment, above, below;
          Soul homely, as thou art, yet rich in grace like thee,
          Teaching the yeomen selfless chivalry
          That moves in gentle curves of courtesy;
Soul filled like thy long veins with sweetness tense,
                              By every godlike sense
Transmuted from the four wild elements.”

For a time Lanier had difficulty in finding a publisher. He made a visit to New York, but met only with rebuffs. But upheld, like Wordsworth, by a strong consciousness of the excellence of his work, he did not lose his cheerful hope and courage.

“The more I am thrown against these people here, and the more reverses I suffer at their hands, the more confident I am of beating them finally. I do not mean by ‘beating’ that I am in opposition to them, or that I hate them or feel aggrieved with them; no, they know no better and they act up to their light with wonderful energy and consistency. I only mean that I am sure of being able, some day, to teach them better things and nobler modes of thought and conduct.”

“Corn” finally appeared in Lippincott's Magazine for February, 1875.

From this time poetry became a larger part of Lanier's life. His poetic genius had attained to fullness of power. He gave freer rein to imagination and thought and expression. Speaking of “Special Pleading,” which was written in 1875, he says: “In this little song, I have begun to dare to give myself some freedom in my own peculiar style, and have allowed myself to treat words, similes, and meters with such freedom as I desired. The result convinces me that I can do so now safely.” In the next two or three years he produced such notable poems as “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” “The Symphony,” “The Revenge of Hamish,” “Clover,” “The Bee,” and “The Waving of the Corn.” They slowly gained recognition, and brought him the fellowship and encouragement of not a few literary people of distinction, among whom Bayard Taylor and Edmund Clarence Stedman deserve especial mention.

Perhaps none of Lanier's poems has been more popular than “The Song of the Chattahoochee.” It does not reach the poetic heights of a few of his other poems, but it is perfectly clear, and has a pleasant lilting movement. Moreover, it teaches the important truth that we are to be dumb to the siren voices of ease and pleasure when the stern voice of duty calls. The concluding stanza is as follows:—

“But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
                    And oh, not the valleys of Hall,
Shall hinder the rain from attaining the plain,
                    For downward the voices of duty call—
          Downward to toil and be mixed with the main.
The dry fields burn and the mills are to turn,
And a thousand meadows mortally yearn,
          And the final main from beyond the plain
                    Calls o'er the hills of Habersham,
                    And calls through the valleys of Hall.”

In 1876, upon the recommendation of Bayard Taylor, Lanier was invited to write the centennial Cantata. As a poem, not much can be said in its favor. Its thought and form fall far below its ambitious conception, in which Columbia presents a meditation on the completed century of our country's history. On its publication it was subject to a good deal of unfavorable criticism; but through it all, though it must have been a bitter disappointment, the poet never lost his faith in his genius and destiny. “The artist shall put forth, humbly and lovingly,” he wrote to his father, “and without bitterness against opposition, the very best and highest that is within him, utterly regardless of contemporary criticism. What possible claim can contemporary criticism set up to respect—that criticism which crucified Jesus Christ, stoned Stephen, hooted Paul for a madman, tried Luther for a criminal, tortured Galileo, bound Columbus in chains, and drove Dante into a hell of exile?”

The need of a regular income became more and more a necessity. “My head and my heart,” he wrote, “are both so full of poems, which the dreadful struggle for bread does not give me time to put on paper, that I am often driven to headache and heartache purely for want of an hour or two to hold a pen.” He sought various positions—a clerkship in Washington, an assistant's place in the Peabody Library, a consulship in the south of France—all in vain. He lectured to parlor classes in literature—an enterprise from which he seems to have derived more fame than money. Finally, in 1879, he was appointed to a lectureship in English literature in Johns Hopkins University, from which dates the final period of his literary activity and of his life.

The first fruits of this appointment were a series of lectures on metrical forms, which appeared, in 1880, in a volume entitled The Science of English Verse. It is an original and suggestive work, in which, however, the author's predilections for music carry him too far. He has done well to emphasize the time element in English versification; but his attempt to reduce all forms of verse to a musical notation can hardly be regarded as successful. His work, though comprehensive in scope, was not intended to impose a new set of laws upon the poet. “For the artist in verse,” he says in his brief concluding chapter, “there is no law: the perception and love of beauty constitute the whole outfit; and what is herein set forth is to be taken merely as enlarging that perception and exalting that love. In all cases, the appeal is to the ear; but the ear should, for that purpose, be educated up to the highest possible plane of culture.”

A second series of lectures, composed and delivered when the anguish of mortal illness was upon him, was subsequently published under the title, The English Novel. Its aim was to trace the development of personality in literature. It contains much suggestive and sound criticism. He did not share the fear entertained by some of his contemporaries, that science would gradually abolish poetry. Many of the finest poems in our language, as he pointed out, have been written while the wonderful discoveries of recent science were being made. “Now,” he continues,

“if we examine the course and progress of this poetry, born thus within the very grasp and maw of this terrible science, it seems to me that we find—as to the substance of poetry—a steadily increasing confidence and joy in the mission of the poet, in the sacredness of faith and love and duty and friendship and marriage, and the sovereign fact of man's personality, while as to the form of the poetry, we find that just as science has pruned our faith (to make it more faithful), so it has pruned our poetic form and technic, cutting away much unproductive wood and effloresence, and creating finer reserves and richer yields.”

Among novelists he assigns the highest place to George Eliot, who “shows man what he may be in terms of what he is.”

There are two poems of this closing period that exhibit Lanier's characteristic manner at its best. They are the high-water mark of his poetic achievement. They exemplify his musical theories of meter. They show the trend forced upon him by his innate love of music; and though he might have written much more, if his life had been prolonged, it is doubtful whether he would have produced anything finer. Any further effort at musical effects would probably have resulted in a kind of ecstatic rhapsody. The first of the poems in question is the “Marshes of Glynn,” descriptive of the sea marshes near the city of Brunswick, Georgia.

“Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-
          withholding and free—
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves
                    to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and
                    the sun,
Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath
                    mightily won
God out of knowledge, and good out of infinite pain,
And sight out of blindness, and purity out of a stain.”

The other poem of his closing period, “Sunrise,” his greatest production, was written during the high fever of his last illness. In the poet's collected works, it is placed first in the series called “Hymns of the Marshes.” At times it almost reaches the point of ecstasy. His love of Nature finds supreme utterance.

“In my sleep I was fain of their fellowship, fain
          Of the live-oak, the marsh, and the main.
The little green leaves would not let me alone in my
Up-breathed from the marshes, a message of range and of sweep,
Interwoven with waftures of wild sea-liberties, drifting,
Came through the lapped leaves sifting, sifting,
          Came to the gates of sleep.
Then my thoughts, in the dark of the dungeon-keep
Of the Castle of Captives hid in the City of Sleep,
Upstarted, by twos and by threes assembling:
          The gates of sleep fell a-trembling
Like as the lips of a lady that forth falter yes,
                              Shaken with happiness:
          The gates of sleep stood wide.
.....“Oh, what if a sound should be made!
Oh, what if a bound should be laid
To this bow-and-string tension of beauty and silence
To the bend of beauty the bow, or the hold of silence
          the string!
I fear me, I fear me yon dome of diaphanous gleam
Will break as a bubble o'erblown in a dream,—
Yon dome of too-tenuous tissues of space and of night,
Overweighted with stars, overfreighted with light,
Oversated with beauty and silence, will seem
          But a bubble that broke in a dream,
If a bound of degree to this grace be laid,
                              Or a sound or a motion made.”

Throughout his artistic life Lanier was true to the loftiest ideals. He did not separate artistic from moral beauty. To his sensitive spirit, the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty seemed interchangeable terms. He did not make the shallow cry of “art for art's sake” a pretext or excuse for moral taint. On the contrary, he maintained that all art should be the embodiment of truth, goodness, love. “Can not one say with authority,” he inquires in one of his university lectures,

“to the young artist, whether working in stone, in color, in tones, or in character-forms of the novel: so far from dreading that your moral purpose will interfere with your beautiful creation, go forward in the clear conviction that, unless you are suffused—soul and body, one might say—with that moral purpose which finds its largest expression in love—that is, the love of all things in their proper relation—unless you are suffused with this love, do not dare to meddle with beauty; unless you are suffused with beauty, do not dare to meddle with truth; unless you are suffused with truth, do not dare to meddle with goodness. In a word, unless you are suffused with truth, wisdom, goodness, and love, abandon the hope that the ages will accept you as an artist.”

Through these years of high aspiration and manly endeavor, the poet and musician was waging a losing fight with consumption. He was finally driven to tent life in a high, pure atmosphere as his only hope. He first went to Asheville, North Carolina, and a little later to Lynn. But his efforts to regain his health proved in vain; and on the 7th of September, 1881, the tragic struggle was brought to a close.

The time has hardly come to give a final judgment as to Lanier's place in American letters. He certainly deserves a place by the side of the very best poets of the South, and perhaps, as many believe, by the side of the greatest masters of American song. His genius had elements of originality equaled only by Poe. He had the high moral purpose of the artist-prophets; but his efforts after musical effects, as well as his untimely death, prevented the full fruitage of his admirable genius. Many of the poems that he has left us are lacking in spontaneity and artistic finish. Alliterative effects are sometimes obtrusive. His poetic theories, as presented in The Science of English Verse, often outstripped his execution. But, after all these abatements are made, it remains true that in a few pieces he has reached a trembling height of poetic and musical rapture that is unsurpassed in the whole range of American poetry.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1514

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.

Edwin Mims (essay date 1905)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6789

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 in the large new world into which he was entering, and at the same time to his sense of loneliness and pain at their separation. To her and his boys he went as soon as his engagement with the Peabody Orchestra was ended. In one of his letters he had spoken of himself as “an exile from his dear Land, which is always the land where my loved ones are.” He found delight during this summer, as in the following ones, in the renewal of home ties, and in the enjoyment of the natural scenery of Macon and Brunswick, to whose beauty he never ceased to be sensitive.

It was in August, 1874, that he received a fresh impulse towards poetry, or, at least, towards the writing of more important poems than those he had heretofore written. While visiting at Sunnyside, Georgia, some sixty miles from Macon, he was struck at once with the beauty of cornfields and the pathos of deserted farms. Hence arose his first poem that attracted attention throughout the country. He took it to New York with him in the fall. Writing to his friend, Judge Logan E. Bleckley, now Chief Justice of Georgia, who during this summer spoke encouraging words to him about the faith he had in his literary future, he inclosed his recently finished poem with these words:—

195 Dean St., Brooklyn, N.Y.
                    October 9, 1874.

My dear Sir,—I could never tell you how sincerely grateful I am to you, and shall always be, for a few words you spoke to me recently.

Such encouragement would have been pleasant at any time, but this happened to come just at a critical moment when, although I had succeeded in making up my mind finally and decisively as to my own career, I was yet faint from a desperate struggle with certain untoward circumstances which it would not become me to detail.

Did you ever lie for a whole day after being wounded, and then have water brought you? If so, you will know how your words came to me.

I inclose the manuscript of a poem in which I have endeavored to carry some very prosaic matters up to a loftier plane. I have been struck with alarm in seeing the number of old, deserted homesteads and gullied hills in the older counties of Georgia; and though they are dreadfully commonplace, I have thought they are surely mournful enough to be poetic. Please give me your judgment on my effort, without reserve; for if you should say you do not like it, the only effect on me will be to make me write one that you do like.

Believe me always your friend,

Sidney Lanier.

The answer to this letter, giving a detailed criticism of the poem, was very helpful to Lanier. Judge Bleckley is a man of much cultivation, and is widely known throughout Georgia as at once one of the leading lawyers of the State and a man who can in his leisure moments engage in literary work which, though not published, gives evidence of imagination and taste. Lanier was wise enough to accept most of his criticism: the revised form of the poem compared with the first form shows a great many changes, and is striking evidence of Lanier's power to improve his work. Judge Bleckley's characterization of “Corn” so accurately describes it that his words may be quoted here:

“It presents four pictures; three of them landscapes and one a portrait. You paint the woods, a cornfield, and a worn-out hill. These are your landscapes. And your portrait is the likeness of an anxious, unthrifty cotton-planter, who always spends his crop before he has made it, borrows on heavy interest to carry himself over from year to year, wears out his land, meets at last with utter ruin, and migrates to the West. Your second landscape is turned into a vegetable person [the cornstalk is Lanier's symbol of the poet], and you give its poetry with many touches of marvel and mystery in vegetable life. Your third landscape takes for an instant the form and tragic state of King Lear; you thus make it seize on our sympathies as if it were a real person, and you then restore it to the inanimate, and contemplate its possible beneficence in the distant future.”1

The poem was published in “Lippincott's Magazine,” February, 1875, and at once attracted the attention of some discriminating readers of magazines, notably Mr. Gibson Peacock, the editor of the Philadelphia “Evening Bulletin,” who reviewed it in a most sympathetic manner, and became one of the poet's best friends during the remainder of his life. It is noteworthy that the scenery of the poem should be so distinctively and realistically Southern. There is in the first part all of Lanier's love of the Southern forest: the shimmering forms in the woods, the leaves, the subtlety of mighty tenderness in the embracing boughs, the long muscadines, the mosses, ferns, and flowers, are all delicately felt and described—with a suggestion of Keats. As he wanders from this forest to the zigzag-cornered fence, his fieldward-faring eyes take in the beauty of the cornfield, “the heaven of blue inwoven with a heaven of green.” One tall corn captain becomes to his mind the symbol of the poet-soul sublime, who takes from all that he may give to all. The picture of the thriftless and negligent Southern farmer, “a gamester's cat'spaw and a banker's slave,” shows Lanier's keen insight into Southern conditions, which he had, while living in Macon, studied with much care and which he now lifted into the realm of poetry. The red hills of Georgia, deserted and barren, are presented with true pathos. Nevertheless, like a genuine prophet, the poet looks forward to a better day:—

Yet shall the great God turn thy fate,
And bring thee back into thy monarch state
                    And majesty immaculate.
          Lo, through hot waverings of the August morn,
          Thou givest from thy vasty sides forlorn
          Visions of golden treasuries of corn—
Ripe largesse lingering for some bolder heart
That manfully shall take thy part,
                    And tend thee,
                    And defend thee,
With antique sinew and with modern art.

This vision of the South's restored agriculture was one that remained with Lanier to the end. He did not properly appreciate the development of manufacturing in the South, but he believed that the redemption of the country would come through the development of agriculture—not the restoration of the large plantations of the old régime, but the large number of small farms with diversified products. On a later visit to the South he exclaimed to his brother, “My countrymen, why plant ye not the vineyards of the Lord?” and later he wrote in his essay on the “New South” of the actual fulfillment of his prophecy in “Corn.”

Encouraged by the success of “Corn,” Lanier, while giving a large part of his time to music during the winter of 1874-75, looked more and more in the direction of poetry. He writes again to Judge Bleckley, November 15, 1874: “Your encouraging words give me at once strength and pleasure. I hope hard and work hard to do something worthy of them some day. My head and my heart are both so full of poems which the dreadful struggle for bread does not give me time to put on paper, that I am often driven to headache and heartache purely for want of an hour or two to hold a pen.” He then proceeds to outline what is to be his first magnum opus,

“a long poem, founded on that strange uprising in the middle of the fourteenth century in France, called ‘The Jacquerie.’ It was the first time that the big hungers of the People appear in our modern civilization; and it is full of significance. The peasants learned from the merchant potentates of Flanders that a man who could not be a lord by birth, might be one by wealth; and so Trade arose, and overthrew Chivalry. Trade has now had possession of the civilized world for four hundred years: it controls all things, it interprets the Bible, it guides our national and almost all our individual life with its maxims; and its oppressions upon the moral existence of man have come to be ten thousand times more grievous than the worst tyrannies of the Feudal System ever were. Thus in the reversals of time, it is now the gentleman who must rise and overthrow Trade. That chivalry which every man has, in some degree, in his heart; which does not depend upon birth, but which is a revelation from God of justice, of fair dealing, of scorn of mean advantages; which contemns the selling of stock which one knows is going to fall, to a man who believes it is going to rise, as much as it would contemn any other form of rascality or of injustice or of meanness—it is this which must in these latter days organize its insurrections and burn up every one of the cunning moral castles from which Trade sends out its forays upon the conscience of modern society.—This is about the plan which is to run through my book: though I conceal it under the form of a pure novel.”2

Lanier never finished this poem, but he was soon hard at work on another which was based on the same idea, “The Symphony.” Writing to his newly acquired friend, Mr. Peacock, March 24, 1875, he says:

“About four days ago, a certain poem which I had vaguely ruminated for a week before took hold of me like a real James River ague, and I have been in a mortal shake with the same, day and night, ever since. I call it ‘The Symphony:’ I personify each instrument in the orchestra, and make them discuss various deep social questions of the times, in the progress of the music. It is now nearly finished; and I shall be rejoiced thereat, for it verily racks all the bones of my spirit.”

The poem was published in “Lippincott's Magazine,” June, 1875; and besides confirming the good opinion of Mr. Peacock, won the praise of Bayard Taylor, George H. Calvert, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Charlotte Cushman, and was copied in full in Dwight's “Journal of Music.”

As in his first poem Lanier had pointed out a defect in Southern life, so in his second long poem he struck at one of the evils of national life. In the South he felt that there was not enough of the spirit of industry; looking at the nation as a whole, however, he exclaims:—

“O Trade! O Trade! would thou wert dead!
The time needs heart—'t is tired of head:
We are all for love,” the violins said.

The germ of this poem is found perhaps in a letter written from Wheeling, West Virginia, where he went with some of his fellow musicians to give a concert, April 16, 1874. It is a realistic picture of a city completely dominated by factory life. What he afterwards called “the hell-colored smoke of the factories” created within him a feeling of righteous indignation akin to that of Ruskin, although it must be said in justice to Lanier that, in combating the evils of industrial life, he never went to the extreme of eccentric passion displayed by the English writer. Nor, on the other hand, could he say with Walt Whitman: “I hail with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense practical energy, the demand for facts, even the business materialism, of the current age. … I perceive clearly that the extreme business energy and this almost maniacal appetite for wealth prevalent in the United States are parts of a melioration and progress, indispensably needed to prepare the very results I demand.”

Lanier's poem is more applicable to the conditions that prevail to-day than to those of his own time. He shows himself a prophet, the truth of whose words is realized by many of the finer minds of the country. He lets the various instruments of the orchestra utter their protest against the evils of modern trade. The violin, speaking for the poor who stand wedged by the pressing of trade's hand and “weave in the mills and heave in the kilns,” protests against the spirit of competition that says even when human life is involved, “Trade is only war grown miserly.”

Alas, for the poor to have some part
In yon sweet living lands of art.

Then the flute—Lanier's own flute, summing up the voices of nature, “all fair forms, and sounds, and lights”—echoes the words of the Master, “All men are neighbors.” Trade, the king of the modern days, will not allow the poor a glimpse of “the outside hills of liberty.” The clarionet is the voice of a lady who speaks of the merchandise of love and yearns for the old days of chivalry before trade had withered up love's sinewy prime:—

If men loved larger, larger were our lives;
And wooed they nobler, won they nobler wives.

To her the bold, straightforward horn answers, “like any knight in knighthood's morn.” He would bring back the age of chivalry, when there would be “contempts of mean-got gain and hates of inward stain.” He voices, too, the idea long ago expressed by Milton that men should be as pure as women:—

Shall woman scorch for a single sin,
That her betrayer may revel in,
And she be burnt, and he but grin
          When that the flames begin,
                    Fair lady?
Shall ne'er prevail the woman's plea,
We maids would far, far whiter be
If that our eyes might sometimes see
          Men maids in purity.

Then the hautboy sings, “like any large-eyed child,” calling for simplicity and naturalness in this modern life. And all join at the last in a triumphant chant of the power of love to heal all the ills of life:—

And ever Love hears the poor-folks' crying,
And ever Love hears the women's sighing,
And ever sweet knighthood's death-defying,
And ever wise childhood's deep implying,
But never a trader's glozing and lying.
And yet shall Love himself be heard,
Though long deferred, though long deferred:
O'er the modern waste a dove hath whirred:
Music is Love in search of a word.

By this time Lanier was hard at work for the publishers. Although he never lost his love for music—he could not—he began to see that his must be a literary career. In a letter of March 20, 1876, he says to Judge Bleckley that he has had a year of frightful overwork. “I have been working at such a rate as, if I could keep it up, would soon make me the proverb of fecundity that Lope de Vega now is.” He refers to the India papers written for “Lippincott's.”

“The collection of the multitudinous particulars involved in them cost me such a world of labor among the libraries of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore as would take a long time to describe. … In addition to these I have written a number of papers not yet published, and a dozen small poems which have appeared here and there.

“Now, I don't work for bread; in truth, I suppose that any man who, after many days and nights of tribulation and bloody sweat, has finally emerged from all doubt into the quiet and yet joyful activity of one who knows exactly what his Great Passion is and what his God desires him to do, will straightway lose all anxiety as to what he is working for, in the simple glory of doing that which lies immediately before him. As for me, life has resolved simply into a time during which I must get upon paper as many as possible of the poems with which my heart is stuffed like a schoolboy's pocket.” He quotes from “that simple and powerful sonnet of dear old William Drummond of Hawthornden:”

Know what I list, this all cannot me move,
But that, O me!—I both must write and love.

He had to give much of his time, however, to hack work. During the summer of 1875 he was engaged in writing a book on Florida for the Lippincotts. It is, as he wrote to Paul Hamilton Hayne, “a sort of spiritualized guide-book” to a section which was then drawing a large number of visitors. “The thing immediately began to ramify and expand, until I quickly found I was in for a long and very difficult job: so long, and so difficult, that, after working day and night for the last three months on the materials I had previously collected, I have just finished the book, and am now up to my ears in proof-sheets and wood-cuts which the publishers are rushing through in order to publish at the earliest possible moment, the book having several features designed to meet the wants of winter visitors to Florida.” It is filled with facts in regard to climate and scenery, practical hints for travelers, and other things characteristic of a guide-book; but it is more than that. Like everything else that Lanier ever did,—even the dreariest hack work,—he threw himself into it with great zest. It has suggestions to consumptives born out of his own experience. There are allusions to music, literature, and philosophy. There are descriptions and historical anecdotes of the cities of South Carolina and Georgia; above all, there are descriptions of the Florida country which only a poet could write. Two passages are characteristic:—

“And now it is bed-time. Let me tell you how to sleep on an Ocklawaha steamer in May. With a small bribe persuade Jim, the steward, to take the mattress out of your berth and lay it slanting just along the railing that incloses the lower part of the deck in front and to the left of the pilot-house. Lie flat on your back down on the mattress, draw your blanket over you, put your cap on your head, on account of the night air, fold your arms, say some little prayer or other, and fall asleep with a star looking right down on your eye. When you wake in the morning you will feel as new as Adam.”

“Presently we abandoned the broad highway of the St. Johns, and turned off to the right into the narrow lane of the Ocklawaha. This is the sweetest water-lane in the world, a lane which runs for more than one hundred and fifty miles of pure delight betwixt hedge-rows of oaks and cypresses and palms and magnolias and mosses and vines; a lane clean to travel, for there is never a speck of dust in it save the blue dust and gold dust which the wind blows out of the flags and lilies.”

In the discussion of “The Symphony,” emphasis was laid upon Lanier's national point of view. The opportunity soon came to him of giving expression to his love of the Union. At Bayard Taylor's suggestion he was appointed by the Centennial Commission to write the words for a cantata to be sung at the opening exercises of the exposition in Philadelphia. Taylor, in announcing the fact, on December 28, 1875, said: “I have just had a visit from Theodore Thomas and Mr. Buck, and we talked the whole matter over. Thomas remembers you well, and Mr. Buck says it will be especially agreeable to him to compose for the words of a Southern poet. I have taken the liberty of speaking for you, both to them and to General Hawley, and you must not fail me. …

“Now, my dear Lanier, I am sure you can do this worthily. It's a great occasion,—not especially for poetry as an art, but for Poetry to assert herself as a power.”3 To this letter Lanier replied: “If it were a cantata upon your goodness, … I am willing to wager I could write a stirring one and a grateful withal.

“Of course I will accept—when 't is offered. I only write a hasty line now to say how deeply I am touched by the friendly forethought of your letter.”4

He announces the fact to his wife in a jubilant letter of January 8, 1876:

“Moreover, I have a charming piece of news which—although thou art not yet to communicate it to any one except Clifford—I cannot keep from thee. The opening ceremonies of the Centennial Exhibition will be very grand; and among other things there are to be sung by a full chorus (and played by the orchestra, under Thomas's direction) a hymn and a cantata. General Hawley, President of the Centennial Commission, has written inviting me to write the latter (I mean the poem; Dudley Buck, of New York, is to write the music). Bayard Taylor is to write the hymn.5 This is very pleasing to me; for I am chosen as representative of our dear South; and the matter puts my name by the side of very delightful and honorable ones, besides bringing me in contact with many people I would desire to know.

“Mr. Buck has written me that he wants the poem by January 15, which as I have not yet had the least time for it, gives me just seven days to write it in. I would much rather have had seven months; but God is great. Remember, thou and Cliff, that this is not yet to be spoken of at all.”6

With enthusiasm the poet entered upon the task assigned him. The progress of the Cantata from the time when it first presented itself to his mind to the time when he completed it, may be traced in the letters to Bayard Taylor and Gibson Peacock, which have already been published.7 Writing to Mr. Dudley Buck, January 15, 1876, he said:—

Dear Mr. Buck,—I send you herewith the complete text for the Cantata. I have tried to make it a genuine Song, at once full of fire and of large and artless simplicity befitting a young but already colossal land.

I have made out a working copy for you, with marginal notes which give an analysis of each movement (or rather motive, for I take it the whole will be a continuous progression; and I only use the word “movement” as indicating the entire contrast which I have secured between each two adjacent motives), and which will, I hope, facilitate your labor by presenting an outline of the tones characterizing each change of idea. One movement is placed on each page.

Mr. Thomas was kind enough to express himself very cordially as to the ideas of the piece; and I devoutly trust that they will meet your views. I found that the projection which I had made in my own mind embraced all the substantial features of the Scheme which had occurred to you, and therefore, although greatly differing in details, I have not hesitated to avail myself of your thoughtful warning against being in any way hampered. It will give me keen pleasure to know from you, as soon as you shall have digested the poem, that you like it.

God send you a soul full of colossal and simple chords,—says

Yours sincerely,
Sidney Lanier.

In another letter, of February 1, 1876, he wrote:

“I will leave the whole matter of the publication of the poem in the hands of Mr. Thomas and yourself; only begging that the inclosed copy be the one which shall go to the printer. The truth is, I shrank from the criticism which I fear my poem will provoke,—not because I think it unworthy, but because I have purposely made it absolutely free from all melodramatic artifice, and wholly simple and artless; and although I did this in the full consciousness that I would thereby give it such a form as would inevitably cause it to be disappointing on the first reading to most people, yet I had somewhat the same feeling (when your unexpected proposition to print first came) as when a raw salt spray dashes suddenly in your face and makes you duck your head. As for my own private poems, I do not even see the criticisms on them, and am far above the plane where they could possibly reach me; but this poem is not mine, it is to represent the people, and the people have a right that it should please them.”

In this letter Lanier anticipates the criticism that was sure to come upon the poem when printed without the music. It was at once received with ridicule in all parts of the country. The leading critical journal of America exclaimed: “It reads like a communication from the spirit of Nat Lee, rendered through a bedlamite medium, failing in all the ordinary laws of sense and sound, melody and prosody.” It urged the commissioners to “save American letters from the humiliation of presenting to the assembled world such a farrago as this.” For several weeks Lanier could not pick up a newspaper without seeing his name held up to ridicule, the Southern papers alone, out of purely sectional pride and with “no understanding of the principles involved,” coming to his rescue. The spirit in which he received this criticism may be seen in a letter written to his brother:—

This is the sixth letter I've written since nine o'clock to night, and it is like saying one's prayers before going to bed, to have a quiet word with you.

Your letter came to-day, and I see that you have been annoyed by the howling of the critics over the Cantata. I was greatly so at first, before I had recovered from my amazement at finding a work of art received in this way, sufficiently to think, but now the whole matter is quite plain to me and gives me no more thought, at all. …

The whole agitation has been of infinite value to me. It has taught me, in the first place, to lift my heart absolutely above all expectation save that which finds its fulfillment in the large consciousness of beautiful devotion to the highest ideals in art. This enables me to work in tranquility.

In the second place, it has naturally caused me to make a merciless arraignment and trial of my artistic purposes; and an unspeakable content arises out of the revelation that they come from the ordeal confirmed in innocence and clearly defined in their relations with all things. …

The commotion about the Cantata has not been unfavorable, on the whole, to my personal interests. It has led many to read closely what they would otherwise have read cursorily, and I believe I have many earnest friends whose liking was of a nature to be confirmed by such opposition. …

And now, dear little Boy, may God convoy you over to the morning across this night, and across all nights, Prays your

S. L.

That the poem was misjudged cannot be denied. Lanier's defense published in the New York “Tribune” must be taken as a justification, in part at least, of the principles he had in mind.8 It was not written as a poem,—and Mrs. Lanier has wisely put it as an appendix to her edition of the poems,—but as the words of a musical composition to be rendered by a large orchestra and chorus. It compares, therefore, with a lyric very much as one of the librettos of a Wagner drama would compare with a genuine drama. It serves merely to give the ideas which were to be interpreted emotionally through the forms of music. Lanier knew well the requirements of an orchestra. He knew the effect of contrasts and of short, simple words which would suggest the deeper emotions intended by the author. He thought of Beethoven's “large and artless forms” rather than that of formal lyric poetry. He had heard Von Bülow conduct the Peabody Orchestra in a symphony based on one of Uhland's poems, in which only the simple elemental words were retained, “leaving all else to his hearers' imaginations.” This served as a model for his Cantata.

That the Cantata was a success is borne out by contemporary evidence. The very paper which had criticised Lanier most severely said, in giving an account of the opening exercises, “The rendering of Lanier's Cantata was exquisite, and Whitney's bass solo deserves to the full all the praise that has been heaped upon it.” Ex-President Gilman thus writes of the effect produced on the vast audience assembled in Philadelphia:

“As a Baltimorean who had just formed the acquaintance of Lanier (both of us being strangers at that time in a city we came to love as a most hospitable and responsive home),—I was much interested in his appointment. It was then true, though Dr. Holmes had not yet said it, that Baltimore had produced three poems, each of them the best of its kind: the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ of Key, ‘The Raven,’ of Poe, and ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ by Randall. Was it to produce a fourth poem as remarkable as these? Lanier's Cantata appeared in one of the daily journals, prematurely. I read it as one reads newspaper articles, with a rapid glance, and could make no sense of it. I heard the comments of other bewildered critics. I read the piece again and again and again, before the meaning began to dawn on me. Soon afterwards, Lanier's own explanation, and the dawn became daylight. The ode was not written ‘to be read.’ It was to be sung—and sung, not by a single voice, with a piano accompaniment, but in the open air, by a chorus of many hundred voices, and with the accompaniment of a majestic orchestra, to music especially written for it by a composer of great distinction. The critical test would be its rendition. From this point of view the Cantata must be judged.

“I remember well the day of trial. The President of the United States, the Emperor of Brazil, the governors of States, the judges of the highest courts, the chief military and naval heroes, were seated on the platform in the face of an immense assembly. There was no pictorial effect in the way they were grouped. They were a mass of living beings, a crowd of black-coated dignitaries, not arranged in any impressive order. No cathedral of Canterbury, no Sanders Hall, no episcopal or academic gowns. The oratory was likewise ineffective. There were loud voices and vigorous gestures, but none of the eloquence which enchants a multitude. The devotional exercises awakened no sentiment of reverence. At length came the Cantata. From the overture to the closing cadence it held the attention of the vast throng of listeners, and when it was concluded loud applause rang through the air. A noble conception had been nobly rendered. Words and music, voices and instruments, produced an impression as remarkable as the rendering of the Hallelujah Chorus in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Lanier had triumphed. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to test upon a grand scale his theory of verse. He came off victorious.”9

The most important thing, however, about the writing of the Cantata was that it gave expression to a strong faith in the nation as felt by one who had been a Confederate soldier. The central note of the poem is the preservation of the Union. In spite of all the physical obstacles that had hindered the early settlers, in spite of the distinct individualities of the various people of the sections, in spite of sectional misunderstandings which had led in the process of time to a bloody civil war, the nation had survived. All of these had said, “No, thou shalt not be.”

Now praise to God's oft-granted grace,
Now praise to man's undaunted face,
Despite the land, despite the sea,
I was: I am: and I shall be.

Lanier desired, however, to avoid anything like spread-eagleism, and so after the chorus of jubilation just quoted, there is a note of doubt as to how long the nation will last. The answer, sung by the Boston soloist, Myron D. Whitney, was particularly impressive:—

Long as thine Art shall love true love,
Long as thy Science truth shall know,
Long as thine Eagle harms no Dove,
Long as thy Law by law shall grow,
Long as thy God is God above,
Thy Brother every man below,
So long, dear Land of all my love,
Thy name shall shine, thy fame shall glow!

Soon after finishing the Centennial Cantata, Lanier started upon a much longer centennial poem which, as the “Psalm of the West,” was published in “Lippincott's Magazine,” June, 1876, and for which he received $300. “By the grace of God,” he writes to Bayard Taylor, April 4, 1876, “my centennial Ode is finished. I now only know how divine has been the agony of the last three weeks, during which I have been rapt away to heights where all my own purposes as to a revisal of artistic forms lay clear before me, and where the sole travail was of choice out of multitude.” This poem was written with the idea of a symphony in his mind. One of the last things he planned was to write the music for it.

The poem as a whole is a musical rhapsody rather than a self-contained work of art. Although there are fancies and obscurities, the general theme, the magnificent opening lines, and the Columbus sonnets, with here and there lines of imaginative power, make it noteworthy. The poem is a passionate assertion of the triumph of freedom in America,—freedom, the Eve of this tall Adam of lands.

Her shalt thou clasp for a balm to the scars of thy breast,
Her shalt thou kiss for a calm to thy wars of unrest,
Her shalt extol in the psalm of the soul of the West.

Freedom with all its dangers is the precious heritage of Americans. “For Weakness, in freedom, grows stronger than Strength with a chain.” With the aid of the God of the artist the poet reviews the history of the past, beginning with the time when in this continent “Blank was king and Nothing had his will.” The coming of the Northmen, the discovery of the land by Columbus, the voyage of the Mayflower,—ship of Faith's best hope,—the battle of Lexington, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the opening up of the West, are all chanted in unrestrained poetry. The Civil War is described as a tournament:—

Heartstrong South would have his way,
Headstrong North hath said him nay.
They charged, they struck; both fell, both bled;
          Brain rose again, ungloved;
Heart fainting smiled and softly said,
          My love to my Beloved.
Heart and brain! no more be twain;
Throb and think, one flesh again!
Lo! they weep, they turn, they run;
Lo! they kiss: Love, thou art one.

The poem closes as it began, with the triumphant vision of the future:—

At heart let no man fear for thee:
          Thy Past sings ever Freedom's song,
Thy Future's voice sounds wondrous free;
          And Freedom is more large than Crime,
          And Error is more small than Time.

The significance of the national spirit in these two poems may be seen only when it is looked at from the standpoint of the sectionalism that prevailed in the South and in the North. At the very time when Lanier was writing them, men in Congress were giving exhibitions of partisanship and prejudice that threatened to make of the Centennial a farce. “The fate of the Centennial bill in Congress,” he writes to Dudley Buck, “reveals—in spite of its passage—a good deal of opposition. All this will die out in a couple of months, and then every one will be in a temper to receive a poem of reconciliation. I fancy that to print the poem now will be much like making a dinner speech before the wine has been around.” Indeed, there were few men in America at this time who really understood the significance of the national spirit. Southern men, smarting under reconstruction governments and bitter with the prejudice engendered by the war, had not been able, except in rare cases, to rise to a national point of view. The sectional spirit was ready to break out at any time. It was but natural. In the Centennial year a speaker at the University of Virginia said: “Not space, or time, or the convenience of any human arm, can reconcile institutions for the turbulent fanatic of Plymouth Rock and the God-fearing Christian of Jamestown. … You may assign them to the closest territorial proximity, with all the forms, modes, and shows of civilization, but you can never cement them into the bonds of brotherhood.” On the other hand, the leading public men of the North, while protesting their love of the Union and naturally believing in the Union, which Northern armies had saved, had little of the spirit of a sympathetic realization of the South's problem and her condition. Only in a few large-minded publicists, and in editors like Godkin and poets like Lowell and Walt Whitman, did the national spirit prevail.

Lanier came forward, therefore, at a critical time to express his passionate faith in the future of the American Union. He was not the only Southerner, however, who felt this way. His two friends, Senators Morgan of Alabama and Lamar of Mississippi (formerly of Georgia), had been stout upholders of the national idea in Congress. As early as 1873 Lamar had paid a notable tribute to Charles Sumner. He had risen to the point where he could see the whole struggle against slavery and against secession from Sumner's standpoint. At the conclusion of his remarkable address he said:

“Bound to each other by a common constitution, destined to live together under a common government, shall we not now at last endeavor to grow toward each other once more in heart, as we are already indissolubly linked in fortunes? … Would that the spirit of the illustrious dead whom we lament to-day could speak from the grave to both parties to this deplorable discord in tones which should reach every heart throughout this broad territory: My countrymen! Know one another, and you will love one another.”

In 1876 he made an extended argument for the Centennial bill, an eloquent plea against the old States'-rights arguments. “He poured out,” says his biographer, “an exposition of nationalism and constitutionalism which equaled in effect one of Webster's masterpieces.” “As a representative of the South,” Lamar said at a later time, “I felt myself, with my Southern associates, to be a joint heir of a mighty and glorious heritage of honor and responsibility.”

It was in this spirit and to voice the better sentiment of the South, that Lanier eagerly responded to the invitation to write the Centennial poems. He had fought with valor in the Confederate armies, hoping to the last that they would be victorious. He had suffered all the poverty and humiliation of reconstruction days, but he had risen out of sectionalism into nationalism. It is a striking fact that the two poets who are the least sectional of all American poets—for even Lowell never saw Southern life and Southern problems from a national point of view—were Walt Whitman and Lanier, the only two poets of first importance who took part in the Civil War. It is also significant, that in Lanier's “Psalm of the West” we have a Southerner chanting the glory of freedom, without any chance of having the slavery of a race to make the boast a paradox. …


  1. Quoted in [Morgan] Callaway's Select Poems of Lanier, [1895,] p. 61.

  2. Quoted in part in Callaway's Select Poems of Lanier, p. 65.

  3. [Sidney Lanier,] Letters [of Sidney Lanier: Selections from his Correspondence, 1866-1881], [1899,] p. 136.

  4. Letters, p. 137.

  5. Whittier wrote this hymn and Bayard Taylor wrote the Ode for the Fourth of July celebration.

  6. Quoted in [William] Baskervill's Southern Writers. [Biographical and critical studies, 1896-7,] p. 200.

  7. See Letters, passim.

  8. [Sidney Lanier,] Music and Poetry: [Essays upon Some Aspects and Inter-Relations of the Arts, 1898], p. 80.

  9. South Atlantic Quarterly, April, 1905.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 134

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) 1899

Retrospects and Prospects: Descriptive and Historical Essays (criticism) 1899

Shakspere and His Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and its Development from Early English. 2 vols. (criticism) 1902

The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier (poetry, sketches, criticism, essays, travel guide, and letters) 1945

*Lanier was appointed by the U.S. Centennial Commission to write the lyrics for this cantata, for which Dudley Buck composed the music. The piece was performed on May 10, 1876 in Philadelphia.

Aubrey Harrison Starke (essay date 1933)

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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 have been more gratifying, but the fame he had won was not the only fact on which Lanier, at the end of the year 1875, might congratulate himself, for his financial position was more secure than it had ever been previously. He was selling poetry now to Scribner's Monthly and prose and poetry to Lippincott's Magazine, both of which certainly paid better than the southern magazines in which his work had previously appeared. His position with the Peabody Orchestra, his pupils, and other musical engagements, he retained. And he now had an established reputation as a writer, which caused publishers to seek him out with commissions. Unfortunately these commissions were chiefly for prose: they paid well but they were difficult to execute and did not give him the joy in execution that he found in writing a poem. Upon the completion of them he was usually exhausted spiritually and physically, and such work was, with all its compensations, never truly congenial to him.

Two well paid prose works executed in this way in 1875 were the railway guide to Florida and a series of papers on India written for Lippincott's Magazine. It is significant, however, that into what was essentially hack-work, quickly done, Lanier could put so much of himself. Too much, indeed, some reviewers complained. A paragraph in the Nation for October 28, 1875, had caused Lanier considerable pain, for he had read:

“In Lippincott's for November there is the usual strong proportion of sketches of travel, with and without illustrations. The paper on ‘St. Augustine in April,’ by Sidney Lanier, belongs in the former category, and the wood-cuts are very good indeed. It is more historical than descriptive, and Mr. Lanier's poetical licenses in prose are accordingly fewer than usual. He has an agreeable style when it is not surcharged with imagery. Even here his rhetorical-poetical foible of seeing ‘God in everything’ displays itself once too often, in the passage where he speaks of ‘a morning which mingles repose with infinite glittering, as if God should smile in his sleep.’ In a former paper of his, also on Florida, similes like this occurred several times, if we remember rightly. Mrs. Rebecca Harding Davis is a much more restrained and artistic writer, and her descriptions in ‘Qualla’ of the natural scenery of North Carolina are excellent in point of taste and effectiveness. …”

Lanier's indignation at this criticism burst forth in exaggerated terms in a letter to Taylor:

“The [Nation] takes occasion to give me some pain, anent this poor St. Augustine article, by first making a statement which is grossly inaccurate, and next basing on it a criticism which would be unjust even if its foundation were not untrue, and finally dismissing the subject with a comparison of my merits and Mrs. [Davis]'s, which is as pure a piece of gratuitous ungentlemanliness as a vulgar soul could well devise. Not that I care in the least for the judgment, or that I shall change my ‘foible’—foible! of seeing God in everything: but it may interfere with one's already very short allowance of bread, by making the magazines shy of giving employment to one who fails to please the [Nation]. … [My] indignation is wholly impersonal, and entirely due to that repugnance with which one sees a really strong newspaper turning over articles to be ‘criticized’ by persons who do not even understand the usages of gentlemen.”1

But this was extreme to the point of being ridiculous, and probably called forth entirely by the reference to his religious predilections, for Lanier, with his naturally religious temperament, conceived the function of both poet and prose-writer as essentially a religious one. The Nation's criticism was not unkind, and the statement that his “poetical licenses in prose are … fewer than usual” should have pleased Lanier, for it implied that the Nation's reviewer, unless indeed he was referring only to the previous Florida paper, “The Ocklawaha River,” had taken notice of his articles in the Southern Magazine, for it was with the two Florida papers—chapters taken verbatim from the book, which was not yet published—that Lanier made his début as a prose writer in the northern press. The Nation's criticism, we must also admit, should have been helpful to Lanier; the reviewer had hit upon the essential weakness of his prose style—its sentimentality.

In November, 1875, the completed volume, Florida: Its Scenery, Climate, and History, appeared. The Nation does not seem to have noticed it, though the Literary World of Boston gave it a complimentary notice, and spoke of Lanier as “an easy and sometimes brilliant writer.”2 Lanier described it to Hayne as “a kind of spiritualized guide-book,”3 and though it was designed for the practical purpose of luring visitors to the state and furnishing them with information concerning the best ways to reach and to tour it, it was inevitable that Lanier should have put much poetry and much of himself into it. Otherwise, indeed, the very composition of it would have been intolerable to him. To Mrs. Boykin, who had written him in praise of it, he replied:

“The book has been like a wound to me ever since I was engaged to write it; for, aside from the inherent difficulties of the commission (my instructions from my employers were simply to write them a guide-book which should not be also a poem), I did not wish ever to appear before the public again save in the poetic character. … it is balm to my hurt when anybody finds poetry in the book—as your kind letter tells me you do; …”4

Lanier's prose style, seldom clear-cut and concise, and usually weakened, like his poetry, by the sudden interjection of an adjective or an epithet that seems almost effeminate and has the effect of startling the reader by the very inappropriateness of it, was hardly the style for a book of this type, and yet it must be admitted that Lanier did produce a thoroughly readable book on Florida which even the modern visitor to Florida would do well to pack in his hand-bag. What Lanier described he described accurately and well, and with a sprightliness not always spoiled by exuberance; and the development of Florida since his visit has produced few places of interest to call for comment in more modern guide-books—which make, indeed, certainly less pleasant reading. Except for the quaint town of St. Augustine there was little in Florida to attract the sight-seeing tourist, Lanier knew, but his task was to make a land chiefly notable for its climate as interesting as possible for those whom the climate should attract, and this he did by giving detailed comments on the climate, with illustrative anecdotes, going into a long discussion of the Gulf Stream, the soil, and the fruits that the soil would bear, and the means of transportation, with descriptions of the hotels. But so filled is Florida with references to himself, so revealing is it of Lanier's own tastes and pleasures, that it is an interesting book of quite another sort for anyone interested in Lanier.

The efficaciousness of the climate in the treatment of various diseases he discusses, citing examples of cures, but the chief importance of Florida as a health resort, he perfectly well knew, was in the treatment of consumption. In this connection he discusses repeatedly his own personal experience with frankness and intelligence, but it is a little surprising to find him stating at the outset that he “used to be a ‘consumptive,’” for certainly the occurrence of severe hemorrhages at the very time he was engaged in preparing the book for the press must have reminded him that his own illness was far from being cured.

Lanier even found in Florida a spiritual quality that seemed an antidote for the mercantile spirit of which he had sung so bitterly in “The Symphony,” “The question of Florida,” he wrote, “is a question of an indefinite enlargement of many people's pleasures and of many people's existences as against that universal killing ague of modern life—the fever of the unrest of trade throbbing through the long chill of a seven-months' winter.” He found “rests and balms and salutary influences in the green leafage” and “the grave and stately courtesies of the antique Spaniard … in the profound reserves of its forests, in the smooth and glittering suavities of its lakes, in the large curves and gracious inclinations of its rivers and sea-shores.” And he adds, with an almost exact echo of a letter he had written Hayne five years before: “Here one has an instinct that it is one's duty to repose broad-faced upward, like fields in the fall, and to lie fallow under suns and airs that shed unspeakable fertilizations upon body and spirit. Here there develops itself a just proportion between quietude and activity: one becomes aware of a possible tranquillity that is larger than unrest and contains it as the greater the less.” Two methods, as he states in his introductory chapter, he had decided upon in preparing the book, one the practical, the other the poetical, but except in the appendices and a few brief chapters it is “the poetical or descriptive” method that predominates, as here.

The second chapter, an account of a trip up the Ocklawaha River, is a fair example of this method that so annoyed the Nation's reviewer. Lanier describes the day and the boat, the vegetation and trees that bordered the stream, the alligators that lived in it; he reproduces with exactness the dialect of the native whites and records in musical notes the tunes whistled by the Negro deck-hand, and slips into a discussion of whole tones and semi-tones, and the effects achieved by the use of whole tones alone in the singing of the Negroes and in works by Asger Hamerik and Edward Grieg—all of which is interesting and rather charming, but hardly exciting enough to make one wish to go to Florida to repeat Lanier's trip.

One paragraph of this chapter we should note, however, because we shall meet with it again in different guise. It is the brief account of the conjunction of the river with Silver Spring Run, and of the strange effect of the two streams, the one clear enough, the other so amazingly clear as to make the former seem muddy in comparison, flowing side by side, unmixing, for some distance. Twice later,5 Lanier was to use this phenomenon to illustrate a fact about Chaucer's poetry—that it is no well of English undefiled but two streams flowing side by side and unmixing, the one French, the other English, and each clear and good of its kind. The trip up the Ocklawaha was an experience in Lanier's life which was unforgettable; in like fashion the visit to Silver Spring and to the similar Wakulla Spring gave him a simile for transparency and depth that he was to find useful in describing for boys the beautiful, frank work of Malory.6

The third chapter, on St. Augustine in April, contains good descriptions of old Fort Marion and other buildings of the town, an interesting account of the Indians,7 and of Ponce de Leon's spring which is called The Fountain of Youth; and in it Lanier reprints extracts from various early documents of interest and importance in the history of St. Augustine, following the method employed in his earlier account of San Antonio de Bexar. But the long digression on love, and on the sea wall as an ideal promenade for lovers, with the quotation from Chaucer's catalogue of his early tales concerning lovers, is not merely sentimental and out of place: it is, one is tempted to say, actually in bad taste, and somewhat silly.

Florida appeared first in 1875, and again with numerous appendices in 1876; it was reissued in 1877, and again in 1881; and two chapters were included in Strahan's volume, Some Highways and Byways of American Travel, issued in 1878.8 But one wonders if the various reissues of the book and two of its chapters indicate a real popularity or merely the lack of other and better guide-books to the state. Useful as it must have been, especially in the second and subsequent editions, with its “railway guide,” its “Gazetteer of Towns, Rivers and Counties,” and its appendices on various topics concerning agriculture and horticulture in Florida, written by experts on the different subjects, the main body of the book must have seemed, even to the tourists of an age more sentimental and less commercialized than our own, a little incoherent, a little too literary for a guide-book. In Chapter III, “Jacksonville in January,” there is a rambling digression on pine trees, with a long quotation from Ruskin and a moralizing paragraph on hill-pines and the pines of the plain. “The pines of the plain,” we are told, “have higher meanings if lower sites;9 theirs is the unwrinkled forehead of a tranquil globe; they signify the mystery of the repose that comes only from tested power and seasoned strength—a grandeur of tranquillity which is as much greater than the grandeur of cataclysms as Chaucer is greater than Byron, as Beethoven is greater than Berlioz, as Lee's manhood is greater than Napoleon's.” This is interesting, for in it Lanier anticipates certain things he was to say later in his letters, his poems, and particularly his Shakspere lectures, but in a guide-book to Florida—? In the chapter on the coast cities of South Carolina and Georgia Lanier, in mentioning the poets of the various cities—Timrod, Hayne, Randall, and H. R. Jackson—quotes poems written by them, but in the chapter on Jacksonville he actually quotes a medieval Latin song in the original language.

Three other chapters in the book call for special comment. In Chapter XII Lanier discusses scientifically the climate and the cause of it, the Gulf Stream, the Arctic Current, winds and rainfall. In Chapter XIII he gives a brief history of Florida from the discovery to the time at which he wrote. Lanier was always an interested student of history, and when he undertook historical writings, as in the paper on San Antonio, this chapter, and the Shakspere lectures, he investigated his subject thoroughly, prepared his material carefully, and usually wrote an interesting, readable paper. He never of course made any original investigations, but there was scholarliness in his handling of the investigations of others.

But Chapter XIV, “For Consumptives,” is for the student of Lanier perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book, a sort of medical apologia pro vita sua, and in all Lanier's published work the clearest statement concerning his own illness. He begins the chapter with a paragraph that is amazingly frank, coming from one so reticent:

“In the course of a desperate but to all present appearances successful struggle with a case of consumption which had everything in its favor at the start—the prestige of inheritance on both sides and the powerful reinforcement of a bent student's habits—this present author finds remaining prominently in his recollection a few cardinal principles of action in this behalf which may possibly be of practical service to consumptives. In view of such a possibility, one cannot hesitate upon the sacrifice of personal delicacy involved in referring to oneself. A pain that cures a pain justifies its being.”

The principles that he presents are principles grounded in an invincible optimism which was perhaps of all Lanier's traits the one most characteristic. The first principle is: “Set out to get well, with the thorough assurance that consumption is curable.” Not that he means, in the fashion of certain religious cults, to deny the existence of the disease, but to have faith in the possibility of a successful cure. His second principle is: “Give faithful and intelligent trial to every apparently reasonable mode of cure suggested for the disease,” for Lanier realized that individual idiosyncrasies necessitated individual treatment. He discusses in this connection the use of stimulants (placing an importance upon the use of whiskey which would be questioned by medical men at the present time) and the exercise of the lungs, which he had found most helpful and most pleasant by the use of a Boehm flute.

The third principle is “Never get in the slightest degree wet, cold, or tired.” It was this principle that Lanier himself found it impossible to obey, for tired he usually was from the unceasing battle with trade, and if, as an authority on consumption has recently stated,10 emotions are dangerous for the consumptive, and among them the emotions of love and worry, Lanier was doomed by the very nature of his existence to succumb to the disease, which even as he was writing Florida—hurrying to send his manuscript to the printer that the book might be ready before the winter travel to Florida began—struck him a fatal blow.

It is a curious book, this Florida, as personal and revealing as anything Lanier ever wrote; for the general reader, an adequate account of an interesting state; for the student of Lanier a mine of information, a guide to Lanier's mental habits and interests, and with the Shakspere lectures, which it, curiously enough, resembles, a comprehensive picture of the man with his many varied interests; and for the tourist to Florida, a sort of weekend library of useful and pleasing information compressed into a small volume—a wealth of practical information, an anthology of poetry, a text-book of history, a guide to horticulture, and a “family physicián.”


