Sidney Lanier

Start Free Trial

Edwin Mims (essay date 1905)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8158

SOURCE: Mims, Edwin. “The Achievement in Criticism and in Poetry.” In Sidney Lanier, pp. 340-75. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905.

[In the following essay, Mims offers an enthusiastic, early twentieth-century assessment of Lanier's contributions to American poetry and literary criticism.]

Speculations as to what Lanier might have done with fewer limitations and with a longer span of years inevitably arise in the mind of any one who studies his life. If, like the late Theodore Thomas, he had at an early age been able to develop his talent for music in the musical circles of New York; if, like Longfellow, he had gone from a small college to a German university, or, like Mr. Howells, from the provinces to Cambridge, where he would have come in contact with a group of men of letters; if, after the Civil War, he had, like Hayne, retired to a cabin and there devoted himself entirely to literary work; if, like Lowell, he could have given attention to literary subjects and lectured in a university without teaching classes of immature students or without resorting to “pot-boilers,” “nothings that do mar the artist's hand;” if, like Poe, he could have struck some one vein and worked it for all it was worth,—if, in a word, the varied activity of his life could have given way to a certain definiteness of purpose and concentration of effort, what might have been the difference! Music and poetry strove for the mastery of his soul. Swinburne, speaking of those who attempt success in two realms of art, says, “On neither course can the runner of a double race attain the goal, but must needs in both races alike be caught up and resign his torch to a runner with a single aim.” And yet one feels that if Lanier had had time and health to work out all these diverse interests and all his varied experiences into a unity, if scholarship and music and poetry could have been developed simultaneously over a long stretch of time, there would have resulted, perhaps, a more many-sided man and a finer poetry than we have yet had in America.

So at last the speculation reduces itself to one of time. Lycidas was dead ere his prime. From 1876 till the fatal illness took hold of him he made great strides in poetry. Up to the very last he was making plans for the future. His letters to friends outlining the volumes that he hoped to publish,—work demanding decades instead of years,—the memoranda jotted down on bits of paper or backs of envelopes as the rough drafts of essays or poems, would be pathetic, if one did not believe with Lanier that death is a mere incident in an eternal life, or with Browning, that what a man would do exalts him. The lines of Robert Browning's poems in which he sets forth the glory of the life of aspiration—aspiration independent of any achievement—ring in one's ears, as he reads the story of Lanier's life.

This low man seeks a little thing to do,
          Sees it and does it;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
          Dies ere he knows it.

The imperfect poems, the unfinished poems, the sheaves unharvested, not like Coleridge's for lack of will, but for lack of time, are suggestive of one of the finest aspects of romantic art. “I would rather fail at some things I wot of than succeed at others,” said Lanier. There are moods when the imperfection of Lanier pleases more than the perfection of Poe—even from the artistic standpoint. What he aspired to be enters into one's whole thought about his life and his art. The vista of his grave opens up into the unseen world.

On earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round.

But the time comes when none of these considerations—neither admiration for the man, nor speculations as to what he might have done under different circumstances, nor thoughts as to what he may be doing in larger, other worlds than ours—should interfere with a judicial estimate of what he really achieved. It would have been the miracle of history if with all his obstacles he had not had limitations as a writer; and yet many who have insisted most on his sufferings, have resented any criticism passed upon his work. One has the authority of Lanier's writings about other men and his letters about his own poems for judging him only by the highest standards. Did he in aiming at a million miss a unit? Was he blinded by the very excess of light? How will he fare in that race with time of which a contemporary essayist has written? “When the admiration of his friends no longer counts, when his friends and admirers are themselves gathered to the same silent throng,” will there be enough inherent worth in his work to keep his fame alive? These are questions that one has a right to ask.

And, first, as to Lanier's prose work. He has suffered from the fact that so many of his unrevised works have been published; these have their excuse for being in the light they throw on his life; but otherwise some of them are disappointing. If, instead of ten volumes of prose, there could be selected his best work from all of them, there would still be a residue of writing that would establish Lanier's place among the prose writers of America. There is no better illustration of his development than that seen in comparing his early prose—the war letters and “Tiger Lilies,” for instance, or such essays as “Retrospects and Prospects”—with that of his maturer years. I doubt if justice has been done to Lanier's best style, its clearness, fluency, and eloquence. It may be claimed without dispute that he was a rare good letter-writer; perhaps only Lowell's letters are more interesting. The faults of his poetry are not always seen in his best letters. In them there is a playfulness, a richness of humor, an exuberance of spirits, animated talk about himself and his work, and withal a distinct style, that ought to keep them alive. There might be selected, too, a volume of essays, including “From Bacon to Beethoven,” “The Orchestra of To-Day,” “San Antonio de Bexar,” “The Confederate Memorial Address,” “The New South,” and others.

A volume of American Criticism, edited by Mr. William Morton Payne, includes Lanier among the dozen best American critics, giving a selection from the “English Novel” as a typical passage. Has he a right to be in such a book? His work as a scholar has been discussed in a previous chapter [in Mims, Edwin, Sidney Lanier]; his rank as a critic is a very different matter. It goes without saying that Lanier was not a great critic. He did not have the learning requisite for one. One might turn the words of his criticism of Poe and say that he needed to know more. He knew but little of the classics beyond what he studied in college; while he read French and German literature to some extent, he did not go into them as Lowell did. Homer, Dante, and Goethe were but little more than names to him. Furthermore, his criticism is often marked by a tendency to indulge in hasty generalizations, due to the fact that he had not sufficient facts to draw upon. An illustration is his preference of the Elizabethan sonnets to the English sonnets written on the Italian model, or his discussion of personality as found in the Greek drama. His generalizations are often either patently obvious or far-fetched. He was too eager to “bring together people and books that never dreamed of being side by side.” His tendency to fancy, so marked in his poetry, is seen also in his criticism, as for instance, his comparison of a sonnet to a little drama, or his statement that every poem has a plot, a crisis, and a hero. He had De Quincey's habit of digressing from the main theme,—what he himself called in speaking of an Elizabethan poet, the “constant temptation, to the vigorous and springy mind of the poet, to bound off wherever his momentary fancy may lead him.” This is especially seen in his lectures on the English Novel, where he is often carried far afield from the general theme. In his lectures on “Shakspere and His Forerunners,” he was so often troubled with an embarrassment of riches that he did not endeavor to follow a rigidly formed plan.

A more serious defect, however, was his lack of catholicity of judgment. He had all of Carlyle's distaste for the eighteenth century; his dislike of Pope was often expressed, and he went so far as to wish that the novels of Fielding and Richardson might be “blotted from the face of the earth.” His characterization of Thackeray as a “low-pitched artist” is wide of the mark. As Lanier had his dislikes in literature and expressed them vigorously, so he over-praised many men. When he says, for instance, that Bartholomew Griffin “will yet obtain a high and immortal place in English literature,” or that William Drummond of Hawthornden is one of “the chief glories of the English tongue,” or that Gavin Douglas is “one of the greatest poets of our language,” one wonders to what extent the “pleasant peril of enthusiasm” will carry a man. One may be an admirer of George Eliot and yet feel that Lanier has overstated her merits as compared with other English novelists, and that his praise of “Daniel Deronda” is excessive.

Such defects as are here suggested should not, however, blind the reader to some of Lanier's better work. The history of criticism, especially of romantic criticism, is full of just such unbalanced judgments. It is often true in criticism that a man “should like what he does like; and his likings are facts in criticism for him.” Without very great learning and with strong prejudices in some directions, Lanier yet had remarkable insight into literature. Lowell's saying that he was “a man of genius with a rare gift for the happy word” is especially true of some of his critical writing. Examples are his well-known characterizations of great men in “The Crystal”: —

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.
                                        Langley, that with but a touch
Of art had sung Piers Plowman to the top
Of English song, whereof't is dearest, now
And most adorable.
Most wise, that yet, in finding Wisdom, lost
Thy Self, sometimes.
                                                            Tennyson, largest voice
Since Milton, yet some register of wit

There are scattered throughout his prose works criticisms of writers that are at once penetrating and subtle. The one on Browning has already been quoted. The best known of these criticisms is that on Walt Whitman, but it is too long for insertion here. There is a sentence in one of his letters to Bayard Taylor, however, that hits the mark better than the longer criticism, perhaps: “Upon a sober comparison, I think Walt Whitman's ‘Leaves of Grass’ worth at least a million of ‘Among my Books’ and ‘Atalanta in Calydon.’ In the two latter I could not find anything which has not been much better said before; but ‘Leaves of Grass’ was real refreshing to me—like rude salt spray in your face—in spite of its enormous fundamental error that a thing is good because it is natural, and in spite of the world-wide difference between my own conceptions of art and the author's.” Another good one is that on Shelley: “In truth, Shelley appears always to have labored under an essential immaturity: it is very possible that if he had lived a hundred years he would never have become a man; he was penetrated with modern ideas, but penetrated as a boy would be, crudely, overmuch, and with a constant tendency to the extravagant and illogical; so that I call him the modern boy.”

Lanier writes of the songs of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as “short and unstudied little songs, as many of them are, songs which come upon us out of that obscure period like brief little bird-calls from a thick-leaved wood.” He speaks of Chaucer's works as “full of cunning hints and twinkle-eyed suggestions which peep between the lines like the comely faces of country children between the fence bars as one rides by.” He draws a fine comparison between William Morris and Chaucer: “How does the spire of hope spring and upbound into the infinite in Chaucer; while, on the other hand, how blank, world-bound, and wearying is the stone façade of hopelessness which rears itself uncompromisingly behind the gayest pictures of William Morris! … Again, how openly joyful is Chaucer, how secretly melancholy is Morris! Both, it is true, are full of sunshine; but Chaucer's is spring sunshine, Morris's is autumn. … Chaucer rejoices as only those can who know the bound of good red blood through unobstructed veins, and the thrilling tingle of nerve and sinew at amity; and who can transport this healthy animalism into their unburdened minds, and spiritualize it so that the mere drawing of breath is at once a keen delight and an inwardly felt practical act of praise to the God of a strong and beautiful world. Morris too has his sensuous element, but it is utterly unlike Chaucer's; it is dilettante, it is amateur sensualism; it is not strong, though sometimes excessive, and it is nervously afraid of that satiety which is at once its chief temptation and its most awful doom.

“Again, Chaucer lives, Morris dreams. … ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is simply a drama with somewhat more of stage direction than is common; but the ‘Earthly Paradise’ is a reverie, which would hate nothing so much as to be broken by any collision with that rude actual life which Chaucer portrays.

“And, finally, note the faith that shines in Chaucer and the doubt that darkens in Morris. Has there been any man since St. John so lovable as the ‘Persoune’? or any sermon since that on the Mount so keenly analytical, … as ‘The Persoune's Tale’? … A true Hindu life-weariness (to use one of Novalis' marvelous phrases) is really the atmosphere which produces the exquisite haze of Morris's pictures. … Can any poet shoot his soul's arrow to its best height, when at once bow and string and muscle and nerve are slackened in this vaporous and relaxing air, that comes up out of the old dreams of fate that were false and of passions that were not pure?”1

Lanier's enthusiasm for Chaucer is typical of much of his critical writing. He was a generous praiser of the best literature, and generally his praise was right. “Lyrics of criticism” would be a good title for many of his passages. There was nothing of indifferentism in him. In a letter to Gibson Peacock he wrote of a certain type of criticism which, it may be said, has been widely prevalent in recent years: “In the very short time that I have been in the hands of the critics, nothing has amazed me more than the timid solicitudes with which they rarefy in one line any enthusiasm they may have condensed in another—a process curiously analogous to those irregular condensations and rarefactions of air which physicists have shown to be the conditions of producing an indeterminate sound. Many of my critics have seemed—if I may change the figure—to be forever conciliating the yet-unrisen ghosts of possible mistakes.” Enough quotations have already been given from his lectures in Baltimore to show his enthusiasm for many of the periods and many of the authors of English literature. It is a distinction for him as a critic that he has set forth in so many passages his conception of the mission of poetry,—passages that are in the line of succession of defenses of poetry by Sidney, Hazlitt, and Shelley.

There is enough good criticism in the Shakespeare lectures and in the “English Novel,” in the prefaces of the boy's books and in his letters, to make a volume of interest and importance. Suppose we cease to think of the first two as formal treatises on the subjects they discuss, and rather select from them such passages as the discussion of personality, the relation of music, science, and the novel, the criticism of Whitman's theory of art, the discussion of the relation of morals to art, the best passages on Anglo-Saxon poetry and the Elizabethan sonneteers, and the finer passages on Shakespeare's growth as a man and as a dramatist. Such a volume would, I believe, confirm one in the opinion that Lanier belongs by right among the best American critics. Certainly, the Science of English Verse entitles him to that distinction.

About 1875 Lanier became interested in the formal side of poetry and projected a work on a scientific basis. It was natural that one who had so much reverence for science and who had studied the “physics of music,” should apply the scientific method to the study of poetry. He knew that the science of versification was not the most important phase of poetry: in the preface, as in the epilogue, to the Science of English Verse, he makes clear that “for the artist in verse there is no law: the perception and love of beauty constitute the whole outfit.” In many other passages in his writings may be seen his view of the moral significance of poetry. He desired, however, to formulate for himself and for students certain metrical laws. What differentiates poetry from prose? How does a writer produce certain effects with certain rhythms and vowel and consonant arrangements? The student wishes to know why the forms are fair and hear how the tale is told. By the study of rhythm, tune, and color, Lanier believed that one might receive “a whole new world of possible delight.” He believed with Sylvester that “versification has a technical side quite as well capable of being reduced to rules as that of painting or any other fine art.” His book was intended to furnish students with such an outfit of facts and principles as would serve for pursuing further researches.

The time was ripe for such a study. Lanier wrote to Mr. Stedman that “in all directions the poetic art was suffering from the shameful circumstance that criticism was without a scientific basis.” The book at once received commendation from competent critics. Edward Rowland Sill wrote Dr. Gilman that it was “the only thing extant on that subject that is of any earthly value. I wonder that so few seem to have discovered its great merit,”—an opinion afterwards repeated by him in the “Atlantic Monthly.” The late Richard Hovey, in a series of articles in the “Independent” on the technic of poetry, said that Lanier had begun such a scientific study with “great soundness and common sense;” the book is “accurate, scientific, suggestive.” The editor of the “Dial” referred to it as “the most striking and thoughtful exposition yet published on the technics of English poetry.” Within the past ten years books on English verse have multiplied fast. In Germany, in England, and in America, the discussion of metrics has gone on. While dissenting from some of Lanier's conclusions, few of the writers have failed to recognize his work as of great importance.2 One man rarely sees all round any great subject like this,—each man sees some one special point and states it in an individual way, and finally, in the course of time, the truth is evolved.