From work on Florida Lanier turned to similar work on a series of articles called “Sketches of India,” which appeared anonymously in Lippincott's Magazine in four installments, during the first four months of 1876.11 The information he gathered from books borrowed from the Philadelphia Free Library while he was in Philadelphia seeing Florida through the press, and the actual writing he began in Boston at the time of his visit to Miss Cushman. The articles are entertaining, and filled with correct knowledge of India, of Indian history and art, religion, customs, and industry, but it seems strange that Lippincott's should have cared to publish work that had no value as a firsthand report, should even have commissioned Lanier to prepare the articles.

The articles are written much in the discursive manner of the book on Florida, with Lanier “talking coolly of strolling about Bombay with a Hindu friend.” The reason and justification for what was essentially a literary imposture Lanier himself explained in a letter to Peacock:

“Bhima Gandharva … is only another name for Imagination—which is certainly the only Hindu friend I have; and the propriety of the term, as well as the true character of Bhima Gandharva and the insubstantial nature of all adventures recorded as happening to him and myself, is to be fully explained in the end of the last article. I hit upon this expedient, after much tribulation and meditation, in order at once to be able to make something of a narrative that should avoid an arid encyclopedic treatment, and to be perfectly truthful. The only plan was to make it a pure jeu d'esprit; and in writing the second paper I have found it of great advantage.”12

In spite of the accuracy with which Lanier recast the material of books and articles on India by other writers, our interest in these papers must be considerably less than our interest in Florida, and limited almost entirely to the occasional revelations of himself which Lanier makes. Humorous references to himself and his American characteristics—he gives himself a “slightly nasal” voice, which he, a cultivated Georgian, did not have—and to his native “Jonesville,” lighten the encyclopædia-like tone of the articles, but the humor is often ill-conceived as when, after quoting a magnificent passage from the Bhagavad-Gita listing the infinite aspects of Krishna, Lanier remarks: “When my friend finished these words there did not seem to be anything particular left in heaven or earth to talk about.” References to indigo culture in Florida repeat information recorded in the Florida volume. A scheme that anticipates the modern city-manager plan of government suggests Lanier's disgust with the contemporary political situation in the United States. But one searches through the sketches with little success for information, for references that will throw light on “Nirvâna” and casual references to India in Lanier's earlier work: the “Sketches of India” represent an interest in India cultivated for financial reasons; there is in them no revelation of an appreciation of the Buddhistic philosophy and Brahmanic thought which at one time seem to have held Lanier's imagination.

These sketches are therefore unlike everything else that Lanier ever wrote in that they reveal so little of himself and bear so remote a relation to the body of his work, suggesting in style and method only a few passages in the Shakspere lectures. But in them, in spite of the imaginative conception of Bhima Gandharva, Lanier writes with more restraint than usual, and there are fewer digressions and more unadorned facts. The “Sketches of India” are not, we may feel sure, the kind of sketch Lanier would have written had he actually gone to India and made first hand observations; on the other hand, they are not what they would have been had they been written any earlier in his career.


For Lanier's prose style here is more objective, and it grows noticeably better from this time on, just as in his poetry, under the restraining influence of Taylor's experienced judgment and practice in the sonnet form, he also shows improvement. Indeed, nothing could have helped Lanier more at this time than the exercise of writing sonnets, and nothing measures his real growth in poetic expression more than the superiority of his later sonnets over his first ones. The first of the series of sonnets addressed to Mrs. Lanier, the first of the four called “In Absence,” seems only a mechanic exercise, for the opening quatrain is a paraphrase of the first stanza of “In the Foam,” written eight years previously, and there is little felicity of expression or metrical grace in the sonnet, save in the line, suggestive of Shakspere, “When lips draw back, with recent pressure pale”; on the whole it is immature, and like his first verses.

The second of the “In Absence” sonnets is better, and more suggestive of Shakspere's sonnets, which Lanier was obviously imitating, and the third and fourth are very good indeed—quite as good as the sonnets of Boker, who is generally considered the best of the American sonneteers of the century. But the four “Acknowledgment” sonnets are better still, and one, the third, beginning “If I do ask, How God can dumbness keep,” is probably Lanier's best sonnet. The tone here is less Shaksperean than Miltonic; never altogether happy in putting into words for print his confessions of love, Lanier was often vigorous in administering rebuke, and Milton and Wordsworth (though Lanier would have denied this) were better masters for him than Shakspere. In spite, however, of good conception, expressive figures, and some memorable, well composed lines—such as the line “When life's all love, 'tis life: aught else, 'tis naught”—neither these eight sonnets nor the separate sonnets, “To Charlotte Cushman”13 and “Laus Mariae”14 are wholly successful; but they represent progressive improvement, and less than half a year later Lanier was to write for “The Psalm of the West” the very fine sonnet sequence of the Columbus episode.

The sonnets and the essay on “The Physics of Music,” written about this time, indicate that for Lanier the year 1875 was a year of experimentation, and of research. The improvement in his prose and poetry, of the “Sketches of India” over Florida, of the later sonnets over the first, of “The Symphony” over “Corn,” reveals that the year was also one of rapid artistic growth. Furthermore, success had given him courage. In the letter to his wife which accompanied “My Springs” he had complained that inasmuch as the poem was written for publication he had not dared to write as freely as he would have liked. But toward the end of 1875 he wrote of another poem, “Special Pleading,”15 “In this little song I have begun to dare to give myself some of the freedom in my own peculiar style, and have allowed myself to treat words, similes, and metres with such freedom as I desired. The result convinces me that I can do so now safely.”16

The poem, read after this statement, is most disappointing: the figures are echoes from earlier poems; the rhyme scheme, though a new one (a-a-b-b-a), is less elaborate than ones he had used previously; the metrical scheme is less involved than that of “Rose-Morals,” though the idea is too involved to be clear. But the musical effects are evident, and it was of course in the direction of greater and more varied verbal music that Lanier was striving. A magnificent opportunity to test his ability even more, to publish a poem that should embody his ideas of poetry and to publish also—as things were to happen—a clear statement in prose of those ideas before an audience that, officially at least, was the whole nation, came, as we have seen, at the very end of the year with the invitation to write the words for the Centennial cantata.


  1. Letters, [of Sidney Lanier. Selections from his Correspondence, 1866-1881. With Portraits. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1899] 131-32.

  2. Literary World vi, 116. January, 1876.

  3. Letters, 241.

  4. February 12, 1876. Unpublished MS., Washington Memorial Library, Macon.

  5. SHF [Shakspere and His Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and its Development from Early English. By Sidney Lanier. Illustrated. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1902] i, 165; and “How to Read Chaucer”—uncollected essay.

  6. Boy's King Arthur [: Being Sir Thomas Malory's History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table]. Edited for Boys with an Introduction by Sidney Lanier, Editor of “The Boy's Froissart.” Illustrated by Alfred Kappes. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1880], xxi.

  7. Cf. SHF ii, 267.

  8. Some Highways and Byways of American Travel. By Edward Strahan, Sidney Lanier, Edward A. Pollard, and others. Profusely illustrated. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1878.

  9. It is perhaps unnecessary to point out the pun—one of the “sallies of wit” that won contemporary admiration.

  10. Dr. F. W. Peterson of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, in a radio talk from station WLS, November 20, 1929.

  11. Lippincott's Magazine xvii, 37-51, 172-83, 283-301, 409-27. January-April, 1876; Retrospects and Prospects [Descriptive and Historical Essays. By Sidney Lanier. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1899], 136-228.

  12. Letters, 23.

  13. Lippincott's Magazine xvii, 375. March, 1876; Poems [by Sidney Lanier, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.] (1877), 91-92; Charlotte Cushman [By Charlotte Stebbins. Boston, 1879] 268-69; Poems [of Sidney Lanier. Edited by his wife … New York: Charles Scribner's Sons], (1884), 44. (MS., Harvard College Library, AL 2327. 15. 5.)

  14. Scribner's Monthly xi, 64. November, 1875; Poems (1884), 80.

  15. Lippincott's Magazine xvii, 89. January, 1876; Poems (1877), 89-90; Poems (1884), 81.

  16. Poems, xxvii.

Aubrey Harrison Starke (essay date 1933)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9292

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 yet unfinished.

First, there were the translations from Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry contained in the Shakspere lectures, in The Science of English Verse, and in separate essays, but undertaken not so much as part of his academic work—not even as an integral part of his treatise on prosody—as for his delight in the labor. The translations, made most likely with some assistance from his distinguished colleague, Professor A. S. Cook, have been called noteworthy;1 for us they are at least interesting.

Besides the purely literal, interlinear ones, the translations are of two sorts, those made with the emphasis on the content and those made to indicate to ears unfamiliar with the language of the original something of its beauty and power. Those of the first sort are in prose, of dignified words and cadences, and, though pedestrian, are able enough. The translations of the second sort are the more interesting, though not always the more successful. The brief fragments from Beówulf2—as readable a translation as has yet been made—are of the second sort; in the translation of The Phœnix3 we have examples of both sorts. The metrical part does, it is true, preserve to some extent the rhythm and the alliteration of the original, but it is not in itself able poetry. On the other hand, Lanier did not mean it to be considered for its own merits. “I have kept the translation as nearly literal as possible,” he said. It is to his credit that he reproduced as well as he did the rhythm and the meter, suggesting at the same time the idioms of the language.

Part of the translation of “The Battle of Maldon” we have in two versions.4 In the unfinished essay on “The Death of Byrhtnoth”—an essay that is a frank plea for the intensive study of Anglo-Saxon literature for the fuller appreciation of the strength of language and vigor of emotion of our later literature—Lanier translated the first hundred lines of the poem with a view to reproducing “the send and drive of the rhythm”; the next eighty-five and the last sixteen lines he translated into unmetrical prose, but with a more accurate reproduction of the order of words, the vocabulary, and the poetic embellishments of the original. In both the metrical and the unmetrical portions of the translation line arrangements are ignored, but so successful is Lanier in reproducing the meter that even the untrained ear must notice the break between the two portions, buried within a paragraph though it is:

“Waded the war-wolves west over Panta, recked not of water, warrior vikings. There, o'er the wave they bore up their bucklers, the seamen lifted their shields to the land. In wait with his warriors, Byrhtnoth stood; he bade form the war-hedge of bucklers, and hold that ward firm to the foe. The fight was at hand, the glory of battle; the time was come for the falling of men that were doomed.”

Lanier was a careful translator, deeply appreciative of the peculiar qualities of the poetry he was translating.5 Whatever light an investigation of his translations may throw on Lanier as a poet, it is not without value in revealing in still another way the conscientiousness with which he undertook scholarly investigation.


Growing also out of his scholarly studies were the “Songs of Aldhelm,” “half-jotted down” by October 20, 1878.6 In the course of his studies Lanier had come upon this old Saxon bishop, Bede's senior, who wrote in his native language poetry which King Alfred greatly admired. None of Aldhelm's English poems is extant, but his Latin works survive, and Lanier—searching for English authority for his pronouncements on English prosody—began his introductory summary of prosodical history with citation of Aldhelm's “Epistola Ad Acircium.” Then, with growing interest, he turned from Aldhelm's essay on verse, to conjectures of what Aldhelm's own verse may have been. He noted, with some show of faith, Grimm's conjecture that The Phœnix may have been written by Aldhelm.7 He may have observed from the Latin poems that Aldhelm was a careful stylist, more interested perhaps in the style than in the subject matter of his poems.

In the eleventh of the Peabody Institute Shakspere lectures,8 delivered in February, 1879, Lanier spoke of Aldhelm as “a name which stands at the head of our drama as well as of our poetry, a name heard but little, yet to me distinguishing by far the most fascinating figure in the history of English poetry before Chaucer: I had almost said before Shakspere,” and he called Aldhelm “that beautiful soul,” and—in the preface to The Science of English Verse, written a year later—“the Father of English Poetry.”9 Aldhelm, it is clear, had been idealized by Lanier and turned into a symbol. The symbol, critics have pointed out, represents poetic authority, and so stands for one of the sturdiest cravings of Lanier, but Aldhelm is for Lanier a symbol of another sort also: the symbol of the poet as a leader of men, correcting their errors, calling them to worship, and commanding their respect.

He is for Lanier not the bishop, the monk, or the scholar, but the poet standing on the bridge, singing to the merchants as they hurried, heedless of church services, about the town. So in one of the poem outlines Aldhelm is made to rebuke the merchants who say they have no time to listen to idle dreams:

“Till ye hear me, ye have no time
Neither for trade nor travelling;
Till ye hear me ye have no time to fight nor
                    marry nor mourn;
There is not time, O world,
Till you hear me, the Poet Aldhelm,
To eat nor drink nor to draw breath.
For until the Song of the Poet is heard
Ye do not live, ye cannot live.”(10)

“The Songs of Aldhelm”—Lanier's unpublished and unfinished volume—is probably represented, in the collected poems, by seven poems grouped as street-cries, all of them poems of rebuke or remonstrance, or assertions of the power of poetry in life. The seven are “Remonstrance,” “The Ship of Earth” (dating from 1868, but with the first two stanzas of that version omitted), “How Love Looked for Hell,” “Spring and Tyranny” (renamed simply “Tyranny”), “Life and Song,” “To Richard Wagner” (in a modified version), and “A Song of Love,”11 the last an exquisitely simple lyric, restrained in metaphor, but clearly suggesting Lanier's ideas of the place of love in life. To these seven poems he prefixed two introductory stanzas12 which may be freely paraphrased thus: In spite of the noise and confusion of modern life, nature remains a source of comfort and an assurance of the peace into which the confusion must be resolved. In these “Street-Cries” Lanier is the interpreter of nature and the prophet of peace to a generation more vainly busy than that of Aldhelm, and more foolishly convinced than his that the songs of the poet are idle dreams.13


Of interest to Lanier still, of course, and still absorbing much of his thought if not any longer a great deal of his working time, was that other poem of protest against the deadening, decivilizing forces in the social structure, “The Jacquerie.”14 It was a poem dreamed of in his youth as a memory of Froissart, given poetic form and shape over more than a decade of years, influenced, conditioned, and changed by the reading of Michelet's Histoire de France in Texas and full research in the ample library of the Peabody Institute, but left unfinished at Lanier's death—an interesting fragment sketched by a hand that had learned much of the novelist's art since Tiger-Lilies and much concerning the writing of verse, richly suggesting how fine a narrative poem Lanier might under favorable conditions have produced. The first chapter of the published fragment—beginning with four lines in rhyme but quickly changing to blank verse that never moves gracefully—dates possibly from 1868, but other parts of “The Jacquerie,” particularly Chapter II, seem to date from a later period. “A Song of Love,” published posthumously, is said by Mrs. Lanier to have been designed as one of the songs of the fool in “The Jacquerie,” and to have been given its final form in 1879. The fragment as a whole probably represents the revision and reworking of thirteen years rather than the work of any one year.

Nothing that Lanier ever planned was quite so dear to him as this long poem, which should be not only a novel in verse but an indictment of Trade. Nothing perhaps remained more persistently in his mind, but during these years what leisure Lanier found from rehearsals and concerts and lectures and classes and his new job of editing had to be given to further study at the library and to the writing of prose articles. He had precious little time for poetry.


The prose of these last years met with little success. It is doubtful if Lanier received any more than the most nominal fee for his musical criticism that appeared in the Baltimore Sun of January 31, 1880.15 The paper called “The Death of Byrhtnoth” was still unsold and it remained unpublished until seventeen years later when it appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, which under the editorship of Scudder and Page showed a disposition to pay honor to Lanier dead which under Howells it had denied to Lanier living. The fragmentary “Legend of St. Leonor,” taken from the Acta Sanctorum and planned as part of an essay on “The Relations of Poetry and Science,” was published in 1885,16 the essay “How to Read Chaucer” in 1891, and “John Barbour's Bruce” in 1897. The last essay of any importance that Lanier himself saw published was the essay on “The New South” (written in February, 1880) which appeared in Scribner's Monthly for October, 1880.17

In this essay Lanier compared the social and economic significance of the large-scale farming of the West with the small farming of the post-bellum South, drawing his information from “a mass of clippings” from Georgia newspapers which he had been collecting for several years. “The quiet rise of the small farmer in the Southern States” since 1860 with the consequent improvement in the products raised, the organization of library societies and of amateur dramatic clubs in rural districts, the growth of the public school system for whites and blacks, etc., said Lanier, was “the notable circumstance of the period, in comparison with which the noisier events signify nothing.” The predictions that he made have by and large proved true; his idea that intellectual and social progress depends upon economic progress has been accepted; and his intelligently liberal attitude toward the relations of Negroes and whites reveals Lanier as one of the real leaders of the new South. But his essay on small farming seems to have been inspired not only by a study of contemporary conditions but also by the contrasting picture of large farming in England three centuries before which his scholarly studies had shown him, and to which he devoted one-third of his article, making rich use of the materials republished by the New Shakspere Society, quoting liberally from statistics, from the Lenten sermons preached in 1548 by Bishop Latimer,18 in which the good bishop described the evil situation of the yeoman and agricultural laborers caused by the sudden rage for sheep-raising and the destruction of the small farms, from More's Utopia and from statutes of the reigns of Henry VIII and of Elizabeth.

Into his essay any number of things can be read. Lanier under-rated the development of manufacturing in the South, but recent events have raised serious doubts concerning the benefits of the existing industrial system in the southern states. Large farming too often produces overproduction; the plight of cotton planters in 1930 and 1931 has given ample evidence of the attendant dangers. Diversified farming means self-sufficiency, and newspaper accounts of the suffering of so many southern farmers in the winter of 1930-31 emphasized the failure of these farmers to attempt to raise more than one crop and the willingness to buy from dealers what they themselves should have raised and preserved. But Lanier was not so much a prophet or an astute student of an agricultural problem so enormous that it is essentially a problem of civilization, as he was a son of Georgia, burning with a deep and reverent love for his boyhood home. His economics may have been false, his proposed program ultraconservative and impractical. But his affection is not to be questioned, and this after all, rather than economic theory, justifies the essay. The melancholy tone of the last paragraph reveals this fully: “it is,” he wrote,

“because many of [the blissful mountain ranges of the southeastern states] are actually virgin to plough, pillar, axe, or mill-wheel, while others have known only the insulting and mean cultivation of the earlier immigrants who scratched the surface for cotton a year or two, then carelessly abandoned all to sedge and sassafras, and sauntered on toward Texas: … that these lands are, with sadder significance than that of small farming, also a New South.”

It is significant and pleasing that in this last published essay there should be epitomized all the important interests of Lanier's life—the ideals of personal conduct that he expressed in “The Symphony,” the political ideals expressed in “Retrospects and Prospects,” the economic interests revealed through a series of poems culminating in “Corn,” the scholarly interests of his last years, the passionate loyalty to the southern soil, the intelligent but equally passionate loyalty to southern society—the southern scheme of things and manner of life, the intelligent conviction concerning the necessary disappearance of the color-line from the economic and political life of the South, and the religious idealism of all his poetry and all his music—of all his thought. For small farming, as Lanier envisioned it, must, by improving the economic condition of men, improve their moral condition; and moral growth in personality was, as he intimated in the Shakspere lectures and as we shall find him saying quite clearly in The English Novel, the essential fact of modern life. “The New South,” it should also be pointed out, is a restatement in prose of a faith and a program stated nine years before in the poem “The Homestead.”


The poems of this year are chiefly occasional pieces, little versified thoughts of no consequence, expressed however with charm and grace. Among these are the posthumously published and uncollected Valentine poem to Miss Lucie Browne; the untitled lines (called in the collected poems “Ireland”) which he contributed to an art album published in May, 1880, to raise money for the relief of the Irish famine;19 the sonnets “To My Class, On Certain Fruits and Flowers Sent Me in Sickness” and “On Violet's Wafers, Sent Me When I Was Ill,” written during the serious illness of December, 1880, and January, 1881;20 and the epigrammatic lines “To Dr. Thomas Shearer.”21 Even the Johns Hopkins ode is an occasional poem. But three or four other poems of the greatest merit, of undeniable beauty and power, were also written in 1880, so that the year made memorable for English prosody by the appearance of his Science of English Verse is memorable also in the life of Lanier. It is the year of the writing of “Individuality,” “The Crystal,” “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” and—chief poem of all—“Sunrise.”

The first of these poems, “Individuality,”22 reveals more fully than any other of Lanier's poems his interest in scientific theory and the effect of his scientific studies upon his thought. References to physical science we have observed from time to time in his work, from Tiger-Lilies through the essays on the physics of music and of verse to the Shakspere lectures. In Baltimore he had actually done some scientific experimentation, working on problems connected with sound, and he had used for a period of several months a microscope lent to him by Mrs. Sophie Bledsoe Herrick, Lowell's Baltimore friend, for the study of natural objects. “He plunged in with all the ardor of a naturalist, not using the microscope as a mere toy, but doing good hard work with it.”23 Finally, out of much study and grave deliberation he was to declare in “The Legend of St. Leonor,” using a figure from the old legend of the Acta Sanctorum: “The scientific man is merely the minister of poetry. He is cutting down the Western Woods of Time; presently poetry will come there and make a city and gardens. This is always so. The man of affairs works for the behoof and use of poetry. Scientific facts have never reached their proper function until they merge into new poetic relations established between man and man, between man and God, or between man and Nature.” Conversely he might have declared that poetry never fulfills its proper function of elevating man morally unless it grows out of a deep understanding of the relations of man with man, man with God, and man with nature. But poetry, he would have added, states truths of which science may not yet be aware.

The relation of his scientific studies, and his thought on scientific matters, to the poem “Individuality” is made clear in a letter to J. F. Kirk of June 15, 1880, sent with the poem. “I have been studying science,” Lanier wrote,

“biology, chemistry, evolution, and all. It pieces on, perfectly, to those dreams which one has when one is a boy and wanders alone by a strong running river, on a day when the wind is high but the sky clear. These enormous modern generalizations fill me with such dreams again.

But it is precisely at the beginning of that phenomenon which is the underlying subject of this poem, ‘Individuality,’ that the largest of such generalizations must begin, and the doctrine of evolution when pushed beyond this point appears to me, after the most careful examination of the evidence, to fail. It is pushed beyond this point in its current application to the genesis of species, and I think Mr. Huxley's last sweeping declaration is clearly parallel to that of an enthusiastic dissecter who, forgetting that his observations are upon dead bodies, should build a physiological conclusion upon purely anatomical facts.

For whatever can be proved to have been evolved, evolution seems to me a noble and beautiful and true theory. But a careful search has not yet shown me a single instance in which such proof as would stand the first shot of a boy lawyer in a moot court, has been brought forward in support of an actual case of species differentiation.

A cloud (see the poem) may be evolved; but not an artist; and I find, in looking over my poem, that it has made itself into a passionate reaffirmation of the artist's autonomy, threatened alike from the direction of the scientific fanatic and the pantheistic devotee.24

“Individuality” is, unfortunately, not a very good poem in spite of its high thought and a few truly lyrical stanzas: the passion of Lanier's reaffirmation of the artist's responsibility produced only a few fine lines. The poem is too long and the misplaced accents rob it of the rhythmical beauty that might have helped to redeem its other faults. It is, to state the charge more briefly, labored; and without the letter to Kirk we do not find interpretation easy. The letter, however, guides us to the key verse:

What the cloud doeth
The Lord knoweth,
          The cloud knoweth not.
What the artist doeth,
The Lord knoweth;
          Knoweth the artist not?

The cloud, that is to say, may be explained as a physical phenomenon; the artist cannot be so explained, for the artist possesses free-will.

Awful is Art because 'tis free.
The artist trembles o'er his plan
          Where men his self must see.
Who made a song or picture, he
Did it, and not another, God nor man.
.....Each artist—gift of terror!—owns his will.

This then is individuality. But the whole tendency of scientific teaching is against the doctrine of individuality and individual responsibility; so Lanier—in a generation before studies in psychology had tended to lessen still further the responsibility of the individual for his own actions—rebelled against science. The poem ends:

Pass, kinsman Cloud, now fair and mild:
Discharge the will that's not thine own.
                    I work in freedom wild,
But work, as plays a little child,
                    Sure of the Father, Self, and Love, alone.

That Lanier should have rebelled against science and rejected the theory of physical evolution as it is applied to man, in spite of his ardent advocacy of science in other matters, need not surprise us. As his generation understood the theory—indeed, as Spencer and Huxley explained it—the import was materialism and, by consequence, atheism. Furthermore, the theory of evolution implied biological predestination, and to Lanier all these notions were abhorrent. But his gesture of defiance of the scientific trend of things is a gesture only, a brave but futile attempt to preserve in the face of the advance of science and its revelations of unalterable laws his faith in the integrity of the human personality and in the redeeming fact of love.


This faith is expressed again in another poem written about this time, “The Crystal,”25 a poem Lanier succeeded in selling, though “Individuality” went unsold and remained unpublished for a full year after his death. As in “Retrospects and Prospects,” “Clover,” the Johns Hopkins ode, and elsewhere, Lanier here lists the names of the great whom he reverenced and loved, but here, as he has not done before, he names the great not to praise them unreservedly but to indicate the defects that reveal their common manhood. Shakspere, for instance, is forgiven weaknesses which others must often have felt without always labeling:

                                                                                Juliet's prurient pun
In the poor, pale face of Romeo's fancied death;
… Henry's fustian roar
Which frights away that sleep he invocates;
.....Too-silly shifts of maids that mask as men
In faint disguises that could ne'er disguise.

But the forgiveness is not only of literary defects, or of insufficient morality. Sometimes it is of blind teaching:

So Buddha, beautiful! I pardon thee
That all the All thou hadst for needy man
Was Nothing, and thy Best of being was
But not to Be.

Thus for one reason or another are named for forgiveness and characterized in phrases that have been called “sudden electric flashes”26 the great whom Lanier loved: Shakspere, Homer, Socrates, Buddha, Dante, Milton, Æschylus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas à Kempis, Epictetus, Behmen, Swedenborg, Langley (Langland), Cædmon, Emerson, Keats, and Tennyson.27 These are great, but each possesses a

                                                                                                    little mole that marks
[Him] brother and [his] kinship seals to man.(28)

It is only Christ who is perfect beyond forgiveness:

But Thee, O man's best Man, O love's best Love,
O perfect life in perfect labor writ,
O all men's Comrade, Servant, King or Priest—
What if or yet, what mole, what flaw, what lapse,
What least defect or shadow of defect,
What rumor, tattled by an enemy,
Of inference loose, what lack of grace
Even in torture's grasp, or sleep's, or death's—
Oh, what amiss may I forgive in Thee,
Jesus, good Paragon, thou Crystal Christ?

But there is something here that justifies us in refusing to accept “The Crystal” as an invocation of the Christ of the Churches, of the Christ of Christian theology, as Christian theologians would have us accept the poem. For it is Jesus as the perfect man, the great exemplar of Christian teachings, not God nor of God save as all men may be of God, that Lanier apostrophizes. Lanier's theology was altogether too simple and reasonable to admit a trinity or a duality of divinity. This fact, which is more evident in his poems than the essays on Lanier by Christian ministers would lead one to suspect, seems to have been appreciated by at least one minister who knew him, for such indeed seems the implication of the statement of the Reverend William Kirkus, rector of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, Baltimore, who preached Lanier's funeral sermon. Writing for the Christian Churchman in the very month of Lanier's death Kirkus pointed out that Lanier's reverence for science, his contempt for sectarian disputes, his great honesty, and his rebellion against the Calvinistic training of his youth, “kept him somewhat apart from what is considered formal orthodoxy.” But he was, Kirkus added, “a truly godly man. Few men, indeed, had firmer belief in the living power, the perpetual gracious presence, of the Eternal Father.”


Born and bred, like Herman Melville, “in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” Lanier had of course once been perfectly orthodox in his thinking. But he possessed the true Protestant's passionate, relentless sense of personal responsibility, and he was, moreover, a man of original genius. He rebelled, therefore, as strongly as Melville against the narrowness of Calvinistic theology and the complacent mediocrity of contemporary Christian practice.29 And his rebellion against organized Christianity had of course an effect upon his conception of God, and upon his personal relations to divinity.

Lanier's Christ of the later years is not the Christ of theology, nor is he actually a religious figure. In one of the poem outlines Lanier reveals the final end of his thinking:

“The Church is too hot, and Nothing is too cold. I find my proper Temperature in Art. Art offers to me a method of adoring the sweet master Jesus Christ, the beautiful souled One, without the straitness of a Creed which confines my genuflexions, a Church which confines my limbs, and without the vacuity of the doubt which numbs them. An unspeakable gain has come to me in simply turning a certain phrase the other way: the beauty of holiness becomes a new and wonderful saying to me when I figure it to myself in reverse as the holiness of beauty. This is like opening a window of dark stained glass, and letting in a flood of white light. I thus keep upon the walls of my soul a church-wall rubric which has been somewhat clouded by the expiring breaths of creeds dying their natural death. For in art there is no doubt. My heart beat all last night without my supervision: for I was asleep; my heart did not doubt a throb; I left it beating when I slept, I found it beating when I woke; it is thus with art: it beats in my sleep. A holy tune was in my soul when I fell asleep; it was going when I awoke. This melody is always moving along in the background of my spirit. If I wish to compose, I abstract my attention from the thoughts which occupy the front of the stage, the dramatis personae of the moment, and fix myself upon the deeper scene in the rear.”30

Christ to Lanier is not God made man, but the Jewish Jesus—than whom there has been no “man more dear and friendly and helpful and strong and human and Christly.”31 He is not God to be worshipped, but an ethical figure to be admired and adored. For the scientist, He sets the goal for spiritual evolution; for the artist, He is the artist of conduct; for the democrat, He is the brave, democratic hero; for the poet, He is a symbol, without which our poetry would be the poorer.

It is as a perfect democrat that Jesus appears in “The Crystal” but it is as symbol of mankind that He appears in another poem of Lanier's last year, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master.”32 The “ballad” is apparently only a versification of the story of Gethsemane, told with the simplicity of true art, but attentive reading reveals that the moral of the poem is not the meekness of Christ nor Lanier's tender love for Him: as in most of Lanier's poems, it is the healing effect of nature on the troubled spirit.33 The poem is a ballad of trees and the master, not of the master and trees, certainly not of the master alone. It is, therefore, not so much a Christian poem as a pagan one, a poem of kinship with nature, as one realizes even more when one reads it in connection with the pantheistic “Sunrise” for which it was intended originally as an interlude. It was into the woods that Lanier went continually to escape the desolating sense of defeat that contact with society brought; it is into the woods that he goes again as death approaches, into remembered woods of the Georgia seacoast where he receives, in ecstasy, the inspiration for the poem that is his supreme poetic vision.


And death was stealing softly upon him now, not to be fought off again. The opening of the year 1880 had found him seriously ill: the routine of giving eight lectures weekly—two public lectures at the university or two to university classes,34 and six at private schools—and attending rehearsals and concerts of the orchestra, to say nothing of keeping up his private literary work, was a severe drain on his insufficient reserve of strength, and though he soon recovered from his January illness, his walking remained slow and difficult, and he suffered a relapse toward the end of May.

On July 19 he wrote to a friend:

“It is now nearly six weeks that I've had a villainous fever, which has finally become the disgust of my doctor and the opprobrium of all medicine. Nothing seems to have the least effect on it. If it goes on it must result in overturning the fundamental concepts of philosophy: for it is apparently without cause and without end,—though it certainly had a beginning,—and it is self-existent,—though a parasite.

“Day and night it remains, calm, inexpugnable. I am satisfied that nothing ever acquired a state of existence so wholly imperturbable and elevated beyond the powers or the prayers of men,—except perhaps one of the grand gods of Lucretius, whose nature

Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nihil indiga nostri,
Nec bene promeritis capitur nec tangitur irâ.

“In truth this last line seems almost allegorical, in this connection; for bene promeritis may well enough symbolize the mild homœopathic suasives with which my Fever had been appealed to; while ira admirably represents the heroic doses of allopathic truculence with which it has been fought; but with the former nec capitur, with the latter nec tangitur.

“Seriously, I've been ill enough; and your imagination is all I can rely on—for words are here simply exasperating—when I tell you that about three weeks ago, thinking a change might help me, I managed to crawl down to Charles Street Station and went to New York,—and took to bed as soon as I reached the hotel, there,—and tossed thereon for four days with a fairly flaming fever,—and finally had to crawl back to Baltimore, without having accomplished a single stroke of business, without having seen a single picture or friend, without having heard a single crash of the horns and violins,—for which I longed unspeakably.”35

On the 21st of July, having sent his sons to a farm in Virginia, Lanier went with his wife and her father to West Chester in search of quiet and rest. Here on August 14 was born the Laniers' fourth child, Robert. In a letter to Richard Malcolm Johnston Lanier announced the birth of the new baby, admitting at the same time his own ill-health. But with his characteristic gaiety he made even now a pun: “This mean, pusillanimous fever which took under-hold of me two months ago is still there, as impregnably fixed as a cockle-burr in a sheep's tail. I have tried idleness, but (naturally) it won't work.” And, convinced still that the illness was curable, he added: “I get up every day and drag around in a pitiful kind of shambling existence. I fancy it has come to be purely a go-as-you-please match between me and the disease, to see which will wear out first, and I think I will manage to take the belt, yet.”36

But the shadow of death has fallen now across all that he does, in spite of this brave boast. To a friend he confesses in a letter of September 5: “I was so ill during the time we were together on Wednesday evening—I really thought I would fall on the floor, and busied myself with picturing the scene, detailing the curious faces and so on, and regretting in advance the trouble it was going to give you—that I postponed until a better time many questions I wanted to ask. …”35 However, he returned alone to Baltimore the middle of September to resume his studies in preparation for his third course of lectures at Johns Hopkins.

He interrupted his studies to prepare a textbook of selections from Chaucer and Shakspere, hoping through the publication of the book to increase his income, to provide a textbook for his own course on Chaucer and Shakspere, should he give it again, and to make available to young students an anthology that should open to them beauties of literature that are too often closed mysteries. The projected volume—like the earlier projected Chaucer volume—came to naught, but three papers constituting an introduction to it have ben preserved and published.37 A reading of them will suggest reasons why the book was rejected and will also throw light on Lanier's work as a scholar.

In the Shakspere lectures we have followed Lanier's interpretation of Shakspere's character on the basis of evidence presented by placing three plays in chronological order. In his textbook Lanier proposed reprinting these three plays and with them three works of Chaucer: the knight's tale of Palamon and Arcite, to be studied in conjunction with A Midsummer Night's Dream; the pardoner's tale of the three robbers, to be studied in conjunction with Hamlet; and the clerk's tale of patient Griselda, to be studied in conjunction with The Tempest. The purpose of such a comparative study was to reveal Shakspere as man and artist and Chaucer as man and artist, and—though Lanier does not state these other aims here—to help the student arrive at a comparative estimate of the two as men and as artists and gain some idea of the change in status of man as an individual since the Middle Ages. Lanier planned to add copious footnotes to the texts.

But the choice of the three plays as typical of the three periods of Shakspere's life is an arbitrary choice on Lanier's part, representing his own preferences among the plays; and the choice of the three stories by Chaucer depends entirely upon the previous choice of plays. Furthermore, the conclusions presented seem not so much to have been drawn from the plays and stories chosen as the plays and stories to have been chosen according to preconceived ideas. This is, of course, legitimate in a lecture course or essay, in which the lecturer's or the essayist's personality is of as much interest as the factual matter that he presents. But it was almost audacious of Lanier to have expected other teachers to accept his views unquestioningly and to use a textbook that allowed no deviation from them. Such a textbook as Lanier was preparing could have been used with success and profit to the class by Lanier alone; and the expense of issuing such a work for the limited number of pupils who studied with Lanier would have caused any publisher to decline to publish it.

The introduction reveals, however, not only Lanier's lack of perspective on his own method of teaching but the superficiality of much of his scholarship, the inadequacy of his scholarly methods. For we have here little discussion of Chaucer and Shakspere, but much discussion of Shakspere and little of Chaucer. The moral views of Shakspere, the artistic structure of his plays, and the actual dates of the plays are discussed in considerable detail, much as in The Science of English Verse and in the Shakspere lectures, but there is no discussion of Chaucer's moral views on art, and no suggestions even for determining the chronology of his works to be studied. Perhaps such studies should not be and cannot be made; but if so, Chaucer and Shakspere should not be studied together in the way that Lanier suggested. The introduction to his ill-conceived textbook confirms our opinion that Lanier was too prone to make flashy generalizations, in what one critic has called his “drolly American self-confident fashion of making a dash at difficult speculations that have long exercised the minds of theorists, as if these questions had never been raised before.”38

The same critic added, however: “But the fairness of his intentions often almost justifies his audacity, and one delights in the ardency of [his] spirit and the courageousness of his questioning, even when one is least able to accept his conclusions,” and with this we must agree. If we have not quarreled more with Lanier's method and taken issue more ardently with his conclusions, it is because in the work in which we have found both most fully revealed—the Shakspere lectures—we have also found much that is so genuinely delightful and fine that we have forgiven easily and ignored much in the act of forgiving. The same conclusions presented more succinctly and more baldly, as in this introduction, offend us more.


Work on this textbook was an interruption in Lanier's work in preparation for the lectures of the coming winter lecture course. Time for other such bread-and-meat work he also found, for he prepared an article on King Arthur for St. Nicholas' Magazine,39 a summarization of material he had included in the preface to The Boy's King Arthur and of certain incidents from the story. The article was supposedly designed to give some account of Sir Thomas Malory's book which would bring it before minds younger than those for whom the introduction to The Boy's King Arthur was intended, but publication of it in the December number of the Scribner owned St. Nicholas' Magazine was also a move planned by the Scribners to encourage the sale of the book. The article is the sheerest kind of bread-and-meat work, a piece of no importance save for the recompense it brought Lanier.

But he found time also, in spite of such work and the laborious reading of English novels in preparation for a course that, as originally planned, was to have included a discussion of contemporary novels also, to write to his old friend Hayne:

“I have been wishing to write you a long time and have thought several letters to you. But I could never tell you the extremity of illness, of poverty, and of unceasing work, in which I have spent the last three years; and you would need only once to see the weariness with which I crawl to bed after a long day's work—and often a long night's work at the heel of it,—and Sundays just as well as other days,—in order to find in your heart a full warrant for my silence. It seems incredible that I have printed such an unchristian quantity of matter,—all, too, tolerably successful,—and earned so little money; and the wife and the four boys—who are so lovely that I would not think a palace good enough for them if I had it—make one's earnings seem all the less. …

“For six months past a ghastly fever has been taking possession of me each day at about twelve m., and holding my head under the surface of indescribable distress for the next twenty hours, subsiding only enough each morning to let me get on my working-harness, but never intermitting. A number of tests show it not to be the ‘hectic’ so well known in consumption; and to this day it has baffled all the skill I could find in New York, in Philadelphia, and [in Baltimore]. I have myself been disposed to think it arose purely from the bitterness of having to spend my time in making academic lectures and boy's books—pot-boilers all—when a thousand songs are singing in my ear that will certainly kill me if I do not utter them soon. But I don't think this diagnosis has found favor with any practical physician; and meantime I work day after day in such suffering as is piteous to see.”40

He had reached at this time that stage of development of his poetic powers when he could compose spontaneously and well, and when a poem that had to be written seized him he would, in spite of pot-boilers and ill-health, give it form. For at least one poem, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” was written thus. Mrs. Lanier has described the circumstances:

“It was cold November weather. … I was to go out for a little while to see a friend who was also ill. He urged me to go. As I went to change my house-dress for a warmer one, he began to write on a sheet of paper. I had been gone from the room perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes. When I came back he handed me the paper, saying, ‘Take this to her and tell her that it is fresh from the mint.’ It was ‘The Ballad of Trees and the Master,’ just as we have it without erasure or correction.”41


The suffering Lanier experienced at this time shows plainly in the finely molded face of the bust Mr. Ephraim Keyser made of him. Keyser, a native of Baltimore who had for some time worked in Rome, had returned to Baltimore to execute several commissions. One day Lanier went with his friend, J. R. Tait, to Keyser's studio, and Keyser, seeing him for the first time, was so impressed by the beauty of his head and the fineness of his personality that he begged Lanier to pose for him. The bust, completed in ten sittings of an hour each,42 is of all portraits of Lanier the most satisfying; it portrays Lanier as he was at the period of his highest development as man and artist. Suffering shows in the face; but victory also—the victory of one who has met and conquered all opposition and is ready to face death as courageously as he had faced life.

His illness increased to such an extent that he was confined to his home and to bed. In December he was no better; his fever maintained an almost constant maximum of 104°; but it was during this illness, while he lay all but extinguished by the fierce fire of this fever, and with so little strength in his arms that he could not lift food to his lips, and his hand had to be propped to the level of his adjustable writing desk, that he pencilled in delicate, almost illegible script the superb “Sunrise.”43

The restlessness and the burning of his fever pervade the lines; it is into the dream-troubled sleep of illness, no restful, natural sleep, that the clean nature odors of marsh and forest and sea come as something stronger than memories, less resistible than reality, to trouble Lanier and to waken him. But the sleep is stranger, more troubled even than the sleep of illness and of fever; it is surely the sleep of life, and awakening is to the freedom of all-releasing death.

I have waked, I have come, my beloved! I might not
I have come ere the dawn, O beloved, my live-oaks,
                    to hide
                              In your gospeling glooms,—to be
As a lover in heaven, the marsh my marsh, and the
                    sea, my sea.

There is no Wordsworthian reverence of nature here, for Wordsworth never knew such ecstasy or such a sense of the humanity of nature. This is nature worship pure and simple, and unqualified adoration of kinsmen trees, leaves, birds, marsh, and sea, which only just escapes the blighting touch of the nympholeptic longing apparent in “Corn” and in “The Symphony.” The language in which it is expressed lacks perhaps the musical beauty of “The Marshes of Glynn,” but there are in “Sunrise,” as in “The Marshes,” beautiful lines and beautiful rhythms, passages superbly onomatopœic. The rustle of the leaves is in the lines

Ye lispers, whisperers, singers in storms,
Ye consciences murmuring faiths under forms,
Ye ministers meet for each passion that grieves,
Friendly, sisterly, sweetheart leaves;

but in the twelve-line passage beginning “Oh! what if a sound should be made!” there is the magnificence of silence, caught, by paradox, in perfectly attuned phrases. And as in “The Marshes” Lanier conveyed perfectly the hush, and then the noises of water and air at sunset, so here he transcribes the sounds of the breaking of silence, the “low multitudinous stirring” swelling until—all the voices of nature singing together—it ushers in the sun.

But it is no divided allegiance that the worshipper here swears: the divinity to which Lanier makes obeisance is Divine Heat, giver of life, worshipped from of old, but saluted neither by Akhnaton nor by St. Francis more rapturously than by Lanier.

                                                                                Good-morrow, lord Sun!
With several voice, with ascription one,
The woods and the marsh and the sea and my soul
Unto thee, whence the glittering stream of all morrows doth roll,
Cry good and past-good and most heavenly morrow,
          lord Sun!
O Artisan, born in the purple! Workman Heat,
Parter of passionate atoms that travail to meet
And be mixed in the death-cold oneness, …
.....Thou chemist of storms, whether driving the winds
Or a-flicker the subtiler essences polar that whirl
In the magnet of earth—yea, thou with a storm for a
Rent with debate, many-spotted with question, part
From part oft sundered, yet ever a globèd light,
Yet ever the artist, ever more large and bright
Than the eye of a man may avail of; manifold One.

But the poet leaves us not with the thought of sunrise but with that of sunset, or—to interpret literally—the end of life and the sunrise of death:

I must pass from thy face, I must pass from the face of the Sun.
.....But I fear not, nay, and I fear not the thing to be done;
I am strong with the strength of my lord the Sun:
How dark, how dark soever the race that must needs be run,
                                                  I am lit with the sun.

“Sunrise,” in spite of all the faults of execution, of distracting metaphor and of deceiving rhythm, is, as one critic has said, “marvelous for its enraptured joyousness of spirit and the glorious effulgence of a living dawn, pictured in the very presence of death.”44 It is furthermore the very apotheosis of Lanier's poetry and with its rapturous embrace of the sunrise the very apotheosis of Lanier. But to see in “Sunrise” only this and the paganism of Lanier's adoration of nature is to miss the social gospel not only implicit but explicit, the message that makes “Sunrise” a companion piece to “The Symphony,” a chant for a new day more characteristic of Lanier than “The Marshes of Glynn.” For the sun is not only the source of light and heat and life, and the symbol—in Swedenborgian sense—of the soul's immortality; the sun is also surety of a golden earthly day yet to be, architect, builder and bondsman of a perfected social structure. Eleven years previously in the Furlow College commencement address Lanier had asked:

“Has God failed you?

“The dawn that broke in glory upon this morning denies it: yonder sun that hangs upon His right hand in heaven denies it; and to-night, the faithful stars, with a myriad silver voices, will deny.

“When these fail you, religion will fail you. Until then, you have naught to do but smile at those absurd birds of evil, who, having found some decaying carcass of a sensation, straight-way begin to flap wing boisterously through the air, and to screech out that the world is dead.”

“Sunrise” ends on the same note of faith:

Oh, never the mast-high run of the seas
                              Of traffic shall hide thee,
Never the hell-colored smoke of the factories
                                                  Hide thee,
Never the reek of time's fen-politics
                                                  Hide thee,
And ever my heart through the night shall with knowl-
          edge abide thee,
And ever by day shall my spirit, as one that hath tried
Labor, at leisure, in art, till yonder beside thee
                              My soul shall float, friend Sun,
                                        The day being done.

“Sunrise” is inferior in execution to “The Marshes of Glynn,” and by no means a perfect poem, but it is a great poem, great as any in our American literature, and like Milton's “Lycidas” a poem to serve as a test by which to distinguish the true lover of poetry. Seldom before had Lanier sung so passionately and with such beauty of phrase and rhythm and with such conviction as he did here, nor was he to do so again. In comparison with the largely conceived “Sunrise” two poems that Lanier published in 1881—a new version of “Eternity in Time”45 and “A Sunrise Song”46—seem feeble and of little consequence. Into the longer poem he had put all the strength illness had left him; to poetry he had little left to give.


  1. Payne [L. W. Jr.], “Sidney Lanier's Lectures.” [Sewanee Review xi, 452-62. October, 1903]

  2. SHF [Shakspere and His Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and its Development from Early English. By Sidney Lanier. Illustrated. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1902] i, 46-48.

  3. SHF i, 83 ff.

  4. Music and Poetry [: Essays upon Some Aspects and Inter-Relations of the Two Arts. By Sidney Lanier. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1899.], 152 ff.; SEV [The Science of English verse. By Sidney Lanier … New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1880], 149-50, 178. The quotation used is from Music and Poetry, 155.

  5. See the penultimate line of the fragmentary “Song of Aldhelm” (PO [Poem Outlines by Sidney Lanier. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1908], 50)—obviously an attempt to represent Anglo-Saxon alliteration in modern English verse. Perhaps the poem was intended as a faithful reconstruction of Aldhelm's thought in a close approximation to Aldhelm's language.

  6. Letters [of Sidney Lanier. Selections from his Correspondence, 1866-1881. With Portraits. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1899], 215.

  7. SHF, i, 77.

  8. I.e. SHF, Chapter vii. The reference occurs i, 163.

  9. SEV, v, note 1.

  10. PO, 50. See also ibid., 70.

  11. Century Magazine xxvii, 659. February, 1884; Poems (1884), 97.

  12. Poems [of Sidney Lanier. Edited by his wife … New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1884] (1884), 86.

  13. See SEV, 265.

  14. Poems (1884), 183-203.

  15. Baltimore Sun, January 31, 1880, p. 1, col. 7; as “Two Descriptions of Orchestral Works.” Music and Poetry, 68-69.

  16. Independent xxxvii, 1627. December 17, 1885; Music and Poetry, 91-94.

  17. Scribner's Monthly xx, 840-51. October, 1880; Retrospects and Prospects [: Descriptive and Historical Essays. By Sidney Lanier. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1899], 104-35.

  18. Cf. Lanier's use of material from Latimer's sermons in SHF ii, 127 ff.

  19. The Art Autograph. New York, May, 1880, plate 10. (Published by the Art Interchange to raise money for the fund organized by the New York Herald for relief of the Irish famine.) Lanier's poem—reproduced in a facsimile of the manuscript—is on a page with “The Relief Ship at Twilight” by Helen Hunt Jackson and opposite the page containing “The Album Fiend” by Oliver Wendell Holmes and “Arbutus” by J. G. Whittier. Reprinted, Poems (1884), 148.

  20. Published together, Independent xxxvi, 1409. November 6, 1884; Poems (1884), 146-47.

  21. Poems (1884), 112.

  22. Century Magazine xxv, 222-23. December, 1882; Poems (1884), 10-13.

  23. Mims [Edwin], [Sidney Lanier. Boston. 1905] 314-15.

  24. Mims, 316-17.

  25. Independent xxxii, No. 1650, 1. July 15, 1880; Poems (1884), 29-32.

  26. Ward [William Hayes], “Four Poems.” [Independent xlix, 933. July 22, 1897].

  27. Cf. with the characterizations here PO, 111.

  28. I cannot agree with Professor H. M. Jones in finding in this poem the “fastidious air of a spiritual amateur,” nor the “syrupy patronage … of a very young clergyman.” The sentence quoted,

                        little mole that marks
    [Him] brother and [his] kinship seals to man,

    defines Lanier's own sense of imperfection, and of kinship with other artists, rather than any sense of superiority to them.

  29. It is altogether possible that a realization of the inconsistency of Christian teaching and of Christian practice in tolerating slavery and in waging war served to inaugurate Lanier's rejection of orthodox Christianity.

  30. PO, 104-05.

  31. English Novel [: A Study in the Development of Personality. By Sidney Lanier … Revised Edition. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1897] (1897), p. 296. Cf. PO, 76.

  32. Independent xxxii, No. 16073, 1. December 23, 1880; Poems (1884), 141. And see note, Poems (1884), 245.

  33. Cf. PO, 13, 30, and especially 112.

  34. [Ward, William Hayes. Poems of Sidney Lanier … New York, 1884.] (Poems, xxviii) says ten, but implies that the Hopkins Hall lectures and the class lectures ran concurrently.

    The following announcement was made in the Johns Hopkins University Circular No. 2, p. 18 (January, 1880):

    “Readings in English Literature. Mr. Sidney Lanier, Lecturer in English Literature, will give ten expository readings of Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Shakspere's Midsummer [sic] Night's Dream in connection, beginning in the middle of January. …

    “This course is intended only for the members of the University, and especially for those whose principal studies are directed to other subjects, and who have consequently but little time at command for English Literature.

    “The aim of the lecturer will be to awaken an interest in the poems under review solely as works of art. The course will embrace a wide range of considerations bearing upon this end.

    “The instructor will take pleasure in giving three or four preliminary sessions to students unacquainted with Fourteenth Century English, for the purpose of familiarizing them with the archaic forms of Chaucer.”

    In a letter of September 27, 1897, to Professor G. S. Wills (Unpublished MS., University of North Carolina Library), President Gilman called this course “Art of Expression,” and stated that it was given “twice weekly, beginning March 13, 1880.” But Dr. W. S. Pratt, who attended the lectures, states that they began the week of February 8, 1880. Is it possible that Gilman, forgetting the course on Chaucer and Shakspere, refers to another course—one Lanier proposed in the letter to Gilman of March 16, 1880, quoted pp. 374-75 above?

  35. To W. S. Pratt. Unpublished MS. in possession of Dr. Pratt.

  36. Mims, 324-25.

  37. Independent xliii, 1337-38, 1371-72, 1401-02. September 10, 17, 24, 1891; Music and Poetry, 159-96. The papers may have been prepared somewhat earlier, circa January, 1880. See the letter of February 10, 1880, to an unnamed person (unpublished MS., Pennsylvania Historical Society) and the Johns Hopkins University Circular No. 2, p. 18—the announcement of a course quoted in note 34 above.

  38. Critic n. s. xxxi, 365-66. April, 1899.

  39. “King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.” St. Nicholas' Magazine viii, 9-93. December, 1880; The Lanier Book, 23-35. MS., Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, H M 7996.

  40. Letters, 243-45.

  41. “A Festival Program to Honor Sidney Lanier … Sunday, August 15, 1926, at 4 p. m. in Calvary Episcopal Church, Fletcher, N. C.”

  42. I am indebted for this information to Mr. Ephraim Keyser, and his letter to me of July 30, 1930.

  43. Independent xxxiv, No. 1776, 1. December 14, 1882; Poems (1884), 3-9. See Mrs. Lanier's account of the composition of this poem in [Lanier, Henry Wysham. Selections From Sidney Lanier. Prose and Verse … New York. 1916], 164, note 16.

  44. Abernethy.

  45. Independent xxxiii, No. 1683, 1. March 3, 1881; Poems (1884), 46. Called in this version, “A Song of Eternity in Time.”

  46. Independent xxxiii, No. 1691, 1. April 28, 1881; Poems [of Sidney Lanier. Edited by his wife … New Edition. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.] (1891), 152.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349


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 poetic works.

Hard, Frederick. “Sidney Lanier: Amateur Shakespearean.” Shakespeare Celebrated: Anniversary Lectures Delivered at the Folger Library, edited by Louis B. Wright, pp. 155-76. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Lecture originally given in 1964 outlining Lanier's life, with an emphasis on his Shakespeare criticism.