There is little objection to Parts II and III of the Science of English Verse. They are generally recognized as strikingly suggestive and helpful. It is with the main thesis of the first part that many disagree—the author's insistence that the laws of music and of verse are identical. According to Lanier, verse is in all respects a phenomenon of sound. From time immemorial the relation of music and of poetry has been spoken of in figurative terms, as in Carlyle's discussion of the subject in the essay on the “Hero as Poet.” Lanier, however, was the first to work the idea out in a thorough-going fashion. He was especially qualified to do so because of his knowledge of the two arts. His general conclusion was the same as that reached by Professor Gummere in his searching discussion of “Rhythm as the Essential Fact of Poetry.”3 Both of them saw that the origin of poetry was in the dance and the march, and later the song. In modern times the two arts had become distinct. Lanier believed that, in accordance with its origin and the practice of the best poets, the basis of rhythm is time and not accent. Every line is made up of bars of equal time value. “If this equality of time were taken away, no possibility of rhythm would remain.” “The accent serves only to mark for the ear these equal intervals of time, which are the units of poetic measurement.” Lanier's theory of quantity, however, is different from the rigid laws of classic quantity, for he allows for variations from the regular type of verse that may prevail in a certain poem or line, thus providing for “an escape out of the rigidities of the type into the infinite field of those subtle rhythms which pervade familiar utterance.” He separates himself therefore from such writers as Abbott and Guest, who applied the rule of thumb to English verse. To such men “Shakspere's verse has often seemed a mass of ‘license,’ of ‘irregularity,’ and of lawless anomaly to commentators; while, approached from the direction of that great rhythmic sense of humanity displayed in music, in all manner of folk-songs, and in common talk, it is perfect music.”

Lanier's theory is a good one in so far as it applies to the ideal rhythm, for the melody of verse does approximate that of music. If one considers actual rhythm, however, he is forced to come to the conclusion that no such mathematical relation exists between the syllables of a foot of verse as that existing between the notes of a musical bar. In poetry another element enters in to interfere with the ideal rhythm of music, and that is what Mr. More has called “the normal unrhythmical enunciation of the language.” The result is a compromise shifting toward one extreme or another. Lanier's theory would apply to the earliest folk-songs. He illustrated his point by referring to the negro melodies, which, says Joel Chandler Harris, “depend for their melody and rhythm upon the musical quality of the time, and not upon long or short, accented or unaccented syllables.” His citation of Japanese poetry was also a case in point. Unquestionably, the lyrics and choruses of the Greek drama were thoroughly musical; Sophocles and Æschylus were both teachers of the chorus. Many of the lyrics of the Elizabethan age were written especially for music, and more than one collector of these lyrics has bemoaned the fact that in later times there has been such a divorce between the two arts. Who will say that Coleridge's “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan” are not disembodied music? Lamb said that Coleridge repeated the latter poem “so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers into any parlor when he says or sings it to me.” Mr. Arthur Symons has recently said: “‘Christabel’ is composed like music; you might set at the side of each section, especially of the opening, largo vivacissimo, and as the general expressive signature, tempo rubato.” Tennyson realized the musical effect of “Paradise Lost” when he spoke of Milton as “England's God-gifted organ-voice;” and he himself in such lyrics as those in the “Princess” and the eighty-sixth canto of “In Memoriam” wrought musical effects with verse. Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton says of Poe's “Ulalume” that, if properly intoned, “it would produce something like the same effect upon a listener knowing no word of English that it produces upon us.” It needs to be said, in parenthesis, that in all these cases, while there is the musical effect from the standpoint of time and tone-color, there is still the perfection of speech. The theory will not hold, however, in much dramatic verse, or in meditative blank verse, as used by Wordsworth. Much of the poetry of Byron, Browning, Keats, and Shakespeare, while supremely great from the standpoint of color, or dramatic power, or picturesqueness, or thought, is not musical. To bring some poems within the limit of musical notation would be impossible.

While then one must modify Lanier's theory, the book emphasizes a point that needs constantly to be emphasized, both by poets and by students of poetry. Followed too closely by minor poets, it will tend to develop artisans rather than artists. Followed by the greater poets,—consciously or unconsciously,—it may prove to be one of the surest signs of poetry. This phase of poetical work needed to be emphasized in America, where poetry, with the exception of Poe's, has been deficient in this very element. Whatever else one may say of Emerson, Bryant, Whittier, or Longfellow, he must find that their poetry as a whole is singularly lacking in melody. Moreover, the poet who was the most dominant figure in American literature at the time when Lanier was writing, prided himself on violating every law of form, using rhythm, if at all, in a certain elementary or oriental sense. “I tried to read a beautifully printed and scholarly volume on the theory of poetry received by mail this morning from England,” said Whitman, “but gave it up at last as a bad job.” One may be thoroughly just to Whitman and grant the worth of his work in American literature, and yet see the value of Lanier's contention that the study of the formal element in poetry will lead to a much finer poetry than we have yet had in this country. Other books will supplant the Science of English Verse as text-books, and few may ever read it understandingly; but the author's name will always be thought of in any discussion of the relations of music and poetry. It is not only a scientific monograph, but a philosophical treatise on a subject that will be discussed with increasing interest.

While Lanier thus stated his conception of the formal element in poetry, he has, in many other places, given his ideas of the poet's character and his work in the world. If on the one hand he criticised Whitman for lack of form, on the other he blamed Swinburne for lack of substance. Seemingly a follower of Poe, he yet would have incurred the displeasure of that poet for adopting the “heresy of the didactic.” He had an exalted sense of what poetry means in the redemption of mankind. He had little patience with the cry, “Art for art's sake,” or with the justification so often made for the immorality of the artist's life. Milton himself did not believe more ardently that a poet's life ought to be a true poem. In the poems “Individuality,” “Clover,” “Life and Song,” and the “Psalm of the West,” Lanier expresses his view of the responsibility of the artist. In the first he says:—

Awful is Art because 't is free;
The artist trembles o'er his plan
Where men his Self must see,

In the “English Novel” he says: “For, indeed, we may say that he who has not yet perceived how artistic beauty and moral beauty are convergent lines which run back into a common ideal origin, and who is therefore 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.”

Lanier believed that he was, or would be, a great poet. While for a time he considered music as his special field of work and “poetry as a mere tangent,” after 1875 his aspiration took the direction of poetry. Criticism of his work only strengthened his conviction that it was of a high order. Letters to his father and to his wife indicate his positive conviction that he was meeting with the misunderstanding that every great artist has met since the world began: “Let my name perish,—the poetry is good poetry and the music is good music, and beauty dieth not, and the heart that needs it will find it.” “I know, through the fiercest tests of life, that I am in soul, and shall be in life and utterance, a great poet,” he said again.

Accordingly he hoped that he would accomplish something different from the popular poetry of the period. Time and again he spoke of “the feeble magazine lyrics” of his time. “This is the kind of poetry that is technically called culture poetry, yet it is in reality the product of a want of culture. If these gentlemen and ladies would read the old English poetry … they could never be content to put forth these little diffuse prettinessess and dandy kickshaws of verse.” And again: “In looking around at the publications of the younger American poets, I am struck with the circumstance that none of them even attempt anything great. … Hence the endless multiplications of those little feeble magazine lyrics which we all know: consisting of one minute idea each, which is put in the last line of the fourth verse, the other three verses and three lines being mere surplusage.” His characterizations of contemporary poetry are strikingly like those of Walt Whitman. Different as they were in nearly every respect, the two poets were yet alike in their idea that there should be a reaction against the conventional and artificial poetry of their time,—the difference being, that Whitman's reaction took the direction of formlessness, while Lanier's was concerned about the extension and revival of poetic forms. In both poets there is a range and sweep, both of conception and of utterance, that sharply differentiates them from all other poets since the Civil War.

The question then is, whether Lanier, with his lofty conception of the poet's work, and with his faith in himself, succeeded in writing poetry that will stand the test of time. He undoubtedly had some of the necessary qualities of a poet. He had, first of all, a sense of melody that found vent primarily in music and then in words which moved with a certain rhythmic cadence. “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 things which occupy the front of the stage, the dramatis personae of the moment, and fix myself upon the deeper scene in the rear.” “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,” he writes at another time. His best poems move to the cadence of a tune. He probably heard them as did Milton the lines of “Paradise Lost.” Sometimes there was a lilt like the singing of a bird, and sometimes the lyric cry, and yet again the music of the orchestra. “He has an ear for the distribution of instruments, and this gives him a desire for the antiphonal, for introducing an answer, or an echo, or a compensating note,” says Mr. Higginson. Sometimes, as in the “Marshes of Glynn” and in the best parts of “Sunrise,” there is a cosmic rhythm that is like unto the rhythmic beating of the heart of God, of which Poe and Lanier have written eloquently.

Besides this melody that was temperamental, Lanier had ideas. He was alive to the problems of his age and to the beauties of nature. One has only to think of the names of his poems to realize how many themes occupied his attention. He wrote of religion, social questions, science, philosophy, nature, love. “My head and my heart are both [so] full of poems,” he says. “So many great ideas for art are born to me each day, I am swept into the land of All-delight by their strenuous sweet whirlwind.” “Every leaf that I brush against breeds a poem.” “A thousand vital elements rill through my soul.” So he is in no sense a “jingle man.” There is a note of healthy mysticism in his poetry that makes him akin to Wordsworth and Emerson. A series of poems might be selected that would entitle him to the praise of being “the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit.”

With the spiritual endowment of a poet and an unusual sense of melody, where was he lacking in what makes a great poet? In power of expression. He never attained, except in a few poems, that union of sound and sense which is characteristic of the best poetry. The touch of finality is not in his words; the subtle charm of verse outside of the melody and the meaning is not his—he failed to get the last “touches of vitalizing force.” He did not, as Lowell said of Keats, “rediscover the delight and wonder that lay enchanted in the dictionary.” He did not attain to “the perfection and the precision of the instantaneous line.” Take his poem “Remonstrance,” for instance. It is a strong utterance against tyranny and intolerance and bigotry, hot from his soul; but the expression is not worthy of his feeling. A few lines of Lowell's “Fable for Critics” about freedom are better. The same may be said of his attack on agnosticism in “Acknowledgment.” “Corn” while representing an extremely poetical situation, leaves one with the feeling of incompleteness: the ideas are not adequately or felicitously expressed. There is melody in the “Marsh Song at Sunset,” but the poem is not clear. Or take what many consider his masterpiece, “Sunrise.” There is one of the most imaginative situations a poet could have,—the ecstasy of the poet's soul as he rises from his bed to go to the forest, the silence of the night, the mystery of the deep green woods, the coming of “my lord, the Sun.” There is nothing in American poetry that goes beyond the sweep and range of this conception. But look at the words; with the exception of the first stanza and those that describe the dawn, there is a nervousness of style, a strain of expression. If one compare even the best parts with the “Evening of Extraordinary Splendor and Beauty” by Wordsworth, he sees the difference in the art of expression. There is in Wordsworth's poem the romantic mood,—the same uplift of soul in the presence of the greater phenomena of nature,—but there is a classic restraint of form; it is “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”

What, then, is the explanation of this defect in Lanier? Undoubtedly lack of time to revise his work is one cause. Speaking of one of his poems, he said, “Being cool next day, I find some flaws in my poem.” And again, “On seeing the poem in print, I find it faulty; there's too much matter in it.” Sickness, poverty, and hard work prevented him from having that repose which is the proper mood of the artist. He had to write as long a poem as “The Symphony” in four days, the “Psalm of the West” in a few weeks. “Sunrise” was dictated on his death-bed. The revision of “Corn” and of all other poems which I have been able to compare with the first drafts shows conclusively that he had the power of improving his work. With more time he might have achieved with all of his poems some of the results attained by such careful workmen as Tennyson and Poe.

But lack of time for revision will not explain all. There were certain temperamental defects in Lanier as poet. There was a lack of spontaneous utterance. Writing once of Swinburne, he used words that characterize well one phase of his own work: “It is always the Fourth of July with Mr. Swinburne. It is impossible in reading this strained laborious matter not to remember that the case of poetry is precisely that where he who conquers, conquers without strain. There was a certain damsel who once came to King Arthur's court, ‘gért’ (as sweet Sir Thomas Malory hath it) ‘with a sword for to find a man of such virtue to draw it out of the scabbard.’ King Arthur, to set example to his knights, first essayed, and pulled at it eagerly, but the sword would not out. ‘Sir,’ said the damsel, ‘ye need not to pull half so hard, for he that shall pull it out shall do it with little might.’” This is not to say that Lanier simulated poetic expression, but his words are not inevitable enough. He often lacked simplicity.

Furthermore, he suffered from a tendency to indulge in fancies, “sucking sweet similes out of the most diverse objects.” He was inoculated with the “conceit virus” of the seventeenth century. In a letter already quoted, he pointed out this defect to his father, and he never overcame it. He did not restrain his luxuriant imagination. The poem “Clover” is almost spoiled by the conceit of the ox representing the “Course-of-things” and trampling upon the souls (the clover-blossoms) of the poets. “Sunrise” is marred by the figure of the bee-hive from which the “star-fed Bee, the build-fire Bee, … the great Sun-Bee,” emerges in the morning. Such examples might be easily multiplied.

Lanier was undoubtedly hampered, too, by his theory of verse. The very poem “Special Pleading,” in which he said that he began to work out his theory, is a failure. Alliteration, assonance, compound words, personifications, are greatly overused. Some of the rhymes are as grotesque as Browning's. Instead of the perfect union of sound and sense, there is often a mere chanting of words.

It is futile to deny these tendencies in Lanier. They vitiate more than half his poems, and are defects even in some of the best. Sometimes, in his very highest flight, he seems to have been winged by one of these arrows. But it is equally futile to deny that he frequently rises above all these limitations and does work that is absolutely unique, and original, and enduring. Distinction must be made, as in the case of every other man who has marked qualities of style, between his good work and his bad work. He has done enough good work to entitle him to a place among the genuine poets of America. No American anthology would be complete that did not contain some dozen or more of his poems, and no study of American poetry would be complete that did not take into consideration twice this number. It is too soon yet to fix upon such poems, but surely they may be found among the following: such lyrics as “An Evening Song,” “My Springs,” “A Ballad of the Trees and the Master,” “Betrayal,” “Night and Day,” “The Stirrup-Cup,” and “Nirvâna;” such sonnets as “The Mocking-Bird” and “The Harlequin of Dreams;” such nature poems as “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” “The Waving of the Corn,” and “From the Flats;” such poems of high seriousness as “Individuality,” “Opposition,” “How Love looked for Hell,” and “A Florida Sunday;” such a stirring ballad as “The Revenge of Hamish;” the opening lines and the Columbus sonnets of the “Psalm of the West;” and the longer poems, “The Symphony,” “Sunrise,” and “The Marshes of Glynn.”

The first may be quoted as an illustration of Lanier's lyric quality. Those who have heard it sung to the music of Mr. Dudley Buck can realize to some extent Lanier's idea of the union of music and poetry:—

Look off, dear Love, across the shallow sands,
          And mark yon meeting of the sun and sea,
How long they kiss in sight of all the lands.
                                        Ah! longer, longer, we.
Now in the sea's red vintage melts the sun,
          As Egypt's pearl dissolved in rosy wine,
And Cleopatra night drinks all. 'T is done,
                                        Love, lay thine hand in mine.
Come forth, sweet stars, and comfort heaven's heart;
          Glimmer, ye waves, round else unlighted sands.
O night! divorce our sun and sky apart,
                                        Never our lips, our hands.