Parks, Edd Winfield. Sidney Lanier: The Man, The Poet, The Critic. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1968, 109 p.

Biography and critical study of Lanier's life, poetry, and literary criticism.


Antippas, A. P., and Carol Flake. “Sidney Lanier's Letters to Clare deGraffenreid.” American Literature 45, no. 2 (May 1973): 182-205.

Considers the friendship between Sidney Lanier and Mary Clare deGaffenreid as evidenced by their correspondence, which many previous Lanier biographers had ignored.

Bentley, D. M. R. “Roberts' ‘Tantramar Revisited’ and Lanier's ‘The Marshes of Glynn.’” Studies in Canadian Literature 5 (fall 1980): 316-19.

Posits the possible influence Lanier's poem “The Marshes of Glynn” had on Charles G. D. Roberts' poem “Tantramar Revisted.”

De Bellis, Jack. “Sidney Lanier and German Romance: An Important Qualification.” Comparative Literature Studies 5, no. 2 (June 1968): 145-55.

Argues that Lanier's Tiger-Lilies, despite popular critical belief, is not strongly influenced by German Romance, since at the time of its composition Lanier had only second-hand understanding of German literature.

Strong, Augustus Hopkins. “Sidney Lanier.” In American Poets and Their Theology, pp. 371-418. Philadelphia: The Griffith and Rowland Press, 1916.

Survey of Lanier's life, music, and most significant works.

Additional coverage of Lanier's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Documentary Series, Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors Modules: Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Poets; and Something about the Author, Vol. 18.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2547

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 Tennessee Williams when he has Baby Doll talk about wearing “clo'se skintight” and uses the spelling clo'se for clothes. Stephen Crane is using Eye Dialect when he spells says with sez and Sinclair Lewis is also using it when he spells listen with lissen. These nonstandard spellings do not represent non-standard pronunciations—they appeal only to the eye, not to the ear. They actually indicate a standard pronunciation of the word involved, and yet they convey to the reader the impression that there is something peculiar about the speech of the person using these nonstandard spellings. The reader is reading Eye Dialect, a useful literary device frequently used by many American novelists, poets, and dramatists in their attempts to give the impression of nonstandard speech.

The term Eye Dialect was apparently a coinage of George Philip Krapp, and was first used in his chapter on literary dialects in The English Language in America (published originally in 1925). The term appears in the following passage:

Of the dialect material employed in American literature, several clear kinds may be distinguished. First and most extensive in use is the class dialect which distinguishes between popular and cultivated or standard speech. This calls for no detailed discussion. The impression of popular speech is easily produced by a sprinkling of such forms as aint for isn't, done for did, them for those, and similar grammatical improprieties. This impression is often assisted by what may be termed “Eye Dialect,” in which the convention violated is one of the eye, not of the ear. Thus a dialect writer often spells a word like front as frunt, face as fase, or picture as pictsher, not because he intends to indicate here a genuine difference of pronunciation, but the spelling is merely a friendly nudge to the reader, a knowing look which establishes a sympathetic sense of superiority with the humble speaker of the dialect.1

Actually, relatively little has been written about Eye Dialect and an examination of many of the standard works on language indicate that they neglect the subject entirely. Those who mention the term at all usually confine themselves to a definition and a few examples of Eye Dialect spellings. Raven I. McDavid, Jr., has defined Eye Dialect as “a crude but common device often utilized to convey the illusion of substandard pronunciation … a quasi-phonetic respelling of common words.”2 H. A. Gleason, Jr., stresses that “Eye Dialect is not … to be considered as an actual portrayal of folk or regional speech so much as a stylized literary device to signal that folk speech is intended.”3

At first glance it would appear that Eye Dialect is all around us in such quasi-phonetic spellings as Duz for the well known “washday product,” Gleem for Gleam as in “Gleem Toothpaste” or Stix for sticks in “Fish Stix.” But these advertising trade names are not properly in Eye Dialect since they are not intended to represent the speech of anyone. Nor do the quasi-phonetic spellings used in James Russell Lowell's The Biglow Papers represent speech in most cases. They are usually found in letters written by Ezekiel or Hosea Biglow and simply indicate these two gentlemen can't spell. Leaving out such cases from consideration as Eye Dialect, there are still a surprising number of examples of the use of quasi-phonetic spellings to represent actual speech in the works of American writers. It is these examples which may be properly called Eye Dialect.

Eye Dialect is found in the works of frontier humorists like George Washington Harris (who created the dialect character, Sut Lovingood), David Ross Locke (who is responsible for Petroleum V. Nasby) and many others; it is often seen in the works of local colorists such as Edward Eggleston, James Whitcomb Riley, and Joel Chandler Harris; Stephen Crane uses it in Maggie, A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage; twentieth century novelists who use it include Lewis, Steinbeck, and Faulkner; and it is even found in certain plays of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller.

As a literary device, Eye Dialect has been used to produce a variety of effects. The frontier humorists usually use it to help convey the lack of education of their comic characters. James Whitcomb Riley often uses it when he wants to be “folksy,” which is rather often. Sinclair Lewis, on one occasion, uses Eye Dialect to indicate that the speaker is intoxicated, while Tennessee Williams uses it to help give the impression that the speaker is from the South. There are no more subtle uses of Eye Dialect, however, than those found in the few dialect poems of Sidney Lanier, and in his prose work, Tiger Lilies. It is to Lanier's use of Eye Dialect that the remainder of this paper is devoted.

Lanier has used nonstandard spellings in only a few short poems and in a small portion of his novel, Tiger Lilies, yet it is not difficult to find Eye Dialect spellings within this relatively small body of dialect writing. He has represented the speech of both poor whites and Negroes. There is an interesting comment in the introduction to the first volume of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier:

Though the modern attitude favors the use of idiom and speech tune rather than dialectal misspelling—feeling a false exaggeration in the phonetic representation of illiterate speech which implies that educated speech conforms to standard spelling—Lanier was more meticulous and accurate than most of his contemporaries in recording the actual language of the Negro, as well as of the Cracker.4

This evaluation of Lanier as being “meticulous and accurate” in “recording the actual language” seems, at first glance, contradictory in view of his rather extensive use of Eye Dialect. However, at least part of his use of Eye Dialect is clever and purposeful. He appears to make certain conscious uses of it in a number of instances when he wishes to gain a special effect.

One of his most striking Eye Dialect spellings is the use of cum for come. It is present in what is probably Lanier's best-known dialect-poem, “Thars More in the Man Than Thar Is in the Land.” The poem concerns a “cracker” who sells his farm, leaves to seek his fortune in Texas, and returns emptyhanded five years later. The stanza is as follows:

And that was Jones, standin' out at the fence,
And he hadn't no waggin, nor mule, nor tents,
Fur he had left Texas afoot and cum
To Georgy to see if he couldn't get sum
Employment, and he was a lookin' as hum-
ble as if he had never owned any land.

The spelling of come as cum in the third line and some as sum in the fourth are examples of an unusual use of Eye Dialect. It seems probable that Lanier changed the spelling in order that cum, sum and hum might be “perfect rimes”—that is, that the vowels and final consonants might be identical in appearance as well as in sound. Cum appears again in the sixth stanza of another dialect-poem, “Jones' Private Argument,” and also in the third stanza of “Them Ku Klux,” but in four other dialect-poems it is absent, with come being given its standard spelling.

A clever use of Eye Dialect to form “perfect rimes” occurs in “Them Ku Klux.” The lines are as follows:

“I'll read you,” says I, “but whur air my spex?
I thought that I laid em right thar, jest nex
to that newspaper: Nancy wher air my spex?”

Spex is Eye Dialect for specs, a shortened form of spectacles, which is good colloquial usage. Nex, though at first glance it does not appear to be Eye Dialect, actually is, since in the usual pronunciation of next to only one t is pronounced. By changing the spelling of specs and by leaving the t out of next, Lanier is able to make a “perfect rime.” The effectiveness of the device can be seen by comparison of the similarity in appearance of spex and nex and the lack of similarity of specs and next.

Sidney Lanier wrote only seven dialect-poems in all. Five of them—“That's More in the Man Than Thar Is in the Land,” “Jones' Private Argument,” “Civil Rights,” “Them Ku Klux” and “9 from 8”—are attempts to represent cracker dialect; the remaining two (which he wrote in collaboration with his brother Clifford Lanier) are attempts at Negro dialect. These two—“The Power of Prayer” and “Uncle Jim's Baptist Revival Hymn” are quite sparing in their use of Eye Dialect, particularly considering that roughly fifty per cent of the words in these poems have nonstandard spellings. The word enough is spelled enuff in a line from “The Power of Prayer,” which reads “De Debble's comin' round dat ben, he's comin' shuh enuff.” Lanier is only one of many writers who have felt an urge to respell enough and have come up with an Eye Dialect form. Probably he was only using a traditional Eye Dialect spelling. This poem also uses the common Eye Dialect spelling vittles for victuals. A more unusual Eye Dialect spelling in the same poem is sence for sense.

To mention some other Eye Dialect spellings in the five cracker dialect-poems—and there are quite a few of them in these poems—one may find the following in “9 from 8”: nuthin' for nothing, forrad for forehead, workin' for working, giv for give, and sum for some. In “Thars More in the Man Than Thar Is in the Land” there is found the common Eye Dialect spelling wimen for women. “Civil Rights” has bin for been though the same word is given its standard spelling five lines earlier in the poem. It appears that Lanier changes the spelling to bin so that it will look like agin (again) as well as rime with it. In “Jones' Private Argument” the word tare in the line, “But tare up every I O U” is an Eye Dialect spelling for tear.

Turning to Lanier's prose, the novel Tiger Lilies makes considerable use of Eye Dialect in conveying the speech of mountaineers and Negroes. Cain Smallin, a mountaineer of the Great Smokies, comes to the rescue of his friends during a fight and makes the following statement: “I was a right smart time a-comin', but when I did come, I cum, by the livin'! Phe-e-e-w!”5 The italics of cum are Lanier's and this use of Eye Dialect is one not encountered in any of the other authors mentioned. The spellings come and cum are in the same sentence, but cum is obviously used here as a more emphatic form of the word. There is no indication of any pronunciation difference represented in the two spellings, except that the Eye Dialect here seems akin to the use of the exclamation point.

Another curious use of Eye Dialect occurs in Tiger Lilies with the spelling of coffee as kauphy. Lanier explains his use of kauphy in the following passage:

… we, genuine coffee being invisible as any spirit during the war, made hideous images of it and paid our devotion to these morn, noon, and night. We made decoctions of pease, of potatoes, of peanuts, of meal, of corn, of okra … and called them kauphy.6

There is nothing in the nonstandard spelling of coffee used here to indicate any change from the standard pronunciation. The grapheme combination au represents the vowel of the first syllable of coffee as accurately as does the grapheme o, which is used in the standard spelling. It represents this same vowel in fault, laud, Paul, and haul. The grapheme combination phy represents in such words as physics, trophy, and philosophy the same sounds as those in the second syllable of coffee. Thus kauphy is a suitable spelling to represent the standard pronunciation. The value of the nonstandard form lies in its ability to emphasize to the reader the artificiality of the beverage in question. It also helps to express the contrast in the writer's attitude toward being forced to drink kauphy and being able to get a genuine cup of coffee.

In summary, it may be said that Lanier made frequent use of Eye Dialect in five of his seven dialect poems, and he also used it freely in Tiger Lilies. On most occasions Eye Dialect is mixed in with Sub-standard Dialect and Regional Dialect in his representation of the speech of mountaineers, crackers, and Negroes. There are a number of cases, however, such as those mentioned above in connection with “perfect rimes,” and those connected with cum used for emphasis and kauphy used to show lack of genuineness, in which Lanier uses Eye Dialect cleverly to obtain effects that would be difficult or impossible to obtain without it.

Some critics and experts on literary dialects have objected to the use of Eye Dialect as misleading. Sumner Ives has written, “To the extent that an author relies on this purely visual dialect, he can be said to be deliberately overstating the ignorance or illiteracy of his characters.”7 Ives feels that a substantial use of Eye Dialect reflects on the craftsmanship of the writer. After all, it would appear that the writer is either unable to depict actual speech peculiarities or else he simply is taking a path involving less effort, namely the use of Eye Dialect. However, others have viewed the use of Eye Dialect in a different light. Krapp has said, “It may be safely put down as a general rule that the more faithful a dialect is to folklore, the more completely it represents the actual speech of a group of people, the less effective it will be from a literary point of view.”8 The purpose of a literary dialect, after all, is not to arouse wonder at the author's ability as a student of speech, but to secure sympathetic attention for his characters. From this point of view, Sidney Lanier deserves commendation for his subtle use of Eye Dialect in achieving some unusual literary affects.


  1. George Philip Krapp, The English Language in America (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1960), I, 228.

  2. Raven I. McDavid, Jr., “American English Dialects” in The Structure of American English by W. Nelson Francis (New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1958), p. 541.

  3. H. A. Gleason, Jr., An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics, rev. ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), p. 406.

  4. The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson et. al. (10 vols.: Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), I, xlix.

  5. Ibid., V, 107.

  6. Ibid., p. 149.

  7. Sumner Ives, “A Theory of Literary Dialect,” Tulane Studies in English, Vol. II, (1950), p. 147.

  8. George Philip Krapp, “The Psychology of Dialect Writing,” The Bookman, 63 (Dec. 1926), 523.

Kenneth England (essay date 1964)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4239

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 preserve, but he would have the slave in freedom overseen by a beneficent master who would look after the welfare of the mentally and morally limited colored people. He does condemn soul-killing trade, but he thinks that with love a system of trade in the South may do good. He does object to large land-owning, all the while approving the man who does not let go of any of his land after the War. He does dispraise strict Christian faith and substitutes somewhat pantheistic and humanitarian notions, but he cannot adhere to the pantheism and the humanitarianism and returns to Christ as his chief reality and symbol. He does deplore circumscribing the intellectual and the physical domain of women; yet he cannot approve their taking public work or voting. Considering only the poetry, one observes that when uncommissioned and left to his inclinations he writes mainly of the South, really mainly of Georgia.

Although Edwin Mims, Aubrey H. Starke, and many others have in recent years referred to Lanier as a poet of the New South, one may readily and really disagree with them if by New South they mean something radically different from Old South. He is frequently coupled with Henry Woodfin Grady1 as representing to the public the attitude of the New South, which meant to Grady, in general, the repudiation of the Confederacy, the encouragement of the industrial system at whatever cost to the resources of things and of integrity, the displacement of the religious outlook by the merely humanitarian, the exploitation of the land, the deception of the colored man, and even collaboration with the Republicans.2 These attitudes might be labeled the attitudes of the minor strain in the South in the period before and just after the War, even though they soon became the prevailing attitudes in certain places. And although there is a definite tone of amelioration regarding the North and the South in Lanier's poetry and although one observes a good will toward anything good in the other new ideas, Lanier, nevertheless, remains basically of the conviction of the old Southerner. Therefore, his ideas expressed in the poetry are prevailingly in the major strain. Like his Georgian contemporary Joel Chandler Harris, he could not really change his ideas and his ideals.3 He only hoped, like Harris, that the lion and the lamb might ultimately lie down together and that all would come out for good. He could not himself think the matter out. Had he lived on to the turn of the century as did Harris, he would probably have been disillusioned too and would probably have felt the same nostalgia that Harris felt for the old times and the old ways which for a time he had become a little confused about.

Lanier's prose bears out the same somewhat contradictory attitude toward the ideas of the South that he expresses in his poetry. Even when one considers the dates of various utterances, there remains a certain confusion. For all that, one may justly make conclusion based upon the pervading tone, and the pervading tone throughout his writings is much more suggestive of the Old South than of the New. It would, in fact, result in untruth to arrange the facts so as to present Lanier as being of the stripe of Henry Grady, as Mims4 does, even though there is a modicum of evidence that tends to do this.

Lanier is better considered as a man of many interests and of many talents who served well the people among whom he found himself rather than as a musician, as a writer of fiction, or as a poet. His fiction is adequate. His flute-playing apparently was emotional. Almost all of his poetry is sentimental and may really be described as occasional. Lanier was, in fact, an enthusiastic amateur at music and at writing. He enjoyed both enormously. But he seems almost equally to have enjoyed studying, lecturing, and teaching and to have achieved no ultimate proficiency in them either. His vacillation is evidenced in his statement first that music is the passion of his life and then later that poetry is. It is probably fair to say that Lanier was a natural musician and an artificial poet and that in practice he does not illustrate the theory in which he tried to yoke the two together by violence.

In illustrating from Lanier's poetry his double mood toward the ideals of the Old South, one would immediately and inevitably think of his idea of trade as expressed in “The Symphony.” Lanier, like any other Southerner of the old view, was suspicious of trade and the tradesman's guile; and as the period ironically called Reconstruction progressed, he observed the disgraceful trafficking of trade in land and natural resources and in the labor of human beings. The hurly-burly of trade and the sharp practices of the time disgusted him, and he explodes in “The Symphony”:

“O Trade! O Trade! would thou wert dead!
The Time needs heart—'tis tired of head …”(5)

Throughout the poem, none of the instruments speaks in behalf of trade, for trade is disharmony; yet the poem is general in its conclusion or rather in its inconclusion, for it merely proclaims that one must retain hope that love will ultimately solve the problems presented by trade. This is part of the speech of the ancient, wise bassoons, with the violin, the clarinet, the loud horn, and the oboe joining in at times:

Yea, Love, sole music-master blest,
May read thy weltering palimpsest.
To follow Time's dying melodies through,
And never to lose the old in the new,
And ever to solve the discords true—
Love alone can do.
And ever Love hears the poor-folks' crying,
And ever Love hears the women's sighing,
And ever sweet knighthood's death-defying,
And ever wise childhood's deep implying,
But never a trader's glozing and lying.
“And yet shall Love himself be heard,
Though long deferred, though long deferred:
O'er the modern waste a dove hath whirred:
Music is Love in search of a word.”

[I, 55-56]

In “Corn” he again rebukes capricious commerce and grieves that the Georgia hill, the “gashed and hairy Lear,” should be barren because an unthrifty and unwise planter has spurned corn for the prospect of profit in the whimsical rise and fall of trade:

Upon that generous-rounding side,
With gullies scarified
Where keen Neglect his lash hath plied,
Dwelt one I knew of old, who played at toil,
And gave to coquette Cotton soul and soil.
Scorning the slow reward of patient grain,
He sowed his heart with hopes of swifter gain,
Then sat him down and waited for the rain.
He sailed in borrowed ships of usury—
A foolish Jason on a treacherous sea,
Seeking the Fleece and finding misery.
Lulled by smooth-rippling loans, in idle trance
He lay, content that unthrift Circumstance
Should plough for him the stony field of Chance.
Yea, gathering crops whose worth no man might tell,
He staked life on games of Buy-and-Sell,
And turned each field into a gambler's hell.

[I, 38]

Further, in “The Jacquerie” Lanier intended a poem which is to disclose how trade overthrew chivalry and how now it is the gentleman who must rise and overthrow trade. He considers that for centuries trade has controlled our individual and national life, has interpreted the Bible for us, and has set up the maxims that govern our thought:

Ere yet young Trade was 'ware of his big thews
Or dreamed that in the bolder afterdays
He would hew down and bind old Chivalry
And drag him to the highest height of fame
And plunge him thence in the sea of still Romance,
To lie for aye in never-rusted mail
Gleaming through quiet ripples of soft songs
And sheens of old traditionary tales.

[I, 172]

Lanier says that even in elfland there are hard times and that Santa Claus is poor because he has been cheated by a sharp tradesman who has taken all his cash, promising in the progressive nineteenth century to replace Santa Claus's reindeer and sleigh with a much more practical and successful Grand Trunk Railway for the Christmas delivery. But, of course, the money has gone for freights, injunctions, leases, charters, lawyer's fees, and rights of way, and there is nothing left with which Santa Claus may dispense gifts at Christmas. Quite obviously Lanier has his family and most other Southern families in mind.

Lanier, like Wordsworth, was pleased to fill his poetry with place names, and he frequently uses place names in the titles. And the names always suggest direct concern for the land rather than for the objects of cities and civilizations. For example, he uses the county names of Georgia over and over: Bibb, Jones, Glynn, Habersham, and Hall. The terrain of Georgia at the fall line is often in his poetry, as in “Corn” and in the dialect verse like “Thar's More in the Man Than Thar Is in the Land.” Macon and Georgia and “Georgy” recur over and over throughout the poetry, and always any Georgian name appears with affection. It appears that to him home always suggests the particular land of Georgia and that the arrangement of life there is the one he likes best. The man in “Corn” loses his land—a crime compounded because he loses it through the wicked devices of trade—and fades, a gamester's catspaw and a banker's slave, into the oblivious West. The last stanza illustrates Lanier's devotion to the Old Southern idea that a man must be associated with land of his own:

Old hill! old hill! thou gashed and hairy Lear
Whom the divine Cordelia of the year,
E'en pitying Spring, will vainly strive to cheer—
                    King, that no subject man nor beast may own,
                    Discrowned, undaughtered and alone—
Yet shall the great God turn thy fate,
And bring thee back into thy monarch state
                    And majesty immaculate.
Lo, through hot waverings of the August morn,
                    Thou givest from thy vasty sides forlorn
                    Visions of golden treasuries of corn—
Ripe largesse lingering for some bolder heart
That manfully shall take thy part,
                    And tend thee,
                    And defend thee,
With antique sinew and with modern art.

[I, 39]

“The Homestead” expresses the hope that the red old hills of Georgia may have another flourishing like the one before the War. “Thar's More in the Man Than Thar Is in the Land” is a dialect poem about a man named Jones from Jones County who lives “pretty much by gittin' of loans” and who finally sells his land to go to Texas only to return to Jones County “lookin' as humble as if he had never owned any land.” For Lanier, Jones's principal fault is that he left his home land. Lanier considered always that the ideal of home is a rural one of one's owning, even though he himself always had to make shift with rented places. To him a man ought to own his farm and be self-sufficient, as the plantation owners had been before the War. In a much touted article misnamed “The New South” published in Scribner's Monthly in 1880, Lanier states his thesis that, “The New South means small farming.” He really has in mind the plantation system in miniature. “The New South” is only a name which Lanier uses to mean that he finally tries to bear no dislike toward Yankees. It does not suggest for him what it suggests for Henry Grady. One might say that to him “The New South” is a phrase in search of love.

Lanier's most characteristic utterance relating to his idea of the place of women is the “Furlow College Address.” In perfervid rhetoric he extolls womankind after the manner of the florid eulogists of the older day in the South. One boggles at the sentimentality of the expression; yet the view is the traditional Southern view. After a passage in which he overdoes himself on the subject of woman suffrage, he says,

Ah, if we ask you for a home, will you give us a hustings? If we invite you to be queen of our souls, will you abdicate this magnificent sovereignty, to seat yourselves upon the hard and vulgar throne of the ballot box? Now, may God forbid it!

[V, 252]

He proceeds after this to become completely carried away.

His idea of the place of woman is more gently expressed in the poetry, yet just as clearly. In one of his poem outlines, “What Am I without Thee?” he is a great many romantic things, including a poor poem, a bent lance, an orchestra without a violin, and chivalry without his “Ladye.” In the poems to Charlotte Cushman, Lanier epitomizes womanhood in lush terminology. Charlotte Cushman in one of them is “Art's Artist, Love's Dear Woman, Fame's good Queen!” One wonders if Mrs. Lanier may not have been dismayed at some of Lanier's expressions to Charlotte in some of his letters. She is perfect womanhood not tarnished by any of the practicalities of the world. She is much too brave and good for human nature's daily food. One might Freudianize and say that Mrs. Lanier, because of their long separations, seems also to have remained in the same category of perfection. His poem idealizing Martha Washington is somewhat restrained in its statement of her as a perfect example of womankind. Of course, the principal expression of the idealization of womanhood not dirtied by the sordid operations of life is the poem to Mrs. Lanier, “My Two Springs,” in which he says that when Faith, Hope, and Charity depart, he can look into her eyes and be renewed. She is the repository of every good and lovely thing:

Thronged, like two dove-cotes of gray doves,
With wife's and mother's and poor folk's loves,
And home-loves and high glory-loves
And science-loves and story-loves,
And loves for all that God and Man
In art and nature make or plan,
And lady-loves for spidery lace
And broideries and supple grace
And diamonds and the whole sweet round
Of littles that large life compound,
And loves for God and God's bare truth,
And loves for Magdalen and Ruth,
Dear eyes, dear eyes and rare complete—
Being heavenly-sweet and earthly-sweet
—I marvel that God made you mine,
For when He frowns, 'tis then ye shine!

[I, 33-34]

Then Lanier takes up the major—the old—strain in his consideration of Negroes. For example, although they are no longer slaves after the War, he cannot think of them as being equal mentally and morally to white people. And he can no more countenance the idea of their voting than he can women's voting. Either notion astounds him. In the dialect poem “Civil Rights,” Old Mr. Johnny Stiles, who has lost a son in the War and whose land has been laid waste, speaks obviously with Lanier's feeling:

But then I tried to see it right, allowin' all along
They saw ther side as we saw our'n, and maybe both was wrong.
I didn't want no war at fust; but when it had to be
I holp old Georgy; for I nat'ally could not stand, and see
No lot of mortal men a'holdin' her in base restraint;
No, Jeems, my skin is tolubble white, but, sir, my liver ain't!
My blood is red—I am a man—I love old Georgy true,
And what the Guv'nor says to do, that thing I'm gwine to do.
But now, as I was sayin', when I jest had come to see
My way was clear to like 'em, and to treat 'em brotherlee;
When every nigger's son is schooled (I payin' of the tax,
For not a mother's son of 'em has more than's on ther backs),
And when they crowds and stinks me off from gittin' to the polls,
While Congress grinds ther grain, as 'twere, 'thout takin' of no tolls;
And when I stands aside and waits, and hopes that things will mend,
Here comes this Civil Rights and says, this fuss shan't have no end!
Hit seems as ef, jest when the water's roughest, here of late,
Them Yanks had throwed us overboard from off the Ship of State.

[I, 40-41]

In the dialect poem “Them Ku Klux” he does seem to disapprove of the Ku Klux but not of the Negro's “staying in his place.” Perhaps Lanier's most appealing and most successful piece of prose is a three-page dialect story Timeo Danaos (I fear the Greeks [Yankees] bringing gifts), in which a Negro man addresses the “white man what prints de papah” on the subject of a meeting in which a group of freed slaves have considered what to do with “dese sebben million white people, who is suddenly flung upon” their charities. He relates that he has explained to the gathering of Negro folk “how de niggah cum to be black an' how his nose cum to be flat” and how “de skin is gittin' whiter ebry day, by de use of a skin-powdah, which dey call missegennit.” And he closes by saying that instead of the dim and promissory prospect of being king of Bibb County and being able to choose seventeen wives for his “pussonal self” and of achieving the new freedom which is really freedam, he will be happy to stay with a white man for the rest of his life in order to “git” old “close” and “vittles” or only “vittles” if there are no old “close.” And he concludes the letter, “I is sorry dat I has to sign myself, No longer yours Jim Stevenson.” [V, 200-203] Well, that bears out the ideas in the poetry, and it is perfectly clear. Lanier regards the Negro as a barnacle incrusted in the Southern heart to be looked after and cherished.

And last, Lanier shows forth the older view about religion and God. Although he wavers occasionally and vaguely into a pantheistic suggestion and rarely into a statement of merely humanitarian love, they do not hold, and he returns to the direct statement of the Christian God.

In “The Song of the Chattahoochee” there is the overtone that the whole duty of man is to do what he ought to do and that if he does that, he need not fear in this world or the next. As the river cannot answer the calls to abide, man cannot. He must do humanitarian work:

          But oh, not hills of Habersham,
          And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call—
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
          Calls o'er the hills of Habersham,
          Calls through the valleys of Hall.

[I, 104]

“The Marshes of Glynn,” perhaps Lanier's best poem, and the other “Marsh Songs” have the suggestion of the Wordsworthian pantheism in them. The pantheism and the simple Christianity seem to be in confusion in the poems and in Lanier's mind. A man who in closing a letter could ask Richard Malcolm Johnston to kiss the chestnut trees for him might surely have pantheistic ideas, and although the poem closes with a question and although he eschews the Calvinistic occupations of “the weighing of fate” and the “sad discussion of sin,” he still talks of the old ideas of a Christian God whom one can know through an act of confidence and faith rather than through worrying and knowledge:

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won
God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.
As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies;
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

[I, 121]

It almost seems that Lanier is saying that God is love in search of a word.

On his deathbed after he had ceased to be able to feed himself, Lanier wrote “Sunrise,” which ends in this curious fashion:

Oh, never the mast-high run of the seas
                    Of traffic shall hide thee,
Never the hell-colored smoke of the factories
                    Hide thee,
Never the reek of the time's fen-politics
                    Hide thee,
And ever my heart through the night shall with knowledge
                    abide thee,
And ever by day shall my spirit, as one that hath tried thee,
Labor, at leisure, in art,—till yonder beside thee
                    My soul shall float, friend Sun,
                                        The day being done.

[I, 149]

In spite of the somewhat generalized tone of the marsh hymn, the Christian overtone remains. And in one of Lanier's last poems, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” the lines are removed from pantheism:

Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent.
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to Him,
The little gray leaves were kind to Him:
The thorn-tree had a mind to Him
When into the woods He came.
Out of the woods my Master went,
And he was well content.
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When Death and Shame would woo Him last,
From under the trees they drew Him last:
‘Twas on a tree they slew Him—last
When out of the woods He came.

[I, 144]

As surely as do his predecessor Edgar Allan Poe and his successor John Crowe Ransom fall under the spell of the ideal of the Old South, so does Sidney Lanier. Poe, having less need in his time and being less turned to any direct commentary on the matter, does not deal with the details of the Southern ideal in his poetry. But, in his prose, he certainly illustrates his dislike—even contempt—for the inhabitants of Frogpondia, and with the three fifths of him that was genius he took them to task. Inherent in his opinions of life in the United States outside the South is probably his approval of the life of the South. And Ransom in I'll Take My Stand sets forth the agrarian principles which involve a defense of the Old South. And in his poetry, for example, the blue girls must be twirling their skirts at Ward-Belmont College, the fortunate lady who dies of chills and fever very young undoubtedly lives in the South, and surely John Whiteside's daughter is not buried in Chicago.

And Sidney Lanier, more involved in the great conflict of the War and more immediately present in the great change in the South than Poe or Ransom, was less well able than they to draw his lines clearly and to express himself with certainty.

His inability to reconcile his feelings and his desire to please, his tendency to polemicize and then to become irritated, his natural inclination to euphoria, his proclivity to lose active interest quickly in diligently working on a piece of writing, and his unstable health combined to prevent him from being a truly good poet, and curiously, probably also out of these deficiencies arose what poetic ability he demonstrates.6 Lanier's themes almost inevitably come out of the Old South that he had known and loved, whose ideals he had fought to maintain, and in whose defense he had taken his death sickness, and he could never put them without his mind and heart. And even though occasionally his poetry utilizes the minor strain of the New South, it remains predominantly in the major strain of the approval of the ideals of his youth.


  1. [Richard Croom Beatty, Floyd C. Watkins, Thomas Daniel Young], The Literature of the South, [1952,] p. 439.

  2. Ibid., pp. 438-439. Raymond B. Nixon, Henry Grady: Spokesman of the New South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943), pp. 207-307, passim.

  3. Beatty, op. cit., pp. 515-517.

  4. Edwin Mims, Sidney Lanier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1905), pp. 264-319, passim.

  5. Sidney Lanier, Centennial Edition, edited by Charles R. Anderson (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), I, 46. Further quotations from this edition will be identified by volume and page numbers in brackets following the quotation.

  6. Beatty, op. cit., pp. 441-443.

Edd Winfield Parks (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7832

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 literature as Southern literature, our poetry as Southern poetry, our pictures as Southern [sic] pictures. I mean the habit of glossing over the intrinsic defects of artistic productions by appealing to the Southern sympathies of the artist's countrymen.”1 He was confident that his own work did not need this uncritical partiality. After the rejection of “Corn” by Scribner's and the Atlantic, and after much agonized introspection, he wrote to his wife “I know, through the fieriest tests of life, that I am, in soul, and shall be, in life and in utterance, a great poet” (IX, 105).

He did not achieve that goal. He never became even a major American poet, in the sense that Poe or Whitman or Emily Dickinson is. There are valid, often tragic, reasons. Throughout his adult life he suffered from tuberculosis to an extent that almost every time he completed a major or extended work he was incapacitated by severe hemorrhages of the lungs. His early death cut short work on three projected volumes of verse. For these, he left numerous poem outlines that rarely got much beyond the note-taking stage. A third factor was the precarious state of his personal finances, ranging from downright poverty to, at best, an insufficient and unstable income. Poverty forced him into literary hackwork, sometimes good, as in his redactions for boys of Froissart and of Malory; sometimes respectable, as in the erratic but occasionally brilliant guide and travel book Florida; sometimes degrading, as in the magazine sketches on India, a country which he had never seen. Yet even the best of these sapped energy from a man who had little vitality to spare.

Lanier himself was in part to blame. He had no sooner partially recovered from a tubercular attack than he was planning grandiose projects, many of which he was poorly equipped to carry out. His application for a fellowship in the newly established Johns Hopkins University is almost unbelievable, for it was beyond the ability of a young, vigorous, well-trained man; in September, 1877, Lanier was thirty-five years old, in poor health, and with a decidedly sketchy academic background: “My course of study would be: first, constant research in the physics of musical tone; second, several years devotion to the acquirement of a thoroughly scientific general view of Mineralogy, Botany and Comparative Anatomy; third, French and German Literature” (IX, 474). President Gilman would have none of what Lanier admitted “may seem a nondescript and even flighty process,” although some justification can be found in his belief that good poetry could not be written in his time “unless that poetry and your soul behind it are informed and saturated with at least the largest final conceptions of current science.” Even more disruptive and irrelevant was the plan, growing out of his lectures in Baltimore, to edit an extensive series of anthologies of English poetry and (when established publishers rejected the projects) to publish them himself, although he had little experience as an editor and none as a publisher. At the time when he most needed to husband his energies and concentrate on his major talent, Lanier was spreading himself dangerously thin.

Two other stumbling-blocks he threw in the way of the reader. One was his incessant moralizing and didacticism; it may be justifiable to believe, as Lanier firmly did, that in literature morality is more important than artistry, but it is irritatingly quite another thing to “forgive” writers like Homer, Socrates, Dante, and Shakespeare (among many others: see “The Crystal”) because they sometimes did not live up to his intransigent moral tone, or to dismiss Fielding and Smollett because their works seemed to him prurient. Too frequently Lanier lost all critical perspective, and this loss of perspective vitiates many of his own poems, as it does in “The Crystal.” Less important is his fondness for archaic words and phraseology, his propensity in images to mix the concrete and the abstract, and his use of musical devices to such an extent that many readers consider his poems artificial and contrived.

These defects may be freely admitted, and some of them will be examined later, but there remains a residue of work that is excellent and germinal. Too often Lanier has been praised or condemned for the wrong reasons, and the sane commentaries of Aubrey Starke and Charles R. Anderson have been glided over.

The extant poems written when he was at Oglethorpe College, few in number and deficient in quality, are of value mainly in revealing the great if transitory influence of Poe, Byron, and Coleridge, and the quieter but more enduring influence of his “dearest friend” Keats (I, 228). Sidney's brother Clifford remembered the college poems, many of them no doubt lost, as being “Byronesque, if not Wertheresque, at least tinged with gloominess” (Starke, p. 37). But the gloomy introspection of Byron and Poe was soon replaced by the bracing saneness of Tennyson and, mainly through his favorite essayist Carlyle, by the romantic sentimentalism of the German writers Richter and Novalis. These men had direct formative influence on Lanier's thoughts, and on his writings. Even more direct because it was personal was the influence of Professor James Woodrow, who aroused in Lanier an interest in German lyric poetry and idealistic philosophy, and a continuing interest in trying to reconcile evolutionary thought with Presbyterian theology.

His tentative writings and, possibly more important, his plans to study in Germany were abruptly terminated by the outbreak of war. He returned briefly in 1863 to writing poems (inspired mainly by his love for Virginia Hankins) and to translating lyrics by Heine and Herder, but in the main, during this lull in his military activities, such literary energy as he could summon forth was devoted to his projected novel, Tiger-Lilies (1867). Somewhat oddly, it is in this prose rather than in his verse that Lanier has his best-sustained image, that of the blood-red flower of war (Book II, chap. 1).

Lanier's work, in this novel as well as in his poetry, is a curious mixture of nineteenth-century thought and antique vocabulary. He was at once a high-hearted if belated Romantic and a devout Medievalist. Shakespeare and Chaucer seemed beyond question the greatest of English poets, if not indeed the greatest of poets. He advised Paul Hamilton Hayne that to develop properly as a poet he must “drink much of Chaucer and little of Morris”; and he made such extensive use of Shakespearean imagery that Aubrey Starke credited him with so developing “the use of the Shakespearean imagery in description of nature as to develop what is almost a distinct genre” (p. 283).

In spite of his fascination with medievalism and his late, symbolic use of Bishop Aldhelm as “the Father of English Poetry,” he belonged essentially to his own time. To Lanier, poetry had improved primarily by becoming more ethereal, more spirit-like. This seemed good; it led him at times, rather disconcertingly, to place Tennyson above Milton: “To discover the process of spiritualization which poetry has undergone, one has only to compare Tennyson with Milton. … Milton's is the strength of the sea in its rage; Tennyson's is the potential force of the sea in its repose” (V, 296-297).

Closely allied with his theory that as time flows on “sensuous things constantly etherealize” was his concept of metaphor. It was true that a metaphor was “always a union of two objects,” but he also believed that metaphors “come of love rather than of thought.” One object was normally abstract, the other concrete, so that the “nature-metaphor is a beautiful eternal bridal of spirit and matter … this harmonious union of soul and body, of spirit and nature, of essence and form, is promoted by the nature-metaphor” (V, 306-321).

It was not poetic theories but Reconstruction that aroused him to an authentic if brief lyricism. The best of these poems, “The Raven Days,” states with precise power the hopelessness of men who felt themselves betrayed into such “hatred and bitterness as even the four terrible years of war had entirely failed to bring about.” The poem ends with a question: will these dark raven days of sorrow be replaced by a warm light that will “gleam across the mournful plain?” More complex in structure and therefore indirect in statement is “Night and Day.” Othello personifies night, but he also stands for the Civil War and for Reconstruction; the dark Moor (night) has murdered Desdemona (day), and at the same time he (as the dual strife of warfare and of reconstruction) has slain peace—and Lanier could see little hope that the “Star-memories of happier times” would soon return to his harassed region. The Shakespearian imagery is not merely a literary device; it is integral to the meaning of the poem (I, 15, 160).

Intermittently in the period from 1868 through 1874, Lanier devoted much of his poetic time and thought to a projected “novel in verse, with several lyric poems introduced by the action. The plot is founded on what was called ‘the Jacquerie,’ a very remarkable popular insurrection which happened in France about the year 1359, in the height of Chivalry” (VII, 397). This never-completed work was meant to be an attack on trade and a plea for the restoration of chivalry; from the surviving fragments, it seems unlikely that it would ever have become his magnum opus. But one lyric deserves to rank with his best: “The Hound was cuffed, the hound was kicked.” The revolting peasants are symbolized by the hound which kills its master, and for once Lanier works entirely through his image. It is necessary to know the first twenty-four lines of the narrative for the lyric to become clear, but with this background the clean-cut imagery reinforces the tragic situation (see IX, 121-122).

An intensely personal poem, “Life and Song” (first entitled, significantly, “Work and Song”) describes the ideal union of life and art, a fusion that would result in wholeness. Indirectly, the poem expresses a bitter realization that Lanier himself, in those poverty-stricken, troubled days, could not attain this harmony. The affirmation of faith in poetry and music is curiously balanced, yet enriched, by the note of personal renunciation (I, 16).

These seem the best of his early lyrics. Aubrey Starke (p. 147) preferred “Nirvâna,” reading into Lanier's quest for spiritual contentment an epithalamium for Mary Day Lanier: “marriage to her more than anything else in his life brought to Lanier the enraptured ecstasy and the sense of escape from the terrors of contemporary events which he so subtly conveys to us in this poem.” This is an attractive reading, although it hardly jibes with Lanier's explanation to Virginia Hankins that “Of course it is a rapt Hindu who speaks” (I, 335). But the erroneous conception of Nirvâna as the “Highest Paradise of Buddha, attainable only by long contemplation, and by perfect superiority to all passions of men and all vicissitudes of Time” (instead of a state of non-existence) has proved a stumbling-block to many readers. Possibly the didactic, declamatory tone harms it even more as a poem (I, 19-21).

The most popular of his early poems was “Thar's More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land,” published in the Macon Telegraph and Messenger, February 7, 1871, and widely though often anonymously reprinted. It is written in the dialect of a Georgia Cracker, and it has humorous overtones and poetic trickeries (Lanier rhymes hum- with cum and sum, and begins the next line with Ble). But the poem is fundamentally serious. It was in fact the best of several dialect poems using the thesis that a plantation economy based on cotton had harmed if not ruined the South financially, and that the region must change the pattern to one of small farms and diversified agriculture. Unlike Henry Grady, he did not want an industrialized South; in direct contrast with the early war poems of Henry Timrod, Lanier had no faith in “the snow of Southern summers.” Cotton was a money crop, dependent on trade—and he had come to hate everything connected with his conception of trade. In the narrative poem the Cracker Jones, who “lived pretty much by gittin' of loans,” goes bankrupt first in Georgia and five years later in Texas, but Brown revitalized the run-down, eroded Georgia farm and made it pay by hard work and by planting wheat and corn. Lanier extends the diversification in “The Homestead” (which is not in dialect) to include fruit, cattle, chickens, hogs, and pastures, so that the farm becomes almost self-sustaining. But the major symbol of this diversification, in his mind, was corn, as cotton was the major symbol of the one-crop, money economy (I, 22-23, 25-28).

The poems in Negro dialect were primarily humorous. “The Power of Prayer,” written in collaboration with his brother Clifford, is the story of an old blind Negro and presumably his young granddaughter who mistake for the devil the noise of the first steamboat coming up the Alabama River. When the boat rounds the bend and with diminishing noise proceeds upstream, the old Negro is convinced that through prayer he has foiled “the debble.” There are primitive though authentic religious overtones, but these are subordinated to the humor. The poem was published in Scribner's (which also published the collaborative “Uncle Jim's Baptist Revival Hymn”) and widely reprinted, but Lanier was doubtful of the validity of dialect poetry. He wrote to Charlotte Cushman: “Tell me, ought one to be a little ashamed of writing a dialect poem?” Although Fred L. Pattee called him “a pioneer in a rich field,” he seems to have abandoned dialect with a feeling of relief (I, 215-217).

Perhaps these poems should have freed Lanier from his fondness for archaic and sentimentalized phraseology. They did not. Instead, his growing absorption in music led to a discontent with conventional rhythm and meter. When in March, 1874, he sent his wife “My Two Springs,” he apparently was content with such phrases as “And homeloves and high glory-loves / And science-loves and story-loves,” and in the last stanza he reduces the otherwise excellent imagery by explicitly describing the springs as the eyes of Mary Day Lanier. His discontent took another form: “since I have written it to print, I cannot make it such as I desire in artistic design; for the forms of to-day require a certain trim smugness and clean-shaven propriety in the face and dress of a poem, and I must win a hearing by conforming in some degree to these tyrannies, with a view to overturning them in the future” (I, 32-34; IX, 39-40).

His first rather mild attempt was in the Pindaric or Cowleyan ode, “Corn.” The lines are of irregular lengths, but the prevailing pattern is iambic, and most lines fall into normal two-feet to five-feet accentual lengths; ordinarily, three consecutive lines have perfect end-rhymes, usually monosyllabic, but these triple rhymes are carefully interspersed with contrasting rhyming couplets. “Corn” represents an advance in his command of metrical effects to some extent in a freer, more easily flowing verse, but primarily in a longer, sustained, unified effort.

The structure of the poem has less unity. His friend Logan E. Bleckley complained that Lanier presented four landscapes, the first two in an Italian vein and painted “with the utmost delicacy and finish. … When you paint in Dutch or Flemish you are clear and strong, but sometimes hard.” William Dean Howells in rejecting it for the Atlantic thought it was basically two poems but that “neither was striking enough to stand alone” (both quoted in Starke, p. 189). There is some justice in these statements. The poem begins with the poet wandering through a forest and describing the beauties of the trees and the undergrowth, although there is also a hint of his developing pantheism and fondness for personification in the lines, “I pray with mosses, ferns and flowers shy / That hide like gentle nuns from human eye / To lift adoring perfumes to the sky.” The poet wanders to a zigzag fence separating the forest and a cornfield; he takes an aesthetic delight in its beauty: “without theft, I reap another's field.” One tall stalk of corn is completely out of line; again personifying, Lanier reads into this “corn-captain” a kinship with the poet. The stalk is rooted in earth, yet reaches toward heaven; similarly, the poet should be rooted in the local and the particular, but should give to other men universal values by marrying the new and the old, by uniting earth and heaven, and by reconciling the hot and the cold, the dark and the bright in human lives.

Then Lanier shifts to his harshest direct attack on cotton as symbolic of agricultural trade. Cotton has been responsible for soil erosion; worse, it has been responsible for unstable, discontented lives. The cotton farmer is a “foolish Jason on a treacherous sea, / Seeking the Fleece and finding misery.” Instead of secure, self-contained farming, he “staked his life on games of Buy-and-Sell, / And turned each field into a gambler's hell,” until he became a “gamester's catspaw and a banker's slave.”

The final section is addressed to the eroded old hill. Once again, Lanier's indifference to the logic of his images is only too readily discernible, along with his fondness for literary personifications. The hill becomes a “gashed and hairy Lear,” but his daughter Cordelia becomes the rejuvenating, pitying Spring. Perhaps Lanier considered this a union of matter and spirit, but it seems at best a strange yoking-together of a father and daughter. Spring and corn will revitalize the worn-out land. Perhaps Lanier thought of corn as symbolic of diversified farming; perhaps he oversimplified because of the beauty of the cornfield; but within the framework of the concluding section there is no hint that corn by itself will not enrich eroded land (I, 34-39).

In spite of defects in structure and in logical development, “Corn” remains the first of Lanier's major poems. The forest and the cornfield are vividly described, the attack on cotton sharp and readable. The nature-personifications are effective, although they only indicate a way that Lanier was to explore more fully in later works. When “Corn” was published in Lippincott's Magazine (February, 1875) and enthusiastically praised by the discerning Gilbert Peacock, it justifiably earned for Lanier a reputation as a poet of national importance.

In 1875 he wrote and published in Lippincott's one of his most ambitious poems, “The Symphony.” The title may be an unfortunate one. It has led various commentators to object that the poem does not have the form of a symphony, thus implying that Lanier failed to achieve his objective. This is a misreading. The poem is meant to be a part (not all) of a performance or rehearsal; rarely, and then only for a few consecutive lines, does the entire orchestra play together. It is mainly a series of solo performances, by six different instruments.

As he noted, the poem treated “various deep social questions of the time,” and it had in the writing taken possession of him “like a real James River Ague” (IX, 182). But the work was no hasty improvisation; on the contrary, it was carefully wrought and its effect premeditated. For the first time Lanier attempted freely to make words do the work of music. Drawing on a Shakespearean sonnet for an allusion, he noted that “In my ‘Symphony’ Love's fine wit—the love of one's fellow-men—attempts (not to hear with eyes, but precisely the reverse) to see with ears” (IX, 319). For this purpose he used many and varying devices of versification. In the opening section, the prevailing four-beat iambic line is broken with short lines, one with a truncated foot: “Trade is trade.” There is a skilful use of two- and three-line end-rhymes, but there is also an occasional use of internal rhymes. More noticeable, and reflecting his recent study of Anglo-Saxon poetry, is the heavy monotone of alliteration. Both of these can be illustrated by one couplet:

Of what avail the rigorous tale
Of bill for coin and box for bale?

(I, 46)

Later in the poem, when the knight promises to do battle for the lady, Lanier uses the form of a traditional medieval song, with its insistent refrain of “Fair Lady.” The concluding sections contrast with this fixed pattern by their deliberate irregularity. He declared that he had “dared almost to write quite at my ease in the matters of rhythm, rhyme, and substance, in this poem,” and he had largely succeeded (IX, 203).

In spite of the intricate metrical effects, Lanier seems to have been even more interested in the message than in the form. Yet the subject is not simple, but complicated with a series of related and intertwined ideas. The primary one, an attack on trade and materialism, had obsessed him since he had started struggling with “The Jacquerie,” seven or eight years earlier. There is also a statement of his newly found belief that God reveals himself through nature, and this revelation must be translated for most men not through the Church but through art: “Where Nature spreads her wild blue sky / For Art to make into melody!” More clearly stated is the demand for a restoration of chivalry in the world. But the overriding message, not in fact economic, is for a broader and deeper human love, supported by a more intense, deeply felt (if unorthodox) religion.

The poem develops through personifications. The violins and, quickly, the other strings, personify art; the flute, nature; the clarionet, the lady; the horn, the knight; the hautboy, the child (almost equated with Christ); the concluding bassoons, wise old age. The violins begin the attack on trade, but immediately suggest Lanier's metaphysical solution: “O Trade! O Trade! would thou wert dead! / The time needs heart—'tis tired of head.” Love has been overcome by greed that has degenerated into swinehood at the expense of humanity. Men have for too long disregarded Christ's words, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” For trade has no mercy. The mistreated and the underpaid can easily be replaced, since the poor are prolific. Trade has become only “war grown miserly,” but the solution is not in economics but in love: “Vainly might Plato's brain revolve it; / Plainly the heart of a child could solve it.”

After a brief interlude by the orchestra, the flute is introduced with what seems to me Lanier's finest, best-sustained poetic image:

                    But presently
A velvet flute-note fell down pleasantly
Upon the bosom of that harmony,
And sailed and sailed incessantly,
As if a petal from a wild-rose blown
Had fluttered down upon that pool of tone
And boatwise dropped o' the convex side
And floated down the glassy tide
And clarified and glorified
The solemn spaces where the shadows bide.

(I, 48-49)

The flute states precisely its own function in the poem: “I hold / Full powers from Nature manifold” to speak for the great and the small, for the “no-tonguèd tree,” the lichens, mosses, ferns. This power extends also to animate birds, animals, and insects, and even to the sound of the wind through the trees. The flute holds that man had once been in harmony with nature, but this equilibrium had been upset in ancient times by false mythologies and pagan religions—“cold creatures of man's colder brain.” This separation from true nature continued until Christ proclaimed “Love thy neighbor. … All men are neighbors.” Then men briefly could understand nature and be at peace with mountains, rivers, trees, and with each other. But trade had again distorted this harmonious relationship, and it could be restored again only through love.

The clarionet blames trade for debasing the purity of womanhood and introducing prostitution into the world, and the horn promises through the revivification of chivalry to restore her to her rightful place in the world. As trade has warped our relations with religion and with nature, so it has warped our relations with each other. The hautboy, speaking for the child, quotes Christ after introductory words that suggest Lanier had given up his earlier faith in Christ's divinity: “Once said a Man—and wise was He— / Never shalt thou the heavens see, / Save as a little child thou be.

The bassoons conclude the poem. Life itself is like a fugue, from birth to death (east to west), but the musical score is not freshly made; it is a continuum with “harsh half-phrasings, / Blotted ere writ,” a “weltering palimpsest” dimly recording all that has gone before. Only through love can the discords be resolved. As early as Tiger-Lilies Lanier had written that “Music means harmony, harmony means love, and love means—God” (V, 31). At the end of “The Symphony” he returned to that theme. Drawing on his belief that man and nature steadily etherealize, he closed on a note of optimism, with an allusion to the biblical flood: “O'er the modern waste a dove hath whirred: / Music is Love in search of a word” (I, 46-56).

“The Symphony” won him new friends in Philadephia, most notably Bayard Taylor. Mainly through the intercession of Taylor, Lanier was commissioned to write the verses for a cantata to be sung at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the music to be composed by Dudley Buck. Although Taylor cautioned him to “make the lines simple and strong” and to make the poem representative rather than individualistic, Lanier disregarded his advice. As a musician himself, he felt that he had “to compose for the musician as well as the country” not in clearly stated lines but in “broad bands of color” (IX, 297). The poem, entitled “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” celebrates America as a haven for those oppressed by religious or economic tyranny; names like Mayflower, Plymouth, Jamestown, Puritan, and Huguenot become in themselves symbols. There are eight contrasting stanzas in words mainly of Saxon derivation, beginning with the early difficulties of colonization and concluding with “the Triumph of the Republic over the opposing powers of nature and of man.” Although he complained that limitations of space allowed him to devote only one line each to the philosophies of art, science, power, government, faith, and social life, he thought that he had made it “absolutely free from all melodramatic artifice, and wholly simple and artless” (II, 271; IX, 300, 311, 353).