Throughout his poems—some of them imperfect enough as wholes—there are lines that come from the innermost soul of poetry:—

But the air and my heart and the earth are a-thrill.
The little green leaves would not let me alone in my sleep.
                                        Happy-valley hopes
Beyond the bend of roads.
I lie as lies yon placid Brandywine,
Holding the hills and heavens in my heart
For contemplation.
Sweet visages of all the souls of time
Whose loving service to the world has been
In the artist's way expressed.
A perfect life in perfect labor wrought.
The artist's market is the heart of man;
The artist's price, some little good of man.
He summ'd the words in song.
The whole sweet round
Of littles that large life compound!
My brain is beating like the heart of Haste.
Where an artist plays, the sky is low.
Thou 'rt only a gray and sober dove,
But thine eye is faith and thy wing is love.
Oh, sweet, my pretty sum of history,
I leapt the breadth of Time in loving thee!
Music is love in search of a word.
His song was only living aloud,
His work, a singing with his hand!
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.

Indeed, if one had to rely upon one poem to keep alive the fame of Lanier, he could single out “The Marshes of Glynn” with assurance that there is something so individual and original about it, and that, at the same time, there is such a roll and range of verse in it, that it will surely live not only in American poetry but in English. Here the imagination has taken the place of fancy, the effort to do great things ends in victory, and the melody of the poem corresponds to the exalted thought. It has all the strong points of “Sunrise,” with but few of its limitations. There is something of Whitman's virile imagination and Emerson's high spirituality combined with the haunting melody of Poe's best work. Written in 1878, when Lanier was in the full exercise of all his powers, it is the best expression of his genius and one of the few great American poems.

The background of the poem—as of “Sunrise”—is the forest, the coast and the marshes near Brunswick, Georgia. Early in life Lanier had been thrilled by this wonderful natural scenery, and later visits had the more powerfully impressed his imagination. He is the poet of the marshes as surely as Bryant is of the forests, or Wordsworth of the mountains.

The poet represents himself as having spent the day in the forest and coming at sunset into full view of the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes. The glooms of the live-oaks and the emerald twilights of the “dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,” have been as a refuge from the riotous noon-day sun. More than that, in the wildwood privacies and closets of lone desire he has known the passionate pleasure of prayer and the joy of elevated thought. His spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within,—he is ready for what Wordsworth calls a “god-like hour:”—

But now when the noon is no more, and riot is rest,
And the sun is a-wait at the ponderous gate of the West,
And the slant yellow beam down the wood-aisle doth seem
Like a lane into heaven that leads from a dream,—
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
When length was fatigue, and when breadth was but bitterness sore,
And when terror and shrinking and dreary unnamable pain
Drew over me out of the merciless miles of the plain,—
Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face
          The vast sweet visage of space.
To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn,
Where the gray beach glimmering runs, as a belt of the dawn,
                    For a mete and a mark
                    To the forest-dark:—
Affable live-oak, leaning low,—
Thus—with your favor—soft, with a reverent hand
(Not lightly touching your person, Lord of the land!)
Bending your beauty aside, with a step I stand
On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.
Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
          Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.
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.
And the sea lends large, as the marsh: lo, out of his plenty the sea
Pours fast: full soon the time of the flood-tide must be:
Look how the grace of the sea doth go
About and about through the intricate channels that flow
                                                            Here and there,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
          In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
                                                                                                    Farewell, my lord Sun!
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 whirr;
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease to run;
And the sea and the marsh are one.
How still the plains of the waters be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
                                                                                                    And it is night.
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 marvelous marshes of Glynn.

In the light of such a poem Lanier's poetry and his life take on a new significance. The struggles through which he passed and the victory he achieved are summed up in a passage which may well be the last word of this biography. For Sidney Lanier was

                                                  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.


  1. Music and Poetry, p. 198.

  2. See, for instance, Winchester's Principles of Literary Criticism, Alden's English Verse, Paul Elmer More's Shelburne Essays, and Omond's English Metrists.

  3. The Beginnings of Poetry, chapter 2.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676

Sidney Lanier 1842-1881

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

The following entry provides criticism on Lanier's works from 1905 through 2002.

Lanier was a nineteenth-century American poet and essayist of the Reconstruction South. A musician as well as a writer, Lanier is remembered for his theory that music and poetry are reciprocally governed by the same metrical principles and characteristics of form and structure.

Biographical Information

Lanier was born February 3, 1842, to an educated family in Macon, Georgia. During his childhood he studied several musical instruments and developed an interest in literature. In 1857 he began studies at Oglethorpe College, where he demonstrated talent in his flute studies and skill as a debater of literary ideas. In 1860 the outbreak of the Civil War interrupted Lanier's post-graduation plans to pursue a doctoral degree at Heidelberg University, the alma mater of natural scientist James Woodrow, who had inspired Lanier's undergraduate enthusiasm for nature and science, as well as literature and music. During his Confederate Army enlistment, Lanier endured hardships including his capture and imprisonment by the Union Army in 1864. Upon his release in 1865, Lanier returned to Macon, suffering from exhaustion and tuberculosis, from which he would suffer the rest of his life. He married in 1867 and practiced law for several years to support his family. In 1872, Lanier left Georgia, traveled, and then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1873, where he joined the Peabody Orchestra as first flutist. By 1879, Lanier's occasional public lectures on literary topics led to an appointment as a lecturer in English literature at Johns Hopkins University. Although he had begun writing verse before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lanier's first collection of poems was not published until 1877. This was just four years before his death, at the age of thirty-nine, of the tuberculosis he contracted during his months in a wartime prison camp.

Major Works

Although Lanier is remembered primarily as a poet, his first published work was the novel Tiger-Lilies (1867) an antiwar novel based on his Civil War experiences. Lanier also explored the interrelationships of music, poetry, emotion, and moral action. These would later emerge as primary themes governing both his poetry and his works of literary criticism. Lanier's nonfiction writing helped produce the income he needed to continue to write verse. A travel handbook about Florida published in 1876 was one such publication. He also edited several classical works for young readers and wrote books of literary criticism including The Science of English Verse (1880) and the posthumously published The English Novel and the Principle of its Development (1883), and Music and Poetry: Essays upon Some Aspects and Inter-Relations of the Two Arts (1898).

Published collections of Lanier's poetry include Poems (1877), Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife (1884), and Hymns of the Marshes (1907). Among Lanier's individual works of poetry, “The Symphony” (c. 1877) is notable for exemplifying his interest in the reciprocal nature of music and poetry. In this work the poet created musical effects through alliteration, assonance, meter, and rhyme for the speaking parts he assigned to various orchestral instruments. Public attention for “The Symphony” led to an invitation from the Philadelphia Centennial Commission to write the libretto for a cantata to be performed in 1876 on the occasion of the centenary anniversary of the founding of the United States. This work came to be known as The Centennial Meditation of Columbia. Another well known poem is “The Marshes at Glynn” (c. 1880), in which Lanier celebrates the transcendent spirit of nature as revealed through the physics of sound.

Critical Reception

At the end of his own century and during the early decades of the twentieth century, Lanier was considered a noteworthy post-Civil War southern writer, although by some accounts, this assessment was perhaps based more on his artistic dedication and earnestness than on his literary achievements. By the 1930s, Agrarian critics John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren dismissed Lanier's contribution to American literature, calling his poetic theories and images vague and eccentric. Later twentieth-century critics and scholars generally agree that Lanier was a significant if minor figure in post-Civil War literature of the American South.

Charmenz S. Lenhart (essay date 1956)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27701

SOURCE: Lenhart, Charmenz S. “Sidney Lanier.” In Musical Influence on American Poetry, pp. 210-92. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1956.

[In the following excerpt, Lenhart offers a study of the role of music in the development and content of Lanier's poetry.]

[Sidney] Lanier is the only professional musician in the annals of American poetry to achieve real fame as a poet. From 1873 on, a substantial portion of his income depended upon his abilities as an orchestral flutist and as a soloist. He was a kind of musical phenomenon, for when he came to Baltimore, he lacked the professional training that most orchestral musicians had, and he could scarcely sight-read orchestral material when he was hired to play the first flute with the Peabody Orchestra.1 But he had a flawless technique and a beautiful tone, and in literally a matter of weeks he was sight-reading material with the best of them.2 He had the signal honor of being asked by Theodore Thomas to play with the New York Philharmonic, and he was fortunate to have Leopold Damrosch encourage him as a composer of flute music. Because we have no recordings of Lanier's playing, it is easy to forget that he achieved high rank as a musician in a matter of four years, having come virtually untrained among the virtuosi of the century. There can be no doubt of his talent for music, and it is hardly conjecture what his musical future might have been had he been born in the North or East where symphonic music was frequently heard.

He did extensive Shakespearean research, writing the first comprehensive essay on music of Shakespeare's day, tracing musical references in his works, and sounding out the current theories on rhyme as an indication of chronology in his verse and drama. In addition, he explored, as scientifically as he was able to, the physics and acoustics of music, a subject which had fascinated him since his college days when his ambition was to occupy a chair of the Physics and Metaphysics of Music at some college.

It was natural too that a poet interested in music should do a prosodic study based upon musical analogies, which would point up clearly the virtues of quantity in verse. Though Lanier's theories were challenged by Saintsbury, The Science of English Verse is still regarded as the best exposition of the quantity theory in English.3

This chapter is devoted chiefly to a study of the part that music played in influencing, improving, and changing the forms and the content of Lanier's verse. It is a study in poetic growth, for from the time that Lanier became fully aware of the possibilities of musical analogies in poetry, he began to take giant strides; and his century, fascinated by the two arts, hailed him as a great original poet. Though Lanier was endowed with a fine metrical sensitivity from the beginning, his was a search for a subject, a style, and a message. He was, at his death, no inconsiderable master of poetic technique.

By examining his musical life and musical theories, we may hope to account for a certain obscurity and experimentalism in his verse, and vitiate the charge that he wrote “sound” without sense.

Born in Macon, Ga., in 1842, Lanier, like the troubadours and the “flock of singing birds,” had an early acquaintanceship with music. He said once in a letter to Paul Hamilton Hayne: “I could play passably well on several instruments before I could write legibly; and since then the deepest of my life has been filled with music, which I have studied and cultivated far more than poetry.4

He began his musical education at five, and played, as a young child, piano, flute, guitar, violin, and organ.5 His ability as a violinist was as marked as his flute virtuosity; his father forbade his continuing the study of the violin because of its effect upon him.6 While still a school-boy, he organized an orchestra among his friends and directed it, as he was later to do when he was serving in the Confederate Army. His whole family was musical, and his sister learned music at boarding school, after the fashion of the day. Lanier commented upon the fact that in the South there were pianos, organs, flutes, and sundry other instruments in abundance in private homes.7

He early began making flute arrangements of music he liked, and adding flute parts to music already transcribed for some other instrument.8 He tried his hand at writing music to Tennyson's “The Song of Love and Death” from Lancelot and Elaine and, from The Miller's Daughter, “Love that Hath Us in the Net,” which was published three years after his death. While in prison at Point Lookout, Maryland, he entertained his fellow-sufferers by playing upon the flute as gladly as he had in his college days at Oglethorpe where he serenaded the ladies of evenings. (It was while he was in prison that he became the friend of Father Tabb, the famous poet-priest.) His only published piece of music from this period is a ballad dedicated to a child, Ella Montgomery, for locating him on the prison-ship and securing his release. The words and music to “Little Ella” were published by Offutt and Company in 1868.

While he was stationed with the Confederate troops at Norfolk, it was his habit to read German poetry, and he attempted a translation of Wagner's Das Rheingold, which has never been published. When he lost his German glossary to the enemy in 1863, he wrote his father for editions of Uhland, Lessing, Schelling, and Tieck. It may well be expected that the young poet absorbed from these readings many of his ideas for a literary life that would embrace music. He had tried his hand already at translations of Heine, Goethe, and Schiller. After Shakespeare, it is evident that the chief literary influence upon his life was that of German romantic poetry and prose. His first novel, Tiger Lilies, reveals the impress of his reading of the Germans and Carlyle, from whom he seems to have borrowed many ideas on trade. It should not be forgotten that though he read German at first laboriously, he had stood at the head of his graduating class at Oglethorpe, and that his literary gifts were so marked at this point and the desire for expression so strong his talent could have led him in purely literary directions.9

Tiger Lilies, published in 1867, was a young man's work and is filled with far too many ideas to achieve any harmonious arrangement as a novel. These ideas, by and large, center about the meaning that music had in the welfare of society, and reveal the musical knowledge which Lanier was early rather proud of in his continually interpolated musical passages, written just for this purpose of display. Most of Lanier's ideas on the art of music were formulated by the time he wrote this book, and he betrays his nineteenth century origin in his belief that music was The Art of that century.

Lanier was forced to try his hand at many kinds of work and writing, since he had many talents and was well endowed both as a teacher and lecturer. The fact that he did a little preaching on the side is revealing of his interest in man's “larger life”—a religious quality evident in his prose and verse. Certain large ideas seem to have been of such great importance to him that he expended his life demonstrating their truths. Like Whitman, whom he later frowned upon for his “formlessness,” Lanier used as the leitmotifs in all his poetry and writing the ideas first expressed in Tiger Lilies: beauty, nature, love, music (“Music means harmony, harmony means love, and love means God”), and metaphysics. These ideas rush and sweep through this first novel, much as they do through Leaves of Grass. Garland Greever wrote of this tendency in Lanier's novel:

The German prose romance of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is a baffling genre. It is not primarily story. Though it rhapsodizes endlessly about art (especially music and poetry), it seeks rather than shuns incoherence and digression. … All of this was congenial to Lanier.10

Lanier's uncertainty as to his career was natural in one of strong and differing talents. For a while after his discharge from the Confederate Army he worked at being a clerk in his grandfather's hotel, at teaching, and finally, pressed by debt, at law, as his father wished. On a business trip to New York in 1869, however, he heard all of the music that he could, including a performance of Halevy's The Tempest. He wrote his wife ecstatically of this performance:

And my heart has been so full. … As the fair, tender notes came, they opened … like flower-buds expanding into flowers under the sweet rain of the accompaniment: kind Heaven! My head fell on the seat in front, I was utterly weighed down with great loves and great ideas and divine in-flowings and devout out-flowings, and as each note grew and budded and opened, and became a bud again and died into a fresh birth in the next bud-note, I also lived those flower-tone lives, and grew and expanded and folded back and died and was born again, and partook of the unfathomable mysteries of flowers and tones.11

In 1870 Lanier was stricken with tuberculosis and for the rest of his life he was constantly in search of a better climate. He went at once to New York for treatment, and while there he heard Christine Nilsson, who had just arrived in America, and Theodore Thomas's orchestra. His excitement over the music he was hearing is evident in the letters to his wife. Returning to New York for further treatment in 1871, Lanier gave every evidence of a desire, perhaps then unknown to himself, to be a part of the musical life of America. He wrote of the orchestra:

… I went … and the baton tapped and waved, and I plunged into the sea, and lay and floated. Ah! the dear flutes and oboes and horns drifted me hither and thither, and the great violins and small violins swayed me upon waves, and over-flowed me with strong lavations, and sprinkled glistening foam in my face, and in among the clarinet as among waving water-lilies, with flexible stems I splashed my easy way, and so, ever lying in the music-waters, I floated and flowed, my soul utterly bent and prostrate.12

Certainly his was a soul hungry for music, and his descriptions here of music in terms of nature are much like Whitman's, if more “aesthetic.”

Lanier made valiant efforts to recover his health and to engage in the law practice which he apparently loathed with more than ordinary hatred. His entire association with the business world and law was one of protest, though occasionally he vowed to make a good lawyer. But his health continued to fail, and by December of 1872, Lanier had determined to forsake law and make what efforts he could to restore his health.

From December 1872 to April 1873, Lanier pined in San Antonio, Texas, for the life on the Eastern coast, but his health was now so dangerously impaired that the Texas visit was thought necessary. Here he attended meetings of the Männerchor Society and began again to play the flute carefully, hoping to rebuild the power of his lungs. He played often for the musically interested in Texas. But 1873 was a decisive year. He determined to give up his profession entirely and came to Baltimore where the Peabody Orchestra was being formed. There he played for Asger Hamerik, pupil of von Bülow, protégé of Hector Berlioz, and conductor of the newly formed orchestra. Hamerik, who was impressed by Lanier's abilities, sent him down to New York with a letter to Theodore Thomas, and wrote of him later:

To him as a child in his cradle music was given; the heavenly gift to feel and express himself in tones. His human nature was like an enchanted instrument, a magic flute, on the lyre of Apollo, needing but a breath or a touch to send its beauty out into the world. … His playing appealed to the musically learned and the unlearned, for he would magnetize the listener. … I will never forget the impression he made on me when he played the flute concerto of Emil Hartmann at a Peabody Symphony concert in 1878: his tall, handsome, manly presence, his flute breathing noble sorrows, noble joys, the orchestra softly responding. … He stood, the master, the genius. …13

Lanier played for Hamerik his own compositions for flute, among them “Field Larks and Blackbirds.” Hamerik declared this to be the “composition of an artist.”14 Though he played also for Theodore Thomas, nothing seems to have come in the way of a professional engagement, and so in December of 1873 he was hired as first flutist by the Peabody Orchestra, formed under Hamerik's direction, and he moved to Baltimore for the season. His father and brother helped him financially at this point, since as a professional musician his earnings were exceedingly meagre. It may be assumed that Lanier felt, as his family probably did, that to delay longer in following his obviously “aesthetic” interests in music and poetry was unwise. His life span seemed definitely to be limited, and the move to Baltimore offered a rare opportunity to develop his two talents.

Lanier embarked almost immediately upon musical composition, for his midge dance or “Danse des Moucherons” was written for flute and orchestra during the first months in which he served with the orchestra. There seems to have been no happier period in Lanier's life than this first contact with the world of music. Despite the fact that at first he did not even know how to follow the conductor's beats, he was soon proving himself in the world of professional music. His sight-reading ability improved virtually overnight, and his letters home describe the delight he took in playing chamber music. Though there were petty jealousies about his position, Lanier's relationship with the men who had given their whole lives to the study of music is remarkable for its sanity and calm. There can be no doubt of his really fine talent for music.

Lanier was also something of an inventor, experimenting with a long flute with which it would be possible to reach a low G. He used to enter one of the music shops to while away the time playing on the bass-flute; his playing called forth this comment from the proprietor, Badger:

Lanier is astonishing. … But you ought to hear him play the bass-flute. You would then say, “let me pass from the earth with the tones sounding in my ears.” If he could travel with a concert troup and play solos on the bass-flute, I would get orders for fifty in a month. …15

In Baltimore he played with several Männerchor orchestras to supplement his income, as well as with the orchestra of the Concordia Theatre, in churches, and in private homes. He played as many out-of-town engagements as he could fill.16

His reactions to music were always dramatically emotional. He speaks repeatedly of the pain great music brought him, of the tears pouring from his eyes, and once after performing for a society in Texas he wrote his wife:

My heart which was hurt greatly when I went into the music-room, came forth from the holy bath of concords greatly refreshed, strengthened, and quieted. …17

The spiritual significance of music for Lanier was very great. He saw in music a great symbol of man's immortal yearnings, and some of the best writings in his letters are those concerned with music. In describing one of his concert performances he wrote to his wife:

… I had not played three seconds before a profound silence reigned … seeing which, and dreaming wildly of thee and feeling somehow, in an eerie and elfish and half-uncanny mood—I flew off into all manner of trills, and … cadenza monstrosities, for a long time, but finally floated down into La Melancholie (which, on the violin, ran everybody crazy some weeks ago here at a concert) which melted itself forth with such eloquent lamenting that it almost brought my tears:—and, to make a long story short, when I allowed the last note to die, a simultaneous cry of pleasure broke forth from men and women that almost amounted to a shout,—and I stood and received the congratulations that thereupon came in, so wrought up by my own playing with thoughts of thee I cd. but smile mechanically, and make stereotyped returns to the pleasant sayings, what time my heart worked falteringly, like a mouth that is about to cry. …18

The strongly “aesthetic” bent in Lanier, which revealed itself in his sentimental references to flowers and stars, coupled with the kind of emotional responsiveness to music apparent in these last quoted lines, seems almost effeminate, and repelled many of his readers. It was, however, this extreme sensitivity to sound and music which gave to his poetry its peculiar and original cast. But the fact that the poet could play as well as he did and stimulated the response from his audiences that he did, was, in many ways, a deterrent to his career as a poet, for here was also a kind of fame.

Lanier's best poetry dates from the year 1874 when he had finished his first season with the orchestra. Though the next seven years revealed a poetic growth almost unparalleled in American verse, the quantity of this poetry is not great. While Leopold Damrosch was encouraging the Georgia musician to further his musical studies, the Northern presses hailed his first major poem, “Corn,” published in 1875. The success of “Corn” so stimulated Lanier's fancy that he set about immediately to write “The Symphony,” wherein all of the instruments of the orchestra sing themes of various social significance in American life. This poem excited much curiosity in the art world, appearing as it did when synaesthesia had prompted tone poems, symphonic poems, and a variety of impressionistic musical studies. The possibilities of attempting musical form in verse stirred the creative imagination, and the poem passed for better than it was. Actually it was but an experiment.

However, the result was that Lanier achieved a kind of fame as a poet, while Charlotte Cushman and Bayard Taylor interested themselves in his behalf. It was Taylor who secured for Lanier the very envied opportunity to write the cantata ode for the first Centennial Celebration. The Centennial Cantata was performed May 10, 1876, with a chorus of 800 mixed voices and Thomas's orchestra of 150 musicians. The program opened with Richard Wagner's commissioned work, the Centennial Inaugural March, and it contained also a hymn by John Greenleaf Whittier, written for the occasion, and set to music by John Knowles Paine. The commission for the cantata came to Lanier as a special boon, since it gave him an opportunity to test his theories on the relationship of verse to music. Dudley Buck, the Connecticut musician whose compositions for the poetry of Poe are outstanding, shared honors with Lanier. The two worked well together and collaborated thereafter; particularly was Buck sympathetic to Lanier's theory that the poem for a cantata should be broad and general and that since it was to be primarily sung, with orchestral background, the words of the poem should be selected carefully “with reference to such quality as they will elicit when sung.”

Lanier had been fully influenced by Wagner's writings on the relationship of music and poetry, and by the original poetry Wagner offered as libretti for his own operas. The growing emphasis on the orchestra in the nineteenth century, its perfect instrumental balance, and the ability of various choirs of instruments to express what had before been sung by the human voice, brought the orchestra to the fore, a fact which Lanier as a symphonic musician had recognized as well as had Wagner. Lanier was unfortunate in that his poem was published before the performance, without the music, and its vagueness unfavorably commented upon. It was felt that the poem alone had no meaning. Lanier was forced to defend it as a poem written for musical setting, in the newest sense. The performance justified his experiment. Poets like Francis Hopkinson in the eighteenth century, who were musicians as well and who were called upon to write cantatas, had adhered to the song-conception, but Lanier wrote with the symphony orchestra and the large chorus always in mind. Starke said of that occasion:

… neither Wagner's march nor the Whittier-Payne hymn was so acclaimed, as Lanier's and Buck's cantata. … The acclaim was not solely of Lanier's words nor of Buck's music, but of the music and words perfectly-wedded, and for this wedding Lanier was chiefly responsible.19

Daniel Coit Gilman, then president of Johns Hopkins University, said:

Lanier had triumphed. It was an opportunity of a life-time to test upon a grand scale his theory of verse. He had come out victorious.20

Gilman attempted at that point to arrange for Lanier a lectureship at Johns Hopkins on music and poetry, but was unsuccessful. But other success did come from the cantata. Theodore Thomas engaged him for the following season (1877) to play with his orchestra. Lippincott's Magazine accepted for publication “Psalm of the West” as its centennial feature for the July issue, paying three hundred dollars for the ode. They also purchased the essay “From Bacon to Beethoven.” Scribner's bought “The Orchestra of Today.”21

In 1877 Lanier was seriously ill and unable to fill either his position with the Thomas orchestra or the Peabody orchestra; but, settled in Tampa, Florida, he turned out some “nine or ten first-rate poems,” among them two to Beethoven on the semi-centennial of his death. He also wrote “A Dream of the Age to Richard Wagner,” wherein he pictured Wagner as the prophet of a new age when all work would be performed to strains of music. He returned to Baltimore “out of necessity” and played the following seasons, while his taste for literature and poetry increased. Though he wrote musical criticism for Baltimore papers and belonged to the music, not the literary society, he gave a course of “literary” lectures in a private home in the spring of 1878 to a group of ladies and gentlemen interested in Elizabethan literature. These were repeated successfully in successive years at Peabody Institute and eventually at Johns Hopkins where Gilman had finally (1879) succeeded in gaining him an appointment. Starke said that these lectures were based upon extensive research, during which time the poetic muse was all but silenced, except for the very fine “Sunrise” and “The Marshes of Glynn.”22

But Lanier was burning himself out. He wrote, during this period, four books for boys,23 numerous essays on Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Middle English authors, as well as unpublished textbooks on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the English sonneteers. Starke said these were not “produced merely as pot-boilers,” but grew out of a deep and permeating interest in our older English literature.24 In 1879 he wrote in eight weeks The Science of English Verse, a work in gestation for over two years. It was published the following year.

Lanier's death (1881) was exceedingly untimely, for his poetic ideas were in such a state of growth, and his final poems, “Sunrise” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” in every way so new and excellent, that they seemed to prophesy a period of poetic fulfillment that Lanier never really lived to achieve. He left but one volume of verse, published in 1876 when many of his best poems were still to be written. The growth in these last years, the steadily developing feeling for rhythm and sound, for treatment of idea, for scope and breadth of form indicates that Lanier's poetic life should have been longer. He did not leave any explanation for the type of writing he finally came to, nor were these later efforts even widely known. His fame has rested, unfortunately, upon such poetic curiosities as “The Symphony” and such lighter works as “Tampa Robin.”

At the time of his death Lanier was well regarded by his contemporaries as a talented poet, a capable musician, a successful lecturer and teacher, and something of an essayist. He wrote frequently for the Baltimore papers and was in demand in civic affairs concerned with the arts. Despite, however, his frantic efforts in many directions to devote his life to the arts, he never earned enough money even to support himself. His high moral earnestness marks him as a Victorian and this “moral tone” weighted down a great portion of poetry obviously lyrical. It was an anomaly that Lanier felt poetry too to be a criticism of life, and a kind of discordant quality marks these didactic poems because of his naturally rich and sensuous imagery and his glittering poetic techniques. Some of the admiration he excited in his day grew out of the battle he waged for art and morality under the most trying of circumstances.

He left a considerable number of musical compositions and pieces in preparation, the best of these being “Swamp Robins,” “Sacred Memories,” “Longing,” and “Wind Song.” His verses, in turn, have inspired the effort of a host of composers, whom Anderson lists in the Centennial Edition.

It is often difficult to determine, when one looks at Lanier's life, which was of greater importance to him personally—music or poetry. It should be noted that he wrote much of his verse early, and apparently always hoped for a literary life, as the publication of these early poems in lesser Southern journals would indicate. Also, his study of German and the publication of Tiger Lilies may be taken as some proof that the Baltimore musician was but earning money to pursue his literary life more fully. On the other hand, Lanier did write much of music from the beginning, and several of his statements to friends indicate that he himself thought he was more musician than poet. But he questioned early, in typical Victorian fashion, what service music might be in the social order.

I am more than all perplexed by this fact: that the prime inclination—that is, natural bent … of my nature is to music. … 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?”25


A large portion of Lanier's contributions to our understanding of the rhythms of poets and poetry has been substantiated by the passage of time; though some of his insights still have not been scientifically proved and wait upon our further experiments in the physics of sound, it can be claimed that Lanier was the first prosodist to make completely clear the fact that poetry is not a written art, but always a sound art.26 This realization Poe was conscious of when he wrote: “As yet written verse does not exist.”27 But Lanier was the first to make indubitably clear what that fact meant for poetry. Calvin S. Brown, the most recent critic and writer in the allied fields, drew heavily upon Lanier here.28

In some ways recognition of the fact that poetry is a sound art makes the quantity theory more understandable, for reading verse aloud slows down the tempo and exaggerates the values of the syllables to such an extent that even the “pure” accentualist must realize that syllables are being forced to occupy the time relationships that the poet had in mind. The mind's voice in reading poetry, as in reading music, is rapid and does not supply the proper values of either form of notation. It was for this reason that Poe always insisted upon an exaggeration of the time values in reading “The Raven,” or any of his verse, and this quality marks verse like Vachel Lindsay's “Congo,” where a correct reading demands that the strictly defined rhythms be made obvious.29

Lanier's understanding of music led him to differentiate between prosodical length (duration) and accent (stress or emphasis). In verse, until Lanier's time, length and accent or stress had been treated as though they were one and the same thing. Lanier's belief that they are different poses a new prosodic problem. If he is right—and it was for this failure to differentiate between the two that Lanier criticized Poe's prosodic markings—prosodists are faced with a need for another method of marking scansions. This new means for such markings Lanier found in the musical notation. He said Poe's essay was “permeated by a fundamental mistake—Namely, that the accent makes every syllable long. …”30 However, what is true of music may not be as true of verse. Even Lanier admits that the average ear is badly trained to detect any subtle differences in intensity (or, in verse, heavy and light stress) except those at the far ends of each scale.31 Is the stressed syllable in verse necessarily the long syllable, and if so, is that lengthening a matter of habit or is the more intense sound actually a lengthened sound? Questions such as these still abide in prosody and wait upon acoustical experiment. If the long syllable can be something other than the stressed syllable, and if the stressed syllable can be actually a short syllable in point of time, perhaps Lanier's rhythms would appear less varied than they do now. It may also be that an answer to this question would obviate many of the existent difficulties in prosodic terminology. It would account for lines in modern verse where the so-called “hovering accent” appears, quite apart from the length of the syllables. This is what Coleridge was groping toward when he eschewed foot forms and wrote on a principle of accent groupings, quite apart from long and short syllables. In music the repeated stress occurs on the first of every measure, though stress can be shifted anywhere in the unit of time (measure) at the will of the composer. It is the repetition of this stress at expected places that makes syncopation such a delight in music when a kind of counter rhythm is suddenly interpolated, occurring on the half or unstressed beat. In poetry this syncopation results from the sudden shift of foot form or pattern of stress after such a long period of regularity has occurred that the rhythms seem to have an established pattern. The best syncopation of verse results from a flow of, perhaps, iambs suddenly interrupted by a cross current of dactyls which move “three” against “two.”