When the poem was published without the music, it was immediately attacked as obscure and vague, with archaic words and stilted hyphenations, as in the lines “Toil when wild brother-wars new-dark the Light, / Toil, and forgive, and kiss o'er, and replight.” Lanier defended the work vigorously: it was meant to be sung rather than to be read. He felt vindicated when, sung by a chorus of eight hundred voices to the accompaniment of one hundred and fifty instruments, the cantata was a dramatic success (I, 60-62).

Lippincott's commissioned Lanier to write a centennial ode for its July, 1876, issue. “Psalm of the West” is his longest complete poem, but it is also his most disjointed one. There is some excuse. It was written hurriedly, at a time when he was ill. Yet the good qualities in the poem are typical of Lanier, and so are the defects. As Aubrey Starke has noted (p. 248), Lanier had attempted “to compose a poem which should carry or create its own musical accompaniment.” The beginning is conventional enough. America is the “Tall Adam of Lands, new-made of the dust of the West,” from whose side Eve (Freedom) is carved. It is freedom that gives power to friendship, marriage, law, and other human attributes:

And Science be known as the sense making love to the All,
And Art be known as the soul making love to the All,
And Love be known as the marriage of man with the All.

(I, 63)

God will help this All-lover, the prophet and poet, the “lark of the dawn,” by revealing to him the past and the future. Disregarding the Indians, Lanier celebrates in a ballad-like interlude the coming of the Norsemen, and in eight Miltonic sonnets the first voyage of Columbus (cast in the form of a dramatic monologue and narrated by Columbus himself). After the discovery, the colonization is symbolized in the poem by the Mayflower, and the war for independence is worked mainly around the battle at Lexington. Lanier notes in passing that Jefferson had told “the rights of man to men” and that “Deep-rooted Washington” had won final success at Yorktown. In his haste, and perhaps also because he did not wish to mar the unified nationalistic tone of the ode by discussing the issues and differences involved, Lanier incorporated a much earlier poem as an allegory of the Civil War. If “The Tournament: Joust First” was written, as Charles Anderson thinks, in 1865 as a peace-offering to the estranged Mary Day, this conflict between heart and brain may have been appropriate; as an allegory of the war, it is both absurd and insipid. Wisely, Lanier hastens on to the prophecy, as revealed by the artist's God: in this reunited land freedom will drive out the beasts of war, oppression, murder, lust, false art, and false faith (I, 62-82).

“Psalm of the West” is not a philosophical poem, but a series of pen-pictures that its author thought to be representative and tried to make symbolic. He succeeded best with the sonnet sequence. But he failed to impose an artistic unity on his diverse, unconnected forms and incidents, and his enthusiastic paean of over-optimistic prophecy is difficult to read seriously. But the poem solidified his reputation. This was further consolidated when later that year Lippincott issued in book form ten of his poems that had appeared in Lippincott's Magazine, including “Corn,” “The Symphony,” and “Psalm.”

Temporarily abandoning his theories of musical versification, Lanier wrote in blank verse a long poem, “Clover.” It embodied his artistic creed, and he later planned to use it as the title poem of a projected volume. It grew, he wrote, “out of a mood of solemn protest against the doctrine of ‘Art for Art's Sake,’ which has led so many of our young artists into the most unprofitable and even blasphemous activities” (IX, 398, n. 135). But it grew also out of his wrathful memories of the attacks on the Centennial Cantata, and he twice gives a list of fellow-artists who had likewise been mistreated: Dante, Keats, Chopin, Raphael, Lucretius, Omar, Angelo, Beethoven, Chaucer, Schubert, Shakespeare, Bach, and Buddha. As the materialistic ox destroys the clover, so the Course-of-things destroys the artist. Only faith that we are all part of God's plan will save us, with the realization that “The artist's market is the heart of man.” It is a troubled, uneven poem, yet it is easy to see why Lanier overvalued it (I, 84-87).

That same year he wrote the most beautiful of the many lyrics to his wife, “Evening Song” (set to music by Dudley Buck under the title “Sunset”). Lanier's love poems rarely measure up to his best lyrics, but this dainty, tranquil poem is an exception. However, Lanier's poetic well was, temporarily, almost dry. Of the poems written in 1877, only two can be considered even reasonably successful. In “The Stirrup-Cup,” death becomes a rare cordial handed to the horseman just before he sets out on a long journey. The appropriate metaphor, the literary allusions, and the gallant courage of a sick man willing to drink the “rich stirrup-cup … right smilingly” give the lyric an enduring if somewhat personalized appeal. The second poem is more important and has become his best-known poem. The “Song of the Chattahoochee” marks Lanier's extreme use of personification, for, throughout, the river is the narrator; the onomatopoeia and the heavy use of the refrain testify to Poe's continuing influence; and the interlocking vowel and consonant sounds, the alliteration, and the internal rhymes indicate a desire for musicality at the expense of idea. The poem does have a lulling motion that has a narcotic effect on many readers. But the objection that the personification is a pathetic fallacy overlooks the fact that only this justifies Lanier in giving the Chattahoochee a moral duty to water the fields and turn the mills, before it at last becomes a part of the ocean (I, 88, 90, 103-104).

Lanier had become increasingly fascinated with the running or logaoedic dactyllic measure, which in his definition allowed a free admixture of iambics and spondees. “The Revenge of Hamish” he considered frankly “an experiment” in this meter (X, 72). The subject was derived practically without change from Chapter 2 of William Black's novel, MacLeod of Dare; the four-line stanza form and the rhyme scheme of this narrative poem suggest the medieval ballad, but the long, looping lines, the free meter, and varying rhythms are Lanier's own additions. It is a quick-moving, interesting story in verse of a brutal punishment and an even more brutal revenge, but it is quite uncharacteristic of Lanier's other poetry (I, 112-116).

Time spent in or near Brunswick, Georgia, alongside the Marshes of Glynn, revived his poetic imagination. He planned a series of Hymns of the Marshes, to be either a separate book or combined with related (and mainly unwritten) Hymns of the Fields and Hymns of the Mountains. Easily the best of these—in fact, his best long poem—is “The Marshes of Glynn.” The form illustrates an even freer use than in “The Revenge” of the logaoedic dactyl—so free that at times the pattern disappears, ranging from the prevailing pentameter rhyming couplets to a one-syllabled line. It is also the most intricate musically, for as Norman Foerster has perceptively pointed out,2 it is “not one melody artfully varied, but a bewildering succession of winding and darting melodies.” The effect is orchestral rather than harmonic. Lanier begins with the feeling of ecstasy aroused by the live oaks and the marshes; he almost equates the oak with the Holy Ghost, as he was to equate the marsh with what he could accept of the primal beginning in the theory of evolution. It is evening, but he has secured a spiritual release from the finite world:

Ay, now, when my soul all day hath drunken the soul of the oak,
And my heart is at ease from men, and the wearisome sound of the stroke
          Of the scythe of time and the trowel of trade is low,
          And belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know,
          And my spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within,
That the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn
Will work me no fear like the fear they have wrought me of yore.

(I, 119)

In the enormously long first sentence, nature personified in the live oak is good, the essence of spiritual comfort; trade and finite time are evil. To the east is the ocean, to Lanier a symbol of infinity; in the east, also, was the beginning of the world. The recognition of this gives him faith, and a new-found freedom from doubt. The marsh now seems to him like the catholic man who has won “God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain / And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.”

In another of his curiously mixed metaphors in which he tried to weld together the concrete and the abstract, Lanier continues: “As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod, / Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God.” This simile, widely and disconcertingly praised by many high school teachers, is the low point in the poem. Fortunately, Lanier soon recovers from this illogical sentimentality. The incoming tide serves a triple purpose: literally, the ocean floods the marsh, but figuratively the infinite floods the finite, and thus floods the soul of man so that he attains union with God. Yet the poem ends on a note of doubt. The high tide brings with it night and sleep, with its suggestion of death:

But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shades that creep
                    Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn.

(I, 122)

This probing into the subconscious is uncharacteristic; so, too, is the element of doubt. “The Marshes of Glynn” is the final complete poem in the sequence. He planned to open the Hymns with “Sunrise” (written later), but it seems unlikely that he intended to close on this note. There is no way to know, but I am convinced that one of his most complete “Poem Outlines” (I, 276) at least indicates the direction the concluding poem would have taken:

The courses of the wind, and the shifts thereof, as also what way the clouds go; and that which is happening a long way off; and the full face of the sun; and the bow of the Milky Way from end to end; as also the small, the life of the fiddler-crab, and the household of the marsh-hen; yea, and more, the translation of black ooze into green blade of marshgrass, which is as if filth bred heaven:

This a man seeth upon the marsh.

That the marsh had become a symbol in his mind of the condition from which man had developed (not evolved) is indicated by a passage in a letter about another poem in the sequence: “For whatever can be proved to have been evolved, evolution seems to me a noble and beautiful and true theory. But a careful search has not shown me a single instance … of an actual case of species differentiation” (X, 205).

A man was free to make his own choices; he was not a biological pawn in a predetermined game. In fact, Lanier was developing a theory of opposing forces in nature. All the motions in nature resulted from this opposition or antagonism of forces, and from this opposition came rhythm. This seemed to justify his belief in a freer form for poetry and music; following Herbert Spencer's First Principles, he believed evolution to be “a process from the uniform and indefinite to the multiform and definite.” It did not justify formlessness: he quoted with approval and worked changes on the aphorism of the poet Hervé that “He who will not answer to the rudder, must answer to the rocks.” Aubrey Starke has neatly phrased Lanier's principle of opposition as “Form against Chaos, of Good against Evil, of Love against Selfishness, of Design against Accident, of Belief against Scepticism” (p. 372). This “fundamental principle of creation” he embodied in the poem “Opposition.” It is through the conquest of these adverse forces that man's will, his moral sense, and his art develop:

Of fret, of dark, of thorn, of chill,
                              Complain no more; for these, O Heart,
Direct the random of the will
                              As rhymes direct the rage of art.

(I, 130-131)

It is an abstractly philosophical idea which Lanier developed in The Science of English Verse, but which he nowhere stated more appealingly than in this lyric.

Although he shied away from theology, Lanier's mind was engrossed by religious problems. Out of this preoccupation came the long, humorless poem “The Crystal,” with its odd spectacle of a minor poet forgiving, among many others, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. True, this recognition of their fallibility leads up to the infallibility and perfection of Christ the man. It is Lanier's clearest statement that he had come to regard Christ as symbol of divinity, but not divine. The conflict in his mind between religion and science resulted in the kindred poem “The Cloud,” with its strong affirmation that while a cloud might be evolved, an artist could not be: he was a free and responsible being, yet answerable to himself, to mankind, and to God for the work he produced. The earlier title, “Individuality,” better describes the idea that Lanier stressed; apparently he changed the title when he decided to incorporate the poem into the “Hymns of the Marshes” (I, 136-141).

He was to write two more magnificent lyrics, and a long, fevered poem. “Marsh Song—at Sunset” depends on a reasonable familiarity with The Tempest, but once again, as in “Night and Day,” the Shakespearean imagery serves as a springboard to lead to his essential idea. It is an Ariel-cloud and a Caliban-sea, but it is not the brother or the man Antonio who has injured Prospero; rather, it is Antonio as man who has committed the injustice, and it is man in general (not a specific person) who must be pardoned. He followed this with the quickly written, intricately musical “Ballad of Trees and the Master.” Ironically, with apparently no attention to what it says, the poem is included in a Methodist hymnal, and frequently sung. For it is Lanier's finest yet most extreme statement that God reveals himself to man not through the church but through nature. On the eve of his crucifixion, a disturbed and “forspent” Christ goes into the woods, and it is the olive trees that console Christ and give him strength to endure his ordeal. Like the live oak in “The Marshes of Glynn,” the trees become synonymous with the Holy Spirit. It is Lanier's most beautiful lyric, one that we could not easily spare from our scant number of nearly perfect poems (I, 142, 144).

He had no chance to revise his last poem, “Sunrise.” He intended it to be the first poem in “Hymns of the Marshes,” and it is properly optimistic about the place man has attained in the world. Before he awakes, the poet is conscious of three major symbols: the live oak, the marsh, and the main. The live oak brings God to man; the marsh is that from which man has evolved; and the ocean is immortality. In this sense the marsh is indeed a “Reverend Marsh,” a menstruum that dissolves and re-creates all matter. But a fourth major symbol, even more important than the earlier three, is added. The sun is equated with Christ; it is the life-giving force that makes the “sacramental marsh one pious plain.” Before the rising of the sun there is the quiet stillness of dawn, the “ante-reign of Mary Morning.” Then the sun, rising, gives to man a strength that even the live oak can not give: “I am strong with the strength of my lord the Sun.” And the sun more even than the main gives us conviction of immortality: after death, “yonder besides thee / My soul shall float, friend Sun, / The day being done.” It was the last, fitting testament of an unorthodox but deeply religious man (I, 144-149).

Any re-evaluation of Lanier as poet might well start with his admitted weaknesses. These can be listed briefly: (1) a strong tendency toward moralizing and didacticism, sometimes combined with an excessive, lushly-phrased sentimentalism, especially when these elements are not part of the texture of the poem but are added rather obtrusively; (2) a frequent use of over-fervid rhetoric as a substitute for imagination, as in the Sun-Bee passage in “Sunrise”; (3) a strained imagery that grew out of his desire to yoke together in one metaphor the concrete and the abstract; (4) the use of archaic words and constructions that, although characteristic of his thought, give a quaint, artificial character to many poems.

Such handicaps are severe. Yet they do not ruin, even if they do vitiate, his positive accomplishment. The best of the long poems have sufficient intellectual and philosophical content and enough musical form to lift them above their inherent defects. At their best, they have also a strong sense of locale, derived from exact and sympathetic observation. “Corn” is a spirited economic protest against the agricultural money-crop cotton, and a strong plea for diversified agriculture; the description of the woods and of the cornfield is what Lanier had seen closely with his own eyes before he turned the raw matter into poetry. On a wider base, “The Symphony” is both an economic and a social protest; one may not agree with the idea that trade (materialism) inevitably debases or that nature etherealizes, but certainly there is no lack of valid subject matter. Yet it is as a religious poet that Lanier in his longer poems is at his best. All four are loosely constructed, and marred by rhetorical flourishes and illogical images. But the disordered though powerful “Sunrise” and the magnificent “Marshes of Glynn” express Lanier's mature religious belief: God is immanent, and He reveals himself to us through nature, in the ferns, the streams, the marsh, the trees, and the sun. When he complained that Poe did not know enough “to be a great poet,” Lanier was not thinking of practical or scholarly knowledge, but of that intuitive comprehension by which a poet converts learning into wisdom (II, 6; VII, 94-96). This was what he attempted to do, and in “The Marshes of Glynn” he largely succeeded.

These faults cannot be found in a handful of his best lyrics. The early poems (“Night and Day,” “Raven Days,” “Life and Song,” and one or two dialect poems) are simpler but not necessarily poorer than the later lyrics. He had not yet begun, in theory and in practice, to loosen the structure of English versification. As he developed, he found it hampering and nearly impossible to stay within a rigid framework: except for the Columbus sonnets in “Psalm of the West” and possibly “The Harlequin of Dreams,” he wrote no sonnets that are comparable to those of Longfellow, Boker, and Hayne. He preferred to depend on musical cadence and a trained ear rather than on accent or rhythm; at times he may have carried this over into artifice, as in “Song of the Chattahoochee,” but at his best (“Evening Song,” “Marsh Song,” and above all, “Ballad of Trees”) he wrote some of the finest lyrics in American poetry.

          It is a thin sheaf of authentic poetry that we can salvage from the
occasional and the sentimental, but it remains an authentic one.
Lanier never attained his goal of writing major poetry, but he pro-
                    duced a small number of poems that have never received
                                                  the recognition they deserve. He is one of
                                                            our most vital and most interesting
                                                                                                    minor poets.


  1. Centennial Edition of the Works and Letters of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson et al. (10 vols.; Baltimore, 1945), V, 260. Hereinafter cited internally by volume and page number. References to Aubrey H. Starke's Sidney Lanier (Chapel Hill, 1933) will be given as Starke, followed by the page number; when Starke is clearly identified, only the page number will be given.

  2. Nature in American Literature (New York, 1923), p. 235.

John S. Edwards (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3456

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 great many works have been published concerning Georgia's poet-laureate, none emphasizes the great importance music held in his life.

From the standpoint of musical activity, Lanier's life may be viewed in three periods: 1) Early Period, 1841-1864, 2) Middle Period, 1864-1873, and 3) Late Period, 1873-1881. Each of these periods is distinguished from the others by Lanier's attitude toward music.

In the Early Period Lanier was active as an amateur musician. He showed an aptitude for music while quite young, learning to play the violin, flute, guitar, piano, and organ. Yet, as was the case with most early American musicians, Lanier received little formal musical training. He wrote of himself:

… my own Musical history … comprises the entire span and range of music from earliest times: for I commenced by rhythm alone,—I used to be sent for when a child to come into the parlor and beat the drum at which I had great dexterity—next I managed an increase of culture: I learned the bones, and soon afterwards began to sing, and then to whistle, accompanying myself with bones, at which I became quite expert. I heard no music save Virginia Reels, and Strathspeys, negro melodies of plantations, popular tunes brought out by the hand-organ, Negro Minstrels, and the circus bands, and the like. These I quickly acquired, accompanying myself with the bones, etc.1

Lanier evidently overcame to a great degree the handicaps of his humble musical origins, for his talents were frequently demanded at social functions. Even during the Civil War he carried his flute through battle and prison camp entertaining friends, officers, and young ladies of the community. Though he recognized his own talent, he still considered music only an avocation. He wrote home from college:

I am more than all perplexed by this fact: that the prime inclination—that is, natural bent (which I have checked through) of my nature is to music, and for that I have the greatest talent; indeed, not boasting, for God gave it to me, I have an extraordinary musical talent and feel it within me plainly that I could rise as high as any composer. But I cannot bring myself to believe that I was intended for a musician, because it seems so small a business in comparison with other things which it seems to me, I might do. Question here: (What is the province of music in the economy of the world?)2

During the Middle Period, Lanier worked as a tutor, as a school principal, and as an assistant in his father's law office. Even so, his musical activities increased. In Montgomery, Alabama, he was employed as an organist and choir-director of the Presbyterian Church. In addition to playing for church and in flute concerts Lanier devoted some time to musical composition. According to a letter written to his brother, Clifford Lanier, “The Woodlark” for solo flute and “The Song of Elaine” for soprano with piano accompaniment were composed during this period.3 The latter is based on a passage from Tennyson's poem “Lancelot and Elaine.” A third composition, “Sacred Memories” for solo flute, was performed by Lanier on a concert at Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia.4

In 1868 Lanier returned to Macon and joined his father's law firm. Business frequently carried him to New York City where he first became acquainted with the active cultural life of that city. While there, he heard several concerts of the newly-formed Theodore Thomas orchestra, a recital of Christine Nilsson, and several operas. These experiences evidently had a profound effect upon Lanier, for his letters home are filled with many details.

Hoping to find a climate that would not exacerbate his tuberculosis, Lanier moved to San Antonio, Texas, in December of 1872. It was here that the flute solo “Fieldlarks and Blackbirds” was written.5 He also participated in the German amateur musical society called Männerchor and performed frequently at private parties and concerts. At this time Lanier made the decision that changed the direction of his life. Memories of the musical events in New York City and the excitement of his own increasing musical activity led him to consider the career of professional musician. In a letter to the poet Paul Hamilton Hayne, Lanier wrote: “I don't know that I've ever told you, that whatever turn I have for art is purely musical, poetry being, with me, a mere tangent into which I shoot sometimes.”6 With thoughts such as these he determined to enter the field of music as a professional performer and left San Antonio in the spring of 1873 for New England, where more opportunities existed. This move marked the beginning of the Late Period of his life.

Lanier considered Asgar Hammerik, a protegé of Berlioz, one of the foremost composers of the nineteenth century. Consequently, Lanier was overjoyed when his friend Henry Wysham arranged, without his previous knowledge, an audition with Hammerik in Baltimore. For this occasion Lanier played his “Blackbirds,” which Hammerik called “the composition … of an artist.”7 Hammerik offered Lanier the position of first flute in the new Peabody Orchestra at a salary of $120 per month.8 Lanier was ecstatic over Hammerik's approval, since he regarded Hammerik a composer “just below the classic Beethoven and Mozart, whose compositions are played along with those of the great masters, and who has been accustomed to hear and to conduct the finest music in the world.”9

However, Lanier was determined to explore possibilities in New York City and left Baltimore with a letter of introduction from Hammerik to Theodore Thomas, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Most of his time in New York was spent introducing himself to persons in the music world and auditioning for influential figures.

One of the first persons for whom Lanier performed was Frederic Shwaab, music critic for the New York Times. He played his compositions “Blackbirds” and “Swamp Robin.” Shwaab “was greatly stricken, expressing himself in fair terms, and allowing himself to be drawn into as much enthusiasm as was consistent with his Exalted Position.”10

In New York there were recitals and auditions before other well-known musicians. Alice Fletcher, later to become known for studies in the music of the American Indians, declared that Lanier's music differed from that of previous Americans in that it was not in the German style, and that he was “not only the founder of a school of music, but the founder of American music.”11 Lanier was often invited to play chamber music, including duos with some of the best flutists in the city, and performed in several private concerts. He also composed a flute solo, “Danse des Moucherons,” of which he wrote to his wife, “I think enough of it to let it go forward of Opus 1.”12

During this period, in an attempt to raise money, Lanier submitted some of his compositions to publishers. However, he was unable to find a firm which would offer him payment in advance of sales. Nevertheless, he was always optimistic. In a letter to his wife he wrote:

My music will also sell, in a little while. It is so original, that I have, as all original writers do, to ‘make my public’ and this I am rapidly doing, by various influences which I have brought to bear, but which would take me too long to detail.13

To his brother he wrote:

I am getting up a cheaper Method for the Boehm Flute than the one now in existence (which costs $7.50, while mine will not cost more than $2. to $2.50.): I am also getting a lot of music ready to publish: and expect to have a pupil or two on the Flute, ere long.14

Lanier also experimented in constructing a flute that would play in a low register and also would improve intonation. However, no evidence has been found to establish whether or not he completed work on the flute.

Lanier had received encouragement that he might be employed by the Theodore Thomas orchestra. When he found that Thomas would be unable to enlarge his flute section, he became more interested in accepting Hammerik's offer with the Peabody Symphony in Baltimore. Hammerik was unable to raise the amount of money he had originally offered, but he negotiated a contract with Lanier to be his flauto primo for the 1873-1874 season at the salary of $60 per month for four months.15 The orchestra rehearsed two hours, four times weekly, and presented one concert each week. At the opening concert, Hammerik introduced his new musicians by having each play a short solo. For this occasion Lanier played his composition “Blackbirds,” which was noted in the newspapers as a highlight of the evening. He composed “Longing,” another flute solo, during the same year.16

During his first year with the Peabody Symphony, Lanier also played in several Männerchor orchestras, churches, and homes, and in the orchestra of the Concordia Theater. After the orchestra season ended, he toured West Virginia and Ohio as part of a group accompanying Jenny Buch, coloratura. As the tour did not prove to be financially rewarding, Lanier never repeated the engagement.

On March 21, 1874, he became a member of the musicians' union.17 This reflects Lanier's positive attitude regarding the performing musician's profession. He felt that he should join this professional group even though the Peabody Symphony was not composed entirely of professionals; it included semi-professionals, amateurs, and professors from the Peabody Institute.

The second year in Baltimore, Lanier accepted fewer musical engagements and devoted more time to literary efforts. He produced an essay, “The Physics of Music,” a review of a performance of Gounod's Faust, and a review of a lecture on acoustics for the Baltimore Gazette. He also set his poem “Wedding Hymn” as a “duet with contralto solo.”18 He sought a research chair in physics of music or in metaphysics of music at several colleges, but was unsuccessful.

Lanier continued at his orchestral position during the 1875-1876 season, but his correspondence shows an increasing interest in literary activity. He seems not to have engaged in musical activity outside the orchestra; his letters no longer relate musical events. In fact, in early 1876 he wrote that there had been a dearth of musical engagements.19 During that year the essay “Bacon to Beethoven” was published in Lippincott's Magazine in May and “The Orchestra of Today” was published in Scribner's Monthly on November 6.

After a year in Florida, Lanier returned to Baltimore in October 1877 to rejoin the orchestra when its season opened in December. According to Anderson:

Lanier was by this time the most indispensable member of the Peabody Orchestra. Though this was partly attributable to his character and personality, it was also partly because of his musicianship. On the announcement for the season of 1877-1878 his name is printed at the top along with the professors of the Conservatory and the guest artists, the only regular member of the orchestra so listed. At the seventh concert, March 2, 1878, he was assigned by Hammerik a full solo, Emil Hartman's G Minor Concerto, Lanier playing the violin part on his flute. …20

Lanier now felt that he had established a place for himself in the life of the city, and accordingly moved Mrs. Lanier and their sons to Baltimore in 1877. Prior to this time, Lanier had never considered Baltimore his home. He had left his family in Macon and returned to spend each summer with them.

In 1878 Theodore Thomas offered Lanier a position with his New York orchestra for the ensuing season.21 Although Lanier's ambition for many years had been to become a member of this esteemed orchestra, he was unable to accept. The New York climate would have been too severe for Lanier, whose health continued to fail. He decided to spend another season in Baltimore playing in the Peabody Symphony, but collapsed at the first rehearsal and had to be carried out.

Unable to maintain the vigorous schedule of a professional musician, he turned to teaching and writing, delivering a series of literary lectures at Peabody and at The Johns Hopkins University. For the Baltimore Sun he wrote a series of reviews of the Maryland Musical Festival (May 28, 29, 30).22 In June his essay “Mazzini on Music” was published in the Independent. Lanier not only investigated the works of past scholars, but kept abreast of new developments as well. In his experiments on the physics of sound conducted by the literature class at Johns Hopkins, Lanier suggested the use of the phonograph—the invention of which had been announced that very year.

In the fall of 1879, though he grew progressively weaker, he returned to his old place in the Peabody Orchestra, and continued to play until 1881. In a desperate effort to find a suitable climate, Lanier moved into a tent in the North Carolina mountains. It was there, near Lynn, North Carolina, that he died on September 7, 1881.

Sidney Lanier had been unable to support himself as a musician. There were not many opportunities in America for a performer who lacked formal training. The profession was populated primarily by Europeans who looked with disfavor upon self-taught musicians. Lanier's training was inadequate to qualify him for the best orchestral positions or for the college positions which were available. He realized that he would have to create an area in which he could establish a reputation. His plans included securing a music professorship, experimenting on the physics of music, improving wind instruments, and developing a method for educating the public in music appreciation. Unfortunately, illness prevented his realizing these ambitions.

There is little doubt that Lanier was a flute virtuoso. Statements from eminent musicians attest to his exceptional performing ability and frequently express amazement at his sight-reading facility, Concerning Lanier's performance, Hammerik wrote:

It has always been a wonder to me where Sidney Lanier learned to play as he did, with such execution, sweetness, and expression of tone, considering that he never had any proper teacher. He would read at sight with great facility the most intricate music. I came to the conclusion that Sidney Lanier was an exception to the general rule: that his natural disposition for music; his immense love for art in all its branches; supported by a faultless ear, and a thorough education as a gentleman, had easily conquered all difficulties and made him master on the instrument when he got to be a man. …23

On another occasion Hammerik commented on Lanier's general performance:

His art was not only the art of art, but an art above art. I will never forget the impression he made on me when he played the flute concerto of Emil Hartman … the audience was spellbound, the orchestra softly responding. Such distinction, such refinement, he stood, the master, the genius!24

Ronald McDonald, music critic of the New York Times, wrote of him:

… he is a thorough master of florid styles, executing the most brilliant passages with the utmost ease and grace. His facility in reading elaborate compositions at first sight is a marvel to all who have heard him.25

Lanier made no attempt to become a professional composer, though he did attempt to profit from the works he had written. Probably one of the primary reasons that he could not sell his compositions was the economic stringencies imposed on business by the post-war depression. He did receive offers from firms which were willing to print his music, but no firm was willing or able to buy the works from Lanier for cash payment, which was his condition of sale.

Lanier's influence on the musical life of America ended with his death. Only two of his compositions were published, and these were not of the nature to influence other composers. One, “Little Ella,” was a sentimental ballad of the popular type; the other, “Il Balen,” was a set of variations intended for amateurs. Nor had he any influence as a teacher of music. However, Lanier did have an influence of quite a different nature. This can best be shown by the words of one of his more illustrious pupils, Waldo Seldon Pratt:

It is curious … how little I remember of the substance of the course the lectures on “English Verse,” but somehow I gained a distinct impetus in thought and feeling that had been a lifelong impression. Much was due to the fact that after the lectures … Lanier and I frequently, almost habitually, walked home together, as we lived in somewhat the same region. Here again, I cannot recover what we talked about. But, general sense of contact with a rare and choice spirit has always remained. Mentally he had an almost startling keenness and grasp that was not so much philosophical as intuitive. He had no pride of knowledge, but an insatiable desire to know and understand, and spiritually there was something that seemed unique in the quality and texture of his nature that exhaled in all he said and did, in his judgements, and opinions, in his impulses and enthusiasm. At the time I simply felt rather vaguely the impression of his strength and gentleness, his earnestness and mirth, his reverence and mischief, his aspiration for himself and his self-expenditure for others. All these contrasts in his nature did not become clear to me till later, as I came to know his poetry and as I grew better able to analyze my own experience with him.26

Of Lanier's youthful attitude he wrote:

The more I think of it, the more I recognize that his soul was incapable of aging. … This absolute freshness of heart and spirit seems to me to have been one of the highest notes of Mr. Lanier's genius.27

Lanier's place in the history of American music was determined by his environment. As was the case with most nineteenth century American musicians, his ability developed in spite of the great obstacles, lack of training and prejudice of European musicians who were musical leaders at this time. Furthermore, vacillation between a music career and a literary career restricted the development of his musical talent. By the time he had decided to enter the music profession, he was physically hampered by an advanced case of tuberculosis.

He was not a pioneer in the sense that he attempted to establish an indigenous American art form; he was content to remain within the framework of European musical culture. He did not leave a substantial body of composition, and that which does remain gives no indication that Lanier was capable of musical innovation.28

Though Lanier did not make a substantial contribution to music, he should be placed in that group of American musicians who contributed to the development of a truly American musical culture. His acceptance by the musical leaders of his day undoubtedly aided in dispelling the current prejudice against American musicians and opened the way for recognition of future native musical talents.


  1. Charles Anderson, editor, The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945) Vol. II, pp. 339-340. This edition is hereafter referred to as C. E.

  2. Aubrey Harrison Starke, “Sidney Lanier as a Musician,” Musical Quarterly XX (1934), p. 385.

  3. C. E., VII. p. 200. Letter dated September 30, 1865.

  4. Starke, p. 348. The manuscript has not been preserved; consequently this piece has been lost.

  5. C. E., IX, p. 250.

  6. C. E., VIII, p. 347. Letter dated May 26, 1873.

  7. Starke, p. 389.

  8. C. E., VII, x.

  9. “Poet's Musical Impressions: From the Letters of Sidney Lanier,” Scribner's Monthly XXV (1899), p. 625. Letter dated February 14, 1873.

  10. C. E., VIII, p. 395. Letter dated October 6, 1873.

  11. Scribner's Monthly, pp. 626-627. Letter dated January 8, 1874.

  12. Starke, p. 391. Lanier also calls this composition “Gnat Symphony.”

  13. C. E., IX, p. 90. Letter dated September 24, 1874.

  14. C. E., VIII, p. 432. Letter dated December 19, 1873.

  15. C. E., VII, xi.

  16. Aubrey Harrison Starke, Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1933), p. 174.

  17. C. E., VIII, xvi.

  18. Starke, p. 399.

  19. C. E., IX, p. 305. Letter dated January 22, 1876.

  20. C. E., VII, xxv.

  21. Edwin Mims. Sidney Lanier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1905), p. 133.

  22. Lanier's last review was of a Peabody Orchestra concert, written for the Sun in 1880.

  23. George F. Wicher, “Sidney Lanier's Letters,” Forum CVI (1946), pp. 354-355.

  24. Mims, pp. 132-133.

  25. Starke, p. 399.

  26. Starke, p. 375.

  27. Starke, p. 375.

  28. See John S. Edwards, “Sidney Lanier: His Life and Work in Music” (unpublished Master's Thesis, University of Georgia, 1967) for copies of the compositions and commentary on Lanier's musical style.

Elmer A. Havens (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5058

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 With many an overtone of Emerson's dictum that “Beauty is the mark God sets on virtue,” Lanier utterly repudiates the idea that there can be any beauty isolated from moral goodness, that there can be any such thing as art for art's sake:

One hears all about the world nowadays that art is wholly un-moral, that art is for art's sake, that art has nothing to do with good or bad behavior. These are the cries of clever men whose cleverness can imitate genius so aptly as to persuade many that they have genius, and whose smartness can preach so incisively about art that many believe them to be artists. But such catch-words will never deceive the genius, the true artist. The true artist will never remain a bad man; he will always wonder at a wicked artist. The simplicity of this wonder renders it wholly impregnable. The argument of it is merely this: the artist loves beauty supremely; because the good is beautiful, he will clamber continually towards it, through all possible sloughs, over all possible obstacles, in spite of all possible falls.2

Lanier can understand beauty only within religious-ethical terms and, in fact, he equates beauty with “Truth, Love, Wisdom, Goodness, and the like” which, he says, the greatest artists of the world, “the fine and beautiful souls of time,” as they have grown in artistry, have all done, losing “all sense of distinction between the terms.” To prove this Lanier cites Keats' pronouncement that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Emerson's declaration in “Each and All” that “Nothing is fair or good alone” Lanier interprets to mean that “fairness, or beauty, and goodness depend upon relations between creatures” in which relationship alone are we able to understand the unity which inheres in the universe. In addition to citing Keats and Emerson, Lanier, in his attempt to prove that this beauty, which is truth, which is love, which is goodness, is also wisdom, quotes appropriate passages from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emanuel Swedenborg, and concludes with an appeal to the Old Testament King David, who, he says, “practically” confirms his view in Psalm 119, where “he involves the love of the law of God with wisdom in the verse: ‘I understand more than the ancients because I keep thy precepts.’”3

Whether Lanier's procedure proves anything or not, he concludes that the really great artists of all time considered “truth, beauty, wisdom, goodness, love … as if they were but avatars of one and the same essential God,” and he goes on to make his moral position as an artist and critic unmistakeably clear:

… whether working in stone, in color, in tones or in character-forms of the novel: so far from dreading that your moral purpose will interfere with your beautiful creation, go forward in the clear conviction that unless you are suffused—soul and body, one might say—with that moral purpose which finds its largest expression in love—that is, the love of all things in their proper relation—unless you are suffused with this love, do not dare to meddle with beauty; unless you are suffused with beauty, do not dare to meddle with love; unless you are suffused with truth, do not dare to meddle with goodness,—in a word, unless you are suffused with beauty, truth, wisdom, goodness, and love abandon the hope that the ages will accept you as an artist.4

For Lanier, then, the artist is the moral super-man, that man among men who is able to retrieve in a measure in himself man's fall from grace; artists are really the shock troops of mankind, leading mankind morally upward and onward. The artist's responsibility is essentially a religious and moral one since

the requirement has been from time immemorial that wherever there is contest as between artistic and moral beauty, unless the moral side prevail, all is lost. … Indeed we may say that he who has not yet perceived how artistic beauty and moral beauty are convergent lines that run back into a common ideal origin, and who therefore is not afire with moral beauty just as with artistic beauty,—that he, in short, who has not come to that stage of quiet and eternal frenzy in which the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty mean one thing, burn as one fire, shine as one light, within him;—he is not yet the great artist.5

Thus, when Lanier says that “For the artist in verse there is no law: the perception and love of beauty constitutes the whole outfit,”6 he is not enunciating an art-for-art's-sake creed. For Lanier, beauty, the proper sense of beauty, the right comprehension of it, comprises all the best qualities of a moral being.

Thomas Carlyle had said that Poetic Beauty

dwells and is inborn in the inmost Spirit of Man, united to all love of Virtue, to all true belief in God; or rather, it is one with this love and this belief, another phase of the same highest principle in the mysterious infinitude of the human Soul.7

From this statement by Carlyle Lanier drew the concept that beauty is not only something that only a truly moral person can possess and comprehend. Beauty is also in itself a refining power, a sense which helps us reconcile the antinomies of life, the disparities of our moral existence. In this light, beauty is

a sense, guiding the artist away from the morally bad as well as the artistically bad, and performing precisely the functions of our physical sense; but the power of grasping the contradictory details of our physical and spiritual life and of arranging these contradictions into a tolerable proportion,—contradictions which would drive the lesser world of ordinary men and women to instant suicide if these were not protected by partial blindness and by looking the other way,—this power is at bottom the same with that which seizes upon the similar details of verse-structure, the friction of word against word, the strife of line with line … and … instead of absurdly fighting the fact of this opposition finds it to be the very basis of music and employs it to the purposes of formal poetry.8

In such a manner does the sense of beauty, the power which resolves “the antagonistic facts of life,” make of these “facts” a “moral music,” and result in the artist's evolution and growth, not merely in his artistry but also in his life as a moral man among men, the super-man who “sees into the life of things” as they really are.9 This refining power, this sense of beauty, is at one and the same time both the cause and the effect of the greatness of the artist's genius.

This power, this ability, was most clearly demonstrated in Shakespeare, Lanier claimed. There is a “wholeness in growth” in Shakespeare by virtue of which he is great. And this greatness of Shakespeare, he says in his essay entitled “Chaucer and Shakspere” consists in the moral vision which attended Shakespeare as he developed as a man and artist, which development may be traced progressively in the chronological order of his plays wherein “we have certain views of man in his relations (1) to Nature, (2) to his Fellowman, and (3) to Art,” or God.10

Shakespeare was the artistic proof of Lanier's major philosophical idea—his doctrine of etherealization. The interrelationships between man and nature, man and man, and man and art (or God), which Lanier sees developing as Shakespeare matures as an artist

exist, of course by no intent, but solely through the wholeness of Shakspere's life. Given a play to write: he wrote it from the deepest of his then state of mind. Thus every play not only beats like the bosom of a human being, but beats with the rate of rhythm belonging to the stage of growth at which it was written.11

Lanier seems here to be in accord with Samuel Johnson, who says in his Preface to the works of Shakespeare that Shakespeare was a great moral teacher—though by accident and not design. And this is exactly Lanier's point: that any great artist, who, we must remember, is always a moral being of the highest stature, will exhibit this moral growth as he grows in artistry whether he consciously intends it or not because he is imbued with the true sense of beauty. Shakespeare, in his life as reflected in his work, illustrated for Lanier the whole life and movement of the race on the three levels of nature, man, and art. As Shakespeare's aesthetic experience rises from the caprice and irresponsibility portrayed in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the bitterness and trickery and superstition of Hamlet to the benevolence and forgiveness of The Tempest,12 it becomes for Lanier as he interprets him, the paradigm for the movement of the human race toward perfection. Thus Lanier is not primarily concerned with the individual plays as separate works of art. He is not particularly concerned with explicating Shakespeare's artistry or bent on showing character development within any particular range of circumstances within any particular play. Rather, Lanier's concern is to depict the personality of Shakespeare, Shakespeare the man as he shines through these plays, and to define what significance the development of Shakespeare's personality has for mankind in general. Shakespeare's plays are viewed not so much as dramas as they are moral discourses written “from the deepest of his then state of mind.”

Lanier's object in the whole range of his criticism—not just of Shakespeare, but of novelists like George Eliot—is to validate his master doctrine of etherealization, for this doctrine constituted his philosophy of life with which his critical theory had to harmonize.

In the development of civilization, Lanier says, there are

two powerful tendencies, one of which is forward and the other backward; and recent events have caused many people to fear that at present these two tendencies are in equilibrio, or even that the backward tendency is beginning to exceed the forward.13

The optimist, on the side of “progress,” looks at the various endeavors of man in all fields and rejoices in, for example, the sea-cable which permits inter-continental communication. But the “Equilibrium men” think these two tendencies of recoil and thrust

are like two expert duellists, who by the constant attrition of mutual parry and thrust are continually sharpening each other's swords, and continually finding occasion to bewail advantage gained at the expense of advantage conferred.14

Thus for every advance we make, say these latter, we make also a retreat. It must be, however, Lanier says, in the face of these two points of view, worth the effort of “earnest people to look more closely into the age … to see which one of these is really availing itself of the new resources offered by exhaustless invention.”15

Lanier recognized what man can degrade himself to, what man and beasts in a “state of nature” are. There is always the ambivalence of our moral nature towards either good or evil—towards fruition and realization, or towards putrefaction and negation. This he sets forth in a prose passage of great poetic power: man arises at daybreak, with all the possibilities of good or evil during the day to come, and rubs his eyes.

We are amazed at the singular dawn-noises and dawn-sights which present themselves on all sides in wild contrasts. Yonder are the dim forms of the night-animals slinking away into the forest, and growling in bloody fights for lairs and refuges; above us is the stertorous upstarting of day-animals hungry for prey; above all the blood and snarling bends the morning sky. …16

The sky bending sweetly above this vision of carnage does not indicate to Lanier the indifference or the amorality of the universe, but rather an anticipation of the possibility of a far, far better world: “… The morning star, that love-light in the misty blue eye overhead, gleams upon the serene dew. …”17 But still that moral ambivalence recurs, which asks of both man's physical and moral nature,

who at such a moment is so calm of soul that he can scrutinize the low clouds yonder, and prophesy sunshine or foul weather for the day?18

The two forces in man—the positive and the negative, the forward-looking “soul,” which anticipates the day-star of a brighter spiritual dawn, and the backward-looking “sense,” which revels madly in the black night of animal indulgence—both strive for man's possession.

In the conflict between “sense” and “soul” man, simply because he is a “soul and sense linked together in order to fight each other more conveniently,”19 must not be merely an umpire of the battlefield, but because he does have the power of choice, simply because he is a man, must tip the balance of the scales in the favor of the “soul.” Man must believe in, and have faith in, the soul and its progress. It is not a case as to whether the soul is by its very nature going to win in the struggle of life—at least, in Lanier's view, man is not able to see such a triumph as the inevitable outcome of the struggle between “sense” and “soul.” Rather, man, because he has this soul by which he knows himself as man, “must” see that his “soul” wins over “sense.” Man, by the possession of his soul is morally necessitated to favor his soul.

Once granted this moral necessitarianism, that man must favor his soul because his soul proves he is man, Lanier proceeds to explain the basis by which “the rightful progress of man [goes] on”:

It is hoped to prove that this is not only the right progress of humanity, but that it is and has been the actual historical progress of men and things and events. For as time flows on, man and nature steadily etherealize. As time flows on, the sense-kingdom continually decreases and the soul-kingdom continually increases, and this is not by the destruction of sense's subjects, but by a system of promotions in which the sensuous things, constantly etherealizing, constantly acquire the dignity of spiritual things, and so diminish their own number and increase the other. This paradoxical ennobling-by-disgrace of the material into the spiritual expresses the historic development of the world. Over this route Nature and Art, like a bird's shadow and a bird, have flown up today. By this course politics and religion, which are respectively the body and soul of life, have acquired their present features.20

At first glance, this may seem to be a vague conglomeration of hazy generalizations. But, in explanation, suppose one is listening to some master violinist playing his instrument. The music is received through the auditory sense, but if one does not like music, has no appreciation for it, no matter how beautiful the music may, in fact, be, the sounds are simply an arrangement of noises which might, in fact, hurt—just as certain sounds hurt the ears of animals. On this level, the sounds perceived through the auditory nerves are locked in the “sense-kingdom.” To another, however, who hears the musical sounds through the same sense-organ as the first, the sounds are translated into something far more meaningful and profound than a mere ordered succession of sounds produced by a scraping of hair against cat gut. By this person the sounds are translated into a symbol of all man's striving, yearning, and hopefulness. Thus are these sounds taken out of the “sense-kingdom” and made to take their place in the “soul-kingdom,” and ultimately come to suggest only spiritual meanings; so do

sensuous things, constantly etherealizing, constantly acquire the dignity of spiritual things, and so diminish their own number and increase the other.

This explanation is very elementary and on the lowest level of what Lanier means. Behind his doctrine of etherealization, and implicit in the statement of it given above, is also a doctrine of evolution, a doctrine of inevitable and eternal progression;21 these were doctrines which he “spent most of his life formulating”22 from his wide reading in Carlyle, Ruskin, Novalis and other German romanticists, Darwin,23 Herbert Spencer, Coleridge, Browning, Wackenroder,24 Friedrich Schlegel,25 William Wordsworth, Byron, Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson,26 and others. Under the influence of these “even as a college student he … began to form an idealistic philosophy of his own which he was to follow more or less consistently for the rest of his life.”27 The core of this philosophy was expressed in his doctrine of etherealization.

Having briefly examined Lanier's doctrine of etherealization, let us, as briefly as justice will allow, turn to the evolutionary theory in back of the doctrine. In so doing, we must consider Lanier's idea of the theory of evolution and his belief in the idea of inevitable progress—which he derived from his idea of evolution and incorporated into his doctrine of etherealization.

Lanier accepted evolution “in a less exacting sense” than that in which it says “that living beings are wholly explicable in terms of ‘precedent conditions,’ whether these conditions are of heredity, environment, or the immanent action of God.”28

When Lanier entered Oglethorpe College in 1857, he became optimistic “as to the effect of the ‘new science’ on art,”29 largely because of the influence upon him of James Woodrow, his science teacher. But he always had certain reticences about evolution, and exactly what these were came out in a letter to John F. Kirk in the year before Lanier's death in 1881:30

I have been studying science, biology, chemistry, evolution, and all. It pieces on, perfectly, to those dreams which one has when one is a boy and wanders alone by a strong running river, on a day when the wind is high but the sky clear. These enormous modern generalizations fill me with such dreams again.

But it is precisely at the beginning of that phenomenon which is the underlying subject of … ‘Individuality’ [published posthumously as “The Cloud,” Works, I, 139] that the largest of such generalizations must begin, and the doctrine of evolution when pushed beyond this point appears to me, after the most careful examination of the evidence, to fail. It is pushed beyond this point in its current application to the genesis of species, and I think Mr. Huxley's last sweeping declaration is clearly parallel to that of an enthusiastic dissecter who, forgetting that his observations are upon dead bodies, should build a physiological conclusion upon purely anatomical facts.

For whatever can be proved to have been evolved, evolution seems to me a noble and beautiful and true theory. But a careful search has not shown me a single sentence in which such proof as would stand the first shot of a boy lawyer in a moot court, has been brought forward in support of an actual case of species differentiation.

A cloud (see the poem) may be evolved; but not an artist; and I find, in looking over my poem, that it has made itself into a passionate reaffirmation of the artist's autonomy, threatened alike from the direction of the scientific fanatic and the pantheistic devotee.31

We see here that Lanier did not accept the genesis of species because he was interested in preserving the “artist's autonomy”; he wanted to protect the autonomy of everyone in particular, and anyone in general; he did not want anyone to be explained by “precedent conditions” of any sort whatever. Lanier's belief in the divinity of man and his moral perfectibility was in back of his objection to the idea of the genesis of species. The morality and spirituality of a biologically evolved man was a contradiction in terms to Lanier.

An example of where Lanier particularly attacks the idea of the individual's being determined by “precedent conditions” occurs in The English Novel. In reply to a critic who had said that “‘the writings of George Eliot must be regarded … as one of the earliest triumphs of the Spencerian method of studying personal character and the laws of social life,’” Lanier answers,

This seems to me so far from being true that many of George Eliot's characters appear like living objections to the theory of evolution. How could you, according to this theory, evolve the moral stoutness and sobriety of Adam Bede, for example, from his precedent conditions, to wit, his drunken father and querulous mother? How could you evolve the intensity and intellectual alertness of Maggie Tulliver from her precedent conditions, to wit, a father wooden by nature and sodden by misfortune and a flaccid mother? Though surely influenced by circumstances her characters everywhere seem to flout evolution in the face.32

However, when Lanier says he accepts evolution, “he may be shown … to have accepted [it] in a less exacting sense.”33 Lanier followed Herbert Spencer when he defined

evolution ‘as a process from the uniform and indefinite to the multiform and definite,’ and … he agreed that ‘all accounts, the scientific, the religious, the historical, agree that the progress of things is from chaos or formlessness to form, … afterwards from the one-formed to the many-formed.’34 Evolution in this sense, in fact, was the theme of his whole work [i.e., The English Novel], in which Lanier sought to show that cultural history since the time of the Greeks, and especially since the Renaissance, has consisted in the liberation and differentiation of individual personality.35

One of the reasons why Lanier says Aeschylus is inferior to Shakespeare is that Aeschylus does not have a full and complete doctrine of the human personality.36 Lanier is tremendously concerned with individuation; the individual personality, its freedom, its idiosyncratic character, must be upheld against even the attractiveness of the theory of evolution which he had in the back of his mind to help him explain every other aspect of his aesthetic theory—except, of course, where the self-law, self-will of the individual artist was at stake. What Lanier says in the opening lecture of The English Novel is significant:

My first line will concern itself with the enormous growth in the personality of man which our time reveals when compared, for instance, with the time of Aeschylus. I shall insist with the utmost reverence that between every human being and every other human being exists a radical, unaccountable, inevitable difference from birth; this sacred difference between man and man, by virtue of which I am I and you are you, this marvelous separation which we express by the terms “personal identity,” “self-hood,” “me,”—it is the unfolding of this, I shall insist, which since the time of Aeschylus (say) has wrought all those stupendous changes in the relation of man to God, to physical nature, and to his fellow, which have culminated in the modern cultus.37

The things which the individual man or artist, who cannot be explained by “precedent conditions,” acts upon, in all fields of endeavor, evolve; they have evolved in imagination and in themselves—there has been a real evolutionary process, and this process as Lanier views it is inevitably upward. Why, then, the question might be asked was Lanier, since he is a “soft” evolutionist, so fearful in applying this view to the artist?

In his discussion of “this sacred difference between man, by virtue of which I am I and you are you,” Lanier quotes John Fiske on the evolution of genius:

“Every species of animals or plants consists of a great number of individuals which are nearly but not exactly alike. Each individual varies slightly in one characteristic or another from a certain type which expresses the average among all the individuals of the species. … Now the moth with his proboscis twice as long as the average … is what we call a spontaneous generation, and the Darwin or the Helmholtz is what we call a ‘genius’; and the analogy between the two kinds of deviation is obvious enough. … We cannot tell why a given moth has a proboscis exactly an inch and a quarter in length any more than we can tell why Shakspere was a great dramatist.”38

Fiske, an evolutionist, is describing the role chance plays in the generation of the extraordinary. He admits that chance plays such a role, admits that he does not know why certain individuals in any particular species should deviate from the average, and admits that these deviations cannot be predicted. But Lanier says immediately after he has quoted these admissions by Fiske that the reason the evolutionist cannot predict a Shakespeare is that there are “absolutely no precedent conditions by which the most ardent evolutionist could evolve William Shakspere … from old John Shakspere and his wife.”39 And this after Fiske has admitted that the element of chance operates in biological evolution to throw aside the averages of “precedent conditions”!

It is possible to say that Lanier did not follow Fiske's argument. But it is hard to believe that Lanier could boggle at the meaning of a prose passage written by a popular scientist. It is easier to believe he understood perfectly well what Fiske was saying about the role chance plays in biological evolution. But what Lanier understood gave him pause, because chance can also operate to the detriment of biological generation. At the pole opposite the genius lolls the idiot. There is, theoretically, even the possibility of racial retrogression once biological evolution is admitted with its element of chance. Thus Lanier stresses the individual and his “self-hood,” the “sacred difference between man and man,” the genius who represents all that is fine and noble in the human race, without any reference to the chance, the exception, which explains him in the light of biological evolution.

Lanier is concerned that this personality is a God-given possession, that man is a morally necessitated being who must always act up to the power of that possession, who is, as a true man, always moral because Providence has stamped him in the image of God, ineradicably and irrevocably. To admit that man evolved, even to the height of a Shakespeare, a George Eliot, or an Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to admit that man was a fortuitous concourse of atoms, chance-selected, chance-directed, would be too great a risk. The whole sub-structure of man's morality—and Lanier's aesthetic-critical theory is inextricably entwined with his moral views—would be undercut and destroyed for Lanier if chance, not Providence, directed man, if prudence, not divinity, were the basis of the true, the good, the beautiful, the moral.

Lanier's doctrine of etherealization provided for man's free-willed choice at the same time that man's moral and spiritual progress was assured by an ever-upward, progressive, evolutionary process inherent in the very order of nature, of the universe. Thus, Lanier was able to keep the basic Christian distinction between good and evil (which the individual had to choose between by exercising his power of ethical choice). At the same time, he was able to be tolerant of the more idealistic phases of science (admitting the idea of evolution, but limiting its application to man's moral and spiritual condition).

The implications this had for his critical theory were that he looked on any artist worthy of the name as first and foremost a supremely great moral teacher, and detailed aesthetic considerations within any particular work of an artist were of less importance to him than the progress the artist seemed to make in his moral development through the whole corpus of his work. In a very real sense, Lanier viewed the artist in relation to his work the way he viewed God in his manifestation in the natural order. In the natural order, the ultimate end towards which all things moved was perfection, and this by the impulse of the Spirit which moved in all things. So, too, in the corpus of any artist's work. The work was inseparable from the quality of life breathed into it by the moral perceptions of its author. The artist, then, is a demi-god to whom lesser men can look for a knowledge of the pattern which consists in all things.


  1. The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson, et al. (Baltimore, 1945), IV, 233. Hereafter referred to as Works.

  2. Ibid., II, 288.

  3. Ibid., IV, 233-239 passim.

  4. Ibid., p. 239.

  5. Ibid., p. 233.

  6. Ibid., II, 244.

  7. Ibid., IV, 50, quoted from Carlyle's The State of German Literature.

  8. Ibid., p. 327.

  9. Ibid., p. 328.

  10. Ibid., pp. 327-328.

  11. Ibid., p. 328.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid., V, 281.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid., p. 282.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., p. 283.

  20. Ibid., p. 284.

  21. For more of what Lanier says on this score, see his entire essay, “Retrospects and Prospects,” in Works, V, 280-305.

  22. Gay Wilson Allen, “Sidney Lanier as a Literary Critic,” Philological Quarterly, XVII (1938), 121.

  23. Frederick William Conner, Cosmic Optimism (Gainesville, 1949), p. 200, notes that Lanier owned a copy of The Origin of Species, that he read it very carefully, making many marginal comments. At Oglethorpe College Lanier came under the influence of the science teacher, James Woodrow, who was convinced that science and the humanities had common cause.

  24. Allen, p. 125.

  25. Ibid., p. 126.

  26. Aubrey Harrison Starke, Sidney Lanier (Chapel Hill, 1933), p. 29, says that Tennyson was Lanier's favorite poet because he “wrote of the chivalric ages as he himself intended to, but wrote still of the present day, reconciling science and religion, glorifying the power of love, paying high tributes to music, reiterating his faith in the existence of God.” Starke goes on to say that, as Tennyson was his favorite poet, Lanier's “favorite essayist was surely Carlyle.”

  27. Allen, pp. 121-122.

  28. Conner, p. 204.

  29. Philip Graham, “Lanier and Science,” American Literature, IV (November, 1932), 288-289.

  30. Lanier's letter of June 15, 1880, Works, X, 205.

  31. See also Lanier's poem, “To Bayard Taylor,” in which he says that the “shame / Of science [is] that [it] cannot prove proof is.”

  32. Works, IV, 248.

  33. Conner, p. 204.

  34. Works, IV, 27, quoted by Conner, p. 205.

  35. Conner, p. 205.

  36. Works, IV, 22.

  37. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

  38. John Fiske, “Sociology and Hero Worship,” Atlantic Monthly, XLVII (January, 1881), quoted in Works, IV, 6.

  39. Works, IV, 6.

Richard Harwell (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5332

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 subsequent combat duty, service aboard a Confederate blockade runner, capture by a United States cruiser, and imprisonment at Camp Lookout, Maryland. After the war he completed the novel, and in 1867 took it to New York, where it was published late in the year by Hurd and Houghton under the title of Tiger-Lilies.

Tiger-Lilies was described in a two-line review in the Peterson Magazine as “One of those novels, the chief wonder of which is, that they ever got published at all.”1Peterson's review was unhappily close to the mark. Just as close, however, is the comment Lanier himself wrote while still working on his novel. In a letter to his father written in Montgomery, Alabama, July 13, 1866, he noted:

“Indeed, the book, which I commenced to write in 1863 and have touched at intervals until now, represents in its change of style almost precisely the change of tone which has gradually been taking place in me, all the time. So much so that it has become highly interesting to me: I seem to see portions of my old self, otherwise forgotten, here preserved. If the book should possess no other merit, it will perhaps be valuable, to others even, on this very account: being the genuine and almost spontaneous utterance of a developing mind, which, says Carlyle, would be interesting even if the mind were that of a hod-carrier!”2

More than a century after the first publication of Tiger-Lilies a reader can agree with both Peterson's and Lanier. Tiger-Lilies has no great merit as a novel. But it is intensely interesting as Lanier's only long piece of fiction, as reflective of his life from his graduation from Oglethorpe University in Midway, Georgia, in 1860 till the end of the Civil War, and as mirroring equally fully his inner life of literature and thought.

In its hundred-and-more years Tiger-Lilies has suffered most by being taken too seriously as a novel and being subjected, therefore, to stricter literary criticism than it deserves. From its anonymous reviewer in The Atlantic Monthly for March, 1868,3 through Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962)4 it has been repeatedly set up as a straw man bursting with Germanic influences and has repeatedly been knocked down as an insignificant literary production. This Germanic influence is present significantly in an embellished—almost floral—style suggestive of the German romantics and in the elaborate debates among a company of friends which make up much of the book. The debates over the nature of music seem to suggest the influence of Jean Paul Richter, which was remarked upon from the very first. (“It is plain that Mr. Lanier has taken more Jean Paul than is good for him. He is saturated with Richter, and redolent of him …,” declared the Atlantic.)5 Edwin Mims and Aubrey Harrison Starke followed the same line, adding Novalis' (the Baron Friedrich von Hardenberg's) Heinrich von Ofterdingen as a source and emphasizing an assumed, but highly tenuous, parallel with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hyperion. “The obvious master—if Lanier had one—,” wrote Professor Starke, “is Jean Paul Richter, who served as master also for one whose own first novel is very blood-brother to Tiger-Lilies—Longfellow, little known as the author of a prose ‘romance,’ Hyperion.” More importantly Professor Starke adds: “Both Hyperion and Tiger-Lilies belong to the transplanted romanticism fostered by Carlyle. …”6 Richter may well have influenced Longfellow directly, for the New Englander studied in Göttingen and knew German well, but his influence on the southerner was probably through Carlyle, as Jack De Bellis argues in his article “Sidney Lanier and German Romance.” Mr. De Bellis concludes: “The standard biography [Starke's] and the main critical commentary on Tiger-Lilies [Prof. Garland Greever's introduction to volume 5 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier] have asserted a strong case for German influence. Unfortunately, a knowledge of the letters of 1862-67 and a careful reading of the novel fail to disclose so immediate a relation to German writing. Almost all of Lanier's knowledge of Richter, Novalis, and Goethe came from Carlyle's Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, and the most influential of them were not those on Richter or Novalis but those on Goethe.”7 But whether Lanier got his German romantics directly or through Carlyle and regardless of which Germans may have influenced him most, Tiger-Lilies is a work whose literary ancestry is Germanic in structure, characterization, and style.8

Of equal importance are some looks closer home. The literary sources of Tiger-Lilies extend to all of Lanier's reading, and there are plenty of evidences that he read widely and, sometimes, indiscriminately. Professor Starke rightly dismisses as inept a comparison of Lanier with Charles Reade by the reviewer for The Round Table.9 He quotes the reviewer for the Atlantic, however, so as to omit his reference to Elizabeth Sheppard's Charles Auchester, which followed the Atlantic's comment about Richter: “… and, worse still, he has touches of the musical madness which has in these times afflicted persons of sensibility, and to which we owe ‘Charles Auchester’ and all his literary children and grandchildren.”10 This is not the only hint of influence by that insignificant, sentimental Victorian novel whose “Seraphael” is supposed to have been drawn after Mendelssohn. In a letter to Mary Day (his future wife) Lanier wrote on April 12, 1864:

“I can't find your Charles Auchester, anywhere; to my most bitter disappointment. I was particularly anxious to read it [and later did read it], inasmuch as I have serious thoughts of writing a book which should have much to say on the same subject: and I would like immensely to know whether any other writer has anticipated my method of treatment—. Wherefore, Mamie, good Mamie, Sweet Mamie, exquisite, unimaginable Mamie, (put your hands on your ears, you know what is coming) won't you just please sit down and write me very soon what Mr. Charles Auchester believes about music ‘and sich like’?”11

The literary sources were not the only ones. Much of Tiger-Lilies is Lanier's distilled recollection of his own experiences. The early portion of the novel is set in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee and recalls the summer vacation spent at Montvale in the hotel owned by the poet's grandfather. The family name of the principal characters of the novel was taken from the first name of Grandfather Lanier, Sterling, and several of the characters can be readily identified as modelled on members of the novelist's family or his circle of friends, Lanier himself being the model for Philip Sterling. The second large section of Tiger-Lilies is a fictional retelling of incidents in Lanier's own wartime history—his carefree days as a signalman stationed on Burwell's Bay, his adventures in fighting Yankee raiders, and his dreary days as a prisoner of war at Camp Lookout. A brief third section brings the novel to its resolution and its close.

The Atlantic's reviewer summarized the plot of Tiger-Lilies rather flippantly, but not too inaccurately, thus:

Conceive of a pleasant Southern gentleman who builds a country-seat in a cove of the Tennessee River, and calls it Thalberg! Naturally there comes to live near him, in great seclusion, among the mountains, Ottilie, a German lady who has been betrayed by John Cranston, an American, then visiting the master of Thalberg. At the same time Rübetsahl, formerly Ottilie's betrothed, arrives. Surprises, discoveries, developments; a duel between Rübetsahl and Cranston at a masked ball for love of Felix Sterling of Thalberg and for revenge of Ottilie. The war of secession occurs at this period; and all our friends go into the Southern army except wicked John Cranston, who becomes a Federal major. The lord and lady of Thalberg are shot at their own window by a deserter from the Southern army, and Felix and Rübetsahl are finally united at the capitol gates in Richmond, after the Confederates have abandoned the city. It is rather uncertain about Ottilie and Philip Sterling. John Cranston goes vaguely to the deuce.12

That is not a very impressive summary, but it is probably as good a one as the novel deserves. Lanier eschewed plot as the principal structural basis of his novel. In his letter of July 13, 1866, he took issue with some comments his father, Robert S. Lanier, and his uncle Clifford Anderson had made on reading portions of Tiger-Lilies:

The notes from you and Uncle Clifford are recd and “digested.” As far as regards your (and his) suggestion in regard to the propriety of expressing individual opinions of the Author in other ways besides the utterances of the characters in the book,—I think perhaps you have failed to appreciate the distinctive feature of the Novel, as contrasted with the Drama. The difference between these two great methods of delineating events is, simply and only, that the Novel permits its Author to explain, by his own mouth, the “situation”; whereas, in the Drama, this must be done by the characters. But even a written Drama tends towards the Novel: for it has stage-directions: and a Novel is nothing more than a Drama with the stage-directions indefinitely amplified and extended. And if the Author of such a Drama choose to insert, in his stage-directions, his individual opinion as to the best positions &c upon the Stage (which, in the Novel, is the World, & men & women the players), these opinions are regarded as the advice of one who, writing for the stage, may be rightly supposed to know more of it than common readers and common players.13

In his preface to Tiger-Lilies Lanier declared: “This book's chief difficulty has been to avoid enriching reality at the expense of truth.” He called the book “an unpretending one” and disavowed the sensationalism then—and since, and now—so popular in novels, saying that its interest “is not a thrill of many murders nor a titillation of dainty crimes.” He further calls for the writing of other novels with “more sunshine and less night in their art, more virtuous women and fewer Lydia Gwilts, more household sweetness and less Bohemian despair.” Though he decries “the horrible piquancies of quaint crimes … with which so many books have recently stimulated the pruriency of men,” Tiger-Lilies includes three murders (and other sudden deaths), seduction, arson, and an attempted suicide.14 It must be admitted, however, that the novel is, on the whole, cerebral rather than active. The emphasis is on the “high talk” he mentions in that letter of July 1866 to his father, saying: “I begin to see the end of the novel. The story assumes a far soberer tone as it progresses: and I have, in the last part, adopted almost exclusively the dramatic, rather than the descriptive, style, which reigns in the earlier portions, interspersed with much high talk.15

Lanier's biographers and critics have been so much concerned, and rightly so, with the poet Lanier would soon be, and with what Tiger-Lilies revealed of his developing mind, that any intrinsic interest of the novel itself has been obscured. Admittedly, Lanier is remembered for the fine poet he became before his untimely death in 1881, but the prophetic judgment of the anonymous reviewer for the Atlantic in 1868 is worth far more than the researched hindsight of the twentieth-century scholar in giving a fair assessment of the novel. “The story,” that long-ago reviewer wrote, “is full of the best intentions and some very good performance. The author has a genuine feeling for Southern character, and we see some original poetry and natural traits in his people, in spite of Richter and music. But as a whole ‘Tiger-Lilies’ will not do, though we are not sure that Mr. Lanier will not succeed better in time. There is every element of romance in the life of the South, and he has a clear field before him. There are rogues at the North, too, and he need never be at a loss for villains. If only he will write us a good novel, he may paint us as black as he likes.”16

Since a considerable portion of Tiger-Lilies is drawn, fairly directly, from Lanier's actual military experience, it is appropriate to sketch briefly of what that service consisted. Lanier's wartime experience is best summarized as he himself described it in a long letter to Milton H. Northrup, a Northern friend from prewar days, written from Montgomery of June 11, 1866:

I proceed to give you a very condensed “syllabus” of my war-experiences. In June, of '61, I enlisted as private in the 2nd Georgia Battalion of Infantry, then stationed amongst the marshes of Sewall's [Sewell's] Point, Va, immediately opposite Ft. Monroe. Here we played “Marsh-Divers” and “Meadow-Crakes” for Six months, our principal duties being to picket the beach: and our pleasures and sweet rewards-of-toil consisting in Agues that played dice with our bones, and blue-mass pills that played the deuce with our livers. Unless you've had a real James River chill and fever, you'll utterly fail to appreciate the beauties of the Situation.

We were next ordered to Wilmington N.C., where we experienced a pleasant change in the Style of fever; indulging, for two or three months, in what are called the “dry shakes of the sandhills,” a sort of brilliant tremolo movement brilliantly executed, upon “that pan-pipe, man,” by an invisible but very powerful performer.

We were then sent to Drury's [Drewry's] Bluff: and, from there to the Chickahominy, participating in the famous Seven days battles around Richmond—Shortly afterward, my regiment went upon a special expedition down the South bank of the James, and, after a little gunboat-fight or two, was sent to Petersburg, to rest. While in Camp there, I, with Cliff and two friends, obtained a transfer to Maj. Milligan's Signal Corps; and becoming soon proficient in the System, attracted the attention of the Com'd'g Off. who formed us into a mounted Field Squad and attached us to the Staff of Maj. Gen. French.

After various and sundry adventures, in that capacity, we were ordered to proceed to “The Rocks,” a point on the James near its mouth, opposite Newport's News, where we remained about a year and a half, acting as scouts, and transmitting our information across a Signal line which extended up the river to Petersburg. Our life, during this period was as full of romance as heart could desire. We had a flute and a guitar, good horses, a beautiful country, splendid residences inhabited by friends who loved us, and plenty of hair-breadth 'scapes from the roving bands of Federals who were continually visiting that Debateable Land. I look back on that as the most delicious period of my life, in many respects: Cliff and I never cease to talk of the beautiful women, the serenades, the moon-light dashes on the beach of fair Burwell's Bay (just above Hampton Roads), and the spirited brushes of our little force with the enemy.

The advance of Gen. Butler upon Petersburg broke up the Signal line, but our party was ordered to remain, acting as scouts in the rear of Gen. B.'s army. By dint of much hiding in woods, and much hard running from lair to lair, we managed to hold our position and rendered some service, with information of the enemy's movement.

From here, My Bro. and I were called by an order from our Sec'y of War, instructing us to report for duty to Maj.-Gen. Whiting, at Wilmington. Arrived there, we were assigned to duty on Blockading Steamers, as Signal Officers; Clifford on the “Talisman,” I on the “Lucy.” Cliff made three delightful and adventurous trips: from Nassau to Wilmington: was wrecked, on the last voyage, and just saved his life, getting on a federal Schooner just in time to see his Steamer go down. He went then to Bermuda, and was on the point of sailing for Wilmington as Sig. Off. of the St'r Maude Campbell, when, hearing of the capture of Wil[ming]ton, he went to Havana, thence, after a pleasant time of a month with friends in Cuba, to Galveston Texas, whence he walked to Macon, Ga: arriving just in time to see our Mother die. I, meanwhile, ran the blockade of Wilmington, successfully, but was captured, in the gulf-stream, by the federal cruiser Santiago de Cuba, carried to Norfolk, thence to Fortress Monroe, and Camp Hamilton, and at last to Point Lookout, where I spent four months in prison. Some gold, which a friend of mine had smuggled into the prison in his mouth, obtained the release of both of us. I made my way home, by a long and painful journey, and, immediately upon my arrival, losing the stimulus which had kept me going so long, fell dangerously ill and remained so for three months,—delirious part of the time. I had but begun to recover, when Gen. Wilson entered and occupied the city (Macon, Ga.). Then Cliff came; then we buried our Mother;—who had been keeping herself alive for months by the strong conviction, which she expressed again and again, that God would bring both her boys to her, before she died.

Then peace came, and we looked about, over the blankest world you can imagine, for some employment—My Brother first came here, as book-keeper, of this hotel: I meanwhile spending the winter at Point Clear on Mobile Bay. In January last, I came here—.

And so, you have a very outlinish outline of my history.17

There are minor inaccuracies in Lanier's letter, but they are of little importance. Such details are given correctly in letters written during the war itself. His wartime letters did not all survive. Enough, however, are in print to give a fair record of his Confederate service, and that record can be filled out through other sources—the chatty letters of Henry Lea Graves, who served with Lanier as a member of the Second Georgia Battalion from the summer of 1861 till mid-1862,18 the appropriate volumes of the extensive The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,19 and, particularly, Thorn-Fruit, the avowedly autobiographical novel by Lanier's brother Clifford.20

Graves's letters give somewhat more extended descriptions than Lanier ever wrote of Confederate army life at Sewell's Point, at Camp French near Wilmington, and at Petersburg and Drewry's Bluff. Though Lanier is not once mentioned in the Official Records, much can be deduced about his career from its reports and from its notes concerning the placement and strength of the Confederate Signal Corps.

The “special expedition down the South bank of the James” which Lanier mentioned in his letter to Northrup is described in detailed reports in the Official Records as an attack on Union camps and shipping between Shirley and Harrison's Landing21 and in a long and amusing letter from Graves to his father.22 Some idea of the Confederate South's concept of what proper narrative prose should be can be deduced from the following excerpt from Brigadier General Walker N. Pendleton's official report on the expedition:

To be compelled, resisting outrage, to meet our fellow-men in deadly shock cannot but be, under any circumstances, painful to a Christian mind. Especially is the trial grievous when we must be slain by or slay those who so lately were our countrymen, but who, having trampled upon our rights; now seek to desolate our homes, appropriate our soil, kill off our young men, degrade our women, and subdue us into abject submission to their will, because we claim, under our own Government, exemption from their insults and their control. And still more distressing to find requisite toward contributing to avert the ruin threatened by malignant millions thus to send the sleeping, however unprepared, to their great account. But painful as it is, just as to snatch life from an assassin whose arm is uplifted against our best beloved, most sacred is the duty. As such was this attack made, the issue being committed to unerring wisdom. Such considerations imparted a mournful solemnity to the scene, where so many sudden flashes through thick darkness and multiplied reverberations startling profound stillness constituted elements of grandeur rarely combined. Not to give the enemy time to bring to bear against us in so exposed a position many of his powerful guns from his boats or his land batteries I had limited the nearest pieces to 20 rounds each and those more remote on the right and left to 30 rounds. There were generally fired, making probably 1,000 shots in all, and the pieces limbered and quietly taken to the rear.23

The short career of the Lanier brothers as signalmen aboard blockade runners and the capture of Sidney can be followed in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion,24 and an account of prison life at Camp Lookout that parallels Lanier's fictional version of his own imprisonment there can be found in Anthony M. Keiley's Prisoner of War; or, Five Months Among the Yankees.25

Tiger-Lilies was begun while the Lanier brothers were stationed at Burwell's Bay and is first mentioned in Sidney's letter to his father, R. S. Lanier, December 7, 1863:

I have delayed writing you in the hope that I might be able to send you a copy of the introductory chapter of “my novel”: but I have not had time to write it, and so wait no longer—. After Christmas, I hope to give more attention to the Novel itself. …

In the long night-guards, however, which we have to stand here, my mind has ample scope to expand itself, and it does so, always, with reference to the novel—. I have found it somewhat difficult, amidst the multiplicity of scenes and incidents which would crowd upon me in fascinating succession, to concentrate my attention upon what, I suppose, should be the first aim of the novel writer, viz; the forming of the bare outline of a consistent plot—I find, however, of late, that the plot, in spite of all this confusion, is taking the matter into its own hands, and is gradually shaping itself out into form and comeliness: I think one more guard night will finish it: and hope to send it to you, together with the introductory chapter, in my next—.26

On March 14, 1864, Lanier wrote the elder Lanier: “Some very grand projects begin to present themselves to me, in connection with the novel—They are projects too which are not only grand, but feasible, and which under favorable circumstances would require no long time to advance to maturity—.”27 In April of 1864 the Lanier brothers were engaged in action against a raid by Federal General Benjamin F. Butler's troops and won the praise of their major, J. F. Milligan, in a telegram to their father: “Your sons are a credit to you and a pride to their state. In the action of the 14th inst, their gallantry was particularly conspicuous. …”28 Sidney Lanier's account of the affair in a letter of late April does not survive, and his only comment in a later letter (May 28) is that Major Milligan's dispatch “overrated the action to which it referred, and magnified your fears as to our future security. … I did not lose my flute, nor the Novel, having taken the precaution to secure them … about my person, in my haversack.”29

A pen picture of Sidney Lanier in 1864 is preserved in his brother's novel Thorn-Fruit. Mark and Lee (Leopold) Wilton, the hero brothers of the novel, are obviously modelled after Sidney and Clifford Lanier. Clifford describes the older brother:

Mark Wilton was tall, well-formed, and handsome, in that his eye was clear and piercing, his forehead high and broad, his features, including a smooth chin and mustached upper lip, entirely au fait. A stranger first seeing him, would notice, perhaps, nothing but a certain grave dignity of demeanor which brought in its train grace of movement, unaffected because the general expression denoted that his mind was engaged with things outside of himself and rarely introverted to examine self-appearances. He had abandoned a desirable place in a neighboring college to enter the service as a volunteer at the age of nineteen. …30

The first half of Thorn-Fruit details the life that the Lanier brothers knew as signalmen at Burwell's Bay—and Sidney's romance with “Lucy Pegram” at nearby “Castlewood.” Incidents and places are so strongly modelled on reality as to be readily identifiable. “Lucy Pegram” was actually Virginia Hankins, and her home was Bacon's Castle. She is hailed in one of two poems interpolated into Thorn-Fruit's text which were surely written by the older brother rather than by Clifford.

The last half of Clifford's novel relates his experiences in Havana after his escape to that place and his difficult trip from Galveston after having reached there from Cuba. This portion is important as a glimpse of life in a Havana made gay by blockade profits and for its description of the journey from Galveston to Macon. It adds nothing to Sidney's story except that the detailed account of the death of one of Thorn-Fruit's women characters is in reality an account of the death of the Lanier boys' mother in May of 1865.

In the poverty-stricken South after the war the brothers found little that was congenial to literary careers. Clifford, however, started his novel and quickly took it to completion during his hours free from duty at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery. Sidney resumed his writing intermittently while trying to eke out a living, working first as a tutor and then, along with his brother, in the Exchange Hotel. Clifford finished Thorn-Fruit in May, 1866; Sidney worked almost another year on Tiger-Lilies. The brothers thought of publishing the two works in one volume, but that idea was given up. Blelock & Co. of New York made a contract with Clifford for publication of Thorn-Fruit and offered a similar contract to Sidney. He favored, instead, an arrangement with Hurd and Houghton by which that firm published Tiger-Lilies in boards rather than in paper (as Thorn-Fruit) with Lanier paying the costs of publication. Tiger-Lilies was issued late in 1867 in an edition of 962 copies. Less than eight hundred copies were ever sold, and Lanier never recovered in full his stake in the publication, funds that had been supplied by a generous Northern relative, J. F. D. Lanier.31

Neither novel could claim great success, but it is remarkable that two young brothers, Sidney at twenty-five and Clifford at twenty-three, should achieve publication at all in such trying days for literature in the South, long before such authors as Charles Egbert Craddock (Mary Noailles Murfree), George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, and Irwin Russell brought about a renascence of Southern literature. Harris was even younger than the Laniers and had already begun his own literary career as a printer's devil on the plantation newspaper, The Countryman, published in Hancock County, Georgia, during the war. In 1868 he was still unknown to fame and was working on the Forsyth, Georgia, Advertiser. He was also supplying James Wood Davidson biographical information about Georgia authors that Davidson would include in his Living Writers of the South (1869). It is a credit to Harris' judgment that Davidson's sketch of Sidney is considerably longer and more favorable than that of Clifford.32 It is even more evidence of Harris' perspicacity that he wrote privately in that same year: “Clifford is very young but promises good things. Sidney is the cleverest …—in fact, he is a man of genius. His novel, ‘Tiger-Lilies,’ is original and good. His poems … are poems—quaint, unique, and characteristic.”33 And he added that Lanier was the most accomplished flutist in America. “There is something weird and mysterious, ravishing and entrancing in his manner of playing. It is absolutely impossible for me to describe it to you. One of his descriptions of fluteplaying in ‘Tiger-Lilies,’ comes near telling it, but you should hear him to appreciate. He is a good, modest, young man, charming in manner.”34

Lanier's fame would come later, but already he was exemplifying the principles he put into words in a commencement address for the young ladies of the Furlow Masonic Female College of Americus, Georgia, on June 30, 1869: “Young ladies … burn into your souls these principles: First, Art is a genuine creation. Second, God is the first Creator and therefore the first Artist. Third, God is love, and Love only is creative, while Satan is Hate, and Hate only is destructive. Therefore, Fourth, every artist must be like God, that is must be full of love, which is creative, and empty of hate, which is destructive.”35 The relationship of these remarks to what Lanier says in the preface to Tiger-Lilies, when he declares that the novel is dedicated “wholly to a love, strong as it is humble, for what is beautiful in God's Nature and in Man's Art,” is obvious. Not long before his death, in the poem “Sunrise,” he echoed the same idea, when he spoke of the sun as “yet ever the artist, ever more large and bright / Than the eye of a man may avail of—manifold One. …” Thus in the preface to Tiger-Lilies, and in the novel itself, Lanier was setting forth an artistic theme that he was to follow throughout his life.


  1. Peterson Magazine, LIII (1868), 237.

  2. Sidney Lanier, Letters, 1857-1868, ed. Charles R. Anderson and Aubrey H. Starke (Centennial ed., Baltimore, 1945), VII, 233.

  3. The Atlantic Monthly, XXI (1868), 382.

  4. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York, 1962), pp. 450-66, 507-8.

  5. The Atlantic Monthly, XXI (1868), 382.

  6. Aubrey Harrison Starke, Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (Chapel Hill, 1933), p. 196.

  7. Jack De Bellis, “Sidney Lanier and German Romance: An Important Qualification,” Comparative Literature Studies, V (1968), 147.

  8. See Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., “Sidney Lanier's Knowledge of German Literature,” Anglo-German and American-German Crosscurrents, I, ed. P. A. Shelley, Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., and W. W. Betts, Jr. (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1957), pp. 155-88.

  9. Starke, Lanier, p. 106.

  10. The Atlantic Monthly, XXI (1868), 382.

  11. Sidney Lanier, Letters, 1857-1868, p. 150.

  12. The Atlantic Monthly, XXI (1868), 382.

  13. Sidney Lanier, Letters, 1857-1868, pp. 231-32.

  14. Sidney Lanier, Tiger-Lilies (New York, 1868), p. [iii]-v passim.

  15. Sidney Lanier, Letters, 1857-1868, p. 233.

  16. The Atlantic Monthly, XXI (1868), 382.

  17. Sidney Lanier, Letters, 1857-1868, pp. 226-28.

  18. Henry Lea Graves, A Confederate Marine: A Sketch of Henry Lea Graves with Excerpts from the Graves Family Correspondence, 1861-1865, ed. Richard Harwell (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1963).

  19. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901).

  20. Clifford Anderson Lanier, Thorn-Fruit (New-York, 1867).

  21. U.S. War Department, Ser. I, XI, pt. 2, 934-46.

  22. Graves, Confederate Marine, pp. 70-75.

  23. U.S. War Department, Ser. I, XI, pt. 2, 945.

  24. U.S. Navy Department, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, 1894-1922).

  25. [Anthony M. Keiley], Prisoner of War; or, Five Months Among the Yankees … By A. Rifleman, esq., gent. (Richmond, Va., [1865]).

  26. Sidney Lanier, Letters, 1857-1868, p. 127.

  27. Ibid., pp. 142-43.

  28. Ibid., pp. 152-53n.

  29. Ibid., pp. 152-53.

  30. Clifford Anderson Lanier, Thorn-Fruit, pp. 11-12.

  31. Sidney Lanier, Tiger-Lilies and Southern Prose, ed. Garland Greever assisted by Cecil Abernathy (Centennial ed., Baltimore, 1945), V, viii, ix.

  32. In Davidson's volume the sketch of Clifford Anderson Lanier appears on pp. 319-20, that of Sidney Lanier on pp. 321-24. Unfortunately, however, a printer's error substituted the stereotyped plate of p. 328 (a portion of the sketch of Mrs. Octavia Walton LeVert) for that which should have appeared on p. 323, and more than a quarter of the sketch of Lanier is thus omitted.

  33. Starke, Lanier, p. 196.

  34. Ibid., p. 114.

  35. Sidney Lanier, Tiger-Lilies and Southern Prose, p. 260.

William J. Kimball (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1644

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 of its contents, by the disquisitions, by the digressions, by the oddity or strain of phrasing or fancy, by the literary allusions, by the music and musical talk, by the intrusions of the author,” and by what has been called the “tropical luxuriousness of beauties.”1 Yet, there are some redeeming qualities, and Lanier had considerable justification for noting that few reviews “were not on the whole favorable.”2

The “tropical luxuriousness” is found mainly in Book I, which is highly imitative of the German romance, a form that had captured Lanier's fancy, and with the possible exception of introducing most of the characters who are met again in Books II and III, it could be considered a separate entity. In a classic understatement Lanier himself admitted, “I am better pleased with the later ‘chapters’ of my book than with any others.”3

The plot is certainly slight; the atmosphere of Book I especially remote, and such movement as there is is sluggish. The background of the first book is the mountainous country of eastern Tennessee. A deer hunt brings together Philip Sterling and Paul Rübetsahl, two young transcendentalists; Cain Smallin, a native of the region; John Sterling, Philip's father; and John Cranston, a Northerner whom Rübetsahl had met in Germany, his native country. After the hunt the group repairs to the Sterling home, an incongruous palace of art, called Thalberg, to enjoy good friendship, music, and high thought. They hold a masquerade party in which they represent various characters from Shakespeare's plays and Knights of the Round Table. The gaiety of the masquerade party is shattered by an inconclusive duel between Cranston and Rübetsahl, both of whom love Felix, Philip's sister. The duel was prompted by a girl named Ottilie, formerly the lover of Rübetsahl, who was offended by Cranston in Germany. Ottilie has come to Tennessee where she becomes identified with the Sterling family. The “high talk” on music, poetry, philosophy and nature which constitutes Book I is dramatically interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. Book II opens at Burwell's Bay late in the war and with a minimum of transition depicts several scenes on the lower James, and the Federal prison at Fortress Monroe, and returns again to the scene of Book I. Book III includes some scenes in besieged Petersburg and occupied Richmond in which the romance accelerates and the tale is brought to a perfunctory and incredible close. The realistic scenes are primarily in Book II.

The characterization, on the whole, is weak and most of the characters are only tenuously connected with a real world. Although young Sterling and Rübetsahl are somewhat hardened by an active army life, they never relinquish their transcendental thoughts or manner of expression. Cain Smallin, a mountaineer, is unique in that he alone emerges as an identifiable character in all three books. He certainly deserves better support than this entire work affords him. When Cain encounters his brother, Gorm, a deserter, his reaction creates a scene of some dramatic power:

Gorm Smallin, you has cheated me, an' ole father an' mother an' all, out of our name which it was all we had; you has swore to a lie, for you swore to me 'at the colonel sent you down here to go a-scoutin' amongst the Yankees; you has stole our honest name, which it is more than we can ever make to give to your wife's baby; you has sneaked out f'om on a fight that we was fightin' to keep what was our'n an' to pertect them that has been kind to us an' them that raised us; you has deserted f'om your regiment which it has fought now gwine on four year an' fought manful, too, an' never run a inch.


While Cranston, the villainous Northerner, and Gorm, the deserter, attain some degree of self-realization, it is Cain Smallin who carries off a rather commendable realistic character portrayal. The soldiers are for the most part believable, owing doubtless to the fact that Lanier knew the life of the soldier from his own experiences.

It is especially when Lanier depicts the actualities of warfare that he gives evidence of the kind of realistic writing that, had it been his main purpose, might have enabled him to surpass any other work of his time with the exception perhaps of Miss Ravenel's Conversion and would have served to introduce a reading public to the realism of warfare which it met in The Red Badge of Courage almost thirty years later.

It cannot be claimed that the realistic accounts even of Book II are consistent, but the better ones are certainly worthy of attention as the following excerpt illustrates:

Their line is formed, in the centre floats the cross-banner, to right and left gleam the bayonets like silver flame-jets, unwaving, deadly; these, with a thousand mute tongues, utter a silent yet magnificent menace.

“Charge! Steady, men!”

The rags flutter, the cross-flag spreads out and reveals its symbol, the two thousand sturdy feet in hideous brogans, or without cover, press forward. At first it is a slow and stately movement; stately in the mass, ridiculous if we watch any individual leg, with its knee perhaps showing an irregular hole in such pantaloons!

The step grows quicker. A few scattering shots from the enemy's retiring skirmishers patter like the first big drops of the shower.

From the right of the ragged line now comes up a single long cry, as from the leader of a pack of hounds who has found the game. This cry has in it the uncontrollable eagerness of the sleuth-hound, together with a dry harsh quality that conveys an uncompromising hostility. It is the irresistible outflow of some fierce soul immeasurably enraged, and it is tinged with a jubilant tone, as if in anticipation of a speedy triumph and a satisfying revenge. It is a howl, a hoarse battle-cry, a cheer, and a congratulation, all in one.

They take it up in the centre, they echo it on the left, it swells, it runs along the line as fire leaps along the rigging of a ship. It is as if some one pulled out in succession all the stops of the infernal battle-organ, but only struck one note which they all speak in different voices.

The gray line nears the blue one, rapidly. It is a thin gray wave, whose flashing foam is the glitter of steel bayonets. It meets with a swell in the ground, shivers a moment, then rolls on.

Suddenly thousands of tongues, tipped with red and issuing smoke, speak deadly messages from the blue line. One volley? A thousand would not stop them now. Even if they were not veterans who know that it is safer at this crisis to push on than to fall back, they would still press forward. They have forgotten safety, they have forgotten life and death; their thoughts have converged into a focus which is the one simple idea,—to get to those men in blue, yonder. Rapid firing from the blue line brings rapid yelling from the gray.


Even so, the realism of Tiger-Lilies is not confined to character portrayal and scenes of combat. It is evident in the portrayal of the mere existence of men confined to the slow death of the war prison. It can be seen in the privation and want of civilians dedicated to a cause for which no sacrifice is too great. It is caught in the talk among the soldiers, and the hijinks and seriousness of scouting, pursuing, retreating, and waiting.

Tiger-Lilies is by no means free of the pseudo-literary conventions which were the warp and woof particularly of Southern war fiction of its time. The stock figures repeatedly credited to the Southern tradition—the first old gentleman of the plantation home; the scions, accustomed to the genteel manner, who are marshaled to the colors; the proud and determined ladies of the house; the faithful Negro servants—all of these are present. Other conventions are the divided family, the Northern man seeking the affections of the Southern girl, the practically defenseless home subject to attacks by wandering marauders, the idealized leaders, exalted chivalry, and more. But, when one considers that Tiger-Lilies is not primarily a war novel and that it was written by a man who was basically a romantic poet and at heart a pacifist (“If war was ever right, then Christ was always wrong.” p. 95), it is all the more remarkable that Lanier recollecting the tranquility in his own personal experiences imbued them with as powerful a sense of actuality as he did. If the acknowledged theme of Tiger-Lilies had not been love and if the author had not been prompted to imitate his own conception of the German romance, one can only conjecture what literary form his wartime experiences would have taken. It is enough to say, perhaps, that even as they appear to be undisciplined segments of a unique literary structure, his realistic scenes are very impressive.


  1. Garland Greever, ed., The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, vol. 5 (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), pp. xi-xii. The page references to the novel are to this edition.

  2. Ibid., p. xii.

  3. Greever, p. xv.

Jack De Bellis (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5818

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 Tiger-Lilies.1 Had he realized what significance it had to the development of the South's most important nineteenth-century poet, he might have insisted that it was a novel to be proud of—even if Tiger-Lilies could not rival Northerner John De Forest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion as a straight war novel. Lanier's narrative impulse was obviously severely strained by his many threads of Romantic interest. In fact, the novel's story may have merely offered him an occasion for the manipulation of nature images and artistic ideas. The same might apply to his long chivalric poem, “The Jacquerie” (1868-74), for the medieval peasants' revolt allowed him once more to dramatize individual examples of moral and immoral behavior and to examine at length the symbolic meaning of man's loss of feeling and thus loss of moral direction.

As Lanier sought models to follow for his philosophical ideas (McIntosh and Carlyle) and his creation of character (Carlyle's view of Mephistopheles), so he would turn to a general tradition so rife in the South on which to harness his effulgent Romantic inclinations—the chivalric tradition, or what Mark Twain called “Sir Walter Scottism.” It offered the young poet ready models in diction, setting, symbolism, and, most importantly, morality. Reactionary in their literary development, nineteenth-century Southern poets readily used archaic words; a “Camelot” conception of the medieval world; antique character types; Gothic decor or atmosphere; and an obscure idealism blended to mannered piety. Here was a third vital source of Lanier's gathering power, a tradition which would blend well with the moral sentiments, philosophical tradition, and the diverse symbolic interests sketched in Tiger-Lilies.

As John Crowe Ransom has pointed out, the South rather self-consciously patterned itself after eighteenth-century England in its grave concern for kinship, manners, gentlemanly dilettantism, code of honor, and aristocratic noblesse oblige.2 Certainly the South's stringent attempt to retain this image in the face of impending Civil War was encouraged by the “Gothic Revival” in literature which filled libraries with versions of medieval literature.

Again Oglethorpe was formative, for Lanier had read there the most popular chivalric lore, especially Scott's work.3 Most early critics assumed that Scott formed the “temper” or “social ideal” of the South. H. J. Eckenrode speculated, “Beyond doubt Scott gave the South its social ideal, and the South of 1860 might be not inaptly nicknamed Sir Walter Scotland.”4 Mark Twain's satires on the South, especially in Huckleberry Finn, sealed its fate with the label “Sir Walter Scottism.”5 Although Lanier accepts many of the assumptions of Scott's use of chivalry, his departures are more important than his similarities. Twain insisted that Scott created caste in the South, but Lanier's chivalric poetry developed democratic ideals, as “The Jacquerie” shows.

Lanier was never a spokesman for Scott. In all his work he mentions him only five times, glancingly alludes to him thrice. A year before his death, Lanier proclaimed that Scott “purified” the air and that “no great work in the English novel appears until we reach Scott,” even though Scott's “situations” do not raise “any moral question as between man and man.”6 Had he recognized Scott's compassion for people on the periphery of life, Lanier might have found a kindred spirit. Perhaps, like Carlyle, Lanier felt Scott merely capable of the opinions and emotions of “the ordinary country gentleman.”

Thus, throughout his life he was attracted to the redefined medieval code of chivalry; and a simple adaptation of antique decor and color might have facilitated a stylized withdrawal from life and marked Lanier's interest in chivalry as another example of the South's cultural lag. But more was at stake. Lanier learned to use the values of chivalry to synthesize his moral attitudes during “the tragic years” and to fashion a perspective on his age that was vital to his creative development.


Lanier entered the Civil War with a chivalric gusto which must have been typical, for Bruce Catton has observed the early war years were “almost a kind of tournament.”7 Naturally, some antebellum pageant tilts assured Southern ladies of the ability of gentlemen to “bear the sword in their behalf, if such necessity should ever arise.”8 When it did and war struck, Rebels passed the time in tournaments. Clifford Lanier described a real one in 1864 which featured the “Knight of Dixie” who rode a mule like Don Quixote's Rosinante and strolled to fetch the ring from the fence rail.9 Lanier himself delivered an address at a tournament in 1879.10 The Southern love of pageants lay behind the interest in these mock-jousts. And since the South saw the humor in the tilts, one might wish to discount Twain's thought that Scott bore some responsibility for the war by helping to develop Southern character. As Stephen Crane showed, both Rebel and Yankee read Scott and after 1864 discarded him.

Jousts were rather comically antique, but the cult of lady worship was as close as Lanier's own tangled courtships and so could not be taken humorously. As a Southern Victorian, his elevation of women was extraordinary, but it must be viewed in terms of his concept of the values he found inherent in women's character, which he symbolized in “The Jacquerie.” As for the Southern view of women, the president of William and Mary College quoted in 1849 a statement that he thought reflected the true Southern feeling: “There is perhaps no moral power the magnitude of which swells so far beyond the grasp of calculation, as the influence of the female character.” It is searching, versatile, multifarious, universal; it corrects vanity and bad taste; and it brings one's “first impressions of education.”11 For Lanier, women were repositories of moral feelings. He directed his “Confederate Memorial Address” (1870) to the women who “glorified and sanctified the Southern Confederacy!”12—the same women that W. J. Cash thought symbolized both Athena and the Virgin to the Southern mind. For women, the Rebels fought the war. Toasted at the one-hundredth anniversary of Georgia, woman was called “The center and circumference … sine, tangent and secant of all our affections!”13 It seems likely that Lanier would have agreed, though his mature impulse was more than gyneolatry.

Lanier's view of women was partly enclosed in a general love that was part of the South's “higher sentimentalism.” Clifford, his brother, described their relationship as “A sort of chivalry of eldership”;14 and Lanier's pious respect for elders is graphically shown in his observation of Robert E. Lee: “I sat down on the grass, and gazed, with such reverence as I had never given to mortal man before.”15 An eyewitness thought Lanier eyed Lee with “knightly reverence as Sir Guyon or Sir Galahad his Arthur.”16 Even after combat experience Lanier could whimsically describe himself as a knight “keeping up the Troubadour wandering about the world with a sword at my side, and a lute (or flute) slung on my back with the ribbon of my ladye-love!”17 Obviously, artificality and self-consciousness did not trouble Lanier in his chivalric love. (Nor has it troubled his critics who have frequently called him “the Sir Galahad among our American poets.”)18

The cult of lady worship shows clearly in all Lanier's letters to women. He told his sister that the “sacredest thing” in the world was “the worship which a pure man renders to a woman,” especially a woman like her who had the purity of “the Winged Folk up Yonder.”19 An early sweetheart was called by Lanier a “Vestal” like Hawthorne's Hilda. But most revealing are Lanier's letters during his passionately chivalric courtship to Mary Day in 1867. Typically he began, “O My Queen: here am I kneeling, and adoring thee,” and signed his letters “Sir Philip,” after Sir Philip Sidney, his favorite knight. Elsewhere he begs Christ to shelter her until he can maintain her “Queenhood and utter Royalty.” Such exaltation became faintly absurd after their wedding when Lanier felt “an infinite yearning” for his “Christ's Ambassadress, his Ministress of Heaven.”20 Lanier later used such symbolism in his poetry; he already had used it in Tiger-Lilies.

Thus, Lanier's letters show his transforming gyneolatry to a viable, personal ideal; for the cult of lady worship formed a rhetorical embellishment to a personal search for self. Lanier undoubtedly would have agreed with Scott that reverent awe and courtesy toward women were the rules which gave chivalry its essence. He told Bayard Taylor that his sonnets “In Absence” were part of a lifelong poem to his wife, “heart's-ease for my sense of the pure worshipfulness which dwells in the Lady they celebrate.”21 But only a fraction of his poems are love poems; for, in developing the gentleman's code in a bookish way, Lanier was seeking a standard of conduct during a time of social upheaval. More importantly, he recovered a moral rectitude that enabled him to symbolize the return of Christ as a “Gentleman” to educate the feelings of an indifferent time.


Lanier's early uses of chivalry were, expectedly, simply decorative. The initial line of his first poem (1859) contains archaisms and chivalric diction, and in “Spring” (1860) nature plays “Sir Walter Raleigh,” an odd image also used in letters of 1867. But in “Hymn” (1861) Lanier developed a pattern of conflicting images resolved by paradox and metaphor—a controlling structure which served him well in “The Symphony.” As Philip Graham has noted, Lanier showed more concern for images in opposition than did Henry Timrod, William Gilmore Simms, or Paul Hayne, perhaps reflecting thereby his sensitivity to religious dualities and perhaps given impetus by the writing of Tiger-Lilies.22 In some ways this pattern of contrasts resembles that employed by Emerson in “Braham” and “The Sphynx.” Behind all the images in opposition is the conflict of thought and feeling which most writers of the nineteenth century shared. But few poets had felt the pull of opposing forces as early as Lanier had.

The Civil War offered an obvious subject exploiting contrasts, but six months after he returned (August, 1865) Lanier wrote “The Tournament: Joust First Being the Right Pleasant Joust betwixt Heart and Brain.” The poem developed a note written the month before in his ledger: “The days of chivalry are not gone, they are only spiritualized … the knight of the 19th century fights, not with trenchant sword, but with trenchant soul.”23 So despite the war, Lanier followed the path of his antebellum essays, resolving the heart-brain conflict in a sequel, “Joust Second Being the Rare Joust of Love and Hate.”

Each stanza of the “Joust betwixt Heart and Brain” develops a concrete contrast. Heart is “a youth in crimson and gold,” while “cynical-calm” Brain is “steel-armored, dark, and cold.” Heart dies, saying, “My love to my beloved!”24 Unselfish love falls before destructive selfishness—the pattern of Tiger-Lilies and “The Jacquerie.” Appropriately, Lanier published the poem in the New York Round Table, a superior magazine; but the poem was so popular it was published in an Iowa newspaper only three months later.

But “Joust the Second,” which followed in a week, is twice as long, less dramatic, and more optimistic. The Love-knight appears mysteriously: “none knew / Whether he sprang from earth or heaven,” and he wears an olive branch “for grace” instead of a dagger. The Hate-knight's breath “scorched souls, as a dry drought / Withers green trees and burns them bare”—the very image of the wasteland. Like Sir William Hamilton of Lanier's philosophical essay, he is a “poor, mistaken knight.” Love meets him with “heaven-heat” in his eyes and a “saintly prayer”—and Hate vanishes. The Heart-knight springs to his steed, resurrected. The Love-knight then asks the knights to replace “blood-athirst Fame” with utilitarian benevolence. The opposing elements of nature then paradoxically combine: “dove-flights sanctified the plain, / And hawk and sparrow shared a nest.”25 Love's victory has converted a basically selfish system into a religious institution, and it has also reclaimed regenerative nature from the wasteland and harmonized the opposing forces of hawk and dove. Thus, Lanier found symbolic and moral meaning in a little allegory dramatizing the emergence of humanism from barbarism. Perhaps the sounds of antique words attracted him as much as the moral conflict, but he would learn in time how to exploit the musicality of language and the symbolism of chivalry to reveal his unique voice.


Before surveying Lanier's other uses of chivalric material, it is useful to examine how he began to develop a conscious understanding of his craft by recognizing his tendency to write diffuse imagery. In December, 1863, he completed “To———,” a poem with the conventional theme of growth through love. Since the work contained an unusual amount of symbolic obscurity, he instructed a friend to “read it twice” and urged another to “study” this “half allegory.” In two long letters he explained that the poem had a triple meaning because the symbols of youth (dream and mist) “change places: sometimes the mist symbols a dream, sometimes the dream symbols a mist; all the time, both symbolize something else.” Like most young poets, Lanier was excited to find he could construct a puzzle, but his awareness of a temptation to put vague effects before rendered feelings is a rare document of his literary self-criticism. He observes that he had frequently noticed his “tendency to the diffuse style” created by a “multitude of words to heighten the pat-ness of the image, and so making of it rather a conceit than a metaphor.” But he thought he could correct this by adopting a terse style, with only three or four feet to a line.26

Lanier probably felt his poem overly reliant on stock responses shrouded in murky images and sought a critical vocabulary by which to make his technical problems clear to himself. But his terms are not very helpful, because he did not write conceits, since he used personification as a continual figure allowing loose points of contact between his images and his ideas, as Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate have shown.27 Despite his self-awareness, Lanier never learned how to counter his tendency to “diffuse style,” but in his marsh poems (1878-81) he discovered ways to exploit his weakness by plunging into the potential obscurity of his symbols so he could emerge with an ingenious expression of the meaning of nature through extremely subjective narrators.

Lanier also tested chivalric language in essays like “Retrospects and Prospects” in which the music lover would defend music “with sword, lance, and battle-axe.” In the same essay a more appropriate chivalric image likens etherealized poetry to a knight covered in silk.28 Lanier's poetic imagery was not always this ingenious. The star is used as a symbol of the distant beloved in most of the twenty-eight poems (1865-68). A surprisingly witty poem “Lines Tangled about the Round Table” (1866) written for the Round Table is a melee of chivalry puns. And “A Birthday Song to S. G.” (1866) is a dream-allegory in medieval style.

Chivalry served to control Lanier's language and thoughts while his social consciousness developed. He was not to forget it, and the lexicon of archaisms in his poetry testifies to his continued search for an antique flavor for his thoughts. Naturally one might be led to assume he “escaped” to another world and time, but Lanier was no Miniver Cheevy. He used chivalric material to gain perspective on his own time and on the future of his nation, if it was to have one. His major work shows a deepening sense of the modern knight as an armed transcendentalist reinstituting values embedded in the humanistic sides of chivalry—values which “The Jacquerie” exposes as having once fallen far short of its perhaps impossible dream.


In writing “The Jacquerie” Lanier discovered what most users of historical images soon see: that the past may be used to reveal the inadequacies of the present. Mark Twain, for example, exaggerated nineteenth-century ills by placing them in King Arthur's time. And so in 1868 Lanier told his brother that his “novel in verse” founded on the “remarkable popular insurrection” of 1359 “in the height of Chivalry,” was a subject “so beautiful … I can scarcely think of aught else.”29 His reading of Froissart at first led him to side with the privileged orders against the peasants, but he felt “terribly crippled” by this biased view; and, after reading Michelet's view of the revolt as the quashing of a social reform movement, he found his real view of it. Michelet's idea allowed him to uncover the reasons for the misuses of noblesse oblige in order to revivify it. The “beautiful subject” had changed before his eyes to something worthy of poetic treatment, and Lanier turned away from the glamor of chivalry depicted in Tennyson to reconsider its human meaning, as Scott had. Chivalry, like the nineteenth century, contained a great error—but it was a correctable one.

Lanier came to agree with Scott that “the generosity and gallantry” of chivalry could deteriorate into “madness and absurdity,”30 even though, as Lanier read in G. P. R. James, chivalry was “the most glorious institution that man himself ever devised.”31 He shared Scott's regret that the intentions of chivary disintegrated into “bigotry, persecution, and intolerance.” Unlike its modern descendant, Northern industrialism, chivalry had shown “generosity”; therefore, Lanier could not make a real analogy between Reconstruction and the conditions before the Jacquerie. External conditions thus modified his subjective recognitions, and Lanier found chivalry could be used as a symbolic device to dramatize the conflicts of feeling and thought, heart and brain, love and hate. Chivalry failed, in Lanier's view, because knights became unable to love. Yet a loving knight, arising from the peasants who were still bound directly to the land and to ancient values, could find the words to a charm that might break the spell and restore chivalry's capacity to sympathize and to give.

Though unfinished, “The Jacquerie” reveals Lanier's intentions clearly by the pattern he had developed in “The Joust betwixt Heart and Brain”: a paradoxical relationship is created between opposing images which are resolved by, or culminate in, religious symbols. The narrative begins with a stark contrast muted by its fairy-tale tone: “Once on a time, a Dawn, all red and bright, / Leapt on the conquered ramparts of the Night, / And flamed, one brilliant instant, on the world.”32 This new age of rebellion momentarily frees chivalry from its dark designs, one of which was oppression:

Once, Famine tricked himself with ears of corn,
And Hate strung flowers on his spikèd belt,
And glum Revenge in silver lilies pranked him,
And Lust put violets on his shameless front,
And all minced forth o' the street like holiday folk
That sally off a-field on Summer morns.

These paradoxes are followed by disturbingly Realistic images of betrayal. The mistreated hounds turn on their knights, and the falcon rebels, driving its claws into its mistress's “painted face” and “lily throat,” pressing its beak into her lips, scarring her “In a most fierce and hawkish kissing.” Such Naturalistic detail is not gratuitous, but is used for castigation, as in “Retrospects and Prospects” in which Lanier compares musical analysis to a physiologist's skinning of his beloved to improve his science. In this case, the falcon is a disguise for the spiritual birds everywhere in Lanier's poetry which bring about purification sometimes against man's will. The falcon is thus a relative to the sparrow of the joust poem, the dove of “The Symphony” and to the marsh-hen of “The Marshes of Glynn.” Symbolically, its function is religious, though it also functions realistically: both uses are held in suspension.