Lanier also pointed out, long before others, that the chief distinction between music and verse lay in “the difference between the scale of tones used in music and the scale of tones used by the human speaking voice.”32 And he wrote at some length on the fact that whereas the musical scale is tempered and made up of arbitrarily selected tones, the speaking voice is limited in scale only by sounds the ear can clearly distinguish; and while the voice has a more limited range, it has also many tones of less than a half step.33

The question of primary and secondary rhythms, as Lanier understands them, has already been touched upon. He made a further contribution in pointing out that any two speech sounds bear some time relationship to each other such as 1 to 3, 1 to 4, etc. In prose this relationship may be so close as not to be apparent, but it is the chief characteristic of poetry that this ratio should be quite obvious, the rhythms thus forced into this relationship. Foot forms limit the ratio between sounds somewhat; modern verse is inclined to the view that subtlety of rhythmic pattern, such as occurs in music and prose, is more interesting. Thus the ratios are usually less apparent in modern verse than the older 1 to 2 form; and modern verse lines, for this reason, have a kind of unhampered flow down the page like prose, because of this more subtle rhythm. Eighteenth century forms, and even, for that matter, Poe's rhythms, point up the exact ratios more clearly than later verse.

Lanier's work with logical as well as rhythmic accent is provocative. His statement that rhythmical accent establishes the rhythm while logical accent “disestablishes” it is perspicuous. He was conscious of the “rest” in verse, which Poe termed, ambiguously, the “caesura,” and he too pointed out that it was this quality in verse which made the quantity theory so necessary. He was not, however, enlightening about the stanza, though his own verses came to fall into freer forms than most poets approved. However, he must have felt that his stanzas were “organic” because he deplored lack of form; and yet he failed to realize how closely he was paralleling Whitman, whom he had criticized for “formlessness.”

Many of Lanier's insights are worth repeating, though it is impossible to do so in any detail. He said, for instance, that written English words “constitute a system of notation for rhythm, precise as to the larger orders but susceptible of varying interpretations as to the primary rhythms to the extent of minute differences of utterance. …”34 Few poets, outside of Poe, ever made better use of the English language as a notational system, distributing syllables like notes.

He said that “the liberty of arranging at pleasure the individual time-relations (or primary rhythms) … is availed of by poets to make their rhythms melodious, varied, and characteristic.”35 Like Poe he illustrated his quantity thesis best by reference to the silences in poetry which are intrinsic to a line, not part of either a foot or accentual system and wholly dependent upon time. He illustrates this through Tennyson's “Break, break, break. …”36 He pointed out how often poets like to use the triplet in verse, just as the musician does, to stretch (elongate) a time unit to its utmost.37 He also pointed out that the good poet immediately makes known to his reader his metrical system by the first lines of verse and the syllabic distribution of the words. He warned poets particularly against the use of a single word as a rhythmic unit since the lines constructed from such units are thus open to several possible interpretations. It should be noted that Lanier did actually very little with logical accent, a field in which Bayard Q. Morgan has done much recent exploration. Lanier, however, at least recognized the power of logical accent, as he did of pronunciation accent.

Lanier's work with “three rhythm,” by which he means the iamb and the trochee, is based largely upon excerpts and readings from Old English verse, for which he established a strong temporal rhythm in a day when some scholars were still denying that Old English verse even had a distinguishable rhythm. His contribution here lay largely in the work with the unaccented syllables which too many nineteenth century scholars considered a matter of indifference. Since the quantity system is quite as much concerned with the values of unaccented as with accented rhythmic units, Lanier's work pioneered in Leonard's direction. One of the most surprising developments in this chapter is the obvious ease with which Old English falls into musical scansion.38 That much of Old English verse was a kind of chant or recitative is known, and its inherent musical properties make musical scansions most satisfactory. Anglo-Saxon rhythmic patterns are usually readily apparent from the opening words, and the parallels Lanier drew between this verse and that of Swinburne and Whitman are happy ones. Music like “Sumer is icumen in / Lhude sing Cucu” naturally adapts to musical scansion. One might take issue with scansions of Piers Plowman, wondering why the bar was not so arranged that the accented beat formed trochees rather than iambs, but so might one wonder at the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and the “Knightes Tale,” as well as Hamlet's soliloquy; but musical scansion is perfect for Longfellow's verse, the “Fight at Finnesburg,” Tennyson, and, of course, Poe. Ballad rhythms, as in “Agincourt” and Coleridge's “Christabel,” take on a crystalline quality under notational scansions. And surely one of his finest contributions lay in the section on Shakespeare's use of the rhythmic accent when, in discussing his blank verse, Lanier wrote:

We can see him [Shakespeare] learning to think in verse … he finally made his whole technic a constitutional grace, so that his passion flowed with a hereditary pre-adaptation to rhythm.

… This method of working with a constant inward reference to the great average and sum of men, and with an absolute reliance upon their final perception, is the secret of that infinitely varied rhythm which we find plashing through all the later blank verse of Shakespeare. …

Perhaps every one has observed that particularly in Shakespeare's later plays he seems absolutely careless as to what kind of word the rhythmic accent may fall on. Sometimes it is on the article the, sometimes the preposition of, sometimes the conjunction and.

This apparent carelessness is really perfect art. It is the consummate management of dramatic dialogue in blank verse, by which the wilder rhythmic patterns of ordinary current discourse are woven along through the regular strands of the orderly typic lines.39

At this point Lanier illustrates one of his most brilliant insights into Shakespearean blank verse, writing it first with musical notation for its underlying (typic, he calls it) rhythms, which the reader is at once in absolute disagreement with, and then noting rhythmically the actual reading of the lines according to meaning. By a comparison of the two he illustrates, with amazing clarity, that the typic form does underlie the actual, and that the variations from the typic are what most please us because the typic rhythms sound through the actual unconsciously.40

In this most prescient chapter, Lanier, unfortunately, since this is the fullest exposition of his ideas through application of notational values to familiar verse, fails to make clear that his musical scansions often are basic rhythmic scansions rather than reading patterns or secondary rhythms themselves. He does not sufficiently stress this fact, and it is not until one has reached nearly the end of that chapter and has waded through his re-appraisal of metrical tests to determine the chronology of Shakespeare's plays that the key or clue is dropped that makes his musical scansions, when they seem at fault, only the raw material from which the poet worked and possibly departed. And when the readings are happy it is because that poet was consciously adhering to or forcing a “typic” rhythm. Lanier, the musician, is often suggestive rather than explanatory, and though much of his material in these early chapters is done in too much detail, most of his ideas suffer from lack of development. That he must have realized this, after reading the first review, can be gathered from the fact that he set about instantly to revise the work—a revision hindered by his early death.

The succeeding chapters in section I, following the climax reached in chapter three on rhythm in English verse, are a vast emptiness in which Lanier does nothing whatsoever with the line, the stanza, and logical accent. Here his poor organization is most apparent, for he had already said originally in the first chapter much of what he had to say, and he did not wish to repeat himself, even by way of illustration. Then he had placed alliterative groupings with logical accent when they undeniably belonged to the section on “The Tunes of English Verse.” His final chapter in this section on rhythm is exceedingly weak; and it is difficult to see why a separate chapter had to be made of three or four pages for four rhythms in English, which are but dactyls and anapests and could have been illustrated along with three rhythms in a chapter on basic rhythmic patterns in English. It is obvious that the writer, in sketching the whole thing out hastily in eight weeks, did himself a terrible injustice.

By the time Lanier reached section II of his work he was exhausted, and it is true that this section was slighted by the poet.41 But haste is not the only reason that section II is not well written. Actually the whole field of speech tunes is just now being explored, and Lanier's genuine prophetic recognition that rhyme belongs in a discussion of speech tunes and not only in a discussion of rhythm is typical of the thought that did go into the book. He began with a most prescient discussion of speech tunes, pointing out “what delicate variations in meaning were effected by uttering the same words to a different tune,”42 and illustrating how much of the meaning of a given sentence or question is altered by the tones in which it is spoken, which have a pre-arranged and understood meaning. He reiterated that the range of the speaking voice was limited and employed variations of less than half steps; he even suggested a possible scale constructed on the basis of these smaller intervals for the average two octave voice. Further than this the poet does not go, though men like Bayard Q. Morgan are continuing research along these lines.43

The colors of speech, beginning with the section on rhyme, had a short and unhappy development, for Lanier threw out the pregnant suggestion that harmony and melody differed in verse, and then, rather than force himself into thinking through what he had begun, he did a kind of history of rhyme which is of little value to students today. He revealed a partiality for internal rhyme while cautioning the poet against too many rhymes too near each other in “tone color.” In his brief discussion of vowel-colors he applauded the careful and fairly wide distribution of vowel sounds in a line. He was wholly conscious of the effect of alliteration upon the rhyme scheme, and spoke of its purpose as that of varying the pattern. He was favorable to mild and hidden alliterative patterns rather than those which were “loud.” Again his conclusion is weak, and he seems to have ended the book at the point where hopes were highest that an ear trained as his was and an imaginative faculty fertile as his was, coupled with a rather astonishing breadth of knowledge, would lead far into the exploration of those mysteries of verse which, until his few chapters, had remained almost untouched.

It is easy to fall into the habit of saying that “the trouble with Lanier was. …” The trouble does not lie so much with Lanier as it does with the fact that art is long, and two arts twice as long. Had he lived much longer, he might have given us the final word prosodically, and then again he might not have. His book as we have it has many inaccuracies in it, and fails at many points. It is not always clear; it is poorly organized, and, at the most inauspicious moments, Lanier begins to wave the blue flower, which in his case is the rose, and quite confounds his logic with transcendental theories about the nature of rhythm in the universe, all of which date his work and his thinking. However, no one else in the English language on either side of the ocean had written anything nearly so comprehensive, so thoughtful and thought-provoking about verse in the year 1880, and even Saintsbury's work can not be compared, for it is an historical approach like that of the Renaissance prosodists and not a probing of what constitutes poetry.

This book was not a handbook for beginners nor was it actually by a beginner in the fullest sense of that term, for Lanier had written his “Physics of Music” for publication and almost had it in the press when he decided to amplify the material and make a book of it. It does not purport to teach how to write poetry, nor does it lay down rules for the writing of verse. What it actually is is an analysis of verse, laying bare those constituents that had so far defied analysis or treatment, such as the quantity element in modern English, the question of the relationship of typic and reading rhythms in verse, the matter of rhyme as both a rhythmic and “color” function in verse, and alliteration and syzygy.

Whole schools of prosodic theory were spurred by Lanier's little book. J. C. Pope, after years of working with Old English verse, came to the conclusion that a line was best scanned by musical notation. He concluded that if verse was rhythmic one should be able to beat time to it, and he spoke highly of his debt to Lanier.44 Baum lists the many contemporary critical opinions on the book, concluding that the prosodic consensus today is favorable to The Science of English Verse.45 Gay W. Allen wrote favorably of it46 and Bayard Q. Morgan is continuing research along lines suggested in Lanier's work on speech tunes. Evelyn H. Scholl, writing in PMLA, in 1948, on the conflicting theories of prosody, bore out the quantity theory in her study of Renaissance verse.47 Wilbur Schramm's recent experiments in rhyme indicate that Lanier was moving in the right direction,48 and the heavy dependence on Lanier of Calvin S. Brown's fine work proves how prophetic the book actually was.49 Compounded of naively stated truths and of startling bits of erudition, the book remains today the only outstanding prosodic work of a poet writing in his own field of an art he knew intimately. He had a finer background for writing than we can expect to find again.

In any discussion relating Lanier's verse to music, the element of paradox must at once be recognized. For though Lanier was a professional musician as well as poet, and thus might be expected to represent the ultimate virtues of musical-poetic productions, he must not be thought of as the successor to the symphonic conceptions of Whitman. For Whitman had so early an exposure to symphonic music of the best sort that the accounts Lanier leaves of hearing the symphony in New York in 1871-72 seem, by comparison, pathetic. And though Lanier was brought up in a musical family, so much of his early youth was given to war and so many of the following years were spent in the South during Reconstruction when the arts began a serious lag, that he may be said to have spent the formative years of a poet's life in a kind of musical drought.50 His early verses, for this reason, exhibit only those musical tendencies natural to a lyrical poet interested in music, and his was initially a song conception for verse, not a symphonic one. His interests in the beginning were in the poetic conceits and musical sounds of the syllables, this though he was nearly a quarter century younger than Whitman.

It is also significant that Lanier's location virtually segregated him from the mainstream of nineteenth century verse in America. Most of his poetic readings were in German and French literatures, and aside from a friendship with Paul Hamilton Hayne, who was similarly situated, and imitations of Poe, Coleridge, and Byron, the young poet could not be said to be widely read in modern verse. He did not even read Whitman's verse until 1878, when his own was largely written. Thus Lanier's growing awareness of musical forms for verse runs parallel, in many respects, to Whitman's own recognition of the symphony and its form. That Lanier moved into another later musical conception for verse, impressionism, comes almost too late in his life to be anything but provocative. It does indicate, however, how rapidly the poet transformed musical ideas and art concepts into poetry.

Lanier served a long apprenticeship to poetry, however, and from his earliest youth was writing his father for criticisms on his more serious poetic efforts. His father seems to have been quick to recognize the extravagances of the young poet, and Lanier realized early that his was to be, among other things, a pruning job. Before he even began the study of law in 1868, he had written over seventy poems, nearly half of all the poems he was ever to write. It is impossible here, and unnecessary, to treat in any detail any large portion of Lanier's verse, but in order to show the linguistic and poetic growth which the poet made away from his earliest completely aesthetic terminology to a kind of love for Anglo-Saxon phrasings, it will be necessary to look at some of these early poems. The influence of Chaucer upon the poet in 1872 was salutary, for he came to love the diction of our native tongue. And he wrote in 1873 to Peacock, when the influence of the symphony began its hold upon him: “… but one cannot forget Beethoven, and somehow all my inspirations came in these large and artless forms, in simple Saxon words, in unpretentious and purely intellectual conceptions. …”51

Lanier's poetic growth is one of the most exciting and promising in our language. From imitations of Poe and Coleridge, and later efforts imitative of Swinburne, Tennyson, Morris, and Browning, Lanier gradually evolved, by a series of experiments, and in distinct stages, his own style peculiarly related to his interest in music and his growing recognition of the relationship of the two arts. In 1864 the young Lanier was writing of his determination to see if he had the talent to make a poet of himself; ten years later, in 1875 with the publication of “Corn,” he received the answer, after a long period devoted to teaching, law, and music.52

The lyrical elements in Lanier's verse are strongly evident from the very beginning, and his first verse appears in Poe-like stanzas with already marked attention to rhythmic variation and subtle combinations of sound:

A lone wolf by a castle-ruin howled,
A moon between black drift-clouds scowled
          With baleful leer—
Wind through age-eaten port holes moaned
And weirdly shrieked wild wailings, toned
          Like cries of fear—(53)

The Gothic quality in this sixteen-year-old's verse is more imitative than the instinctive artistry with which his ear directed him into a smooth pattern where “wolf,” “with,” “wind,” “weirdly” and “wild wailings” bind the two stanzas together. Then the shift of o sounds from the initial position in the first stanza to the final position in the first lines of stanza two gives sound unity to the grouping. He apparently knew intuitively how to space sounds in a line, for the melody leans heavily upon o, e, i, and the alliterative l sounds. His fine innate rhythmic sense led him to write the fore-shortened third lines.