Lanier then locates the cause of chivalry's decay which has forced a disruption in the natural relation of man to his hunting dog and bird. Chivalry had “flashed his sword” over the peasants at a time when “Thought was keen and hot and quick” and when “logic came not 'twixt desire and act,” so that the “devil-doctrines” of selfishness, “Want-and-Take,” were the only “Form of life.” In those days, Trade was young and little dreamed he would “hew down and bind old Chivalry” and turn it into “still Romance.” As a product of foolish thought, chivalry had lost its social responsibility and had been perverted to a lust for power resembling the rampages of unbridled Reconstruction. Lanier gives ample opportunity for a reading of the poem as a conflict of North and South, suggesting later that only the South retained a repository of love providing a moral regeneration. Since “The Jacquerie” was written between 1868 and 1874, the poem spanned the critical time when his social consciousness developed significantly.

The first chapter ends with an attack on the drunkenness, gluttony, and miserliness of Pope Innocent who staves off the revolt of unpaid soldiers with a wassail in which his only prayer is “Pray, drink.” Both the military and the church, institutions of chivalric values, are guilty of crimes against France; but the congregation and the foot soldiers maintain traditional values. As lords oppose one another and as the pope and the king encourage the confusion, we witness significant desertions from the “natural” places in the “great chain of being.” The similar use of oppositions in Tiger-Lilies has been richly extended from the rather routine rejections of roles by Cranston and Smallin.

Chapter 2 ushers in the spokesman against injustice, the Franciscan friar John de Rochetaillade, who is admired by Gris Grillon, a casualty from Poitiers, because the monk “is not fat, and loves not wine, and fasts. … And threats the knights and thunders at the Pope.” The friar sees Grillon as a symbol of France since he is a quadruple amputee. In this section Lanier thus balances the moral, realistic, and symbolic in rough blank verse of Browningesque power. It seems clear from this section that chivalric imagery and narrative form helped to subdue his tendency toward obscure, diffuse imagery.

When the friar quotes the “second seal” passage of Revelations as the text for his sermon on the French martyrs, his sermon becomes a thundering arraignment of war, and he prophesies horrors for the “cold chambers of the future”; like Savonarola, he calls for a “vast undoing of things.” The friar is the first of Lanier's “Great” men (as he called them in 1874) who challenge a corrupt world. Eventually Lanier came to regard himself as the “Great man” and even to identify with Christ. However, an autobiographical reading of “The Jacquerie” should not supplant esthetic understandings of Lanier's use of imagery and paradox, although it should suggest how personally he felt the tension which produced the poem.

In the first of two prophecies, the friar graphically depicts the fall of kings, with “ragged peoples” lapping their blood. Then idealized democracy comes to rule in a second vision resolving the conflict of war with a chant, as in “The Joust of Love and Hate,” and as later in “The Symphony” and in “The Centennial Meditation.” Again oppositional images are contrasted in the chant: “And high and low shall commune solemnly: / And stars and stone shall have free interview.” A catalogue of grief follows, stringing in a series the ills of the entire society which, as in the poetry of Whitman, seems endless and encourages the reader to add to it. The pope could “lock Grief up,” but he ignores the cry for help; and the friar then assaults the pope: “Thou'rt not God's Pope. Thou art the Devil's.”

And now the friar adopts the dream-allegory to show how the church has forgotten time—the limitation against which man makes moral decisions, and the historical tradition which lends credence to moral authorities—and thereby ignores man's mortality. The dream is introduced by paradoxes in which “Life asleep did fancy he was Death,” recalling doves of life and death as images of France in Chapter 1. When the friar ushers in “a spectre with a million heads,” all of which moan “Homeless,” each head represents a disorder like madness or cynicism. The creature wears on its stomach a symbol of time: “a silver-gleaming thread of day / Spiral about a jet-black band of night.” Lanier has created a Poe-esque image with which to condemn his own time as well as that of the friar. Recounting his meeting with the creature in his dream, the friar dreamed he called to it: “Time hath bound / Thy body with the fibre of his hours.” The corrupt clergy thus faces doom for ignoring the risks of earthly time, and the friar explains that the heads of the beasts were sinful priests. The friar asks, if the priesthood rusts, what will the military order, which it has humanized, do? The time has come for action.

Though the friar has condemned false chivalry but not ideal chivalry, the peasants' experience with knighthood has ruined their desire to discriminate between the two. At the poem's end, the peasants are set straight, but their rejection of knighthood is made sympathetic by the entrance, in Chapter 3, of arrogant Lord Raoul: “At left hand rode his lady and at right / His fool whom he loved better; and his bird, / His fine ger-falcon best beloved of all.” Raoul, who is a doubly mistaken man, puts sport before the fool's cryptic entertainment, and his fool's diversions before his lady. His knights are “loyal-stomach'd flatterers”; but, most importantly, his fool hates him and warns him not to confront the friar since he knows Lord Raoul will ignore his advice. The fool, Lanier's most complex character, predicts that evil will come. This contradicts his previous contention that fools are not prudent—but it paradoxically proves that contention, since the fool's advice is given unselfishly. Evil comes, but it is, as we shall see, overcome. And so the fool wisely prophesied the reverse of what Raoul expected. Lord Raoul plays into his hands. Ironically, the fool admits he gave this advice for a selfish reason: to incite Lord Raoul to a rash act. The drama of Raoul's egoism is far more complex than Cranston's in Tiger-Lilies, and it involves more contexts.

The fool's denunciation is our guide to meaning, for he shows the best evaluative intellect of Lanier's medieval world: “Thou languid, lordly, most heart-breaking Nought! / Thou bastard Zero, that hath come to power, / Nothing's right issue falling!” Naturally, this irony of the fool as wise man is conventional, but Lanier uses it to confront the selfishness of perverted chivalry and also to suggest that the “bastard Zero” Robber Baron of America during the “brown decades” is no match for a poet-prophet.

In Chapter 4, Gris Grillon, who lost his limbs defending Raoul, accuses him of cowardice at Poitiers; the chapter is primarily a list of Raoul's offenses. This is a structural flaw since it impedes the action; but, as in Tiger-Lilies, Lanier is more interested in the symbolic possibilities of his subject than in its revelation of character. Yet his handling of character, setting, and dialogue does suggest he might have become a Southern Browning had he followed Browning's example. But Lanier's plans took him along a direction entirely his own.

As in the scene in Tiger-Lilies in which Cranston is melodramatically prevented from killing Smallin, Raoul is prevented from stabbing Gris Grillon—by Jacques Grillon, Gris's brother, who is condemned to lose his ears since he listened to priests “That mouth at knighthood and defile the Church.” The friar had fortified his brotherly love, and now Marie saves Jacques's life in Chapter 5. Unfortunately, Lanier's language reverts to pious platitudes when she enters “still glittering with the God-shine on her!” Raoul is stricken pale, and Gris Grillon watches her “calm smiling while he prayed / The Holy Virgin's blessing.” She is the “Love-knight”; and, like that knight's victory over Hate, Marie's conquest of Lord Raoul is effortless. She resolves the opposition of selfishness and benevolence with images recalling those of Chapter 1:

          On him her eyes burned steadily
With such gray fires of heaven-hot command
As Dawn burns Night away with, and she held
Her white forefinger quivering aloft
At greatest arm's-length of her dainty arm,
In menace sweeter than a kiss could be.

Marie, the same guide we have seen many times in Lanier's work, represents the spirit of nature, art, and morality; and, as a result of her appearance, the ear-cropper's knife fails in midslice. Her sudden appearance has hatched a spiritual rebellion rather than a bloody peasants' revolt—and Lanier has found his compromise between the opposed positions of Froissart and Michelet, for he does not side with either aristocrat or peasant. Lord Raoul gallops off “silent and most pale and strange, / Deep-wrapt in moody fits of hot and cold,” for he has been shocked into spiritual recognition.

While Marie represents a reinstitution of Christian charity, Jacques Grillon is the new “great man” of knightly courage. If Marie spiritualized the revolt, the friar had allegorized the evil of the knights, which is dramatized in the near-mutilation of Jacques. Clearly, the symbolical treatment released Lanier from the evocation of the class struggle of the past for its own sake; he universalized the peasants' revolt into the timeless quest for justice and mercy. He had used the historical image as guide to meaning better than most nineteenth-century poets or novelists; and, though it encompassed points of contact to present evil, it went beyond it. A comparison with Tiger-Lilies may suggest that “The Jacquerie” more successfully marries Naturalism to symbolism because Lanier's growing subjectivity was characterized by unification of opposed elements.

Chivalric material had allowed Lanier to find, therefore, a special lexicon, to locate a time which offered symbols that could represent the conflict of value that underlay Reconstruction, to resist his tendency to write obscure diffuse imagery, and to begin to give point to his use of a paradox-resolution form. The poetry of 1865-68 and “The Jacquerie” did not liberate him from his didacticism or from his rhetorical embellishments which stemmed from his oratorical practices at Oglethorpe. Nor did the use of chivalry teach him to write concrete poetry, but it did provide him with correctives to many of his weaknesses and brought him closer to his impressionistic technique and to his symbolical view of nature, while it continued his interest in the etherealizing nature of exemplary persons who fight “not with trenchant sword, but with trenchant soul.”

As Abel has noted, Lanier's qualified rejection of chivalry helped redirect his attitude toward it and the “Trade” that had overthrown it;33 moreover, it also helped him clarify how such symbols could be used in “The Symphony.” But “The Jacquerie” was a plateau in Lanier's development, for he never again wrote so long or so complex a poem about chivalry. Typically, he seems to have reached a conclusion and resolved to stand by it. Additionally, in his handling of iambic pentameter through several hundred lines, he had brought to a close his conventional metrics. Almost at once, after he had left “The Jacquerie” unfinished, he expanded his forms and his sense of the sounds of words in writing “Corn” and “The Symphony”; and, though each poem relies upon chivalric principles, both of these poems point the way toward the brilliant manipulations of sound and the dramatization of conflicts of soul found in the later marsh poems. Through his esthetic struggle with form and then through his resolving conflicting ideas about chivalry and the possibilities of moral behavior when revered institutions have decayed, Lanier found his true voice.

But he first had to sharpen his sense of the community in which he lived, and the social protest poems and the dialect poems of 1868-74 reveal his maturing social consciousness and his expanding concern for personal responsibility for the education of feelings.


  1. Edd Winfield Parks, Ante-Bellum Southern Literary Critics (Athens, 1962), p. 109.

  2. John Crowe Ransom, ed., I'll Take My Stand (New York: 1930). See especially Ransom's Introduction and his chapter, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate.”

  3. In Lanier's library with 1856 dates are these Waverley novels of Scott: Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Rob Roy, The Pirates, and The Heart of Mid-Lothian.

  4. H. J. Eckenrode, “Sir Walter Scott and the South,” North American Review, CCVI (October, 1917), 595-603. His position derives from Twain's and has been severely questioned by G. Harrison Orians, “Walter Scott, Mark Twain and the Civil War,” South Atlantic Quarterly, XL (October, 1941), 344-48. Orians argues that Scott was as popular in the North and West as in the South, that his influence was indirect, and that he was no more significant than Carlyle in creating Southern character.

  5. For additional comments by Mark Twain, see Life on the Mississippi, Chapters 40, 45, and 46.

  6. [Charles R. Anderson, ed. The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945. Ten volumes.], IV, 159.

  7. Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox (New York, 1958), p. 21.

  8. Willard Thorp, ed., A Southern Reader (New York, 1955), pp. 261-62.

  9. Centennial Edition, VII, 134. Rolin G. Osterweis, Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South (New Haven, 1949), pp. 4-5, lists a tournament held September 2, 1845, featuring the “Knight of La Mancha.” For one who fled from sentimental traditions so much, Allen Tate gives a surprisingly graphic, insightful account of an ante-bellum tournament in The Fathers (Denver, 1960), pp. 40-79.

  10. Ibid., X, 139n. As late as 1971 tournaments were being held in Virginia.

  11. Willard Thorp, p. 260.

  12. Centennial Edition, V, 272.

  13. W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York, 1960), p. 89.

  14. Clifford Lanier, “Reminiscences of Sidney Lanier,” Chautauquan, XXI (July, 1895), 404.

  15. Centennial Edition, V, 274.

  16. George Herbert Clarke, Some Reminiscences and Early Letters of Sidney Lanier (Macon, 1907), p. 14.

  17. Centennial Edition, VII, 171.

  18. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Contemporaries (New York, 1899), p. 101.

  19. Centennial Edition, VII, 125, 286.

  20. Ibid., 376.

  21. Ibid., IX, 239.

  22. Philip Graham, “Sidney Lanier and the Pattern of Contrast,” American Quarterly, IX (Winter, 1959), 506.

  23. Ledger, unpublished, conjecturally dated c. 1865, p. 2.

  24. Centennial Edition, I, 6.

  25. Ibid., 6-8. A quantifying survey of Lanier's archaisms is Clark Olney's, “Archaisms in the Poetry of Sidney Lanier,” Notes and Queries, CLXVI (April 28, 1934), 292-94.

  26. See ibid., VII, 126, 131, 136, and 141.

  27. Robert Penn Warren, “The Blind Poet: Sidney Lanier,” American Review, II (November, 1933), 27. See also Allen Tate, “A Southern Romantic,” New Republic, LXXVI (August 30, 1933), 67-70.

  28. Centennial Edition, V, 291.

  29. Ibid., VII, 397.

  30. Sir Walter Scott, “An Essay on Chivalry,” The Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott (Philadelphia, 1857), p. 4.

  31. F. J. C. Hearnshaw, “Chivalry and Its Place in History,” Chivalry, Edgar Prestage, ed. (New York, 1928), p. 30.

  32. Centennial Edition, I, 171-89.

  33. Darrell Abel, American Literature, II (Woodbury, 1963), 509. Centennial Edition, VIII, 224. Lanier wrote: “You know what the commercial spirit is: you remember that Trade killed Chivalry and now sits in the throne. It was Trade that hatched the Jacquerie in the 14th Century: it was Trade that hatched John Brown, and broke the saintly heart of Robert Lee, in the 19th.”

Jack De Bellis (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8066

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 poems and The Science of English Verse continued the lines of his major development. But everything he wrote still related itself directly to his dream of educating the emotions of his nation and of correcting the mistaken devaluation of feeling.

Lanier published “The Marshes of Glynn” in an omnibus volume of anonymous writers, A Masque of Poets. The book slipped into oblivion because of the mediocrity of most of the selections, but at least one reader thought Lanier's poem was by Tennyson. And W. D. Howells, ironically enough, stated that it almost bettered Swinburne.1 Interestingly, though Lanier had read Swinburne and had frequently commented about him, he complained that he could never be recognized in “a Swinburnian time.” Though he may have responded to Swinburne's rhythms and tone color, he must have been displeased by the English poet's voluptuousness and simple glitter.2 Lanier had made his private amalgam of Poe, Keats, Tennyson, Swinburne, Emerson, and Whitman; and his poem was selected by Longfellow for his Poems of Places (1879), perhaps because it appealed to his own rich sense of rhythmic experimentation. For the past century, Lanier's fame has rested on his musicality of verse, but it is unfortunate that no commentator has recovered the thematic service Lanier's musicality had performed. It had provoked a deeper emotional response for his fairly elementary ideas about the morality of feeling.


During 1878 Lanier organized his many ideas on the interaction of music and poetry into a series of lectures at the Peabody Institute later published as The Science of English Verse. Even while at Oglethorpe, Lanier had been interested in the impact of music on feeling, and his musical career showed a determination to synthesize the two arts in accordance with what he felt to be the spirit of the time, as well as his personal religious aspirations.

Though virtually all poets have manipulated the musicality of verse, Lanier always placed a high priority on sonic rather than semantic effects of language. His debates, speeches, letters, and essays show conscious manipulation of dialects, speech rhythms, and phrasings of words. But he was determined to connect music and poetry, though, as seen in the previous chapter, when he had the chance to write poetry for music he failed. He thought his ideas in The Science of English Verse were original contributions to understanding verse technique, and he was right, though his work was misconstrued because of the book's ambiguous writing. It must have occurred to him that the demonstration of identities between music and poetry could subtly propagandize for the mysterious effect of music on the moral nature of man.

In selecting the term “science,” Lanier was also ambiguous, though perhaps not intentionally misleading; for critics at once condemned him for trying to formulate with finality the ways poetry is constructed. He really only wanted to demonstrate some of the practices that have been followed and to suggest others. It has been thought that Lanier probably did not mean “verse” but “versification,” for he does not deal with a large number of elements of verse which have little to do with versification. To Lanier, verse is simply the relation of sounds, so all that distinguishes music from poetry is the tone color of vowels and consonants compared to the tone color of flutes or violins. Both music and speech share rhythm, tune, and tone color; and, for this reason, poetry can gain some of the freedom of music.

As music may shift accent for emphasis away from the rhythmic accent, poetry can create an opposition between rhythmic and logical accent by use of originality in the creation of rhythms. (Lanier means that the stresses in a word may counter the rhythm of a line by having the divisions of a word of two or more syllables from separate parts of different musical groups, like the foot.) The freest poetry would have the least rhythmic regularity, the fewest end-stops in a line, and few strong line endings. In his implication that the freest poetry would tend toward prose—or what we now know as “free verse”—Lanier was creating the esthetic basis for much later experimentation; and he was also defining the nature of practices like Whitman's. Yet Lanier argued that such freedom would not create “prose poetry” since the freest poetry would be led back to poetry by the regularity of its rhythm. Interestingly, these arguments had occurred to Lanier not from an analysis of his or his contemporaries' techniques but from his study of Shakespeare's poetic development toward freer forms.

But Lanier did considerably more than merely insist upon the relation of music and poetry. For one thing, he presented the first lucid description of the way in which poetry could be understood according to musical rhythms, offering conclusive examples and detailed analysis. The poet Karl Shapiro has defended the work as “the most famous and influential in the field of temporal prosody … in no sense dated … one of the best expositions of its theory in the literature of metrics.”3 Most critics agree. Lanier was the first American to break ground for a richer understanding of poetic rhythm, and he is still important, as Joseph Hendren has shown in his recent thoughtful study, “Time and Stress in English Verse with Special Reference to Lanier's Theory of Rhythm.”4

Hendren has found that Lanier's only fault is his inability to do away with the devices of traditional scansion and, therefore, rely completely on the musical implications of his novel approach. For Lanier intended to demonstrate how rhythm in poetry depends on the temporal relation of accents, and thus a different stress notation had to be used to make this apparent, a stress system using musical notation. This notation involves him in a demonstration of the difference in the “quantity” of syllables. Thus “it is” is an iambic unit like “was grouped,” but the second “iamb” obviously takes longer to say than the first. There is a quantitative difference; and, since this is true, it is misleading to say they have the same foot length. Lanier assumed it would be possible for the trained ear to grasp spontaneously the similarities and differences of duration, but laboratory studies by linguists have shown, though there may be general agreement about many specific cases, the identifications of duration are subjective and variable. Even so, musical notation will give, in some ways, a clearer indication of exactly what rhythm is being employed than the stressaccent system does.

And so Lanier lists several rhythms of English verse according to how the ear instinctively groups sounds. Primary rhythm is the ticking of a clock before any pattern is imposed on it (tick-tick). Secondary rhythm is a pattern of clock ticks (tick-tock). Then Lanier sets up a system of proportions. If the second sound or syllable is twice, three times, or four times the previous one, then duple, triple, or quadruple time is constructed—exactly as in music. Lanier notes that a major difference between the musical and prosodic bar is that the musical one always begins with a stress or beat; yet it would have been easy for him to free himself from the necessity to adhere to the old system of the metrical foot and to scan his poetry fully in musical terms, as Hendren has suggested.

Lanier's other kinds of rhythm are not very useful, and, regretfully, he did not explore alliteration or assonance beyond a few preliminary notes. Yet his demonstration of the ability to scan poetry differently gave a sharp incentive to other investigations and made the musical study of verse a permanent part of English prosody.

Paul Fussell, Jr., has directed attention to basic problems involved in Lanier's approach when he notes the basic weakness in the added complexity of musical notation, as well as the danger of implying that poetry follows musical principles explicitly.5 Allen Tate had earlier sounded the alarm by suggesting that a poet who would develop such a theory simply rationalizes his incapacity to take the subject matter of poetry seriously.6 (In Tate's later essays, he seems unsure that poetry has a definable “subject matter.”) Robert Penn Warren has accused Lanier of a complex camouflaging of his own withdrawal into feeling. Other critics have specifically attacked Lanier's inability to show in musical notation what is actually heard. But many scholars and poets have found that Lanier's theory redeems poetry from mechanical contrivances like the foot that are inaccurate and ambiguous; and we may cite the controversy among Lanier critics about the “meter” of “The Song of the Chattahoochee” and “The Marshes of Glynn.” They have also found that Lanier's theory helps represent more accurately the different musical effects of the same kinds of feet.

Hendren's purpose was to “rescue Lanier's significant work from discredit and neglect,” and he succeeds quite well. He begins by listing some basic errors, three of which are “that one can discover the rhythm of a verse by simply dividing it into feet,” and “that a foot is a definable entity, or that accent (stress) in itself sufficiently accounts for rhythm.” He emphasizes the importance of Lanier's description of the duration of sounds by showing that two dactylic lines may take different times to speak, one in duple time and another in triple. Thus, the same feet might have the difference of a waltz and a march, but conventional scansion would never indicate it. Additionally, the traditional foot is often helpless in dividing some lines—as many in “The Marshes of Glynn” might indicate. The foot itself, he concludes, “is not a section beginning with a stress, nor a section ending with a stress, nor an isochronous interval, nor a sense section, nor a syntactic grouping. Just what it is nobody can tell.”7 Lanier had begun to liberate prosody from fetters like the foot, but he had insisted on trying to construct a musical theory within the traditional use of the barred foot, a convention which his theory totally opposed.

Hendren reconstructs the direction of Lanier's thought and qualifies his overstatements. Lanier had said, “There is absolutely no difference between the sound-relations used in music and those used in verse,” and he was quickly dismissed by many critics for his absolutism. He meant only “sound-relations,” not actual performances or readings which, of course, draw in the element of subjectivity, according to Hendren. He also discusses Lanier's crucial core idea that “rhythm of any sort is impossible except through the coordination of time,” and he explains that this means that “rhythm is neither performable nor conceivable without measured time; that every line of verse is divided into a number of sensibly equal time periods marked by stress; that the time periods so marked are themselves subdivided into equal segments of time (beats) by their syllable configuration.” Here is the foundation of verse rhythm, and not only is Lanier right about it, but Hendren sees “the consensus of modern prosody” solidly behind him.

Lanier's major weaknesses in his theory now appear to be attributable to exaggeration. His title proclaimed what he knew could never be—a “science” of verse. His frequent and hasty comments about the place of quantity in English scansion that opposed his own practice surely show his manifesto fervor outrunning his good sense. Lanier did not want to describe merely the operations of music in poetry but how poetry began to etherealize by becoming like music. While his “wider applications” and perorations scattered through the book may have been simply oratorical embellishments, Lanier clearly wished to give music a more glorious place in man's life than others had. The examples he offered of the operation of music in ordinary life appealed to moral thinkers, and this effect was the major intention in Lanier's writing of this book: he intended to discover the ways in which emotion might be more completely manipulated. In a sense, the ultimate meaning of The Science of English Verse in the development of Lanier's imagination is similar to that of “The Marshes of Glynn.”

One of Lanier's perorations shows this more clearly than this technical analysis of the book has perhaps done. He argues that science has proved that the primordial mode of disease, of the seasons, and of the distribution of nebulae—all things in “nature”—is rhythm. He points to Poe's view of the universe in Eureka as “nothing more than the rhythmic beating of the heart of God,” and he calls it one of the most striking similes in literature. Paraphrasing his earlier comment in Tiger-Lilies that music is harmony, harmony is love, and love is God, Lanier quotes: “‘The father of metre is rhythm, and the father of rhythm is God.’”8 As the action of opposing forces in nature and poetry creates rhythm, so natural oppositions in the moral world create “moral rhythm.” Lanier put these thoughts into a poem, “Opposition,” and this suggests that his perorations for his quite technical book were “prose poems.” And yet Lanier, when revising his ideas for poems, chose, surprisingly, to follow the form of Tennyson's “In Memoriam” quatrains—iambic tetrameter rhyming abab.

As Lanier gained increased confidence from his experiments in “Corn” and “The Symphony,” experiments which he thought placed him in the avant-garde, he felt that his poetry was beginning to shuck the bonds of convention. He perhaps made the mistake of many other poets in thinking that whatever is new is better and that “forms” necessarily suppress an ambitious poet's talents. Nevertheless, he succeeded in liberating himself from the mechanical schemes of meter and tone color that he had used in his poetry of the chivalric vein. He knew why he was liberating himself, so there was no danger of affectation or of the creation of “art-for-art's-sake” “esthetic poetry” which he despised. But Lanier's powerful hold on his view of the morality of feelings kept him from liberating his lexicon. He retained not only the archaisms with their implications of chivalric values but also some sentimental diction (“dear,” “sweet”) while he continued to manipulate imagery of nature.

It seems possible that Lanier's experiments with musical verse and his writing of The Science of English Verse were his ways of convincing himself that he was an original poet. For this reason his lexicon remained, apparently, more conventional even though his rhythms were so free that they moved toward free verse. He did not realize that such a verse called for a refinement in diction, tone, and imagery. Nor did he guess that his occasional grotesque images would become valuable to another kind of poet. In other words, Lanier was not a Symbolist poet; he simply moved along parallel lines with others who were in many ways precursors of it, like Swinburne, a translator of Baudelaire. Perhaps now the deeper tension in Lanier's mind has been exposed—reactionary imagery and diction opposed to a radical symbolism and musicality of verse. Growing more subjective, he intended to plan entire books of poetry around his “Marsh” poems. He had simply reached the limit of his vision and ability.


Lanier addressed The Science of English Verse to his fellow poets, and it surely appealed to them far more than his lectures on Shakespeare, those on the English novel, or his editions of chivalric classics—all works that resulted from Lanier's growing academic pursuits. While some may imagine these publications were unfortunate scatterings of his draining energy and dwindling time, Lanier seems to have taken this direction to confirm his basic ethical and esthetic ideas and to acquire a perspective from which to examine his literary situation. We may speculate that Lanier might have become increasingly absorbed by his nonpoetical interests and gradually stopped writing poetry completely. Perhaps he theorized that the lectern offered a better place from which to influence directly the morality of his age. Possibly Lanier might have been led to stop writing poetry if he had understood the depth of resistance in society to his evangel of love, and if he had recognized how his absorption in the musicality of verse had brought him close to the “art-for-art's-sake” decadence he despised.

His first serious interest in literary criticism took him naturally enough to Shakespeare; and, reflecting the “Bardolatry” of his time, Lanier thought Shakespeare the perfect synthesis of artistic originality and moral growth. Always a person who identified with great artists, Lanier may have found his “ego ideal” in Shakespeare. No matter what the reason, he found in Shakespeare's plays “moral teaching … pure morality” and that each play was “in the strictest sense, a powerful sermon.”9 Thus, Two Gentlemen from Verona (an unlikely choice) was to Lanier a “sermon” about “that forgiveness which pardons the trespasser.” He found the greatest moral artist was also “a special adorer of music,” so his life was “morally musical.” Shakespeare's career moved from realism toward the “sweet music” of his last plays which centered on the theme of reconciliation and forgiveness. This theme, coincidentally, was also the major one of Lanier's last poems.

But Shakespeare's own moral growth, not his plays, interested Lanier, especially in its revelation through his changing poetic practices. Shakespeare's disuse of rhyme and regular rhythm and his use of run-on lines, feminine endings, and weak endings were “clearly an advance towards freedom.” While Lanier's critical evaluation is correct, he makes a too-simple analogy from this fact when he asserts that Shakespeare's freedom enabled him to shift from “form toward chaos” and from love to egoism. But he finds that the great accomplishment of Shakespeare is his balancing of form against chaos in both art and morality, through a career that developed from the innocent relation of man to nature (A Midsummer Night's Dream), to the dark reality of man's relation to man (Hamlet), to the heavenly relation of man to God (The Tempest).10 The pattern shows, not surprisingly, a great similarity to that of Lanier's own life work.

Lanier makes a tighter identification with Shakespeare by seeing him as opposed by the same vicious critics he had earlier delineated as kin to Christ's crucifiers. Lanier imagines that each of them was a prophet of a new poetry who was ignored by his age but who will be vindicated by the judgment of time. Lanier regards Shakespeare as having passed through the strains of oppositions on the way to forgiveness as Christ had. A diagram of the final plays resembled, to Lanier, a cross. Shakespeare was God's representative on earth, entrusted with teaching men how to control, “with temperance and perfect art,” all oppositions.11 Before the poet can teach, he must learn; but Lanier evidently did not see the relevance of his own writing of poetry to self-education, though he assumes that Shakespeare's life-work revealed such a self-education. Having made so many correspondences between himself and Shakespeare, it is likely that he would have seen that Shakespeare's loosening of forms resembled his own attempt to unite poetry to music.


As we have noted, Lanier asserted that Shakespeare's last phase used freer forms, and it centered upon the theme of forgiveness. The two were related in Lanier's mind. When the artist had achieved his “musical morality” through a struggle with artistic form which was, in fact, a moral struggle, he would then be able to confer this moral freedom on those who had never understood him, morally or artistically. In forgiving his detractors, he would relieve them of the guilt of having injured him, and he would also free himself from spite and anger. Put in other terms, the freedom to discover the limits of artistic possibilities required a strong capacity of self-identification. And this message, perhaps, was Lanier's final one about the education of the feelings of his age: by witnessing the artist's capacity for love and forgiveness, despite society's resistance, the men of the mistaken age could use him as a moral exemplar. Symbolic moral teaching is all that is left, and the symbolic teaching of art was less dramatic than that of an entire life. Despite Lanier's understanding, mildness and conciliation were not easily achieved by him. In “Remonstrance” of 1878 he ostensibly attacks science, but he shifts to an assault on the critics he berated in his lecture on Shakespeare. Those critics freed Barabbas but stabbed Christ. The poet begs: “I would thou left'st me free, to live with love.”

But in “How Love Looked for Hell,” written while he worked on “The Marshes of Glynn,” Lanier extended the plea for freedom to an ideal description of forgiveness, and the poem recalls in its allegorical simplicity the early joust poems. Prince Love's ministers, Mind and Sense, take him to see hell; but, since hell is a matter of viewpoint, Sense insists, “I saw true hell with mine own eye”; however, Love calmly says, “But I cannot find where thou hast found / Hell.”12 At last, when Mind confesses that he had dreamed he had murdered love, Love replies with complete forgiveness, “In dreams of hate true loves begin.” But the allegorical form insures that there will be no challenge to this notion of etherealization. And this problem is exactly the one which Lanier's psychological honesty has been unable to resolve in “The Marshes of Glynn.”


Another but secondary approach by Lanier to the education of feelings was his editing of chivalric classics for boys which kept the pot boiling from 1878 to 1881. However, Lanier did use this chance to educate those who were as yet unaffected by the materialism of the Gilded Age. Apart from the customary bowdlerizing of the texts, Lanier's scholarly introductions drew ethical implications from the stories. In 1878, he wrote his publisher that The Boy's Froissart would direct the reader to “those persistent remains of Chivalry” in modern culture, and he notes that Chaucer, William Langland, and John Wyclif were “large and beautiful souls” to be imitated. As in his Shakespeare essays, Lanier appealed to hero worship; but he felt compelled to add that “Somehow it seems harder to be a good knight nowadays than it was then,” listing the everyday problems that might tempt a boy to vice including “the utmost delicacy of national honor”—just what Lanier had called the result of uneducated feeling in his 1860 letter to his father. But Lanier was not directing his remarks solely to boys, for in The Boy's Mabinogion (1881) he contrasted King Arthur's love of law with contemporary legislatures which “multiply laws and murder Law.” And The Boy's King Arthur (1880) and The Boy's Percy (1881) directed boys to be “fair in trade, loyal in love, generous to the poor … and honest in all things.” He expected much from boys.

Continuing in his direct attempts to educate the public, Lanier gave a series of lectures early in 1881 about the English novel in which he argues that depth characterization is a modern innovation and in which he also summarizes and develops many ideas of his later years. He argues that the Greeks did not depict personality, or what Carlyle called “the mystery in us that calls itself I.” Since Lanier thought everything evolved from simple to complex, from chaos to form, from definite to indefinite, he easily reconciled the theory of evolution with his idea of etherealization; but, unlike later literary Naturalists, he exempted human development from such determinism. Freedom was necessary to Lanier's moral view, and it was intimately related to his view of the ultimate synthesis of all forms that have etherealized. The growth of personality toward the Unknown, toward one's fellow man, and toward nature becomes unified by “the conception of Love as the organic idea of moral order.”13 The very form of the novel, Lanier explained, reveals a synthesis of science and poetry, as well as a spiritualization of language, for prose is a freer form than poetry because it contains more forms. The need for a freer form enabled the novel to develop from drama in order to explain “the more complex relations between modern personalities.”

As Lanier had insisted that every play was a powerful sermon, so the novel is the most moral of all forms of literature; and George Eliot, because she uses a newer form and responds to modern ideas, is a more moral teacher than Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare, she had discovered, besides the “enormous motive of forgiveness,” the mysterious forces in human personality that determine people to love each another. Because the omniscient point of view resembles, to Lanier, the omniscience of God, he calls the novel “the very highest and holiest plane of creative effort.” In fact, his claims for the novel are so strong, we wonder if he might have turned to this genre again as a way to free his poetry from the technical problems he had encountered and to allow deeper explorations of human motives. His characterizations of Smallin and Cranston in Tiger-Lilies reveal some interest in psychological fiction.

Lanier was certainly making the most of his educational roles and used his new positions as ways to encourage the education of the feelings of his era, and he not only employed them, however indirectly, as guides to his own artistic development, but also used the opportunities to reject some of his earlier views. Only six years after writing “The Symphony” he could write that “Charity has become organic and a part of the system of things.”14 As we so often sense in Lanier's essays, his self-assurance was partly adopted to convince himself.


Lanier had complained that his professional music career and his lectureships at the Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins University made him “crush back” poems he longed to write. In 1880 he wrote: “To be an artist, and preach the gospel of poetry: that is the breath of my life.” There was barely enough breath left for him to voice his last poems; for, since November, 1876, when a mysterious five-hundred-dollar gift had allowed him to rest in Florida, he knew he did not have long to live. Among the poems of this period is “The Crystal” (spring, 1880) in which Lanier forgives the faults of the “sweet seers and stellar visionaries” who were the greatest poets and thinkers. The poem expanded upon a letter written in November, 1876, to Bayard Taylor. He told Taylor that the greatest poets needed the greatest allowances: “What enormous artistic crimes do we have continually to pardon in Homer, Dante, Shakespeare! How often is the first utterly dull and long-winded, the second absurdly credulous and superstitious, the third over-done and fantastical!”15

This rather cavalier way of treating his betters occurred when Lanier was at one of the peaks of his artistic egoism. In a letter explaining this poem, Lanier stated that his use of the term “forgiveness” derived from the Lord's Prayer which demands forgiveness of those sinning against us. “It becomes thus not only our right but our duty to ‘forgive’ them.”16 In his zeal to forgive, Lanier had once more fallen into the Christ-like pose which robbed his work of its most interesting human insights. It is possible to argue as well that the self-satisfaction and condescension of such an attitude as that shown in “The Crystal” seriously weakened his art by allowing a relaxation into abstractions of piety when a more concrete exploration of the human condition was needed.

In “The Crystal” Lanier expands this list of writers in need of “the greatest allowances,” many of whom he had listed as those ruined by capricious criticism: Buddha, Dante, Socrates, Milton, Aeschylus, Lucretius, Thomas à Kempis, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Caedmon, Keats, Emerson, Langland, Emanuel Swedenborg, Jacob Behmen, Tennyson, and Shakespeare require forgiveness because they never created a perfect work of art. The only perfection ever created was Christ, and he alone needs no forgiveness. Lanier's criticism, therefore, is moral, not artistic, just as his criticism of Shakespeare had been; but he seems unwilling to make sharp distinctions between art as art and art as biographical data. Naturally, Christ alone is blameless:

But Thee, but Thee, O Sovereign Seer of time,
But Thee, O poets' Poet, Wisdom's Tongue,
But Thee, O man's best Man, O love's best Love,
O perfect life in perfect labor writ.(17)

In “The Cloud” (June, 1880) Lanier returned to the posture of social critic that he had defined years before and which he linked in his imagination to Christ, the castigator of the moneylenders. Lanier arraigns the cloud for the crimes of murder and arson and asks why it does not plunge its lightning bolts in “Some maggot politician throng / Swarming to parcel out / The body of a land, and rout / The maw-conventicle, and ungorge Wrong.”18 But Lanier forgives the cloud since it acts according to a nature designed by God. The very freedom which had so appealed to Lanier earlier now seems to be fraught with anxiety, for the artist may be free to write what he pleases, but his responsibility is great in proportion to his freedom:

Awful is Art, because 'tis free.
The artist trembles o'er his plan,
          Where men his Self must see.

If the language and rhythms of this poem are an indication, Lanier thought the most unadorned expression of these abstractions would be most effective. Yet the experiments of “The Symphony,” “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” and “The Marshes of Glynn” had shown the risks that an artist takes in trying to find his original voice. “Crystal” and “The Cloud” may suggest that Lanier had begun not only to accustom himself to a sense of the crushing responsibilities of art but also to accept the inability of man being man to over succeed as an artist.

Despite his doubts, Lanier wrote two impressive poems two months before he died, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master” and “Sunrise,” which exhibit contrasting styles in the education of feeling, and two ways of living with some sense of defeat at having failed to educate nineteenth-century America, though he did his “devoirs” in obedience to the dream.

“A Ballad of Trees and the Master” is a simple, lyrically tender, and compassionate poem describing Christ's Agony in the Garden. The one person who did not need forgiveness and the model for Lanier's education of feelings, the “Poet of Poets,” Christ takes the same path as the narrator of “The Marshes of Glynn”:

Into the woods my Master went,
          Clean forspent, forspent.
Into the woods my Master came,
          Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to Him,
The little gray leaves were kind to Him:
The thorn-tree had a mind to Him
          When into the woods He came.
Out of the woods my Master went,
          And He was well content.
Out of the woods my Master came,
          Content with death and shame.
When Death and Shame would woo Him last,
From under the trees they drew Him last:
'Twas on a tree they slew Him—last
          When out of the woods He came.(19)

The many repetitions of words, the rhyme links from stanza to stanza, the understated assonance, and the three-word rhymes in both stanzas carefully re-create a somber sorrow. Meanwhile, the dectyls and trochees are held in check, so that the movement does not become so quick that it distorts the tone. The poem looks back to some of Lanier's concise social protest poetry, but it is resolved, as those earlier poems are not, by the cross of salvation. And yet Lanier sees Christ in markedly human terms, enabling him to shape the personal crisis of the event. From Tiger-Lilies to “The Marshes of Glynn,” he had shown how nature can answer man's most disturbing questions, so long as man believes that nature ultimately loves man. Yet the narrator of “The Marshes of Glynn” remained in a quandary despite his apparent willingness to believe.

Christ receives, however, the love of the garden and returns renewed to the world only to have it misunderstand and destroy him, as it was fated to do because of the deep “error” implanted in man's nature through Adam's fall. Lanier imagines that such an acceptance of the oppositions of life, such a “musical morality” (to borrow his term in analyzing Shakespeare), can only be produced by the operation of an external force, typically revealing spiritual forces. Yet the garden is odd: the olives accept Christ by negating their alternative (“were not blind to him”); and the thorn leaves have a “mind” to him. The men who will shortly put Christ through the agony of the Cross are blind to him, and they will wound his head with a crown of thorns. Though nature may be misused by man, even to being turned into a wasteland, for the moment it “has a mind” to the man who symbolizes the possibilities of spiritual regeneration. The idiom “to mind” (to “understand,” “obey,” or “sympathize”) creates a current of understatement and suggests that the thorns, though put to a dark use, are not themselves a mysterious or hostile aspect of nature. Ironically, Christ has returned to nature at this time to prepare for death, and the chivalric language which accompanies him reminds us that he is the “great man” at last come back to the world to show it how to educate its feelings. Lanier's dark suggestion, however, is that, if such a man were to return, he would be misunderstood and killed.

“A Ballad of Trees and the Master” is such a perfect blend of Lanier's chivalric and protest themes, as well as a summation of his identification of himself with Christ and the “great man” and their probable fate, that there is little wonder he could have written it in fifteen minutes with a temperature of a hundred and four degrees. “Sunrise” was written shortly after “A Ballad of Trees and the Master”; and it offered an alternative to the artistic procedures of “A Ballad of Trees and the Master” by returning to the freer forms of the marsh poem, though it is nearly identical in theme: the preparation for death through the ministry of nature.

But Lanier's method and, surprisingly, his tone in “Sunrise,” are altogether different, for the forms of dark nature are revealed without terror and with a ritualistic praise and an ecstasy of faith totally unexpected in Lanier's late poetry. “Sunrise” may have been intended, however, to continue after the “waters of sleep” had subdued the narrator of “The Marshes of Glynn”:

          In my sleep I was fain of their fellowship, fain
                    Of the live-oak, the marsh, and the main.
The little green leaves would not let me alone in my sleep;
Up-breathed from the marshes, a message of range and of sweep,
Interwoven with wafture of wild sea-liberties, drifting,
          Came through the lapped leaves sifting, sifting,
                    Came to the gates of sleep.(20)


This time, the sweeping anapestic verse helps to reflect the growing energy of the narrator, who is almost physically pulled back to life against his will. Or was the “sleep” actually the whole Transcendental experience of “The Marshes of Glynn”?

The link of the narrator and nature is made tenuous by the convoluted sweep of the lines and by the understated verbals and verbs “up-breathed,” “drifting,” and “sifting.” Otherwise, Lanier uses virtually the same devices of rhythm and tone color we have examined at some length in “The Marshes of Glynn.” For a moment the narrator lapses back into sleep and then his eyes open, foreshadowing sunrise.

In the second stanza the narrator shows himself a lover of nature:

I have come ere the dawn, O beloved, my live-oaks, to hide
          In your gospelling glooms,—to be
As a lover in heaven, the marsh my marsh and the sea my sea.


Not merely the major symbols but much of the imagery and language of “The Marshes of Glynn” is used from this point on. In “gospelling glooms” Lanier recovers two images; but, in making a metaphorical phrase of them, he gives a somewhat puritanical overtone to the oaks, making them unlikely as a “beloved.”

In the third stanza, the narrator embraces the trees with tears that rise “not from reason.” The leaves, “embroid'ring the dark of the question of man,” seem to give some “pattern and plan” to nature; but the dark doubt of the end of “The Marshes of Glynn” reappears: “(But would I could know, but would I could know).” But the narrator considers himself fortunate that the leaves “have wrought me / Designs on the night of our knowledge.” He is not content, but he is thankful for some knowledge of his mysterious life. These lines seem to be intimately related to the problem which ends “The Marshes of Glynn,” man's inability to discover the secrets of nature. But they are certainly not an answer. He begs nature to teach him the “terms of silence” and “the passion of patience,” apparently so he can resolve his bewilderment at the ambiguous signs nature affords man. The same fears that had bothered the narrator of “The Marshes of Glynn” during his passage through the woods have also affected this narrator, but Lanier has more specifically identified these fears as crises of religious faith. Lanier supplies in “Sunrise” no transition from woods to the marsh, and he draws an image from “The Symphony” to call the marsh an “old chemist, rapt in alchymy” who has solved the secrets of matter and so distills silence. Its “precious qualities of silence” symbolize for the narrator a profound peace that cannot be his.

The next stanza of this new section brings a full tide in the marshes, but there are no puzzling forms in the water since it is dawn, not twilight. The narrator notes that the marsh outdoes the riches of heaven: the sky has but one galaxy, but the marsh has ten. This section's tone of quiet meditation has been given greater tranquility by the greater number of couplets, often heroic couplets, than in “The Marshes of Glynn.” Suddenly the poem becomes agitated. The anxiety is not directed at the fear of some mysterious force in nature, however, but on behalf of the rising sun:

                    Oh, what if a sound should be made!
                    Oh, what if a bound should be laid
To this bow-and-string tension of beauty and silence a-spring,—
To the bend of beauty the bow, or the hold of silence the string!
I fear me, I fear me yon dome of diaphanous gleam
          Will break as a bubble o'er-blown in a dream,—
Yon dome of too-tenuous tissues of space and of night,
          Over-weighted with stars, over-freighted with light,
          Over-sated with beauty and silence, will seem
                    But a bubble that broke in a dream,
          If a bound of degree to this grace be laid,
                    Or a sound or a motion made.


As Charmenz Lenhart has rightly said, “It may seriously be doubted whether any better description of dawn with so carefully sustained a crescendo has been achieved in the English language.”21 In the thirty-seven lines leading to the sun's appearance, Lanier has packed all the musical effects at his command; and he maintains the narrator's anxiety as the location of the excitement. Thus the enormous flood of the sun's energy is given terrific personal substance. By invoking the images of dreams to describe the tense silence before dawn, Lanier has recalled the dream of the narrator that opened the poem, with its memory of the woods, marsh, and sleep. If it has been correctly inferred that this was a dream embodying “The Marshes of Glynn,” then the recollection of it at this moment dispels entirely the doubts which that dream had enclosed, as well as perhaps the worry of the ultimate questions in the woods later in that section of “Sunrise.” Those worries, it now appears, may have been the aftereffects of his dreaming.

Yet motion and sound are made in the next stanza as the “wild duck sails round the bend of the river,” apparently carrying the narrator's eyes eastward. Another of Lanier's spiritual birds, this one is more carefully worked into the rich tissues of detail than in any other poem. The poet becomes Whitmanesque and cosmic at this point as he momentarily springs from his own situation of almost unendurable tension to an unexpected image of a sailor seemingly hoisting the sun like a flag:

          And a sailor unseen is hoisting a-peak,
          For list, down the inshore curve of the creek
                    How merrily flutters the sail,—
          And lo, in the east! Will the East unveil?
          The East is unveiled, the East hath confessed
A flush: 'tis dead; 'tis alive: 'tis dead, ere the West
Was aware of it: nay, 'tis abiding, 'tis unwithdrawn:
                    Have a care, sweet Heaven! 'Tis Dawn.


The many caesuras and the unusual stress distribution produce a retarding and a quickening of the lines to create tremendous tension. Lanier's long vowels also help to slow the line, while the anapests hurry it along. This effect is especially functional in “'Tis alive,” with the caesura serving to break up the foot and thereby extend the verb's vowel beyond its usual duration. The next line puts two nonstressed syllables in succession, and a strong caesura follows to create a strange effect of hush, breaking up our sense that the foot is an anapest (“Was awáre of it: náy …”). This exciting segment of the poem—perhaps the most exciting in all his poems—strains our normal expectations of patterned rhythms so much that the “feel” of the lines is free verse.

In absolute freedom, the sun rises—a symbol of the narrator's spiritual ascent. We recognize now that the “sunrise” the narrator has beheld is the rising of his own soul after death, and no better way exists to subdue a crisis of faith than to demonstrate the reality of the soul. This place would have been the perfect one for the poem to end, but Lanier pursues the sun as it rises with an unfortunately grotesque image in which the sun is a “star-fed Bee, the build-fire Bee” returning to a “hive” of the sky, the “gold undazzling” zenith. Heroic couplets restore the peaceful scene to its former tranquility in the next stanza in which the marsh worships the sun by reflecting it. The following stanza draws the major symbols together with the poet's soul in a way that resembles Whitman's “symphonic” form:

          With several voice, with ascription one,
          The woods and the marsh and the sea and my soul
Unto thee, whence the glittering stream of all morrows doth roll,
Cry good and past-good and most heavenly morrow, lord Sun.


In the last section of “Sunrise” Lanier reaches back to “Corn” for the highest praise of the sun: “Yea, Artist, thou, of whose art yon sea's all news, / With his inshore greens and manifold mid-sea blues.” But “Corn” appears, in contrast, amateurish; for the sun is the source for all nature's energy, not merely an exemplar of it; it gives the marshes their form and color, and it makes clear what is mysterious in all forms of nature. The narrator can therefore return to the dailiness of life with a regenerated heart: “strong with the strength of my lord the Sun: / How dark, how dark soever the race that must needs be run, / I am lit with the Sun.”

We feel that Lanier has at last written in “Sunrise” a mystical poem, the kind of poetry his musicality of verse was best suited for and which his essentially religious concepts of the synthesis of the arts could make most provocative. The impressionistic technique following the lead, sometimes too automatically, of “The Marshes of Glynn,” is welded to a triangular form in which the poem reaches its apex as the sun does, and it falls smoothly away into a retrenched belief in life. But the poem is given internal solidity through its inclusion of the traditions of chivalry, on the one hand, which always settled oppositions through religious paradoxes, and protest, on the other, which brought Lanier to recognize the sometimes irreconcilable injustices of life, some of which he came to regard as not circumstantial but as existential.

The sun is a symbol of pure feeling, and it is offered to the world as a potential symbol for all men. The final exemplar, it is the last demonstration of the reason for responding first to feeling rather than to thought. Only through an onomatopoetic representation of the effect of the sun on a poet's soul can the poet convince his audience that his age has not truly been alive. The river with its song of duty and the woods, marsh, sea, and sunrise are evoked by Lanier's rich musicality in such a way that we must feel our way toward the essence of the natural objects he represents. Thus, his music liberates us from the images which we may discover to be turgid, confused, obscure, trite, or sentimental. By freeing us from semantic responses insofar as he is able, Lanier invites a direct participation in the musical language.


  1. Aubrey Starke, Sidney Lanier, pp. 316, 498, note 29.

  2. The impact of Swinburne may be quickly summarized. In 1866 Lanier transcribed one of his poems in a letter, suggesting one of his own was the less obscure. (Centennial Edition, VII, 251.) In 1868 he revealed that he thought Swinburne had a foul imagination though an excellent technique (VII, 395). In “Retrospects and Prospects” of 1868, Lanier said: “Swinburne has overheard some sea-conversation which he has translated into good English” (V, 286). By 1870 Lanier had found Swinburne had given in to public acclaim and deserted serious poetry (VIII, 79). After that Swinburne became the symbol of “culture poets” (IX, 298). In the same year Swinburne apparently weighed Lanier's poetry and disliked it (ibid., note). Yet Lanier bought his Atalanta in Calydon (which was far inferior to Leaves of Grass in Lanier's private estimation). (X, 18.) He requested Swinburne's Studies in Shakespeare (X, 169) in 1880. A late poem outline is judicious and pungent: “He invited me to eat, the service was silver and gold, but no food therein save pepper and salt” (I, 260).

  3. Karl Shapiro, A Bibliography of Modern Prosody (Baltimore, 1948), p. 16.

  4. Joseph W. Hendren, “Time and Stress in English Verse, with Special Reference to Lanier's Theory of Rhythm,” Rice Institute Pamphlet, XLVI (July, 1959), v-vii, 1-72.

  5. Paul Fussell, Jr., [Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (New York, 1965)] p. 21.

  6. Allen Tate, “A Southern Romantic,” 67.

  7. Joseph W. Hendren, p. 2.

  8. Centennial Edition, II, 194-95.

  9. Ibid., III, 186.

  10. Ibid., 360.

  11. Ibid., 410.

  12. Ibid., I, 125-27.

  13. Ibid., IV, 145.

  14. Ibid., 107. In “The New South” Lanier could even assert that with slavery abolished Negroes were accepted for their true selves (V, 344, 345n.).

  15. Ibid., IX, 413.

  16. Ibid., X, 224.

  17. Ibid., I, 138.

  18. Ibid., 140.

  19. Ibid., 144.

  20. Ibid., 144-49.

  21. Charmenz Lenhart, pp. 278-79.

Works Cited

1. Published Works

Anderson, Charles. R., ed. Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945. Ten Volumes. Associate editors and contents of each volume are as follows: I. Poems, Charles Anderson sole editor; II. The Science of English Verse and Essays on Music, Paull F. Baum; III. Shakespeare and his Forerunners, Kemp Malone; IV. The English Novel and Essays on Literature, Clarence Gohdes and Kemp Malone; V. Tiger-Lilies and Southern Prose, Garland Greever; VI. Florida and Miscellaneous Prose, Philip Graham; VII-X. Letters, Charles Anderson and Aubrey Starke.

Hendren, Joseph. W. Time and Stress in English Verse, with Special Reference to Lanier's Theory of Rhythm. Rice Institute Pamphlets, XLVI (July, 1959), v-vii and 1-72. As Chapter 7 showed, this essay rescues Lanier's scansion theory and places his most important ideas in an informed, intelligent context.

Starke, Aubrey. Sidney Lanier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933. Definitive biography of Lanier but marred by poor readings of the poetry.

Tate, Allen. “A Southern Romantic,” New Republic, LXXVI (August 30, 1933), 67-70. Blistering attack on Starke's conclusions which found Lanier a precursor of the Fugitive Agrarian writers like Tate who developed the Southern Renaissance. Useful as an evaluation of Lanier's poetry against the best poetry.

Alice Hall Petry (essay date 1979)

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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 Lanierolators, Lanier expounds his not-too-original, rather unconvincingly argued, and occasionally frankly illogical theory of “etherealization,” that “great central idea of the ages”(286)1 which, at least for Lanier, manages to conveniently explain the development of the natural world, mankind, culture, and human institutions. In a nutshell, “etherealization” [or “spiritualization”(289)] involves the abandonment of “sense” (which Lanier sees as including artificial physical confines, violence, “clutter,” and elitism) in favor of “soul” (which involves freedom, non-violence, few complexities, and a democratic, universal, and shall we say, “domestic” orientation). Lanier attempts to prove the validity of his theory of etherealization by exploring four major realms within which the etherealization process allegedly has taken, or is taking, place: (1)Nature, (2)Politics, (3)Religion, and (4)Art (subsumed within which are architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, and prose). Now, according to Lanier, one can tell that Nature has etherealized because

To-day we have from Nature rather dews than avalanches; to-day she gives us more of the fruitful mould and less of the barren rock; to-day sees petroleum-wells and healing-springs instead of volcanoes; to-day the woods emerge from the gloom of giant ferns, and revel in the lights and odors of tiny flowers; to-day we pluck fruit from off rocks that once starved a fir.


One may well be impatient with such an uncompromisingly “romantic” interpretation of Nature, especially in view of the fact that Lanier was, for his day, uncommonly well-educated, scientific-minded, and devoted to the theories of Charles Darwin. At any rate, this unrealistically “roseate” view pervades the entire essay, and, incidentally, much of his poetry. He illustrates the etherealization of painting, for example, by remarking how “we get from it now rather tender home-scenes than barbarous battle-scenes; rather little ones saying prayers at mothers' knees than bloody-heeled conquerors soiling the plain”(290). In a fashion typical of this essay, however, this anti-martial dimension of etherealization is illogically countered throughout the piece [e.g., Lanier praises the “mechanic arts” for having etherealized to such a degree that whereas “the ancients did hew and whack each other with hard tangible stone and steel … we propel our bullets with an elastic gas”(289)]; and, indeed, the essay is rife with similar indications of “shoddy” logic, oversimplification, and just plain shallow thinking. One may explain these difficulties in the very ways in which sympathetic Lanierolators attempt to explain the considerable shortcomings of his poetry: the compulsiveness of a man forced to write frantically during the periods of remission of a long-term battle with tuberculosis (he had been suffering for some five years before writing “Retrospects and Prospects,” and died a decade later); his characteristic failure to revise his writings; the haste to be expected from a poor man accustomed to writing “pot boiling” travel books and “juvenile” versions of Malory; the deep strain of romanticism which is such a powerful element in his poetry and letters; and his strong, rather shallow tendency to see the world in black and white terms, an element apparent in his favorite poetic motif, the use of contrasts (head/heart, up/down, etc.). But however one may attempt to explain the inadequacies of “Retrospects and Prospects,” it is clear that one of the most remarkable inadequacies of the essay is that Lanier fails to touch upon what is, in effect, a sort of “microcosm” of etherealization in action: death. When one considers how frequently the notion of death is encountered in much of his best poetry, and how perfectly human death embodies the passage from “sense” to “soul,” it is really quite incredible that it apparently did not occur to Lanier that death can be seen as the perfect example of etherealization. In this article, we shall see just how perfectly the notions expressed in “Retrospects and Prospects” correspond to the ideas of death expressed in Lanier's poetry, and we shall try to come to some understanding of this rather startling omission from his theory of etherealization.

One may initially assert that Lanier omits the mention of individual corporal death from “Retrospects and Prospects” simply because he is treating etherealization as a collective historical process, rather than as something specifically involving individual lives. In the earlier portions of his essay, Lanier does indeed emphasize civilization and “Progress,” and seems frankly uncomfortable that the “old road we called the nineteenth century is ended; we stand at the mile-post with beating hearts and gaze up the unfamiliar avenue of a new era”(282). However, the strong initial emphasis upon etherealization as a collective, historical process is, curiously, not consistently maintained throughout the essay. In fact, Lanier is quite explicit that “a soul and a sense linked together in order to fight each other more conveniently, compose a man” and that “soul must win”(283). One would reasonably expect Lanier to follow these assertions through to the next logical one, viz, that a man etherealizes at his death, but Lanier never makes the connection. In order to find that connection, one must turn to his poetry. The following poem, quoted in its entirety, is called “The Stirrup-Cup”:

Death, thou'rt a cordial old and rare:
Look how compounded, with what care!
Time got his wrinkles reaping thee
Sweet herbs from all antiquity.
David to thy distillage went,
Keats, and Gotama excellent,
Omar Khayyam, and Chaucer bright,
And Shakspere for a king-delight.
Then, Time, let not a drop be spilt:
Hand me the cup whene'er thou wilt;
‘Tis thy rich stirrup-cup to me;
I'll drink it down right smilingly.


This poem is quite characteristic of Lanier. The highly conventional and rigid form; the apostrophes to personified abstractions (Death, Time); Lanier's self-conscious and rather immodest association of himself with the great poets of the past; the concluding note of cheerfulness; and the rather grotesque, cannibalistic image of the poets being dehumanized into “herbs” to be distilled and drunk, make “The Stirrup-Cup” a most Lanierian poem. Now, one may note that in this poem Lanier is treating death as an historical process, as one affecting individual lives, and as one eventually to affect himself in a very personal way: in effect, the poem handles death in the all-encompassing fashion which would be expected in so wide-ranging an essay as “Retrospects and Prospects,” but which was not attained, perhaps because of the unfortunate initial emphasis upon etherealization as an historical process. But for our purposes, what is most noteworthy about “The Stirrup-Cup” is that it treats death as etherealization inasmuch as “sense” (the physical bodies of David, Keats, et al.) quite literally becomes “soul”: the “cordial old and rare” is a “spirit” because it is a liquor. Were we dealing with the works of any other poet, one might justifiably accuse us of willful misreading for detecting a “cordial”/liquor/“spirit”/ghost pun; with Lanier, however, such an admittedly rather feeble pun is common.

It may be further remarked how in “The Stirrup-Cup” time is distilling the poets to make the cordial death, and, not surprising for a dying man, Lanier was apparently preoccupied with the idea of time. In the companion poem to “The Stirrup-Cup” entitled “Tampa Robins,” Lanier (quite characteristically) personifies the dying poet as a robin, and asserts, “While breasts are red and wings are bold / And green trees wave us globes of gold, / Time's scythe shall reap but bliss for me / —Sunlight, song, and the orange-tree”(28). Embedded within this optimistic assertion is the implication that time is something which co-exists with the course of an individual's life, and which ends it (the traditional scythe image), but which itself somehow ends once one passes out of life. This admittedly rather illogical belief is precisely what one finds in “Retrospects and Prospects,” wherein etherealization is termed “freeing things from the limitations of time and space” (298). What more perfectly embodies the idea of release from the confines of temporal and spatial co-ordinates than the physical death of an individual? And yet Lanier does not bring this in, attempting instead (with little success) to try to force his initial “historical” bias into an argument of how Nature, Politics, Religion, and Art are freeing themselves from time and space.

Not surprisingly, but rather unclearly, in his attempts to demonstrate how these four elements are freeing themselves from these two confines thanks to the process of etherealization, Lanier brings in the notion of “floating.” Painting, which Lanier feels has etherealized into photographs and engravings (290), is now in more “democratic” forms which “float forth … and glitter in a free heaven for all to see”(290). Likewise, “music has etherealized, and … has floated away freely into all homes over the whole land”(296). Similarly, every time Religion “has shaken itself free of an inquisition, of a persecution, of an intolerance … she has signalized the event by rising and floating …”(304). Now, although one may find it difficult to visualize photographs, engravings, music, and religion floating, it is a readily imaginable and powerful notion when applied to the human soul; and, indeed, floating forms the final and clearest image of “Sunrise,” Lanier's famous (and misnamed “death-bed”) poem, written when he was suffering from a fever of 104°:

… ever my heart through the night shall with
          knowledge abide thee,
And ever by day shall my spirit, as one that
          hath tried thee,
Labor, at leisure, in art,—till yonder beside thee
My soul shall float, friend Sun,
The day being done.


Once again, however, this notion of the floating soul, so readily applicable to the notion of etherealization, is never mentioned in “Retrospects and Prospects.”

Now, one may be rather surprised to find a highly conventional Southern poet exhibiting this pagan idea of the sun as a sort of god-head, but Lanier was, for his day, a man of unorthodox religious beliefs who had very little patience with organized religion (see, for example, the poem entitled “Remonstrance”). Perhaps one may partly attribute his unorthodoxy to the aforementioned scientific orientation which was so strong an element in Lanier's intellectual life, an orientation which, furthermore, may help explain his treatment of death in “The Marshes of Glynn.” There is some indication that biologists in Lanier's day had taught, under the influence of Darwinian thought, that animal life had achieved its current physical state by traveling from the sea, to marsh areas, and finally to land,2 and, significantly, the poem “The Marshes of Glynn” incorporates a tripartite movement and structure which is the opposite of this. As the persona moves from the woods with the “Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven / With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven / Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,—”(14), to the marsh region with its far less intricate expanses of “marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade, / Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade”(16), and finally, to the uniform blankness of “the terminal blue of the main”(16)—not “interminable” (endless) but “terminal” (signifying death)—one finds not simply a sort of “reverse evolution,” but, more importantly, a movement from more complex forms (“braided,” “woven,” “intricate”) to a vast simple one (the ocean); and the movement from complex to simple forms is a cardinal aspect of the etherealization process. For example, in criticizing the “cluttered” and complex poetry of Milton and praising the simpler verse of Tennyson, Lanier writes:

Observe … how many purely material accessories of Milton's poetry are well gotten rid of and purified away in Tennyson's. The elisions, the apostrophic shortenings, the involutions, the anaconda conceits which in mere kindness wind about us and crush us to death: these are all gone. Full words, direct arrangements of clauses, terse phrases, Saxon roots, light airy metaphors, three-word conceits: these display themselves in Tennyson. Dainty flowers have sprouted where the gigantic ferns died … [The] iron manacles on the wrists of poetry have been stricken off by a magic touch, the walls of the prison have opened, and the bound apostle may now preach in the market-place.


However much one may disagree with Lanier's estimation of the poetry of Milton, it is nevertheless clear that the movement towards death embodied in “The Marshes of Glynn” is indistinguishable from the process of simplification which Lanier held to be characteristic of etherealization; and yet, as we have noted, Lanier does not indicate this in “Retrospects and Prospects.”

But we are not yet through with “The Marshes of Glynn.” One may note that his poem ends with the image of the “terminal blue” ocean flowing into the marsh regions:

The creeks overflow: a thousand rivulets run
'Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of the
          marsh-grass stir;
Passeth a hurrying sound of wings that westward
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease
          to run;
And the sea and the marsh are one.


There are two aspects of this passage which merit special attention. First, the emphasis is on the creation of a mood of serenity and peace. Nowhere in his poetry does Lanier depict death as violent or even unpleasant, and this is very much in keeping with the assertion running throughout “Retrospects and Prospects” that the process of etherealization, inasmuch as it entails a movement from “sense” to “soul,” gradually de-emphasizes the rather violent physical aspects of the world and mankind, and emphasizes the serene and the domestic. For example, what Lanier finds so “ethereal” about a group of sculptures by John Rogers is that “They engage themselves with the domesticities of our life; and by as much as home-life is tenderer than camp-life, by as much as an idyll is more heavenly than an epic, by so much are these groups more ethereal than the groups of ancient sculpture” (289). Now, although one must grant that Lanier's poetry is not “domestic,” it is nevertheless true that he does posit death as a state of serenity towards which one progresses as one moves away from the physical and mental anguish of daily existence. For example, the persona of “The Marshes of Glynn” has, in true Emersonian fashion, visited Nature in order to refresh his troubled soul and mind:

… my heart is at ease from men, and the
          wearisome sound of the stroke
Of the scythe of time and the trowel of trade is low,
And belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know,
And my spirit is grown to a lordly great compass
That the length and the breadth and the sweep of
          the marshes of Glynn
Will work me no fear like the fear they have
          wrought me of yore
When length was fatigue, and when breadth was
          but bitterness sore,
And when terror and shrinking and dreary unnamable
Drew over me out of the merciless miles of the plain,—


The final, deeply religious section of the poem is similarly peaceful, the curiosity as to “what swimmeth below when the tide comes in” betokening less terror of death than a quiet, scientific interest in it:

And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters
          of sleep
Roll in on the souls of men,
But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when
          the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvellous
          marshes of Glynn.


In addition to this emphasis upon serenity and peace—or what Lanier terms “calm control” in praising the poetry of Tennyson (297)—the passage depicting the flowing of the ocean into the marshes is important because it suggests that death involves a loss of individual identity. This notion of the loss and/or blending of identity may be attributed in part to the influence of Emerson [see, for example, “A Florida Sunday”: “… All's in each, yet every one of all / Maintains his Self complete and several” (145)], and it is a strong element in Lanier's poetry. In “Song of the Chattahoochee,” for example, the apparently blissful, dutiful Chattahoochee River has no qualms about losing its identity by being mixed with the ocean: “Downward the voices of Duty call— / Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main” (25). This willingness to merge one's identity with other identities and/or with a “larger” entity (such as the ocean) is, needless to say, a source of much of the optimism found in the poem “The Stirrup-Cup”: that the persona, by dying, would blend his identity as a poet with a universal, collective identity of deceased poets of other times and other places was no doubt a source of much comfort for Lanier.

This concept of “Universalizing,” or of losing and/or blending one's identity with those of others, is closely aligned with the element of universalization which Lanier posits as a strong characteristic of the process of etherealization. In writing of the etherealization of his favorite art (music), Lanier asserts that “More than any art, music is in omnium manibus; and steadily improves in purity, in refined spiritual strength, in universality” (296). As a poet who was, surprisingly, far more national that sectional in his orientation and sympathies (see, for example, the “Centennial Meditation of Columbia” and “The Psalm of the West”), Lanier clearly appreciated anything which was conducive to, or reflected, the universal; and both death as a great leveler and etherealization as a great democratizer can be regarded as universal in applicability and universalizing in purpose.

Enough has been said to indicate that, at least given Lanier's poetic treatment of it, the death of an individual could be seen as a perfect example of etherealization in a microcosmic form. Yet why is it that the same man who asserts in “Retrospects and Prospects” that “man and nature steadily etherealize” (284) does not introduce the matter of individual death into an essay which obviously was intended to be a far-ranging consideration of etherealization? One approach to this curious situation is to consider the readership of “Retrospects and Prospects,” for if the readers were of the sort to find “morbidity” untasteful, one could understand Lanier's reluctance to introduce into his essay so perfect an example of etherealization as human death. However, there is no indication that the short-lived but apparently rather intellectual Southern Magazine had a particularly “squeamish” readership. Another approach, and probably an easier one, is to try to attribute the omission to the aforementioned shortcomings of Lanier: shallow thinking, a failure to revise his work intelligently, and so forth; and no doubt there would be some justification for this approach. But a third and, I believe, the most reasonable approach is to consider the dates involved. “Retrospects and Prospects” was published in the Spring of 1871. The poems we have considered were written as follows: “The Marshes of Glynn”—Summer, 1878; “The Stirrup-Cup”—January, 1877; “Tampa Robins”—January or February, 1877; “Song of the Chattahoochee”—November, 1877; “A Florida Sunday”—Winter/Spring, 1877; “Sunrise”—December, 1880. There is every indication in Lanier's biographies that although his health had broken when he was confined in a prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland (1864-65), and although his lungs had hemorrhaged in January, 1868, until late in the 1870s Lanier had an unrealistic faith that somehow he would not die of tuberculosis, and, indeed, the record of much of his later life consists of a series of trips to Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and New York in quest of cures. This unrealistic faith—unrealistic not simply because of the quality of medicine in the nineteenth century, but also because Lanier came from a long line of consumptives, including his mother—does much to explain how the topic of death is carefully avoided3 in the 1871 essay on etherealization, but frequently encountered in poems written late in the 1870s, when the severity of his illness apparently had demolished the faith in recovery which had been so strong in the early years of his consumption. In this regard, one could suspect that, had “Retrospects and Prospects” been written in, say, 1879 instead of 1871, the essay would have been quite different—would, indeed, have had a more personal rather than historical bias, and would have included far more emphasis upon that microcosm of etherealization, death. This is not to say that a later version of “Retrospects and Prospects” would necessarily be “morbid,” for, as the poems themselves make abundantly clear, even if the faith that he would not die of tuberculosis had fallen to pieces, there remained in Lanier a core of serenity which saw death as a universal and spiritual experience to be faced not with terror, but rather with calm acceptance.


  1. Throughout this article, the page numbers of citations from “Retrospects and Prospects” [The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles Anderson (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), V] and from Lanier's poetry [Poems of Sidney Lanier, ed. by His Wife, New Ed. (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1901)] will be indicated by parentheses in the body of the paper.

  2. Philip Graham, “Sidney Lanier and the Pattern of Contrast,” American Quarterly, II, No. 4 (Winter, 1959), p. 507, n.

  3. The only mention of death in “Retrospects and Prospects” is in the reference to the etherealization of architecture: the wealthy now construct mausoleums instead of pyramids, so that our thoughts are directed “rather to the soul that is risen out of the grave than to the inert bones that decay within it” (288). Lanier then promptly changes the subject to sculpture.

Jane S. Gabin (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5760

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 since the end of 1873, but three years later only five half-finished buildings and a lot of mud were to be found on the site.1 However, within five months, a special railroad line would link the city's center to the main entrance of the Centennial exhibition area, where broad avenues would lead hundreds of thousands of American and foreign visitors past Machinery Hall, the Women's Pavilion, Horticultural Hall, and scores of buildings representing the people and crafts of dozens of countries.

But the fair was, foremost, a showplace for America. It was the Gilded Industrial Age, and the people came to view their accomplishments, proudly strolling the park's Avenue of the Republic, past the displays of engines, model factories, a section of cable from the Brooklyn Bridge, and the telephone. For a time, at least for the six months' duration of the fair, the glories of the machine age eclipsed its abuses. What mattered most of all was that the displays were products of a united nation; at Fairmount Park, the ruling spirit was that of reconciliation.

Recognition of this spirit was also important to the fair's organizers, who, in planning the opening-day ceremonies, consciously awarded the commissions for a cantata to a Northerner and a Southerner, so that the composition itself would serve as a symbol of rededication to the Union. Lanier, who was by nature pacific and forgiving, was quick to realize the importance of the cantata's symbolism. Several days after receiving the commission, he wrote to Bayard Taylor that since the piece was to be performed “not only at our Centennial, but at a festival where the world was our invited guest, to be welcomed … spread-eagleism would be ungraceful and unworthy.” He also formulated an aesthetic principle by which to write the words of the cantata; since “something ought to be said in the poem … it ought to be not rhymed philosophy, but a genuine song, and lyric outburst.”2

In a 5 January letter, Dudley Buck told Lanier that he needed the text by 15 January and provided some guidelines. Buck and Thomas thought the cantata should have “three movements or rather one continuous movement including three episodes.”3 Buck hoped Lanier would use irregular verse, which presented no difficulty since Lanier was now doing his best work in that idiom.

But Lanier was preoccupied by his work at the Peabody, preparing a concert of Scandinavian music, as well as writing another sketch of India for Lippincott's, and 8 January found the cantata assignment untouched. Yet the pleasures of his musical work relieved much of the pressure now placed upon him. “In music,” he wrote to Mary, “one finds an immense compensation for all the necessary repressions which come in daily life. … I find it growing more and more necessary to me. What will I ever do without the Orchestra?”4 Perhaps Lanier had received inspiration from the lyricism of the pieces played that night; the concert included the Prelude to Act IV of Hamerik's opera, Tovelille, and the Norse Symphony by one of Lanier's favorites, Niels Gade. Whatever the source of inspiration, it worked; he completed the poem, at least its first draft, the next day.

Rewriting, revising, and alteration were accomplished, and on 12 January, Lanier sent Taylor another version. He included an “analysis of movements written in the margin.”5 He also showed the poem to Theodore Thomas, who had come to Baltimore with his orchestra for two concerts, and who was in charge of the musical program at the Centennial opening exercises; the maestro seemed quite pleased with Lanier's work.

As a musician, Lanier understood that this poem presented unique problems and realized that he “had to compose for the musician as well as the country: and had to cast the poem into such a form as would at once show well in music … and in poetry.” He wished to make it “as large and simple as a Symphony of Beethoven's,” and to this end he had to think in terms of “a kind of average and miscellaneousness” and “in broad bands of color.6 This was a concept that did not lend itself to simple explanation. As Lanier wrote the words, he continually thought of music; music suggested words to him, and these words, in turn, had to suggest notes to Buck. “I have had constantly in my mind,” wrote Lanier, “those immortal melodies of Beethoven in which, with little more than the chords of the tonic and dominant, he has presented such firm, majestic, and at the same artless ideas.”7 To Lanier, the term “artless,” which he used several times in his letters to Taylor and Buck, meant lacking in artifice. He wanted to present concepts as strong, free, and straightforward as the nation whose ideals they expressed. He was not interested in writing anything esoteric, too intellectual, or even “too original.”8 Yet, by reason of its composition according to musical concepts, the poem was quite original, and therefore provoked a range of response from admiration to open hostility.

From the first, Dudley Buck was both an enthusiastic and a sympathetic collaborator. He wrote to Lanier that he was pleased “to join partnership with a Southerner on this truly national occasion. … As I am so fortunate as to have a musician for my poet we shall doubtless understand each other.”9 Although the two men did not meet until the day of the cantata's performance, they found themselves to be quite compatible.

Born in Hartford in 1839, Dudley Buck graduated from Trinity College and went to Europe for the obligatory music studies. Upon returning to America, he established his reputation as a virtuoso organist, and by 1876 he was a popular composer of religious music. While in Chicago serving as organist of St. James' Episcopal Church, he suffered a devastating setback when he lost his library, including many compositions, in the Great Fire of 1871. He sought a fresh start in Boston, where he met Theordore Thomas; he became Thomas's assistant in 1875 and followed him to New York. Buck became organist and conductor of the Brooklyn Apollo Club, a position he would hold for a quarter-century. The Centennial commission established his status as a composer of s; in subsequent years he wrote Scenes from the Golden Legend and King Olaf's Christmas, both based upon works by Longfellow, and The Voyage of Columbus, taken from the Life of Columbus by Washington Irving.10 These s are neglected today, if not unknown, but many of Buck's hymns are still popular.

Although Lanier wrote the poem for the cantata in a “frenzy of Creation,” he spent several weeks at constant revision, often at the urging of Buck, with whom he now had “quite a voluminous correspondence.”11 They wrote almost every day—Buck making suggestions about Lanier's words with respect to their effect when pronounced by a chorus, and Lanier responding favorably to Buck's notes. Lanier had originally titled his work the Centennial Song of Columbia until Buck had asked him if this was really the most appropriate title. “The word ‘Song’ seems to me hardly worthy of the calibre of the poem. … It occurred to me that perhaps, on second thoughts, you might prefer Centennial Musings or Meditations (or the like)—of Columbia.”12 Lanier thanked him for this idea and happily adopted it. With all matters regarding the text smoothed and settled, Buck proceeded with his monumental task—setting the challenging poem to music and scoring it for performance by a 150-piece orchestra and a chorus of 800. He was aided in this by Lanier's suggestive annotations in the margins of the text; the opening chorus should be written with “sober, measured and yet majestic progressions of chords” and a “quartette” section should be in “a meagre and despairing minor.”13

Both Buck and Lanier were excited by the project and were optimistic of its success at the exhibition's opening ceremonies in May. However, it was not Lanier's fate to have even one undisturbed success. Against his strong objections, the text of the cantata was released to the press before the scheduled premiere. Lanier knew that the words were only part of a whole and could not be fairly judged without the music. Publication of the text without benefit of music made as much sense as publishing an opera libretto and calling it a poem. Lanier, Thomas, and Buck understood that the cantata had to be appreciated as the union of artistic purpose it was designed to be—the cumulative creation of poet, composer, conductor, chorus, and orchestra.

But New York Tribune music critic J. R. G. Hassard did not understand this, and on 31 March he opened the barrage of criticism that Lanier feared pre-performance publication would start. Hassard received a piano-vocal score of the cantata from its publisher, G. Schirmer of New York; he praised the music but called Lanier's text “sometimes obscure” and found at least one passage a “tough morsel.”14 Bayard Taylor, after speaking with Hassard, was reassured that no malice was meant toward Lanier and tried to calm the poet. But Lanier, knowing that “many of the people who will read this Tribune attack are not only incapable of judging its correctness but will be prevented from seeing the whole poem for yet six weeks,”15 framed a letter of defense. Taylor, ever the voice of moderation, urged him not to send it.

This was the beginning of a bitter time for Lanier, though friends like Buck and Taylor defended him ardently. Buck wrote that the “pitfalls”—using Hassard's word—which the poetry presented to the composer “were rather godsends.”16 Taylor spoke to fellow clubman Whitelaw Reid, editor of the Tribune, and arranged to have the full text of the cantata published in the paper, with “an appropriate and explanatory introduction” written by Taylor himself. In it, he would do his best to “set other papers upon the track of a right understanding.”17 The poem, with Taylor's introduction, was printed on 12 April. Lanier's work, noted Taylor, had “greater freedom and freshness” than that written by Tennyson for the International Exhibition in London.

Nonetheless, the attacks continued. In its 13 April issue, the Nation claimed that Lanier's poem was perhaps “suitable to a commemoration of the Declaration of Independence, as it is a practical assertion of emancipation from the ordinary laws of sense and sound, melody and prosody. … But that the music is already composed for it, we should hope it was not too late to save American letters from the humiliation of presenting to the world such a farrago as this as their choicest product.”18

Southern newspapers, as well as those of Baltimore and Philadelphia, rallied to defend Lanier against invectives such as this. The Baltimore Bulletin printed the poem, and its critic (possibly Lanier's friend, writer Innes Randolph) stated that the poetry for a cantata “must lie on the borderland between thought and melody; and it is in that region that Mr. Lanier is most happy and at home … himself a musician, and keenly alive to musical ‘motives’ as well as poetic thoughts.”19

It was unfortunate that the cantata, a symbol of reconciliation, was itself becoming a controversy with regional overtones. But it was hoped that the actual performance would win approval during the jubilation of the opening ceremonies. Surely Lanier would be vindicated then.

The morning of 10 May 1876 promised rain, but a quarter of a million people ignored the skies, determined to attend the opening of the American Centennial Exhibition. The crowd that awaited the beginning of the ceremonies at ten o'clock was so huge, wrote a reporter for the New York Times, that he could not even compute it; the crowd “was simply enormous and fainting men were dragged out by the Police by the dozens.”20 A contemporary engraving depicting the scene at the plaza area shows every bit of space—in front of the reviewing stand and the musicians' platforms, around the flagpoles and equestrian statues—packed with spectators, many carrying umbrellas.

When the American flag atop the main building was unfurled, wrote an observer, “every other flag was opened to the breeze, the chimes began a joyful peal, and the grand Hallelujah chorus of Handel, performed by one thousand singers, and full orchestral and organ accompaniment, gave fitting expression to the popular joy.”21 As the orchestra, led by Theodore Thomas, played various national anthems, thousands passed through the gates and massed before the reviewing stands where dignitaries including President Ulysses S. Grant and Dom Pedro II, emperor of Brazil, were assembled. The program began with the Centennial Inauguration March by Richard Wagner; whereas the commission of this work indicates the level of popularity Wagner had reached in America by 1876, this piece was one of his most disappointing. The Centennial Hymn, with music by John Knowles Paine and words by John Greenleaf Whittier, followed. But “the conspicuous feature of all,”22 stated the Baltimore Sun, was the cantata. This work, reported the New York Times, “afforded [the] most satisfaction. … unquestionably the most successful effort of the day.”23

The Centennial Meditation of Columbia was a triumph. Lanier sat proudly in the reviewing stand as Buck led the huge chorus and orchestra in the exciting performance. The influence of the work upon the massed audience, wrote the Times, was “more decisive than either the hymn or Wagner's march.” The solo passage of the “Good Angel,” sung by basso Myron Whitney of Boston, had to be repeated because “the enthusiasm of the auditors took the shape of a recall, and Mr. Buck had to appear and acknowledge a liberal tribute of applause.”24 The Baltimore Sun wrote that Whitney's “lowest notes were like the tremulous vibration of an organ's pipes, causing the excited listeners … to exclaim ‘Superb!’ ‘Bravo!’ and to declare that it was the best thing of the hour.”25

Unfortunately, no contemporary account records any special tribute paid to Lanier, but he was exhilarated nonetheless and wrote to his father: “I wish I had time to give you some idea how great it was; probably nothing like it has ever been beheld or heard.” The bass solo, he wrote, “was heard by at least twenty five thousand people, and was encored,—both of which circumstances are probably without parallel on an occasion of this kind.”26 Lanier's comments were not the result of egotism but of joy at seeing his dream—musical poetry wedded to poetic music—fulfilled, and having its realization received with admiration and appreciation. This cantata was the culmination of a total aesthetic experience in which lyrics were not, as Lanier put it, “a rhymed set of good adages,” but were, with the music, mutually suggestive of the ideas presented; it was a pioneer effort in American artistic creation.

That evening Lanier and Buck attended a reception with President Grant and Dom Pedro, Lanier thoroughly enjoying the excitement of which he was a part. But his happiness was spoiled the next day—as many days and weeks would continue to be marred—by the continuation of criticism heaped upon his poetry. “Many of the papers,” he wrote sadly to Mary, “have renewed the most bitter abuse and ridicule upon my poor little Cantata, and have displayed an amount of gratuitous cruelty and ignorant brutality of which I could never have dreamed.”27 To Lanier, who probably never had a malicious thought, who was rarely angry and always forgiving, this was crushing.

Despite the acclaim of the audience and the support of the Philadelphia and Baltimore newspapers, other critics, notably in New York, continued to disparage Lanier. There was one positive account in the New York Tribune—written by Bayard Taylor. “I wish some of the critics who were made so unhappy by Mr. Lanier's cantata could have heard it sung. … It was original in the perfection of the execution no less than in the conception of both poet and composer. The effect upon the audience could not be mistaken.”28 And in an editorial in his Bulletin, Gibson Peacock stated that Lanier, “with all the stirring of original conception alive within him, could not dare to be anything on such an occasion that was not wholly true to his own genius, his own idea of art.”29 The Philadelphia New Century For Women declared that the cantata was “the century itself, two centuries in its bosom. Those who have not heard it sung, have not begun to spell its meaning.”30

Though these comments pleased Lanier, he was more affected by such as those appearing in the New York Herald: “Mr. Lanier … has written a beautiful poem, but it is obscure to the eye and must be unintelligible to the ear. … The argument of the poem is not easily to be comprehended, and the language is harsh.” An editorial in the New York Times called the cantata a “bewildering collection of rhymes … entirely at variance with the taste of the American people.”31 At least two parodies of Lanier's words also appeared. This was too much for Lanier's normally stoic nature. “How bitter,” he cried to Mary, “is the heedless hurt of this hoofed Stupidity which one cannot allow himself to hate!” Neither did he want the poem to be acclaimed by people simply because they admired him personally; he wanted them to understand the purpose of his art. But his friends, he said, “do not know what I am about, and the cheap triumph of wrong praise is but a pain to the Artist.”32 He decided to send his letter of explanation and defense to the New York Tribune, the one Bayard Taylor had urged him not to send.

The letter explained his philosophy of musical verse and the special problems of a poet writing words to be sung: sound had to express ideas just as effectively as words; only general conceptions could be depicted; the words had to be ones easily enunciated by the chorus; and sectional movements had to have clear delineations in sound. Lanier's thesis was that major changes had to be made “in the relations of Poetry to Music by the prodigious modern development of the orchestra.”33 Revealing his familiarity with Schubert, Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Meyerbeer, and Rossini, he traced the progress of orchestral technique—and therefore complexity of structure in composition—in their musical expression. But he was chiefly impressed by Wagner's ability to express intellectual conceptions through the use of instrumentation, and this admiration for Wagner's manipulation of musical textures is ultimately reflected in Lanier's own manipulation of verbal texture. The essay is a cogent explanation of the effects of programme music upon Lanier's poetry and how his poetry was constructed with musical principles in mind.

However, this letter had no effect upon those who had desired merely a pretty poem for their centennial. It did serve to continue the controversy. And, unfortunately, it finally exposed Lanier's long-repressed anger, anger at the “endeavor of certain newspapers to belittle the largest anniversary's celebration of our country by the treatment of one of its constituent features” without any attempt to understand it, and the display of “inexcusable disregard for the proprieties of a dignified occasion and for the laws of respectable behavior.”34

Dwight's Journal of Music, as the chief monitor of American musical life, had been following the conflict closely. In its issue of 27 May 1876, it reprinted the text of the cantata (as well as that of Whittier's hymn), followed by a reprint of Lanier's letter to the Tribune on 10 June. Two weeks later the journal printed an unsigned article entitled “A New Sydney's ‘Defense’ of a New Kind ‘of Poesy.’” The author of this article called the Centennial cantata the “strangest and the last result of Wagnerism! … [Lanier], who is also a musician, member of an orchestra of ultra-modern tendencies—has eaten of the insane root, and has become intensely Wagnerized.” Stating that he too understood that poetry and music could be wed, the critic believed that had already been accomplished best by Bach in his cantatas. But Wagner had changed all this, stressing drama and orchestral expression, so that the voice “simply interprets, calls the names, points with a stick … we should hardly miss the singing.” And Lanier's cantata, following “this modern striving after novelty,” suffered a loss in clarity. Interestingly, the author of this critique does not so much discredit Lanier, whose “The Symphony” he admired and whose general purposes he understood. The villain of the whole drama, according to the critic, was Wagner, for the “stupendous overshadowing modern orchestra, with the vast revolutionary Wagner phantom behind it, has disturbed Lanier's poetic spontaneity and spoiled his poem. … a theoretic bugbear intervened to make the verbal expression purposely obscure.”35 The development of modern music and of the orchestra, which Lanier credited as an aid to the development of his poetry, was labeled here a corrupting influence.

Two weeks later, continuing to monitor the controversy, Dwight's carried yet another article, reprinted from the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly—never any friend to Lanier and certainly not one now. The Atlantic's critic, W. F. Apthorp, found that “Mr. Buck has been unfortunate in the text to which he has written music.” Lanier's poem, the article stated, might be “suitable to musical treatment in the dramatic, declamatory Liszt-Wagner style, but is very ill adapted to musical treatment in the purely musical style in which Mr. Buck is so gracefully at home.” Apparently the Atlantic wished composers to be as genteel as the writers of whom it approved, for it found Buck's work so “capital,” and “so pure and unforced,” that it could “overlook an occasional tendency to the trivial and commonplace.” It could forgive Buck's conservatism—for, in truth, he was no pioneer of creativity—but not Lanier's innovation. Lanier, “in expounding the alphabet of a new poetic-musical art … has forgotten that it must have a grammar also.”36

It is sad that, whereas Lanier did enjoy acclaim as the honored Centennial poet, so many writers and publications saw fit to tear him limb from limb for his efforts. Yet there are grounds for many legitimate and unprejudiced criticisms. Buck's music was more easily comprehended in 1876 than was Lanier's poetry, and therefore was dealt with gently at the time—but it cannot be spared from an examination that finds it less than satisfactory. If the Centennial Meditation of Columbia is not an entirely gratifying work, it is because of a certain awkwardness in both poetry and music.

Those critics who lambasted Lanier's poem could not understand his concept of depicting the various forces molding the American nation as contrasting “broad bands” of sound. Some contemporary commentators, however, such as the reporter for the New Century For Women, did comprehend and endeavored to impress their appreciation upon their readers. The reporter for the New York Times who attended the ceremonies understood; while he criticized the music, he found in it those qualities which proved how well Buck had attempted to adhere to Lanier's ideals. “The merits of the score are perhaps somewhat unequal, and the themes are not always of marked excellence, but the cantata is full of variety of rhythm and tempo, and replete with contrast.”37 Another defense of Lanier came from C. B. Taylor, author of an 1876 history of the United States, the narrative of which culminates in a description of the centennial exhibition. He noted that “in reading the lines we must remember the musical restrictions under which Mr. Lanier was held. Within the compass of sixty lines he was obliged to make direct reference to the changes, contrasts, and combinations of voices and instruments. None but a musician as well as a poet could have done this, and it was Mr. Lanier's proficiency in both arts which enabled him to attain his present success.”38

In many ways the Centennial Meditation of Columbia resembles “The Symphony,” for similar ideas and vehicles are used. The cantata is divided into several distinct sections, and the controlling sense-image is sound—it is the history of the United States in timbre and tone. Accordingly, Buck had to complement each section with its own appropriate musical setting, but still provide unity so the piece would not have a choppy effect. This was no simple task, especially considering what Buck called “this miserable writing against time.” Although both poet and composer worked valiantly, the results, to some extent, prove that creativity could be inspired, but not upon demand.

In the cantata, Columbia, seated upon her vantage point of a “hundred-terraced height,” reflects upon her past and listened as “old voices rise and call” from her history. Buck attempted to give the “voices”—those of early settlers, the elements of nature they fought, the sounds of war—individual characterizations, but he achieved only partial success. As much in agreement with each other as Lanier and Buck may have been, they were not totally well suited.

The basic problem stemmed from Lanier being an unconventional poet—though many of his works are in traditional form, his more ambitious works belong to what was then the avant-garde—and Buck being a conventional composer whose creations never became the subject of public debate. Buck, as Gilbert Chase notes, “wrote for the taste of the day and for a ready market.”39 He was a European-trained American composer of the imitative school, which is evident in the cantata. At times the music is like that of a traditional hymn, while other sections have echoes of Beethoven and Verdi; whereas a variety of stylistic expression might have been what Lanier wanted, the aesthetic results, musically, are less than outstanding because they contain nothing unique, and very little of the music is memorable. The Atlantic Monthly was correct in saying that “Mr. Buck does not write with a very Titanic pen,”40 but it found less fault with his musical understatement than with Lanier's more daring efforts. The “merely general” in music was more acceptable to a conservative audience than generalized concepts expressed in verse.

While sympathetic to Lanier's ideas, Buck was simply not predisposed to writing music much different from his previous works or from other popular works in the current mode; his training negated it. The writer for Dwight's Journal of Music saw this, realizing that although Buck's music “is perfectly clear as music (and very clever too in many parts) … it does not help at all to make the enigmatical lines of the poem any clearer. No, this music quietly takes them on its back and flows on at ‘its own sweet will,’ unconscious of the burden.” The author remarks that, given lines such as:

Yonder where the to-and-fro
Weltering of my Long-Ago
Moves about the moveless base
Far below my resting place

(ll. 7-10)

Buck makes “no particular ado” in setting them to music. Here was “a chance to ‘welter,’ too, after the approved Wagner fashion; but our composer, bound before all things to write musically and clearly, is not tempted.”41 Most likely this was meant as praise, faint as it may sound, but with a tone of subtle irony that hints of disapproval of Buck's lack of adventurousness. But how could Buck have written otherwise? He had an established mode of composition; his traditional, conventional music could not have been an equal partner to experimental verse. Therefore, the four lines quoted above, rather than rolling and surging as the words suggest, are delivered in the lovely but predictable harmonies of a hymn. Lanier had asked that this first section be given “sober, measured and yet majestic progressions of chords,”42 and this is just what Buck provided, in the only mode he knew.

As long as Lanier's words remained on a concrete level, Buck had little trouble working with them. The second section, depicting the Mayflower “Trembling westward o'er yon balking sea” (l. 12), with the sighs of the Pilgrims in conflict with the shouting of “Gray-lipp'd waves” (l. 15), is provided with effective, if rather trite, “storm music.” But when Lanier moves to the abstract level, difficulties begin for both composer and audience. Here it is possible to understand the criticism that Lanier's poem was vague:

Then old Shapes and Masks of Things,
Framed like Faiths or clothed like Kings—
Ghosts of Goods once fleshed and fair,
Grown foul Bads in alien air—

(ll. 23-26)

These lines introduce the theme of war, an idea not difficult to render through music. However, the more abstract concepts were much more problematic to communicate. The combination of this difficulty and the realization that these lines are far from Lanier's best validates some of the criticism. There are also others that would prompt negative criticism: “Toil through the stertorous death of the Night” (l. 41), or “Jamestown, out of thee— / Plymouth, thee—thee, Albany” (ll. 17-18). And any reader familiar with poems that described things exactly, or with identifiable imagery, would certainly stop at “Yonder where the to-and-fro / Weltering of my Long-Ago” and would wonder how a “Long-Ago” weltered.

There are lines and sections, however, where Lanier is majestic, and although Buck tries to meet him, he falls short. Lanier may have had the “immortal melodies of Beethoven” in mind while he wrote his words, but unfortunately he was not working with a Beethoven. When Lanier's words are bad, Buck's music is mediocre; when Lanier's words are excellent, Buck's music is merely good.

The finest part of the cantata comes at the end, when Columbia declares in triumph—“Despite the land, despite the sea, / I was: I am: and I shall be” (ll. 46-47)—but wishes the “Good Angel” to tell her how long the republic can expect to last. The answer—the basso solo encored by the audience—contains six conditions which, if met, will ensure the permanence of America. These few lines are masterpieces of richness, terse and yet full:

“Long as thine Art shall love true love,
Long as thy Science truth shall know,
Long as thine Eagle harms no Dove,
Long as thy Law by law shall grow,
Long as thy God is God above,
Thy brother every man below,
So long, dear Land of all my love,
Thy name shall shine, thy fame shall glow!”

(ll. 50-57)

This is the closest that Lanier comes to writing a “rhymed set of good adages.” But here this parallel set of simple and straightforward maxims, easy to deliver and to comprehend, is most appropriate.

In the final chorus, music is proclaimed to be the herald of a harmonious future:

O Music, from this height of time my Word unfold:
In thy large signals all men's hearts thy Heart behold

(ll. 58-59)

These lines are given the majestic, hymn-like theme of the opening of the cantata, but unfortunately the next couplet, the concluding lines, is rendered virtually indistinguishable. The composer, self-consciously aware that he was writing a Buck cantata, decided to introduce a great fugue. Fugal singing renders the words difficult to understand under the best of conditions, and outdoor delivery by a chorus of eight hundred must have been thunderously chaotic. A fugue was certainly not the easiest method of presenting these lines of, as Lanier annotated them, “jubilation and welcome”:

Mid-heaven unroll thy chords as friendly flags unfurled,
And wave the world's best lover's welcome to the world.

The controversy over the centennial cantata lasted long after its concluding brass and percussion fanfares had died away. But being controversial was preferable to being unknown. Lanier's words were read by tens of thousands who never heard Buck's music. The cantata was performed again in the fall of 1876 at Theodore Thomas's Centennial Musical Festival, and then the music was packed off to obscurity. Today, Lanier's poem can be found in his collected works in any major library, but the piano-vocal score published by Schirmer is a rarity; Dudley Buck's original score and orchestral parts remain in manuscript, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

The opening day of the Centennial Exhibition was, for Sidney Lanier, a day of celebration and a time for putting to public test his idea of musical-poetic unity. In some ways his efforts were still rough and tentative, but judging from the cheers of the three hundred thousand people who heard the cantata performed, he was a success. And from the turmoil generated by his words, it was evident that Lanier was a literary figure who could not be ignored.


  1. William Peirce Randel, Centennial: American Life in 1876 (New York: Chilton, 1969) 286-87.

  2. Sidney Lanier, “To Bayard Taylor,” 9 January 1876, in The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson et al., 10 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1945) 9:295 (hereafter cited as CE).

  3. Dudley Buck to Sidney Lanier, 5 January 1876, quoted in ibid., 299 n. 17.

  4. Lanier, “To Mary Day Lanier,” 8 January 1876, ibid., 294.

  5. Lanier, “To Bayard Taylor,” 12 January 1876, ibid., 296.

  6. Lanier, “To Bayard Taylor,” 13 January 1876, ibid., 296-97.

  7. Lanier, “To Bayard Taylor,” 15 January 1876, ibid., 298.

  8. Lanier, “To Bayard Taylor,” 13 January 1876, ibid., 296.

  9. Dudley Buck to Sidney Lanier, 5 January 1876, ibid., 299 n. 17.

  10. Gilbert Chase, America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present, rev. 2d ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966) 334-35; CE, 9:292-93 n.5.

  11. Lanier, “To Mary Day Lanier,” 22 January 1876, CE, 9:305.

  12. Dudley Buck to Sidney Lanier, 30 January 1876, ibid., 312 n.33.

  13. The Centennial Meditation of Columbia, CE, 1:60-62.

  14. Aubrey Harrison Starke, Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1964) 240.

  15. Lanier, “To Bayard Taylor,” 1 April 1876, CE, 9:349.

  16. Dudley Buck to Sidney Lanier, 4 April 1876, quoted in ibid., 354-55 n.83.

  17. Bayard Taylor to Sidney Lanier, 11 April 1876, quoted in ibid., 355 n.85.

  18. Quoted in ibid., 360 n.89.

  19. Baltimore Bulletin, 15 April 1876, quoted in ibid., 361 n.89.

  20. New York Times, 11 May 1876, 1.

  21. C. B. Taylor, One Hundred Years' Achievements of a Free People (New York: Henry S. Allen, 1876) 718.

  22. Baltimore Sun, 11 May 1876, 1.

  23. New York Times, 11 May 1876, 1.

  24. Ibid., 2.

  25. Baltimore Sun, 11 May 1876, 1.

  26. Lanier, “To Robert S. Lanier,” 12 May 1876, CE, 9:363.

  27. Lanier, “To Mary Day Lanier,” 2 June 1876, ibid., 364.

  28. Quoted in ibid., 363 n.91.

  29. Quoted in ibid., 366 n.97.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Quoted in ibid., 364 n.94.

  32. Lanier, “To Mary Day Lanier,” 15 May 1876, ibid., 365-66.

  33. “The Centennial Cantata,” CE, 2:266.

  34. Ibid., 273.

  35. Dwight's Journal of Music (24 June 1876): 255.

  36. “The Centennial Cantata,” Dwight's Journal of Music (8 July 1876): 261.

  37. New York Times, 11 May 1876, 1.

  38. Taylor, One Hundred Years' Achievements, 723.

  39. Chase, America's Music, 335.

  40. Dwight's Journal of Music (8 July 1876): 261.

  41. “A New Sydney's ‘Defense’ of a New Kind ‘of Poesy,’” Dwight's Journal of Music (24 June 1876): 255.

  42. Marginal annotation to lines 1-10, CE, 2:60.

Hans Galinsky (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7087

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 of Germany and about the creative uses she put that knowledge to, whereas we know a good deal about her reception in Germany and her impact on German poets? Why is it that on the other hand we know a great deal about Sidney Lanier's knowledge of Germany and his creative uses of it, while we know next to nothing about his German reception and impact? Has this complementary asymmetry anything to do with the sectional division of North and South in the 19th century United States, and with German attitudes toward that division? Besides, is this complementary asymmetry, as regards Dickinson, not in striking contrast to what we generally have come to know about the influence of German literature, philosophy, and music in the United States, especially in New England, between 1830 and 1860, a period of culminating German impact?1

By these four questions I am trying to whet researchers' appetites for further exploration. My subject, bringing in two authors, is large. Thus transparence and selectivity have to be aimed at. Selectivity, however, has its drawbacks. It makes most readers or audiences react like users of dictionaries: “For what is there none cares a jot. But all are wrath with what is not.” The arrangement of my material will be very simple, dichotomous almost throughout. There will be a Dickinson and a Lanier part. Each of these parts, implementing the interrelations angle of my paper, will fall into an American, and a German section. In each of the sections reception will come first, creative use of what has been received will follow. …

As for the Lanier part, areas of German life as responded to by Lanier will be presented in their total biographical range, yet the productive and reproductive uses will be shown mostly in Lanier's only novel, Tiger-Lilies, and in his efforts to translate Heine and Wagner. …


With Sidney Lanier the scene shifts from Amherst, Massachusetts, to Macon, and Oglethorpe College, Georgia, to Civil-War Virginia and Maryland, finally to Maryland's post-bellum Baltimore. Dickinson and Lanier never met in person but they did meet in the editorial and critical activities of friends.2 At no time did they become aware of their connectedness by their relations with German culture.


Lanier's reception of things German is well-known. Like Dickinson's, it depends on American acquaintances and on the printed page, including the printed score of performed music, in his case self-performed rather than other-performed. Unlike Dickinson's, his contacts take in many German-Americans and some more recent immigrants and visitors.3

As to received areas of German life, and their chronological sequence, contacts with German language, literature, philosophy, and probably music as well are established at the same time as they are with German science, especially chemistry.4 Most of this peculiar constellation is effected by one intermediary, yet the scientific component as such is typical of American-German interrelations while the wave of Transcendentalism is receding. Beyond that constellation only German politics and philology, Germanic inclusive of Old English, put in an occasional appearance.5

Reception begins in an ideal academic atmosphere. In 1859-60 Lanier, an Oglethorpe senior, enrolled in the chemistry class of thirty-one year old professor James Woodrow, uncle of later President Woodrow Wilson, Harvard-trained but recently returned from Germany, a Heidelberg Ph. D. summa cum laude. As Lanier scholar Edd Parks has put it:

Professor and student took long walks together, discussing the ideas of Hegel and the poetry of Heine and Herder. About this time Lanier came under the spell of Carlyle, and through him the German romantic writers, especially Richter and Novalis. Woodrow encouraged Lanier to learn German and French.6

Newly acquired knowledge becomes productive first in the field of philosophy. Valedictorian Lanier, for topic of his address, chose a Hegel-sounding topic: “The Philosophy of History.”7 This youthful interest in German philosophy persists. In his very last work, The English Novel and the Principle of Its Development (1883), this principle of individuality is discussed with reference to neo-idealist Rudolf Eucken's Fundamental Concepts of Modern Philosophical Thought (1880) (Die Grundbegriffe der Philosophie der Gegenwart, 1878).8

Germany beckoned a second time, this time as a compromise, a sort of escape from a professional dilemma. Neither his father's, a lawyer's, wish for him to enter a legal career nor young Sidney's own desire to take up music and composition was to be followed, but like Professor Woodrow he would go to Heidelberg, earn a Ph. D. and thus “qualify” for an American academic post in the field of literature.9

The Civil War killed this plan yet kept intact, nay, even intensified Lanier's interest in the language and the literature of Germany.10 Carlyle maintained his position as chief intermediary. His two-volume translation German Romance, his many essays on German letters in the Boston 1859 edition of his Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, and his image of German culture as presented in the novel Sartor Resartus and The Life of Friedrich Schiller kept familiarizing Lanier with German literary works in translation.11 They also supplied biographical information and critical comment. Martin Luther had already figured as a freedom hero in the young Confederate volunteer's speech at the hoisting of the Flag of the Confederation on the Oglethorpe campus.12 The Confederate soldier and later Federal prisoner, under external pressures, fell back on his acquired intellectual and literary treasures. He tried to add to them Lessing, two Swabians, Schelling and Uhland, a Berliner, Tieck,13 and, if not already encountered before, Goethe, Novalis, and Heine. Carlyle's criticism took note not only of individual German Classical and Romantic authors but also of a whole period which he called “earlier German literature.” His essay of this title concerned German late 15th century works. Of their authors Thomas a Kempis stuck in Lanier's mind as he did in Emily Dickinson's.14

Lanier rarely rounded out his knowledge of Carlyle-recommended authors in the direction of some of their works not translated or commented on by his Scottish guide. In this rare way Jean Paul Richter's Levana, or, The Doctrine of Education widened Lanier's scope of receptivity.15

Carlyle's orbit was not left until the 1870s. Baltimore gradually became Lanier's home, and business trips to Philadelphia, New York and Boston established personal links with the North.16 The professional motor of all this, music, took over as leading interest; the problem of the relationship of the two arts, literature and music, became a fascination. Blended with it was the concept of the artist as national educator, unifying a divided, confused people by the power of moral sentiments released by the two arts.