Three years later, however, the writer was trying his hand at his “three-fold” metaphors which result often in unpleasant conceits. Here the alliterations are exaggerated and the poem is deficient in taste.

Thou rippleless, dim lake, enspelled
          By the basilisk eyes of stars, at night:
With thy lilies calm as sweet thoughts, upheld
          On thy bosom's waveless chrysolite. …
Float the Unloved to the lilies, O Lake,
And cover the Loveless with lilies, Good Lake;
No flowers on land (in life!) had she:
Let her have flowers (in death!), in thee.(54)

This tendency toward a style that is an elaborate weaving of sounds began to characterize a good portion of Lanier's writing from this time on. Here the poet is exaggerating the l sounds without too much regard for the total effect upon the reader. The poem, in many ways, is in poorer taste than the first because of words like “rippleless” and “enspelled” which appear in one line, and phrases like “waveless chrysolite” which offer a plethora of “l” sounds. It is a mistake, however, to think the poet here is only carried away with the musical sounds of the liquids, or with questions of balance like “in life” and “in death,” etc. Actually, this poem is also heavily weighted by the poet's sentimental message, so like Thomas Hood's, which stultifies the flow of the lines, while his meaning, because of the welter of sounds, evades the reader as completely as possible. Poe's attempt at indefiniteness was a quite different matter. Lanier's is no attempt to imitate music, but rather an effort to be ultra profound, to “impact” into every word and phrase meaning that is in no wise clarified by the extreme music of the sounds he writes in. This “impacted” quality is in every way foreign, as an element in verse, to the truly lyrical, but it was Lanier's misfortune that he had both sound and sense in some of his verse beyond the limit of enjoyment.

Since Lanier was always conscious of music, almost any of his early poems have some connection with music. One of his first poems to receive recognition outside the South was “Life and Song.” Written in 1868, it was reprinted in Baltimore and New York periodicals, and it represents the second style in which Lanier wrote his verse: the clearer of the two, the less impacted, and the less concerned with melody within the line. It uses the clarinet as the symbol of Song:

If life were caught by a clarionet,
          And a wild heart, throbbing in the reed,
Should thrill its joy and trill its fret
          And utter its heart in every deed,
Then would this breathing clarionet
          Type what the poet fain would be;
For none o' the singers ever yet
          Has wholly lived his minstrelsy,
Or clearly sung his true, true thought,
          Or utterly bodied forth his life,
Or out of Life and Song has wrought
          The perfect one of man and wife;
Or lived and sung, that Life and Song
          Might each express the other's all,
Careless if life or art were long
          Since both were one, to stand or fall:
So that the wonder struck the crowd,
          Who shouted it about the land:
His song was only living aloud,
          His work a singing with his hand!(55)

The poem is chiefly characterized by a more judicious separation of alliterative sounds so that l, b, d, f, and s are scarcely prominent sounds, while t and th are rather apparent. It was natural that this poem should achieve some wider popularity since it was simple in form and rhythmic concept and maintained a unity of tone that he was not, at this time, always successful in maintaining.

More typical of the “aesthetic” poems from this period is “Betrayal,” which embodies much that was best in this style of writing, and much that was bad. A far more lyric poem than “Life and Song,” and one that in its colors and references immediately suggests Villon, the poem adds to its imitative qualities a certain artistic surety that is promising.

The sun has kissed the violet sea,
          And burned the violet to a rose.
O Sea, O Sea, mightst thou but be
          Mere violets 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!
The sun has burnt the rose-red sea:
          The rose is turned to ashes gray.
O Sea, O Sea, mightst thou but be
          The violet thou hast been to-day!
          The sun is brave, the sun is bright,
          The sun is lord and love and light;
          But after him it cometh night.
          Dim anguish of the lonesome dark!—
          Once a girl's body, stiff and stark,
          Was laid in a tomb without a mark,
                    Ah me!(56)

Here the rhymes have an interesting pattern, with a quatrain at the beginning and two sets of lines rhyming in threes. The lines themselves are rhythmically pleasing with occasional foot substitutions, and the imagery, while vivid, does not carry any intellectual burden. The only lines over which the reader really hesitates are the fourth lines in each stanza—those which change the color violet of the sea to the flower, violet, so that the whole first sequence seems a badly mixed metaphor. The sentimental touch at the close, the ever-recurrent death of young ladies, pleased Lanier as it had Poe and later many a Victorian. But young Lanier never seems to know quite what the significance of the death is, so that his poems are not made more effective by the reference. It has been pointed out that Lanier, who believed in a message for verse, really had very little to say in his early poetry.57

The two rhyme schemes most characteristic of Lanier are the alternate rhyming lines of the quatrain, usually employed in his simpler lyrics, and the three-line rhyming stanza, which seems to have been a favorite pattern of Whitman's too. This particular pattern was effective in that it made possible a repetition or a balanced phrasing with the third line usually directed toward the next unit of three lines, or else gave a kind of finish to the first two. In “Nirvana,” for instance, he employed this technique, usually with the third line acting in the nature of a revelation, while its patterning was already established as a familiar one:

Through seas of Dreams and seas of Phantasies,
Through seas of Solitudes and Vacancies,
And through myself, the deepest of the seas,
          I strive to thee, Nirvana, etc.(58)

Another noticeable characteristic of Lanier's work, which he found troublesome at first but which toward the end of his life was becoming one of his most pleasing stylistic devices, was the conversational line. By this I mean that the poet sometimes departed from any ordinary poetic pattern and began to write a blank verse of marked sincerity and heightened expression. At first the employment of this non-poetic personal approach was stilted and spotty, since the poet employed the personal style in the most personal of matters and the poem reflected a kind of self-pity. Later, as his understanding grew of what was to be, for him, the most fortunate choice of subject matter—nature—the personal element took on the color of a prophetic voice, separated from the material, and yet perfectly conscious of judging it. The earliest employment of the personal blank verse line in Lanier can be seen in “June Dreams, in January.” Written as the direct outgrowth of the poet's sadness at his inability to earn his livelihood by writing, and immediately preceding the period devoted to the study of law—a profession taken up in dire necessity—Lanier exhibits his sentimental style in the introductory little poem which deals with June, flowers, night, winds, and night sounds. It is better in its actual imagery than it at first appears to be—like most of Lanier's work—and it is followed by almost perfect blank verse rhythms. The final section, not quoted here, completes the story, in which a friend, “Dick Painter,” comes in and carries off the poem to a critic who happily approves it; and so the final scene deals with the happiness of the poet. It is interesting that the little domestic scenes ensue as they do, because it indicates that Lanier, even though he failed at dialect writing, certainly had some talent for the narrative poems so popular in the gift annuals of the time. The poem opens with regular enough quatrains:

O tender darkness, when June-day hath ceased,
          —Faint odor, of the crushed day-flower born,
—Dim, visible sigh out of the mournful East
          That cannot see her lord again till morn:
And many leaves, broad-palmed towards the sky
          To catch the sacred raining of star-light:
And pallid petals, fain, all fain to die,
          Soul-stung by too keen passion of the night:
And short-breath'd winds, under yon gracious moon
          Doing mild errands for mild violets,
Or carrying sighs from the red lips of June
          What aimless way the odor-current sets:
And stars, ring'd glittering in whorls and bells,
          Or bent along the sky in looped star-sprays,
Or vine-wound, with bright grapes in panicles,
          Or bramble-tangled in a sweetest maze,
Or lying like young lilies in a lake
          About the great white Lotus of the moon,
Or blown and drifted, as if winds should shake
          Star-blossoms down from silver stems too soon, …
And long June night-sounds crooned among the leaves,
          And whispered confidence of dark and green,
And murmurs in old moss about old eaves,
          And tinklings floating over water-sheen!(59)

However, in fairness to Lanier it should be pointed out that even this little poem, compounded of sights, scents, and sounds, is superior in many respects to the ordinary verse of less talented writers. Quatrain one with its image of “tender darkness” as an “odor” “crushed” from the “day-flower” is a better than average sensuous image. That it lies next to another idea—that dark is the “visible sigh” of “mournful East” separated from the sun—does not, of course, help either image. The delineation of the light upon leaves in the next stanza is sure promise of the fine, almost superfine, nature detail that was to characterize the last and best of Lanier's verse. Here is the repetition of compound words like “star-light” and “soul-stung.” Two images again surfeit the line: the “sacred raining” of star-light upon broad palms, and the color of the leaves lying pallid under the “too keen passion of the night.” The third quatrain misses rather badly, but the next, with its imagery surely depending upon the sight of decorations of a Christmas tree, is quite successful, as is the re-shaped lilies-on-lakes material with the happy phrasing of the “great white lotus of the moon.” In these verses it should be noted that the poet introduces considerable variation within the line and that the words are many syllabled so that the rhythm is unmistakable; it should also be obvious that the poet has set up a springing, bounding line, caught at each end—at one by the rhymes, at the other by the introductory “ands” and “ors,” while the fullness of the line billows out between. The poet is obviously skillful, for he has no difficulty with either rhyme or rhythm. Like most of Lanier's early verse, and this belongs to his early period, it errs in having a too-muchness—always the sign of a youthful but important talent. The same ease is observable in the fine blank verse lines—fine that is, rhythmically, though the telling of the story here is also quite successful:

Then he that wrote, laid down his pen and sighed;
And straightway came old Scorn and Bitterness …
“I'll date this dream,” he said: “So: Given, these,
On this, the coldest night in all the year,
From this, the meanest garret in the world,
In this, the greatest city in the land,
To you, the richest folk this side of death,
By one, the hungriest poet under heaven,
—Writ while his candle sputtered in the gust,
And while his last, last ember died of cold,
And while the mortal ice i' the air made free
Of all his bones and bit and shrunk his heart …
—Read me,” he cried, and rose, and stamped his foot
Impatiently at Heaven, “read me this”
(Putting th' inquiry full in the face of God)
“Why can we poets dream us beauty, so,
But cannot dream us bread? Why, now, can I
Make, aye, create this fervid throbbing June
Out of the chill, chill matter of my soul,
Yet cannot make a poorest penny-loaf …”
And, late, just when his heart leaned o'er
The very edge of breaking, fain to fall,
God sent him sleep. …(60)

The remarkable thing about this essentially unpoetic matter is that because of a certain well-placed repetitiveness and a wonderful ear for alliterative spacing, it remains poetry.

Lanier was one of the masters of the single line refrain, which he usually modified in successive strophes of the poem. “On Huntingdon's ‘Miranda’” is a good example of this sort of thing. However, aside from a keener awareness of rhythmic possibilities in verse and a noticeable ease in grouping rhythms in a line, Lanier does not exhibit until 1874 more of a tendency than other lyric poets to fuse music and verse.

By 1874 Lanier had had access to the superior cultural life of Baltimore with its newly founded conservatory of music and its new university, Johns Hopkins. He had been a professional symphonic musician for a season, and was already experimenting in the physics of sound with the apparatus available at Peabody. He had written more music in that year than he had written before, and there was a marked growth in the technical quality of the poems published in this period. “Corn,” written in 1874, is the most maturely conceived of any of Lanier's poems and exhibits all of the virtues and the vices that were to characterize his best verse.

“Corn” was inspired by a return to his native Georgia, whose war-scarred and deserted cotton lands seemed to him a symbol of all that had become wasted in the South. In the hope of restoring the productivity of the South by arousing interest in the planting of corn he wrote this poem, the most complex he had yet conceived. Its success grew directly out of its fine nature descriptions, the subtlety of the rhythms, and the message which the poet intended to convey. Again there is the surfeit of detail which may be likened to that of certain tapestries, each corner of which is elaborated, and whose intricacies are such that the eye at close range is wearied by an attempt to discern the fuller meaning in the weaving. Yet the curious and interested find in the poem a kind of finical perfection, a latter-day baroque quality which seems hardly indigenous either to the English tongue or to the period in which Lanier wrote. This quality in Lanier's verse, which differentiates it wholly from anything written before or after, so that he seemed to have struck off in the direction of an originality almost divorced from standard conceptions of verse, was fed upon springs too hidden for imitation and repels some readers while it fascinates others.

To talk of ordinary poetic considerations in the poems from 1874 on is to offer only a partial appraisal of Lanier's work, for though his rhymes had given patterns, though he used recognizable rhythms, and though all that can be said of the work of any lyrical poet can be said of Lanier, these are not the distinctive features of his work. One must initially recognize that here is an exercise of the intellect, an exercise of the fancy, of the understanding, of the ear, and of the memory. Here are threads from many different skeins; and in attempting to trace their rightful source, one is likely to become lost in a blur of color. There is almost a disfigurement of the original conception of the poem in the bloating which takes place in every portion. There is a probing of particulars that often reveals too much, so that some details stand starkly forth which seem to need muting. And the complexity of key ideas and their treatment take on a character—since they are worked out in such detail—like baroque music; the lines fairly spring from the page in a whirling concatenation of sound and sense.

This element in Lanier's work is so far removed from the poetic tradition—though when Lanier read Whitman late in life he was fascinated and instantly recognized the musical quality of his verse—it can only be said to have originated from a musical mind, a mind trained in subtleties beyond ordinary comprehension, a mind given to indefinitely defined general impressions with detailed treatment of portions of ideas, a mind full of the endless varieties which make up the sudden shifts of emotion we experience in music and of the repetitions which give pleasure. Lanier's ideas dip and merge after the fashion of music; the stanzas form and change. With “Corn” a certain complexity in his verse becomes a settled style which runs parallel to the simplicity and beauty of his song style. “Corn” is by no means the best example of this tendency toward the complex structure in Lanier: it is simply the first of the important poems in this genre.

The poem opens with a detailed comparison of the green woods and human characteristics like sight, touch, breath, and sound, a comparison that is inverted before the strophe ends, so that the human is described in terms of nature. This device of inversion is common musical treatment of an idea. It should be noted immediately that this is a kind of descriptive verse, depending upon light and shadow and the human senses for the totality of the impression.