Naturally, in this context Richard Wagner would arise as a new lodestar outside of the old literature-fixed constellation of German authors. Wagner's esthetic idea of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk,’ but also his socio-economic and educational thought attracted Lanier. Except a German anthology, which he explicitly mentions in an 1864 letter with reference to selections from Heine and another as yet unidentified German poet,17 Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen is the only text part of which he read in the original German.18 In translation he probably perused a volume of Wagner's essays, some dealing with the social functions of art.19 Musicological literature of the biographical sort reached him through a translated Life of Robert Schumann.20

Natural mediators between Lanier and German music were to be found among Lanier's colleagues in Baltimore's Peabody orchestra. Many of them, including the conductor, were of German descent, some of them were recent immigrants.21

As for literature's relation with music, to which Wagner had alerted him forcefully, the problem of the “tone-translation” of a poem began to interest Lanier. He found the problem exemplified by a German poem and a German composer, i. e. Uhland's ‘The Minstrel's Curse’ (“Des Sängers Fluch”) set to music by Hans von Bülow.22

As for new purely literary mediators, there turned up only one: Pennsylvanian Bayard Taylor. Correspondence with him kept up from summer 1875 to Taylor's Berlin American Embassy post and death in 1878 revived Lanier's interest in Goethe,23 whose Faust Taylor had translated in the original meter. Taylor may also have directed his friend's attention to regionalist and early social realist Berthold Auerbach. Except Wagner, this novelist is the only contemporary German author Lanier ever referred to.24 Next to Longfellow Taylor was the most influential literary mediator between 19th century America and Germany. Like Longfellow very knowledgeable about the country and its culture as well, here was a person to convey to Lanier a personal image of Germany, the variety of its scenery, and the mentality of its people.25

In the early 1870s the problematical relationship of music and literature had given a new focus to his reading interests. Now, in the late 1870s, the equally problematical linkage of science and literature geared Lanier's reading to equally technical needs. They concerned the scientific basis of prosody. Research by an outstanding German physicist, Hermann Helmholtz, his translated study Sensations of Tone (Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik, 1863), proved eminently useful.26 So did Goethe, when eventually seen in this context of the relation of science with literature. At long last, Lanier appreciates in him the man “at once pursuing science and poetry.”27 Such purposeful reading in the German science field had started when Lanier, the consumptive, was preparing a travel guide to Florida and the healing powers of its climate. He was conscientious enough to consult Johann Heinrich Blasius, a contemporary German authority on the medical aspects of meteorology, especially the climatic ones.28

This amazing fragmentation of reception areas is but little counterbalanced by book-mediated total images of Germany, the country and its culture. When toward the early end of his life Lanier's Johns Hopkins University course on the English novel culminated in George Eliot, her work provided in its way for a literary image of Germany. Daniel Deronda conveyed to Lanier impressions of Baden-Baden, Homburg, Frankfurt and Mainz.29 The same novel had rendered a similar service to Emily Dickinson.


With Dickinson the reader's reception of things German was followed by the creative artist's use of them. With Lanier, however, not only the reader's but also the critic's and the reproductive translator's reception of German literature has to be taken into account.

The critic of German literature and, beyond it, of German philosophy and music blends with their creative user in Tiger-Lilies (1867), Lanier's only novel. But we can catch him primarily as critic in his letters, a good many of them Civil War letters, in his essays, and in his lectures on the English novel. Judgments on individual authors sometimes undergo instructive changes, especially in the case of Goethe and his concept of ‘Persönlichkeit’. As late as 1869 Lanier misinterprets it as egotistical ‘self-culture’.30 Only seldom does he venture a characterization of the whole of German literature or music in a given period. This happens e. g. in a letter written to his wife in 1874. Lanier did not know Nietzsche, almost exactly his contemporary. Nietzsche's sharp eye for what later came to be called the ‘process of secularization’ in 19th century German literature has a surprising analogue in this statement of Lanier's. It is analogous in substance, though contrary in attitude. What is most interesting is that in Nietzsche's as well as in Lanier's case it is triggered by a love-hate relationship with Wagner:

There is a something in it [Wagner's “Rhein-Gold”,—the first part of his great … Tetralogy] or rather a something not in it, which I detest in everything that any German has yet done in the way of music or poetry. I know [not] exactly what to call it, or indeed how to define it. It is … (if I may express it in a very roundabout way) … a sort of consciousness underlying all his earthly enthusiasms (which are not at all weakened thereby), that God has charge, that the world is in His hands, that any bitterness is therefore small and unworthy of a poet. This was David's frame of mind: it was Shakespeare's. No German has approached it, except perhaps Richter.31

Lanier, the Presbyterian Christian, the man who, due to his long ongoing fight with tuberculosis knew suffering and near-despair, had come to realize his inner resources, and miss their equivalents in most German authors. Naturally, his knowledge of German literature was selective so that his judgment became onesided.

Lanier, the reproductive recipient in the role of translator, tried his skill on three or probably four poems by Heine, and on a further piece by a poet whose name young Lanier, in his soldier's days, spelled Tanner. As mentioned before (p. 141), a German author of that name has not been located yet. Nor have probable renderings of Goethe's “Die Nähe des Geliebten,” Schiller's “Des Mädchens Klage,” and Heine's “Du bist wie eine Blume.”32 Taken from Neue Gedichte (1844), Heine's “Leise zieht durch mein Gemüt,” with its melodious, informal language, was quite a challenge. Lanier responded to it twice. The more “liberal,” that is less literal, version with its line “Float on the spring-winds to my home” was inappropriately composed in a situation without liberty, i. e. at Point Lookout prison, in a prisoner-of-war camp of the Civil War, in December 1864. The winter season left its imprint in a couplet added by the translator:

          [Floateth a lovely chiming.]
Thou magic-bell, to many a fell,
And many a winter-saddened dell

The simplicity of the original language has been replaced by a ‘precious,’ poeticized diction. The compound-epithet and the conventionally archaic touch due to the inflectional morpheme-eth (“Floateth”) are entirely out of place. The second piece from Heine, this time from “Lyrisches Intermezzo” in Buch der Lieder (1827; Book of Songs), may have appealed to Lanier's, the Southerner's, imagination for its two emblematic trees, the pine and the palm. True, in the German original “Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam” they symbolize a dreamed-of union of the North and the Orient (“Morning-land” literally renders “Morgen-land”),34 but the erotic and cultural symbolism in the poem may have assumed for the translator a meaning associable with another separation and another dream of union nearer home. Here was a challenge to both, the American in the Southerner and the symbolist in the artist.35

The challenge to the symbolist recurred ten years later, in November 1874. Now, however, it made additional demands on the dramatic and the tragic sense of a would-be translator as well as on his awareness of Germanic myth used for the interpretation and criticism of Western civilization. Initially Lanier responded to the challenge:

I have the Libretto of Wagner's great “Trilogy” [sic], and am going to try to make a contract for translating it during the winter. It is a book of more than four hundred pages.36

The outcome has been told by Arthur O. Lewis in an apt, drily factual, way:

… a surviving copy of Lanier's German-English dictionary has some forty lines of translation from Das Rheingold pencilled on the back fly-leaves.37

Bristling with obvious difficulties, this ambitious project was bound to fail, if not only for that inner resistance Lanier the Christian felt to the world view of Wagner's tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.

On a unique occasion Lanier, the reproductive poet, put his limited command of German to productive uses. He composed in German a sonnet on Mrs. Falk-Auerbach, a Baltimore pianist of German descent. He went one better by translating this German poem into his native language.38

This American producer of ‘German’ poetry once joins forces with the creative transformer of knowledge and of criticism of things German. The result is young Lanier's experimental novel Tiger-Lilies (1867).

On its basic, linguistic, level Lanier's knowledge of German concocts a kind of German-American brogue for his two female emigrants from Frankfurt. His familiarity with German literature furnishes German names to three of the major, and to one of the minor figures. “Ottilie” most probably derives from Goethe's Elective Affinities (Die Wahlver-wandtschaften). Felix, changed from a boy's to a girl's name, is presumably borrowed from Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship or Travels (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre).39 Rübetsahl originates from “Legenden von Rübezahl,” which Carlyle's translation of J. K. Musäus' Volksmärchen der Deutschen had skipped.40 Among the minor figures, Gretchen, Ottilie's maid, who followed her into emigration, clearly owes her name to Faust's beloved. Confederate officer Flemington's name recalls protagonist Flemming in Longfellow's German travel novel Hyperion.41 Longfellow had chosen the name in homage to German Baroque poet Paul Fleming.42 Lanier added to it the English suffix -ton in imitation of surnames transferred from place names.43

This allusiveness of German or partly German names comes to bear on the novel's level of tone. Admittedly, it can be appreciated only by such readers as know the literary sources of these names and are aware of their changed references as well. The resulting tone of comical playfulness, however, more often than not tends to distort the original German literary characters alluded to. It displays Richter's and Tieck's Romantic irony in American Southern operation.

On the level of setting the juxtaposition of America and Germany keeps alive in the reader's mind the binationality of this novel. Goethe's Frankfurt, original home of Ottilie, Gretchen, and Rübetsahl, place of Ottilie's seduction by charming Yankee John Cranston on the one hand, on the other a Germanized place name, “Thalberg”, rendering authentic Montvale, Tenn., in inverted order,44 mark the range of action at farthest points.

On the level of figures the German language adds versimilitude to the German characters and to a war in which German immigrants fight on both sides. The central antithetic pair, Yankee Cranston and Southerner Philip Sterling, are largely characterized by their resemblance to German literary figures, and by their own German preferences, literary and musical. Cranston is, in part, modeled on Mephistopheles and on an unredeemed, seductive Faust, while Stirling echoes Novalis' Heinrich von Ofterdingen.

The German literary work of the same title seems to impinge on the structural level of Tiger-Lilies. There is no end yet to the academic debate on whether Lanier read this unfinished novel in Stallknecht's Cambridge translation of 1842 or, once again, simply relied on Carlyle as informant.45 Mediated or not, Novalis' design recurs with interesting modifications. Lanier scholar Garland Greever sums them up this way:

Lanier resembles Novalis in that he shrouds his theme [of spiritual progress toward love] in figurative language, has the [blue] flower stand for love and maintains that love in its spiritual character shall transform and redeem all life. He differs from Novalis in that, whereas the blue flower represents love in its ideal state, tiger-lilies represent it in both its debased and its exalted form.46

Structural functions are served by German literature also in more obvious manners. By way of mottoes prefixed to each of the novel's chapters passages taken also from German authors operate as introductive signals for alert readers. Characteristically, Richter and Novalis are entrusted with this service, though only in Book I of the novel, the earliest part written by the young author. Particularly obvious is the framing function of a mythical symbol associated with the basically mythical figure of Rübetsahl. Borrowed by Lanier from Norse mythology, probably via Jakob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie (1832-35),47 the tree symbol of “Ygdrasil,” linking the subterrestrial, terrestrial, and celestial spheres of existence, opens and closes Tiger-Lilies. But the very last sentence of its first and its last paragraph takes over from ancient Hebrew the Biblical formula of “Amen.” Lanier, the Southern Presbyterian, is not that easily overawed by Germanic mythology. The later critic of the world view of Der Ring des Nibelungen, whom we have already met (p. 143), is foreshadowed by the builder of the novel's structure.

All these were meaningful uses of German literary material and German mediatory services. It should be mentioned in passing, however, that less meaningful ones emerge in Lanier's other works. They are merely decorative and occasionally self-advertising, the author displaying his knowledge. Fortunately they are conterbalanced by functional, very modern-looking, ‘montage’-like effects to which Lanier applied his acquaintance with German literature and culture. Instances can be found in his essays and letters as well as in his travel guide Florida (1876).48

In the shorter fiction and the poetry, use of German literary themes and motifs is scanty. For example, Fouqué's fairy tale Undine contributes to Lanier's “The Three Waterfalls.”49 A late phenomenon in his development of creative contacts with German culture50 is the poem dedicated to German composers. Represented by such pieces as “To Beethoven” (1876) and “To Richard Wagner” (1877), this type of poetic expression yields insight into both emotional attitude and scope of understanding.51

Suffice it to say that all of Lanier's contacts with Germany, involving as they do reading knowledge, critical judgment, reproductive and productive reactions,52 persist throughout the fourteen years, and no more, granted Lanier after publication of Tiger-Lilies in 1867. A year later he wrote: “… it is like that I, who have loved Germany all my life, must after all die with only a dream of the child-land.”53 His guess proved correct.


How does Lanier's Germany compare to Germany's Lanier? Critical reception, based on German reprintings of his works in English, has been scanty. Reproductive reception, i. e. by way of translation, has been scantier still. The lack, not remedied until 1945, of a complete American edition of Lanier's writings and the slow development of biographical research, both descriptive and critical, prevented the German reception from enjoying a more than casual support. The casual one came from a German who had emigrated from Pomerania as a child and was to become America's earliest linguistic structuralist: Edward Sapir (1884-1939). His essay “The Musical Foundations of Verse” (1921) proffers ideas “related to those of Lanier's Science of English Verse (1880),”54 but Lanier is not accorded “specific” treatment.55 The periodical which had accepted the article was the well-known Journal of English and Germanic Philology, but owing to rapid inflation only a few German scholars may have come across this essay at the time. So German immigrant activities proved inconsequential as, in spite of Austrian immigrant assistance, they had done in Dickinson's case in 1895 and 1898.56 The unsettled evaluation of Lanier's achievement, the long-lasting failure to explore his place in the Poe tradition of Southern symbolist poetry or to investigate affinities with French symbolism and European Neo-Romanticism, the ardent intra-Southern debate about his relation to “the new South,” the Southern Agrarians and the “Fugitives” did not improve post-World War I reception either.57 Not even such a hospitable international anthology as The Albatros Book of Living Verse edited by American Louis Untermeyer for a publishing company with headquarters in Hamburg, included a single poem of Lanier's, and this as late as 1933.

Nor did a single one of them illustrate those eight lines of description and assessment which in 1929 Walther Fischer, University of Pennsylvania-trained German pioneer of Americanistics, devoted to Lanier in Die englische Literatur der Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika [sic]. But his comments mark the belated beginnings of German academic contacts with Lanier. The musician-poet is both praised and blamed, the novelist, the scientific prosodist, the travel writer, and the author of essays on music are disregarded.58

In the same year of 1929, however, a German philosopher and psychological student of culture, Count Hermann Keyserling, viewed Lanier from quite a different angle than Professor Fischer had done. Next to Oswald Spengler, this Baltic aristocrat was Germany's most discussed philosopher in the English-speaking world of the 1920s. America Set Free, written in English and published in 1930, was his third success.59 In the year before The Atlantic Monthly had published his essay “The South—America's Hope.” According to Keyserling, Lanier, the man's life and work, had built up “a general cultural atmosphere.” In it a “superior human type” could evolve.60 This was as laudatory as it was seemingly vague. But on re-reading Lanier's correspondence with his old Macon friend, Swiss-descended Clare deGraffenreid, one does find that German philosopher's assessment borne out by Lanier's efforts for what we nowadays call adult education.61

“The South: America's Hope” links up with the post-1945 fortunes of Lanier. They, too, advance his reception by readers and critics. Around 1948 a German anthology of American poetry for the first time offers poems by Lanier, including a dialect poem. Credit for this courage goes to Josef Rather's American Poetry: A Critical Anthology (1949).62 Biographical information, mainly about Lanier and his Baltimore German environment, was furnished by Dieter Cunz's monograph The Maryland Germans.63 Like Sapir he was a German immigrant peripherally interested in Lanier, but his reference to the Southern musician-poet was just as difficult to come by in 1948 currency-reform Germany as Sapir's article had been in that inflation-ridden Germany of 1921.

Among literary historians and critics Walter F. Schirmer was first to continue what Fischer had begun in 1929. True, his Kurze Geschichte der englischen Literatur was completed and prefaced in 1943, but not published until 1945. It encompassed a brief history of American literature. In it Lanier's demands for a ‘pure music’ and a quantity-based form of verse as well as his novel Tiger-Lilies are mentioned. The poet is placed in the neighborhood of epigonic Thomas Bailey Aldrich while the novelist finds himself in the company of historical romancers such as Daniel Pierce Thompson (The Golden Mountain Boys) and Lewis Wallace (Ben Hur).64 It was left to an American, J. Wesley Thomas, to serve as a guide to that aspect of Lanier's life and work which came closest to Germany but had so far been disregarded or undiscovered by German literary historians. Thomas' five-page account of Lanier's relations with German life and letters forms part of Amerikanische Dichter und die deutsche Literatur (1950).65 Written in German, this monograph for the first time, acquaints German readers with the historical context not only of Lanier's but also of Dickinson's and a great many other American authors' reactions to German literature and culture. This valuable pilot study, however, seems to have gone unexplored by Lanier's German critics of the 1950s and mid-1960s.

Helmut Uhlig's sketch of American literary history, contributed to the 1952 edition of the manual Amerikakunde, reinforced Schirmer's stress on the musical orientation of Lanier's poetry. It established a link with impressionism but denied Lanier the quality of “dichterischer Gestalter” (‘poetic creator’).66 In the same year Swiss-American Henry Lüdeke, in his Geschichte der amerikanischen Literatur, presented what for many years to come was to remain the most comprehensive description and fairest evaluation of Lanier's achievement. Its German elements, however, were narrowed to Carlyle as his guide to German Romanticism.67 Two years later Schirmer expanded his Geschichte der englischen Literatur (1937) into Geschichte der englischen und amerikanischen Literatur (1954). Now he relates Lanier's major poems along generic lines to British 17th century ode composers, above all to Dryden. But as in 1945, he emphasizes the epigonic character of the poetry's form. To the tension between it and the modern themes of the poems he adds the tension between Lanier's theorizing on ‘pure music’ and its actual achievement. Revised and enlarged editions of Schirmer's book in 1960, 1967 and 1968 neither revise nor enlarge this picture of Lanier.68

This dual task is taken over in 1959 by the German translation of Literary History of the United States (Literaturgeschichte der Vereinigten Staaten) and with it of Stanley T. Williams' contribution “Experiments in Poetry: Sidney Lanier and Emily Dickinson.” The German edition of this monumental work of American literary historiography offers the first four bilingual versions of snippets of Lanier's poetry, and the German version of a passage quoted by Williams from Lanier's Science of English Verse.69

In the early 1960s foreign aid arrived from British sources. The German translation in 1961 of Marcus Cunliffe's The Literature of the United States (1954) stressed the Southernness of Lanier, his relationship with Poe and Poe's over-melodiousness as well as Lanier's significance as precursor of modern Southern poetry.70 Five years later Ursula Brumm, in the 1966 revision of Amerikakunde and, with it, of Uhlig's contribution, assesses Lanier in terms related to Cunliffe's, i.e. in terms of post-Civil War poets' survival in present-day America's consciousness.71 Of such survivors she enumerates two: Whitman and Dickinson, but she adds, though with certain reservations, Lanier. The union of the poet with the musician she sees endangered by the precedence of sound patterns over diction and ideas. “The Marshes of Glynn” is singled out as representative of his few poems of evocative power. It is not until almost the end of the decade that a more favorable view is taken of Lanier's success in experimenting on a union of poetry and music. In Wege der amerikanischen Literatur (1968) Martin Schulze, as comprehensively as only Lüdeke before him, treats of Lanier's work. ‘His conscious verse architecture’ and the fusion of musician and poet, for the first time, are given full credit.72

As regards Lanier's Germany, however, even Schulze's awareness is restricted to the young Oglethorpe student under ‘the spell of the ideas of Carlyle and German Romanticism.’73 For a third time it was left to an American scholar, this time to Jack de Bellis, to resume inquiry into a subject that Thomas had taken up first, and Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., had investigated anew in 1957.74 De Bellis' “Sidney Lanier and German Romance: An Important Qualification” (1968) ranks as a model of a revisional, rigorously critical study in literary reception and influence. It does not concern itself with Lanier's image of Germany.75

German research of the 1970s contributed several new features to the picture of Germany's reception of our Southern author. Among them were a detailed comparison of his poetry to Poe's,76 a daring but very brief attempt to relate it to the ‘overstrained euphoria of the consumptive,’77 and a close interpretation of one of Lanier's outstanding poems, “The Marshes of Glynn.” This thoughtful analysis, the first ever undertaken by a German, was published in a volume of interpretive essays from several hands. In this framework amounting to an interpretive history of American poetry the German reader was enabled to see Lanier's achievement as part of a tradition extending over almost 350 years.78

Even the field of reproductive reception, in the 1970s, began to show signs of increasing cultivation. Herwig Friedl's analysis of “The Marshes of Glynn” reprinted the text of the original and added a well-considered prose rendering.79 So did Annemarie and Franz Link when including Lanier's “The Raven Days” in their bilingual anthology Amerikanische Lyrik/Vom 17. Jahrhundert bis zur Genewart (1974) (American Poetry: From the 17th Century Through the Present).80 Perhaps not by chance did two persons who had experienced the Second World War and its aftermath select a poem born of the Civil War and its Southern repercussions.

No German poet, however, has as yet felt stimulated to translate Lanier, let alone transmute him, his themes and forms, into a work of her or his own. How different this is from Dickinson's attraction for German translators and the poets among them! …


  1. Stanley M. Vogel, German Literary Influences on the American Transcendentalists, Yale Studies in English, 127 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1955).

  2. For instance in A Masque of Poets [ed. George Parsons Lathrop] (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878), which published ED's “Success” and SL's “The Marshes of Glynn.” Both were printed unsigned. See ibid., pp. 174, 88-94.

  3. They include Texas and New Orleans Germans. See The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson (general editor), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1945), VI, 191, 233, 245; VIII, 320, 331, 241.

  4. Mainly Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Schumann. As for language, see Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., “SL's Study of German,” Amer.-Germ. Rev., 22 (1957), 30-32.

  5. Politics: “Flag Presentation at Oglethorpe University,” Cent. Ed., V, 197; of later date, “Retrospects and Prospects,” ibid., V, 301. References to Bismarck ibid. and in “Peace,” VI, 247. See Letters, ibid., X, 5: “I … have written … part of an essay on “Beethoven and Bismarck.” Philology: “Shakespere and His Forerunners,” ibid., III, 43; “The Death of Byrhtnoth,” IV, 291.

  6. Edd Winfield Parks, SL, the Man, the Poet, the Critic (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1968), pp. 5-6.

  7. Ibid., p. 6.

  8. Cent. Ed., V, 107.

  9. Parks, SL, p. 6.

  10. Jack de Bellis, “SL and German Romance: An Important Qualification,” Comp. Lit. Studies, 5 (1968), 145.

  11. Ibid., p. 147.

  12. See note 106. Other references to Luther in The English Novel, Cent. Ed., IV, 126, 130; in “Retrospects and Prospects,” Cent. Ed., V. 296.

  13. Cent. Ed., III, 142. This letter to his father is also of interest for SL's knowledge of, and attitude toward, the German language.

  14. The English Novel, Cent, Ed., IV, 200 with reference to George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss; ibid., p. 249, once more with reference to Eliot. Thomas a Kempis is quoted in Letters, ibid., IX, 503 and X, 15.

  15. Boston editions in 1863 and 1866. Cf. Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., “SL's Knowledge of German Literature,” Anglo-Germ. and Amer.-Germ. Crosscurrents, ed. Philip Allison Shelley et al., (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1957), pp. 160, 186, notes 17-18.

  16. Aubrey H. Starke, SL (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1933), pp. 166-67, 183-84, 204, 217-22, 258, 331.

  17. Letters, Cent. Ed., VII, 155: “A kind friend has sent me a Germanbook [sic] containing extracts from various German authors, in the original … in reading it, my thought has been of you—.”

  18. Letters, Cent. Ed., IX, 112, 118, 119.

  19. He probably read Edward L. Burlingame, tr. Art Life and Theories or Richard Wagner (New York, 1875). See Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 187, n. 49. He appears to have known Wagner's Beethoven (Leipzig, 1870). See SL's “Wagner's Beethoven,” Cent. Ed., II, 338-39; Lewis, ibid., p. 187. An American ed. of the German original or its transl. was publ. by Schirmer in New York in 1870. Cf. NUC for this ed. and a transl. by Albert R. Parsons (Boston, 1872, Indianapolis, 1872, 1873; New York, 1883, 3rd ed.); cf. also Morgan, Critical Bibliography, p. 498.

  20. Letters, Cent. Ed., IX, 102: “‘The Life of Robert Schumann,’ by his pupil [Wilhelm I.] Von Wasielewski.” A passage quoted ibid., pp. 103-04, with its expression of Schumann's appreciation of Jean Paul Richter surely reinforced SL's approval of Richter. Cf. Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 162.

  21. Starke, SL, pp. 284, 302; Cent. Ed., I, 357-58; Dieter Cunz, The Maryland Germans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1948), p. 344.

  22. Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 180, quotes Cent. Ed., II, 270-71.

  23. Ibid., pp. 169-70, 187, n. 33.

  24. The English Novel, Cent. Ed., IV, 34. Even Auerbach was SL's senior by thirty years.

  25. John T. Krumpelmann, “Bayard Taylor as a Literary Mediator between Germany and the South Atlantic States,” Die Neueren Sprachen, n.s., 9 (1955), 415-18; Bayard Taylor and German Letters, Britannica et Americana. No. 4 (Hamburg: Cram, de Gruyter, 1959).

  26. Cent. Ed., II, xxix, 25, n.1; 28, 29, 208, n.1; 255, 262, 306, 329; IV, 6; VII, 1; X, 270.

  27. The English Novel, Cent. Ed., IV, 34. Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 169.

  28. Johann Heinrich Blasius. Cf. Cent. Ed., VI, 9 and n. But see also William Blasius (1818-99), “Some Remarks on the Connection of Meteorology with Health,” Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc., 16 (Philadelphia, 1875). Florida was publ. in 1876.

  29. The English Novel, Cent. Ed., IV, esp. pp. 211-30. Fritz Schultz, Der Deutsche in der englischen Literatur vom Beginn der Romantik bis zum Ausbruch des Weltkrieges, Studien zur Englischen Philologie, No. 95 (Halle: Niemeyer, 1939), 76-77, 102-104, 113. See also the older study of Sibilla Pfeiffer, George Eliots Beziehungen zu Deutschland, Anglistische Forschungen, No. 60 (Heidelberg: Winter, 1925).

  30. Letter to Virginia Hankins, May 17, 1869, Cent. Ed. VIII, 31; Philip Allison Shelley, “A German Art of Life in America: The American Reception of the Goethean Doctrine of Self-Culture,” Anglo-German and American-German Crosscurrents, vol. 1, pp. 241-292. As for similar but later judgments see Hans Galinsky, “Deutschland in der Sicht von D. H. Lawrence und T. S. Eliot” in his Amerika und Europa (Berlin, 1968), pp. 214, 216, 230. See also Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Engl.: Cambridge UP, 1977).

  31. To Mary Day Lanier, Nov 8, 1874, Letters, Cent. Ed., IX, 118. Also quoted in part by Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 179.

  32. Lewis, ibid., pp. 165, 174, 177.

  33. “Spring Greeting,” Cent. Ed., I, 5; cf. I, xxviii, n. 23; I, 329. See letter to Mary Day, Jul 1, 1864, Letters, Cent Ed., VII, 155, 155, n. 11. SL or his “Germanbook” wrongly ascribes the poem to Herder. The version printed in Cent. Ed., VIII, 155 is, according to SL, “perfectly literal, almost,” the “liberal” one (ibid.) is in I, 5.

  34. “Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam,” “Lyrisches Intermezzo,” XXXIII in Heinrich Heine, Werke (Wiesbaden: Löwit, n.d.), I, 147. “Translation from the German of Heine,” Cent. Ed. I, 154; see also I, 368.

  35. Of the third poem by Heine, “Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht,” “Die Heimkehr,” LXXXVII, Buch der Lieder, Werke, I, 213, only lines 2 and 4 were translated. Cent. Ed., VII, 185. See also Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 177.

  36. See also Letters, Cent. Ed., IX, 112. Cf. IX, 118, 119.

  37. Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 179, with reference to Cent. Ed., IX, 112. Cf. IX, 118, 119, but also VI, 51-52.

  38. Cent. Ed. I, 117: “To Nannette Falk-Auerbach;” I, 357: “An Frau Nannette Falk-Auerbach.” Starke, SL, p. 310, rates the German version above the English.

  39. But see Tiger-Lilies, Cent. Ed., V, xxiii: “‘Felix’ may be reminiscent of Mendelssohn.”

  40. For English translation of “Legenden von Rübezahl” (‘legends of Number Nip’) see Morgan, Critical Bibliography, pp. 350-51. Aside from earlier and later ones he lists an 1864 edition.

  41. Tiger-Lilies, Cent. Ed., V, xxiv. Cf. ibid., V, xxii-iv, 39, n. [1].

  42. James Taft Hatfield, New Light on Longfellow (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933; rpt. New York: Gordian P, 1970), p. 71, n. 2 refers to “Dannecker's invented remark: ‘You have a German name. Paul Flemming [sic] was one of our old poets.”

  43. Hans Marchand, The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word-Formation (Munich: Beck, 1969, 2nd ed.), p. 350.

  44. But cf. Starke, SL, p. 483, n. 2: “But it is also the name of a musician distinguished in Lanier's day, Sigismund Thalberg, who visited the United States in 1857.”

  45. Lewis, “SL's Knowledge of Germ. Lit.,” p. 187, n. 39; De Bellis, “SL and German Romance,” p. 151.

  46. “Introduction,” Tiger-Lilies, Cent. Ed., V, xx. This introduction by Garland Greever and the “Introduction” by Richard Harwell to his edition of Tiger-Lilies, Southern Literary Classics Series, ed. C. Hugh Holman and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1969), pp. vii-xxii are informative.

  47. Cent. Ed., III, 43 appears to be the only mention of J. Grimm. It refers to his conjectures of the author of The Phoenix. Starke, SL, p. 392, refers to the same. Philip Graham, “L's Reading,” Studies in Engl. (Austin, Tex.), 11 (1931), 63-89, does not list Grimm at all. Morgan, Critical Bibliography, p. 193 includes “Teutonic Mythology. Tr. 4th ed. [of Deutsche Mythologie] Jasper S. Stallybrass (London: Bell, 1880-88), 4 vols.” This translation would have been too late for use in Tiger-Lilies.

  48. One of the most illustrative examples can be found in Florida, Cent. Ed., VI, 51-52. Wagner's Rheingold is integrated with the local natural product of Florida oranges as symbols of fertility and with the local fairy-tale motif of Ponce de Leon's search for the spring of eternal youth.

  49. “The Three Waterfalls,” Cent. Ed., V, 213-230, esp. p. 213n.

  50. Philip Graham and Joseph Jones, A Concordance to the Poems of SL (Austin, Tex., 1939) should be searched for German lexemes. An “Outline” for “Poem. On the women who bore out their husbands on their shoulders, as their greatest treasures, from the captured city,” Cent. Ed. I, 249, did not yield a poem. The subject recalls the story of ‘the women of Weinsberg’ as retold in prose by the Grimms and G. Schwab, in verse by Chamisso, in an unfinished verse drama by Uhland. Wagner's and von Bülow's impact on “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia” (1876), ibid., I, 60-62, esp. its underlying concept of poetry's relation to music, is problematical. This relation is influenced by “the prodigious modern development of the orchestra” (SL's “The Centennial Cantata,” ibid., II, 266). Cf. Edwin Mims, SL (Boston, 1905; rpt. Washington, D.C.: Kennikat P, 1968), pp. 172-73.

  51. Cent. Ed., I, 88-90; cf. I, 310-11, 315-16; I, 102-03. Cf. SL's sonnet “Beethoven,” ibid., pp. 201, 351, and “Poem Outlines,” Cent. Ed., I, 258: “no. 94. Beethoven” (3 lines).

  52. Reproductive reactions also operate in SL's language. “See-longing” and “sight-yearning” try to render Sehnsucht on the basis of a misunderstood German compound. See letter to Mary Day Lanier, July 16, 1872: “Dost thou know the German word Sehnsucht: i. e. sehen (or seh'n), to see, and sucht, longing—the see-longing, or sight-yearning? So does my sight yearn for thee, …” (Cent. Ed., VIII, 242). A professional flutist, he even produced German names for several of his compositions. Cf. Cent. Ed., VI, 390: “Heimweh Polka,” “Concert Stück,” “Ein Märchen, Song for Flute,” “Fantasie on Schubert's ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied,’” “Sehnsucht,” “Wald-Einsamkeit,” [Tieck?]. As for German linguistic and literary influences, e. g. on SL's “The Symphony,” consult Pochmann, German Culture, pp. 460-61, 776-77, notes 428-38.

  53. Letter to Milton H. Northrup, Cent. Ed., VII, 380. Based on the same morphemic pattern as “child-land,” “art-land” is another name for Germany in SL's vocabulary: “the most cultivated art-land, quoad music.” (ibid., IX, 107).

  54. Jack de Bellis, SL, Henry Timrod, and Paul Hamilton Hayne: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978).

  55. JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], 20 (1921), 213-18. See De Bellis, ibid., p. 50.

  56. See Lubbers in note 97. Cf. Buckingham, ED: Annotated Bibliography, pp. 185-86; 60, no. 6.115 with reference to the year 1895.

  57. Jack de Bellis, SL, TUSAS, no. 205 (New York, 1972), passim.

  58. Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft, ed. Oskar Walzel (Wildpark-Potsdam, 1929), p. 91.

  59. Amerika: Der Aufgang einer neuen Welt (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1930).

  60. Atlantic Monthly, 144 (1929), 605-08.

  61. A. P. Antippas and Carol Flake, “SL's Letters to Clare deGraffenreid,” AL [American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography] 45 (1973), 182-205.

  62. I. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, pp. 177-84.

  63. Cunz, The Maryland Germans, pp. 338, 343, 344, 410.

  64. (Halle: Niemeyer, 1945), pp. 229, 245.

  65. (Goslar: Volksbücherei-Verlag, 1950), pp. 111-16; see also pp. 103, 116; as for Dickinson, pp. 103, 110, 111, 118.

  66. “Amerikanische Literatur,” in Amerikakunde, Handbücher der Auslandskunde, ed. Paul Hartig and Wilhelm Schellberg (Frankfurt M.: Diesterweg, 1952, 2nd ed.), p. 403.

  67. (Berne, 1952), pp. 350-52, 354, 357.

  68. (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1954, 2nd ed.), pp. 150-51; (1960, 3rd ed.), II, 154-55, 183; (1967, 4th ed.), pp. 620-21; (1968, 5th ed.), ibid.

  69. (Mainz: Grünewald), pp. 908-16, and passim.

  70. Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte (Munich: Piper, 1961), pp. 183, 185, 186-87. It quotes four lines from “The Marshes of Glynn;” German translation on p. 389.

  71. “Entwicklungszüge der amerikanischen Literatur,” p. 671.

  72. (Frankfurt M.: Ullstein, 1968), pp. 183-85.

  73. Ibid., 183.

  74. For Thomas see note 166, for Lewis note 116, for De Bellis note 111.

  75. This critical attitude continues in Richard Harwell's “Introduction,” Tiger-Lilies: A Novel (see note 147) and in De Bellis's SL (see note 158). I am greatly indebted to it.

  76. Herwig Friedl, “Poe und Lanier: Ein Vergleich ihrer Versdichtung,” Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, 15 (1970), 123-40.

  77. Rudolf Haas, Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte, vol. 2 (Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer, 1974), p. 190.

  78. Herwig Friedl, “The Marshes of Glynn,” in Klaus Lubbers, ed., Die amerikanische Lyrik: Von der Kolonialzeit bis zur Gegenwart (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1974), pp. 163-75; 442-44 (‘Notes’).

  79. Ibid., pp. 163-67.

  80. (Stuttgart: Reclam Jr., 1974), pp. 180-81; a bibliography is appended on pp. 484-85.

(ED = Emily Dickinson; P = Press; SL = Sidney Lanier; UP = University Press)

Thomas Daniel Young (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4103

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 the Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins University on the development of English literature, some of which were devoted to Shakespeare and his time. These lectures were published twenty-five years after Lanier's death as Shakspere and His Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry (1902). Although Lanier was genuinely interested in the development of English poetry, his comments on Shakespeare reveal that he was indeed a true child of his age. The plays he liked best were those in which he thought he could find “an uplifting moral.” A born musician with an undeniable interest in and talent for music, Lanier was apparently more attracted to the sonnets than to the plays. Although he planned to center his lectures to the Peabody Institute (1878-79) on Shakespeare's poetry, the lectures finally given present Shakespeare in terms of his setting and stem in part from Lanier's conviction that Shakespeare came out of the Anglo-Saxon tradition and that his works mark the climax of English literature.

Trying to establish firmly in the minds of his audience the tradition that bred Shakespeare as its finest writer, Lanier confined the first twenty-four of his lectures to the writers from Beowulf to Chaucer and his contemporaries. Even the lectures advertised as his “Shakspere Course” ranged broadly over the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and made few specific comments on Shakespeare's poetry: one lecture was devoted to the development of the language from Chaucer to Shakespeare; five discussed the development of the sonnet from Surrey through Milton (only one of these concentrated on Shakespeare's contributions to the form); two were announced to be on pronunciation in Shakespeare's time, but one was devoted to drama as sermon and the other comments on some fairly obvious instances that appear to be false rhyme but are merely changes in pronunciation that have occurred since Shakespeare's time.1 To the student of Shakespeare the two most helpful lectures of the series are on Renaissance music. The course concluded with four lectures on domestic life in Shakespeare's time, the last two of which were organized around an imaginary life of Shakespeare—his education, his home life, the places he visited, and the means of entertainment (including the drama) available to him.

Although the lectures are filled with errors, Kemp Malone has indicated that they seem “to reflect fairly accurately” the best scholarship available to Lanier (p. xix). In many instances the lectures reveal that Lanier merely represented the interests and convictions of his age—the tireless search through the plays for “uplifting morals” and the unshakable faith in the doctrine of progress, for instance. Many of the lectures demonstrate, however, that he was reaching beyond the limits of his time. The discussions of “Shakspere's forerunners” offer convincing evidence of Lanier's interest in and knowledge of the English literary tradition. He handled with ease and often with surprising penetration the little-known works of Thomas Wyatt, John Lyly, Phineas Fletcher, and Samuel Daniel, and he always insisted that these writers deserved more attention than they had received. In fact, he informed his audience, “after you have read the Bible and Shakspere, you have no time to read anything else until you have read these.”

The basic thrust of the lectures apparently was to show Shakespeare as hero, humankind at the height of its development—surely an ambitious and worthy endeavor, which Lanier was always promising to undertake but never quite succeeded in tackling. Instead his approach to the few plays that he discussed was oblique and eccentric. His lectures say little about Shakespeare's art. Hamlet, according to Lanier, reveals man's increasing knowledge of the supernatural: Hamlet does not murder Claudius while he is praying because he thinks that Claudius's soul will go to heaven as a result. Lanier's conception of Hamlet is that he “does not believe in heaven or hell: he makes heaven and hell mere excuses for irresolution. He is a weak, unnerved, good man, who would be strong if he had faith of any sort” (16). That Lanier had read Coleridge and did not fully understand or agree with him is obvious. Similarly Lanier holds that Beowulf and A Midsummer Night's Dream illustrate man's changing attitude toward nature. In Beowulf nature is represented as “crackling chasms in the solid earth,” “convulsions of quaking continents and pouring seas.” In every scene in the poem nature is presented as having a “grim, inexorable savagery” (27). Thinking, no doubt, of the Romantic attitude toward nature, Lanier insists that “today the mood of nature is finer and sweeter” and “reveals itself in unspeakable beauty” (27). In Beowulf nature is still in her savage mood; her clear intent is to harm man, if not to destroy him. In A Midsummer's Night's Dream, however, all restraints between man and nature are broken down. Man communes with nature freely. No longer is it necessary to struggle in order to conquer the wild spirit of nature; now man needs only to demonstrate his love of the natural world. (36)

In the lectures on “Pronunciation in Shakspere's Time” the emphasis is not only on the difficulties the modern reader has with Shakespeare's rhyme but also on Lanier's theory that the characters in Shakespeare's plays do not speak as men or women would in real life; their speeches, instead, are intended “to give a true conception of the emotions that underlie them” (190). Moral teachings are clear and compelling in the plays because there is no “glazing and covering over of crimes as there is in real life. … The play of Shakspere can teach us a clear lesson, can preach us a clear sermon where the deliverance of real life is uncertain and confused” (192). Lanier interprets the Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, as a sermon on “constancy of love and friendship.” It demonstrates “the beauty of constancy,” “the ugliness of treachery,” and the “grandeur of that forgiveness which pardons the trespasser in these matters … involving human happiness.” Likewise, he says, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter's Tale “all present the importance and necessity of true forgiveness.”

Shakespeare's sonnets, Lanier insists, present the figure of a lover quite different from that in earlier English sonnets. He refers specifically to those sonnets dedicated to the “man he loves.” To Lanier, Shakespeare's sonnet sequence to the young man details the “progress of a friendship between two men.” The man betrayed Shakespeare and took advantage of their friendship to steal the affections of the woman Shakespeare loved; nevertheless, Shakespeare forgave him, even invented excuses for his friend's “perfidious act.”

The sonnet beginning “Shall I compare you to a summer's day?” not only indicates Shakespeare's adoration of his friend but also his loneliness in his absence. Other sonnets demonstrate other aspects of Shakespeare's affection. In sonnet 43, Lanier insists—in a statement that sounds very similar to some of the arguments of many twentieth-century critics, although toward very different ends—that “this poem, instead of being inspired by manly friendship” seems to have been “penned by some woman's lover in a moment of estatic adoration” (159). The poem is structured, Lanier perceptively observes, so that by using a term in a double sense, “the poet causes significations to meet in the same word, like two lips kissing out a new meaning.” He offers an example to prove his contention:

When most I wink, then do my eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And, darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
.....All days are nights to see, still I see thee,
And nights, bright days, when dreams do show thee me.

After this discussion Lanier draws his inevitable moral: the world at large was as ignorant of Shakespeare's greatness as his friend was. Lanier observes that he was little known by the person whom Shakespeare regarded as the man of men. The greatest poet in the language is likened by Lanier unto the mountain, of which one cannot perceive its true worth until he is removed a certain distance from it. The sonnet sequence clearly reveals, Lanier concludes, that “even his one friend and his one love, after all the intimacy of their relations, so faintly saw his greatness that he took from the poet the single comfort of his life” (167). Surely Lanier would be shocked and upset if he were aware of the meaning some present-day readers would attach to this statement.

Of the sixteen lectures Lanier gave at Johns Hopkins on “English Verse” (especially Shakespeare) during 1879-80, only five complete lectures and parts of two others survive. After an introductory lecture stating the theme and the proposed subjects of the series, Lanier divides the plays into what he calls the “Bright Period—1590-1601,” which includes most of the comedies and histories; the “Dark Period—1601-1608,” the tragedies; and the “Heavenly Period—1608-1613,” the “Plays of Forgiveness.” The chief burden of the subsequent lectures is to justify and explain the reasons for this division. Using such terms as “metrical tests,” “Rime,” “Run-on and End-Stopped Lines,” “Man's Relation to God,” “Man's Relations to Man,” and “Relations of Man to Nature,” Lanier examines one play from each period—usually A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, and The Tempest—to trace Shakespeare's intellectual and spiritual development.

Lanier's introductory lecture is intended to remind his audience of the importance of poetry, which “comes from above and preaches its gospel to men.” It “has created an ideal world in which we moderns move and live and have our being” (312). Poetry has created the world man lives in; we are “completely and practically the creatures of English literature.” Such poets as Chaucer and Shakespeare, Lanier tells his audience, “moulded the very soul of your ancestors before you” (313). Literature has translated the Bible, created and shaped the Constitution, the social codes, the systems of private morals. No one can escape the influence of literature, for like Emerson's Brahma it is “the wings wherewith we fly.” Poetry is the only art which does not require technical knowledge, Lanier continues; it is readily available to all. Any poet, furthermore, can justify anything he does by referring to Chaucer or Shakespeare. Bad criticism has not been able to affect Shakespeare's reputation for three hundred years because he was the supreme master in the use of verse forms and because he possessed “moral superiority.” Finally, Lanier pays the poet the supreme compliment, saying he is “the maker presiding at the genesis of a poem like the Creator presiding at the genesis of the world” (317).

Shakespeare's inward development is revealed, Lanier argues, as we review the plays that fall into each of the three divisions that he has devised. Shakespeare's attitudes, feelings, and temperament during a particular period are revealed in the plays he wrote during that time. The plays of the first period, Lanier holds, reveal a vivacious imagination, a youth “rioting about the contemporary scene and down through the ages like a young swallow in the early morning, now flitting his wings in the water—and like as not dirty water—now sailing over the meadow grass, now sweeping through the upper heights of heaven” (330). All the comedies, Lanier notes, belong to this period: Love's Labor's Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night. The works of this period include but one tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, and the real thrust of that play is not the tragic death of the two young lovers but their young love, “which is depicted with the unspeakable fire and the freshness of a young imagination” (330). The play is really a “bridegroom's passionate song set off with the funeral hymn for a foil.”

Even the history plays, according to Lanier, seem to be “written from without.” They do not center around one crime of passion, as the tragedies do; their manner is lighter and more personal than that characterizing the period of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear. The history plays reflect the manner of a young man, one “who has not yet been brought into any actual conflict and dreadful grind with the forces of nature and of accident and passion and of the twist of life in his own personal relations with his fellowman” (331). In Henry VI and Richard III, says Lanier, Shakespeare is writing under the influence of Marlowe, and in Richard II and King John he is trying to convert weak men into strong kings. To perform this feat he has to rely heavily on his fertile imagination and his as yet unabated optimism. In Henry IV he is writing a showpiece for Falstaff and disregarding historical fact almost entirely. These two plays, Henry IV, Parts I and II, should be regarded as comedies, not histories. Although Henry V is in a more serious vein, Shakespeare is more concerned here, Lanier contends, with the transformation of the character of young Prince Hal when he learns of his father's death than he is with relaying historical fact. It is obvious, however, Lanier continues, that about the time he wrote Henry V something was thrusting him into a more serious vein, something very terrible “profoundly shaking his heart.”

Although there had been personal tragedies in Shakespeare's life before now—such as his father's business failure and the death of his son—he continued to write light comedy. But now, about 1600 or a little later, Lanier says, there was a “tremendous wrench of his soul.” Something happened, Lanier insists, because after a series of light comedies, ending with Twelfth Night, there came a series of bloody tragedies, beginning with Julius Caesar and Hamlet and followed by Measure for Measure, that “wretched slough of a play … all murky with shame and weakness and brutality and low suffering and death and dark questions.” Soon thereafter came “the enormous single-passion tragedies”: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. Lanier finds evidence of this change in some of the sonnets, from LXVI to CXII. For example:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.


O, lest the world should task you to recite
What merit liv'd in me, that you should love
After my death, dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie.


Then hate me when you wilt, if ever, now,
Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss.
Ah, do not, when my heart hath 'scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquer'd woe;


As suddenly as Shakespeare entered this period of dark despair, Lanier says, he came out of it and moved into “The Heavenly Period” (334). His moods were now marked by a calm optimism as if he had “attained God out of knowledge and good out of a infinite pain.” The plays written during this period—Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, Henry VIII—are “in great and noble music, breathe of new love after estrangement, or recovery of long-lost children, of the kissing of wives thought dead, of reconciliation, of new births of old happiness.” Lanier concludes, therefore, that these plays were written in a period of calm initiated by assured victory. About 1612 Shakespeare went back to Stratford, Lanier speculates, to reconcile his differences with his wife and there live the life of a simple citizen with “wife, children, grandchild and friends.”

Lanier dates the plays according to the following systems: “the Rime test, the Run-on and End-stopped line test, the Weak-ending test, the Double-ending test and the Rhythmic Accent test.” He concludes that the plays with the highest percentage of rhymes were written in the first period; those with the lowest in the last. The plays with the largest percentage of run-on lines belong to the last period; those with the highest percentage of end-stopped lines were written in the first period. “The versification of the late plays,” Lanier argues, “is freer, more natural, and larger in music than that of the earlier plays,” and the use of run-on lines gives “a certain advance in breadth of view which simply embodies in technic that spiritual advance in majesty of thought, in elevation of tone, in magnanimity, in largeness of moral scope.” He continues, resorting again to musical comparisons to make his point:

Those of you who heard the Romance in the Suite by Bach played at the Peabody concerts last winter will remember the sense of heavenly breadth and infinite expanse given by the length of the musical phrases which Bach has there employed; and if you compare the grandeur of these phrases with the slighter proportioned phrases of an ordinary waltz or march, you will have a good musical analogue of the difference between Shakspere's later verse, which is full of run-on lines and his earlier ones, which is full of end-stopped ones; while at the same time you will have a good musical analogue of the difference between the moral width and nobleness of such plays as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest and all this forgiveness-and-reconcilliation group and the wild, delicious riot and unabating abandon of the comedy group.


Lanier then turns to the weak-ending lines (ones ending in “some merely connective word,” a preposition, conjunction, or auxiliary verb). These weak endings serve a relational function, he argues; the meaning of a line ended in this fashion is incomplete without the next line. Light-ending words are such as be, am, could, and any auxiliary verb or pronoun. A weak ending is one of the still less important words, such as and, if, or, but, or so. After an exacting count Lanier concludes that Shakespeare's use of weak- or light-ending lines began abruptly with Macbeth. There is not a single weak-ending line in Two Gentlemen, only one in A Midsummer Night's Dream, two in As You Like It, in Twelfth Night, four; in Macbeth, twenty-three; in Antony and Cleopatra, ninety-nine.

It is clear, Lanier is convinced, that Shakespeare changed his theory of versification. Since the run-on line gave him more freedom of expression, he discovered the weak- or light-ending line—a kind of run-on line that compels the reader to move without hesitation on to the next line—and found it particularly appealing.

The double-ending line Lanier compares to a bar of music in which the last quarter note is “split into its two equivalent eighth notes, and the bar has three sounds instead of two.” In poetry the double-ending line may conclude with one word such as “vessel” or two, as “in her.” Like the disuse of rhyme, the run-on line, or the weak-ending line, the double-ending line is a “variation of the normal form,” a departure from regimented structural firmness.

All three of these variations from regular structure are used much more frequently in the later plays than in the earlier. Lanier notes, too, that this loosening up of structural demands became characteristic of Shakespeare's later style so that we can determine with great precision which parts of Henry VIII were written by Shakespeare and which by Fletcher. In a similar manner application of these metrical tests demonstrate that Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen; we also know every passage that Shakespeare wrote and every one Fletcher wrote.

Lanier summarizes his findings on Shakespeare's versification in these major points: Shakespeare tended as his career progressed to disuse rhyme; his later verse has fewer end-stopped lines than the earlier; there is a similar increase in weak-ending lines in the later poetry; the later plays include many more examples of double-ending lines; with all of these tactics, as in the changes of normal rhythmic accents, Shakespeare was striving for more freedom, trying to make his verse less monotonous, and searching for more individuality. Lanier is careful to note, however, that Shakespeare's attempts to gain more freedom are not frenzied or chaotic but carefully and artistically controlled. Even in his later plays he used some rhyme and employed some end-stopped lines. The normal ending of his line was strong not weak, single-ending not double, and the greater number of his rhythmic accents were in the normal or expected places. His advance toward freedom was temperate, always respecting the regularity of verse structure. What Shakespeare attempted to do, as he mastered his art, was to balance artistically the oppositions of which verse is made.

One wonders what to say about these particular lectures. Surely they are not reliable scholarship and one learns little about Shakespeare from them. It seems evident, however, that Lanier read widely in English literature from the Anglo-Saxons through the Elizabethans and that he was just as knowledgeable about British history, including social and economic developments. There are, of course, many places at which the modern reader would disagree with Lanier's reading of Shakespeare. A child of his age, Lanier searched constantly for an “uplifting moral.” As John Crowe Ransom once said of himself, Lanier was certainly a “homemade scholar,” but he had an amazing grasp of much of the extant scholarship in language and phonetics, and much of this scholarship he summarized for his audience of laymen so that they could understand it. His philological studies made him particularly enthusiastic about Old and Middle English literature, and this love of our earliest writers he passed on not only to his lecture audiences but even to modern readers whom the essays continue to stimulate even when they mystify. Much of the Anglo-Saxon poetry he read to his audience he had to render into modern English, and some of these translations are still impressive today. Much of his scholarly study went into metrics, and although some of his findings made their way into Shakspere and His Forerunners, most of them went into The Science of English Verse. As Kemp Malone has pointed out, “Lanier entered academic scholarship a well-read man, at home in the world of literature, already a true philologist in the old sense of that word; that is, a lover of literary learning.”

Most modern readers—who feel that the primary purpose of literature is to help one to “realize” the world, not to “idealize” it—cannot forgive Lanier for insisting constantly that “all things work for the good of man.” At the highest level, he insisted, “poetry makes good of ill.” Consequently, what one can make of the lectures on Shakespeare's life and the effect of his personal life upon the poetry is difficult to determine. In the first place Lanier admitted that in the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century little was known of Shakespeare's personal life. Lanier proposed to create “a romance … in which taking Shakspere for a hero I propose to weave a picture of the manners of his contemporaries” (249). What emerges in the lectures generally does not contradict what we know of life in sixteenth-century England, and the experiences he creates could have happened to Shakespeare. The lectures make good reading and they must have enhanced his audience's appreciation for Shakespeare. The events he describes are not based on fact, and the effect of these events on the plays is pure speculation, but Lanier does not claim otherwise. Finally, one suspects the most important contribution of these lectures to Shakespeare criticism is that they reveal Lanier's deep and genuine appreciation of Shakespeare and that his love for the master was infectious. He passed it on to all who listened to the lectures and to those today who read Shakspere and His Forerunners and The Science of English Verse.


  1. Material for this paper came from the following sources: Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Kemp Malone, vol. 3 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, Charles R. Anderson, gen. ed., 10 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945 p. viii. Hereafter referred to by page number in the text. Also, The Science of English Verse, vol. 2 of the above.

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Lanier, Sidney (Poetry Criticism)