To-day the woods are trembling through and through
With shimmering forms, that 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 beech 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 of burgeoning.
Now since the dew-plashed road of morn is dry,
Forth venture odors of more quality
And heavenlier giving. Like Jove's locks awry,
                    Long muscadines
Rich-wreathe the spacious foreheads of great pines,
And breathe ambrosial passion from their vines.
          I pray with mosses, ferns and flowers shy
          That hide like gentle nuns from human eye
          To lift adoring perfumes to the sky.
I hear faint bridal-sighs of brown and green
Dying to silent hints of kisses keen
As far lights fringe into a pleasant sheen.
          I start at fragmentary whispers, blown
          From under-talks of leafy souls unknown,
          Vague purports sweet, of inarticulate tone.(61)

The three-line rhyme pattern here, with its interpolated duple rhymes, the pacing of the rhythms as they move toward a rhyme ending, the balance in the lines themselves and between lines, depending upon compound words or participial or prepositional phrases, carry along the vivid and richly descriptive imagery. Lines such as appear in “Corn” will probably never achieve any widespread popularity because every part of them contains pockets of sustained interest and demands more attention from the reader than he is likely to give to lyrical verse. This strange hybrid creation of Lanier's, compounded of sound and sense, is at times so minutely realistic as to defy the term poetry, yet is always couched in the most musical sounds. The colors, hues, and scents that mingle in the verse are obviously aesthetic. The message is an anomaly. Yet the poem succeeds, despite a surfeit of rich imagery that calls up a comparison to young Keats. Here are “dew-plashed roads” and “muscadines” whose vines “rich-wreathe” the “foreheads” of great pines. Here is almost a naturalist's interest in nature that bespeaks not only his Southern origin but an original, personal viewpoint of nature. The next, more prosaic strophe, comes as a relief in its simplicity:

I wander to the zigzag cornered fence
Where sassafras, intrenched in brambles dense,
Contests with stolid vehemence
          The march of culture, setting limb and thorn
          As pikes against the army of the corn.
There, while I pause, my fieldward-faring eyes
Take harvest, where the stately corn-ranks rise,
          Of inward dignities
And large benignities and insights wise,
          Graces and modest majesties.
Thus, without theft, I reap another's field;
Thus, without tilth, I house a wondrous yield,
And heap my heart with quintuple crops concealed.(62)

There is nothing in these lines to repel the reader; as a matter of fact syzygy is subtle, the rhymes obvious, and the images sharpened and clear. The “zigzag fence” and “sassafras” present an interesting tonal combination, while the poet elevates with ease the thought from the ranks of corn to the soul's harvesting. The simplicity of these lines suggests the work that Frost has done in our own time with the same kinds of subjects.

Lanier begins to draw his moral from the tallest stalk of corn and compares the creative soul with the corn:

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 yeoman 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. …
                    As poets should,
Thou hast built up thy hardihood
With universal food,
          Drawn in select proportion fair
          From honest mould and vagabond air;
From darkness of the dreadful night,
                    And joyful light;
          From antique ashes, whose departed flame
          In thee has finer life and longer fame;
From wounds and balms,
From storms and calms,
From pots-herds and dry bones
                    And ruin-stones.
Into thy vigorous substance thou hast wrought
Whate'er the hand of Circumstance hath brought;
          Yea, into cool solacing green hast spun
          White radiance hot from out the sun.
So thou dost mutually leaven
Strength of earth with grace of heaven;
          So thou dost marry new and old
          Into a one of higher mould;
So thou dost reconcile the hot and cold,
                    The dark and bright
And many a heart-perplexing opposite,
                    And so,
          Akin by blood to high and low,
Fitly thou playest out thy poet's part,
Richly expending thy much-bruiséd heart
          In equal care to nourish lord in hall
                    Or beast in stall:
          Thou took'st from all that thou might'st give to all.(63)

The constant creation of metaphor came only too often to the poet, who was immersing himself in Shakespeare studies, together with some occasional affectations of the Elizabethans, their vivid colors, and their multi-voiced music. The last strophe of “Corn” contains these initial lines addressed to the over-worked land, which lead to a powerful conclusion.

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. …(64)

“Corn” was certainly one of the best poems of 1875 (the year it was published). Not only did the poet handle his themes with greater ease than before, but he began to find a style which, though ornate, carried important ideas and many memorable images.

The change in stanza form which dates from “Corn” must be ascribed to Lanier's interest in music, for before this poem, his stanzas have recognizable metrical groupings. With “Corn,” however, the poet's stanzas become markedly “organic.” Actually here they represent different views of the subject: first the descriptive, then the personal ones, and finally those which deal with various phases of the comparison of the “Corn-captain” with the poet. Though Lanier continued also to write quatrains and other verse forms, after this point his stanzas achieve greater length and no longer are metrical in grouping, for, as often as not, any one stanza may have any number of metrical shifts in it.

The musician's knowledge, which Lanier wisely did not push too fully in poetry, can be seen in poems like “In Absence.” Here the nearness of the poet again to his Renaissance models exhibits itself in his preoccupation with love, the physical presence of love, and with God, who now plays a very important role in the life of Lanier, who knows that his time is measured. And though Lanier's excessive love for this life in all its forms of nature, humanity, and art remains unchanged, there appears persistently in the poetry from 1874 on an awareness of God as something quite apart from music—which he once felt was a quite adequate substitute. Here the poet writes of his wife:


The storm that snapped our fate's one ship in twain
          Hath blown my half o' the wreck from thine apart.
O Love! O Love! across the gray-waved main
          To thee-ward strain my eyes, my arms, my heart.
I ask my God if e'en in His sweet place,
          Where, by one waving of a wistful wing,
My soul could straightway tremble face to face
          With thee, with thee, across the stellar ring—
Yea, where thine absence I could ne'er bewail
          Longer than lasts the little blank of bliss
When lips draw back, with recent pressure pale,
          To round and redden for another kiss—
                    Would not my lonesome heart still sigh for thee
                    What time the drear kiss-intervals must be?


So do the mottled formulas of Sense
          Glide snakewise through our dreams of Aftertime;
So errors breed in reeds and grasses dense
          That bank our singing rivulets of rhyme.
By Sense rule Space and Time; but in God's Land
          Their intervals are not, save such as lie
Betwixt successive tones in concords bland
          Whose loving distance makes the harmony.
Ah, there shall never come 'twixt me and thee
          Gross dissonances of the mile, the year;
But in the multichords of ecstasy
          Our souls shall mingle, yet be featured clear,
                    And absence, wrought to intervals divine,
                    Shall part, yet link, thy nature's tone and mine.(65)

This second strophe is the first actual sustained use Lanier made of musical metaphor. Here music serves as an illustration of his belief that in Heaven there is no separation from the loved one. The figure begins with a reference to the musical staff where “by Sense” we rule the time and the distance or space between notes. Lanier points out that no such staff appears in Heaven where intervals are not measured unless they be in “harmony” and where no dissonances of any kind separate note from note and love from love. In this divine land souls will exist like notes in harmony, each a part of a common chord and yet remain separate “featured clear” and individual elements in the perfect melody. And absence—or separation—will link the chords as a result of the just intervals which make for greater harmony.

Comparisons like these in Lanier's verse are well conceived and carried through. It is rarely, indeed, in his mature verse, that Lanier ever fails to sustain a figure, and yet it is, in some senses, to his disadvantage that as a poet he possessed either more erudition or, in some cases, simply more scientific and aesthetic interest in the subjects upon which his figures are based than readers generally care about. Lanier suffers from what so great a poet as Shakespeare once suffered: charges of irregularity, obscurity, and complexity. Each gradually began to find his audience limited, and in our time, unless some further evaluation of Lanier's work is attempted, his reputation will probably suffer a complete eclipse, for Lanier seems apart from the main stream of contemporary writing, despite the modernity of his rhythmic patterns. Like Bach, to draw another eminent comparison, Lanier composed with something of an academician's quality in his early work, and with an appeal to the intellect and the abstract which immediately limits his audience. However, he also treated contemporary questions with seriousness in his verse—a treatment rendered almost anomalous by his obviously lyrical bent.

Lanier's best verse moves toward two large stylistic groupings: the complex, impressionistic treatment of nature, and the simpler, beautiful song structures. The first came to have all the heightened emotional quality of the baroque; the second the simple dignity of the classical song.

It was, of course, inevitable that a man who was playing symphonic music every day, and attempting the composition of flute music, should eventually come to grips with the idea of writing a symphony in verse. It should be noted, however, that despite Lanier's recent acquaintance with the symphony, this was never a familiar poetic medium for him, and that he excelled at verse “pieces” rather than the lengthy profound symphony. He does not even mention such a relationship of forms in The Science of English Verse, and though, had he lived, he might have returned to and mastered the style of the symphony, he had abandoned the attempt in his last efforts.

It is evident though, for a while, that the symphony seemed to Lanier to open up new possibilities for verse. He was a-tremble at these possibilities and wrote to Peacock that writing “The Symphony” had seized him like a “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.66

The success of “The Symphony” rests on its rhythmic superiority and on its originality and experimental nature.67 In his letters to his wife, written during the frequent separations made necessary by the travels for his health and his trips as a musician, Lanier had written for her virtually programme notes of the music that he played; in short, he readily transcribed the feeling of the music into words. “The Symphony,” however, is less successful as a poem than it might have been had he developed his ideas here much as he had in the letters, as, for instance, we see Whitman doing where an aria or a symphony is only the structure on which that poet improvised. Lanier was eminently suited to do the same thing. Instead, he turned, in “The Symphony,” to the mechanical and less successful, if more obvious, experimental device of announcing each instrument in the orchestra and letting it sing a certain definite theme. Now this simply cannot be done successfully, for the announcement of the instrument automatically cuts in upon the introspection of the symphony with something that is no part of it; and Lanier's experiment must always be regarded as something far beneath what he was capable of. However, he was the first American poet to move consciously into these pastures, and it is as an experiment that his poem must be considered. It is unfortunate that far too many critics, intrigued by the possibilities of new poetic form and the freshness of this approach, have taken “The Symphony” as an example of Lanier's best work. They have written well of it, better probably than it deserves, for Lanier moved a long distance from this effort in two years. One critic said:

The most concise definition of art is unity in variety. Surely “The Symphony” admirably fulfils that definition. There is a great variety in the subject matter: a severe condemnation of trade with a plea for the poor, by the violin; the beauties of nature, sung by the flute; a searching denunciation of man's inhumanity to woman, by the clarionet; an offer of knightly service to women by the horn; a plea for innocence in life by the hautboys; a final paean of victory for love by the bassoons. All this variety of subject is given with the varying effects of the different instruments, now fast in short, snappy lines, now slow, stately, sonorous in long full lines, now in the depths of despair and misery, now on the heights of faith and love. The thread of unity in it all is the common attack on Trade and the plea for heart and love in life. It is by no means perfect in execution, and fails in many points in diction and in rhythm, but as a whole it is a wonderful poem in the greatness of its idea and the adequacy and fitness with which it is carried out, and the wonderful harmony that it contains, to say nothing of individual lines of striking beauty in thought and melody. It is furthermore very significant in its suggestion as to the possibilities of poetry in the future.68

The last line of this critique is the most significant, for Lanier's verse has made possible the finer work of Conrad Aiken with the symphony, and surely those efforts of John Gould Fletcher in the same direction.

“The Symphony” is extremely uneven in quality and cannot in any way be compared with the larger design by which Whitman shaped his Leaves of Grass.69 Lanier's effort is a minor poem, not approximating the symphony in either length or style, except for some rather obvious overtures in that direction. However, his was a pioneering work, and he had the vision of a symphonic poem, if not the fulfillment of it. His attempts to create, in verse, themes for each instrument are—aside from the flute theme—such mechanical efforts that they are almost laughable. The creaking of the machinery is evident throughout the poem, and Lanier realized how bad the effort was almost immediately. However, he did succeed in illustrating in verse “bridge” passages in music, and the flute's “song” is memorable. Of the passage which illustrates the tone of the flute in the orchestra what criticism can be offered? Nature, of which the flute sings, is beautifully described:

          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 …
From the warm concave of that fluted note
Somewhat, half song, half odor, forth did float,
As if a rose might somehow be a throat:
“When Nature from her far-off glen
Flutes her soft messages to men,
The flute can say them o'er again;
Yea, Nature, singing sweet and lone,
Breathes through life's strident polyphone
The flute-voice in the world of tone.
          Sweet friends,
          Man's love ascends
To finer and diviner ends
Than man's mere thought e'er comprehends.
          For I, e'en I,
          As here I lie,
A petal on a harmony,
Demand of Science whence and why
Man's tender pain, man's inward cry,
When he doth gaze on earth and sky?
I am not overbold:
          I hold
Full powers from Nature manifold.
I speak for each no-tongued tree
That, spring by spring, doth nobler be,
And dumbly and most wistfully
His mighty, prayerful arms outspreads
Above men's oft unheeding heads,
And his big blessing downward sheds.
I speak for all-shaped blooms and leaves …
Grasses and grains in ranks and sheaves;
Broad-fronted ferns and keen-leaved canes,
And briery mazes bounding lanes,
And marsh-plants, thirsty-cupped for rains,
And milky stems and sugary veins …
All shynesses of film-winged things
That fly from tree-trunks and bark-rings; …
All limpid honeys that do lie
At stamen bases, nor deny
The humming-birds' fine roguery,
Bee-thighs, nor any butterfly;
All gracious curves of slender wings,
Bark-mottlings, fibre-spiralings,
Fern-wavings and leaf-flickerings;
Each dial-marked leaf and flower-bell
Wherewith in every lonesome dell
Time to himself his hours doth tell;
All tree-sounds, rustlings of pine cones,
Wind-sighings, doves' melodious moans …
Yea, all fair forms, and sounds, and lights,
And warmths, and mysteries, and mights,
Of Nature's utmost depths and heights,
—These doth my timid tongue present,
Their mouthpiece and leal instrument. …(70)

The interludes, or the “bridge” passages that occur in the music as Lanier has conceived it, are fortunate. He wrote passages like these (the first marks the throbbing undertone the orchestra sets up for the flute melody):

And then, as when from words that seem but rude
We pass to silent pain that sits abroad
Back in our heart's great dark and solitude,
So sank the strings to gentle throbbing
Of long chords change-marked with sobbing—
Motherly sobbing, not distinctlier heard
Than half-wing openings of the sleeping bird,
Some dream of danger to her young hath stirred.(71)

and the different pacing to introduce the clarinet:

Thereto a thrilling calm succeeds,
Till presently the silence breeds
A little breeze among the reeds
That seems to blow by sea-marsh weeds. …(72)

But the poorness of the concept that has each instrument sing of social problems can best be seen if the reader thinks of the nature of the symphony, what its appeal is, and how, like the long passage quoted, the mind may dream of elements in nature. But it is difficult to imagine the human mind busying itself with such sentiment as makes up a portion of “The Symphony.” Passages which illustrate the voices beside the flute are dialogues, which Lanier probably hoped would take care of the difficulty he encountered in attempting to make many voices sound together as they actually do in a symphony. But these are not the introspective dialogues, the conversations between instruments that one might expect. They lack the sweep and meaning found in Whitman's work. Here, instead, the instruments sing exactly worded and limited themes, such as trade, the protection of womanhood, etc., themes which are noble enough but far too exact for musical parallels. Note here how the “Lady Clarionet” begins her song, and her song doesn't improve later:

“O Trade! O Trade!” the Lady said,
“I too will wish thee utterly dead
If all thy heart is in thy head. …”(73)
.....There thrust the bold straight forward horn
To battle for that lady lorn,
With heartsome voice of mellow scorn,
Like any knight in knighthood's morn.
          “Now comfort thee,” said he,
          “Fair Lady.
For God shall right thy grievous wrong. …(74)

The poem is replete with such “pathetic fallacies,” and it is Lanier's misfortune that, because this early experiment in musico-poetic structure piqued the curiosities of many people, it has been more often found in anthologies and thus has had wider fame than it deserves. Unfortunately, the poem is often regarded as Lanier's best work since it fits in with what is known of the dual interests of his life. That he never regarded it as such is evident from his early abandonment of the purely symphonic structure as unsuited to his style. But later poems give evidence that he realized how fully he had failed here, for never again does he write like this in terms of music:

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.”(75)

This sentimental approach which makes “The Symphony” so uneven a poem, and which obviously would repel many who might otherwise have admired his experiment, is offset in the poem by occasional successful figures of speech, one of which, near the close of “The Symphony,” is based upon music:

Life! Life! thou sea-fugue, writ from east to west,
          Love, Love alone can pore
          On thy dissolving score
          Of harsh half-phrasings,
                    Blotted ere writ,
          And double erasings
                    Of chords most fit.
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.(76)

Here we have a successful reference to life, as a sea-fugue, written horizontally on music paper, which only Love can make melody of since the flux, “the dissolving score” of life, makes it a record of errors, blottings, and welter.

The real contribution of “The Symphony” lies in Lanier's effort to follow the form of the symphony with its bridge passages. The title, “The Symphony,” appearing widely as it did in 1875, undoubtedly led other poets to make the more recent efforts in the direction of this form. Since music has rarely been divorced from poetry, it was natural that in the nineteenth century the form of the symphony should inspire imitation. Certainly composers were already doing tone poems. Lanier was the first poet to title his poem a symphony, though he actually did little work with the symphony as a form, and borrowed eventually only its breadth and sweep. From 1875 on, his poems take on considerably greater length, unless they are song poems. “The Symphony,” however, brought Lanier considerable notice and the friendships of Charlotte Cushman and Bayard Taylor, the latter then a major literary figure. Taylor was impressed by Lanier's combinations of talents, and exerted his influence to see that the offer to write the Centennial cantata for the Centennial celebration came to the one American skilled in both arts. And on the merits of “Corn” and “The Symphony” the offer was made to him.

Lanier's “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia” marks the high tide of his obvious musico-poetic interest, and all of the experimentation that went into it moved in the direction of freer forms for poetry.77

“The Centennial Meditation of Columbia” made Lanier's name famous. It also acquainted him fully, for the first time, with the musico-dramatic principles of Richard Wagner and the free forms he evolved as libretti for his operas, for Lanier was writing his first “libretto.” The influence of Wagner is apparent in the poem.78 It is a short poem for the amount of thought, care, and heartbreak that went into it. It wasn't written to be published separately, and is not a good “occasional” poem. Its concept was musical from start to finish. Invited to write the verses for the music of Dudley Buck, New York composer, to be performed by Theodore Thomas's chorus and orchestra for the Fourth of July Centennial Celebration, and included among such already famous names as Whittier, Taylor, Lowell, and Wagner (who was commissioned to write an overture for the occasion), Lanier was selected to do the cantata because of his familiarity with both music and poetry.79 There was much excitement among the newspaper critics over the first Centennial celebration and the forthcoming poem, and it was published in advance of its performance with near-disastrous results. As a poem, it was too diffuse. As a poem for music, it was overwhelmingly successful. Lanier wrote Peacock about the first draft of it:

I've written the enclosed. Necessarily I had to think out the musical conceptions as well as the poem, and I have briefly indicated these along the margin of each movement. I have tried to make the whole as simple, and as candid as a melody of Beethoven's. At the same time expressing them in such a way as could not be offensive to any modern soul. I particularly hope you'll like the Angel's Song, where I have endeavored to convey, in one line each, the philosophies of Art, of Science, of Power, of Government, of Faith, and of Social Life. Of course I shall not expect that this will instantly appeal to tastes peppered and salted by Swinburne and that ilk; but one cannot forget Beethoven. … I adopted the trochees of the first movement because they compel a measured, sober, and meditative movement of the mind; and because too they are not the genius of our language. When the trochees cease and the land emerges as a distinct unity, then I fall into our native iambics. …80

Lanier continued, pointing out that “the words of the poem ought to be selected carefully with reference to such quality of tone as they will elicit when sung.” He was not interested in writing a poem to be read, but writing one that would fit the orchestra of one hundred and fifty and the chorus of eight hundred singers. Lanier felt, quite rightly, that “only general conceptions” were “capable of being rendered by orchestral music,” and that “the subordinate related ideas must be sketched in gigantic figures” contrasting with each other in “broad outlines of tone color.”

Knowing this, he composed in terms of sound rather than idea, in movements rather than in words or even lines; and he wrote his text not with the reader but the musical composer in mind.81

Dudley Buck was pleased with the poem he had to set to music, and he cautioned Lanier against undue anger at critics who understood none of the complex ideas that had led to the creation of the poem. He asked for many more Lanier poems to set to music. That Lanier never republished the poem does not mean he felt it was a failure; only that it would not be understood if merely read.

During the writing of the poem Lanier maintained constant correspondence with Bayard Taylor, who originally was to write the “Hymn” for that occasion. One of Lanier's first letters about his other intentions in the poem stated that it “afforded room to give the musical composer an opportunity to employ the prodigious tone contrasts of sober reflection, the sea, lamentation, a battle, warning, and magnificent yet sober and manly triumph and welcome …, that it [the poem] ought to be, not rhymed philosophy, but a genuine song, and lyric outburst. …82

Bayard Taylor, perhaps because he understood the pioneering effort of Lanier, liked the idea from the beginning and praised the poem for its “originality and lyric fire.” Lanier was delighted and replied:

… I'm particularly charmed to find that you don't think the poem too original. I tried hard to think—in a kind of average and miscellaneousness. …

You see, I 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 (where contrast of movement between each adjacent part, in broad bands of color, was, from the nature of the art, a controlling consideration). … I wished, indeed, to make it as large and as simple as a Symphony of Beethoven's. If it does not come up to this, I've failed. …83

But Taylor was not pleased with the first version in its complete form; so on January 15, 1876, Lanier wrote Taylor again:

… hoping that you will let me know if it seems to you entirely large, simple and melodious. … I have had constantly in mind those immortal melodies of Beethoven, in which, with little more than the chords of tonic and dominant, he has presented such firm, majestic ideas. … Of course, with the general world … I do not expect to obtain the least recognition of the combination of child-like candors and colossal philosophies which I have endeavored here to put in words: but I do wish to know whether to you the poem, as you now see it, comes near this ideal. I desire the poem to be perfect.84

Some indication of the care that went into this short poem of sixty lines is illustrated by Lanier's careful adaptation of metre to various meanings of the poem:

I put the Farewell, dear England, into the Mayflower strophe, because Mather relates that the people on the vessel actually stood up and cried out these words as they were departing. I also rewrote the stanza you did not like: and then inserted a whisper chorus, (of the Huguenot and Puritan, in dactyllic measure) to prepare by its straining pianissimo, for the outburst of jubilation. …85

Taylor responded to this by saying it was “in every way better than the first draft” and was what it “purports to be,—a cantata, not an ode—with the musical character inherent in its structure.”

The cantata ode tells really very little about the history of America, aside from the original colonists' arrival and the hardships endured. This is somewhat unexpected since the poem might have dealt with the formation of the Union or the Revolutionary War or any other phase of American life. However, the poet chose those subjects most powerfully suited to musical accompaniment, and when it is recalled that the cantata was to last about twenty minutes, and in its final form had about eight divisions in it for the composer to illustrate, it can be immediately seen that it is excellent for musical setting. The introduction is written in large generalities suited to music of the graver sort; the first chorus has behind it the weltering sound that the symphony so well achieves. The next division is more specifically choral, depending upon the quality of the human voice, weeping, wailing, and prophesying a kind of disaster. Then all of the voices sound from the forces that attempt to thwart the great dream, coming in a minor key, followed by full symphony and chorus to represent the various trials, war, terror, and evils in various shapes. All these sweep to a mighty climax: “No, Thou shalt not be!” This commands silence, and then “Hark,” the forces form to fight for survival and swell finally to a “jubilant chorus” which flowers into the Angel's song warning America that only so long as Art is used for a good end, in the name of love; that only so long as Science is so dedicated; that only so long as the power of America “harms no Dove”; that only so long as law is respected among men will America maintain her greatness and her leadership. This was Lanier's message to America, and he was to say much of the same thing in his “Psalm of the West.” One look at the poem titled “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia” will convince the reader that it should not have been published without the music. It is more a libretto than a poem.


Musical Annotations, Full Chorus: sober, majestic progression of chords.
From this hundred-terraced height,
Sight more large with nobler light
Ranges down yon towering years:
Humbler smiles and lordlier tears
Shine and fall, shine and fall,
While old voices rise and call
Yonder where the to-and-fro
Weltering of my Long-Ago(86)
Moves about the moveless base
Far below my resting-place.
Chorus: the sea and the winds mingling their voices with human signs.
Mayflower, Mayflower, slowly hither flying,
Trembling westward o'er yon balking sea,
Hearts within Farewell dear England sighing,
Winds without But Dear in vain replying,
Gray-lipp'd waves about thee shouted, crying
          No! It shall not be!
Quartette: a meagre and despairing minor.
Jamestown, out of thee—
Plymouth, thee—thee, Albany—
Winter cries, Ye freeze: away!
Fever cries, Ye Burn; away!
Hunger cries, Ye starve: away!
Full chorus: return of the MOTIVE of the second movement, but worked up with greater fury, to the climax of the shout at the last line.
Vengeance cries, Your graves shall stay!
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—
War, and his most noisy lords,
Tongued with lithe and poisoned swords—
Error, Terror, Rage, and Crime,
All in a windy night of time
Cried to me from land and sea,
          No! Thou shalt not be!
A rapid and intense whisper—chorus.
Huguenots whispering yea in the dark,
Puritans answering yea in the dark!
Yea, like an arrow shot true to his mark
Darts through the tyrannous heart of Denial.
Patience and Labor and solemn-souled Trial,
Foiled, still beginning,
Soiled, but not sinning,
Toil through the stertorous death of the Night,
Toil when wild brother-wars now-dark the Light,
Toil, and forgive, and kiss o'er, and replight.
Chorus of jubilation, until the appeal of the last two lines introduces a tone of doubt; it then sinks to pianissimo.
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—
How long, Good Angel, O how long?
Sing me from Heaven a man's own song!
Basso Solo: the good Angel replies:
“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!”
Full chorus: jubilation and welcome.
O Music, from this height of time my Word unfold,
In thy large signals all men's hearts Man's Heart behold:
Mid-heaven unroll thy chords as friendly flags unfurled,
And wave the world's best lover's welcome to the world.(87)

The printing of this poem six weeks before it was performed as a cantata subjected Lanier to much unjust criticism. He thought of replying to one of the Tribune critics, saying that many people would otherwise come to its final perusal with the “prepossession that the author of it was stupidly ignorant of the first principles which should guide a writer of text for music. This prepossession is a wrong on the public.”88 It was reasonable that he should be offended by such comments as “Walt Whitman with the jim-jams,” “Jabberwocky in its sententious Gravity,” and a “communication from the spirit of Nat Lee, rendered through a Bedlamite medium.”89 He wanted to print his defense. Writing Taylor, he defended the poem as only sixty lines long, containing the broad outlines of the past, present, and future of the country. He said further that rhythms were chosen for their descriptive characters:

… the four trochaic feet of the opening strophe measure off reflection, the next (Mayflower) strophe swings and yaws like a ship, the next I made outré and bizarre and bony simply by the device of interposing the line of two and a half trochees amongst the four trochee lines; the swift action of the Huguenot strophe of course required dactyls: and having thus kept the first part of the poem (which describes the time before we were a real nation) in metres which are as it were exotic to our tongue, I now fall into the iambic metre—which is the genius of English words—as soon as the Nation becomes secure and firm.90

Lanier also mentioned attempting to produce in the Jamestown stanza the ghostly effects of the bassoon “by the use of the syllable ee sung by a chorus.” He hoped in the future that whenever the papers carried the complete poem without printing at least the “piano score,” his explanation of the poem might appear with it.91

Dudley Buck attempted to assuage Lanier's despair. He asked Lanier if there were “any little bits” lying around which he could set to music, and pointed out to Lanier that the more intelligent the reader of the poem was, the more he appreciated it. Shortly after the performance Theodore Thomas made his offer to Lanier to join the New York Philharmonic Society as additional flutist. Daniel Coit Gilman, president of Johns Hopkins University, wrote most favorably of the poem after passing through a period of some doubt as to its meaning:

At length came the cantata. From the overture to the closing cadences it held the attention of the vast throng of listeners, and when it was concluded loud applause rung 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.92

The actual performance of the cantata marked Lanier for success. It meant a lectureship at Johns Hopkins and wide-spread fame as a poet with a new and practical theory. Buck's music was fully equal in quality to the verse and seemed admirably suited. The recording that was made of this cantata in 1936 reveals that Lanier understood the technique that today is so freely employed on the radio by cantata writers for special occasions. As a matter of fact, its dramatic and musical appeal is such that it is the natural progenitor of “Ballad for Americans” and in no way is less effective.

It may be said that it was the Centennial ode which gave greatest impetus to Lanier's musical conceptions for verse, for in writing it he became conscious for the first time of the possibilities of suiting rhythms exactly to the sense of the verse—and this stood him in good stead in all his later writings. He excelled as a matter of fact, thereafter, in rhythmic descriptions in lines of verse, altering the rhythms with the sense.

The other contribution to his creative thought came in the impression that he was able to give in words of some mood or large idea. This writing in general terms, this suitable “impressionism” was an intimate part of the style which he finally realized in his last poems.

After “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” Lanier's ideas on the possibilities for music-poetic verse were formed. This is the period when he wrote freely a number of fine lyrics, and poems like “The Bee,” “Clover,” and “Psalm of the West.”

“Psalm of the West” was consciously intended as a symphony in verse. Its length, his determination that it should “carry or create its own musical accompaniment,” and his intention of writing additional music to go along with this “Choral Symphony,”93 prove how deeply preoccupied he was with verse of a musical nature. If many of his late poems are ballad-like, perfect song-structures, “Psalm of the West” is his best effort at symphonic structure, and far superior technically to the poem titled “The Symphony,” if we remember that it was to be also a “choral idiom.” For “Psalm of the West” was written to fulfill a commission for a Centennial Ode in Scribner's Magazine. It was an even more ambitious work than the earlier ode and is several steps further along in artistic concept than was the original Symphony.94 Here the movements between choral elements are bridge passages inherent to the poem. The length of “Psalm of the West” prohibits detailed discussion.95 It is actually a choral medium, for many of the lines are italicized for the actual singing of them. It concerns the growth of America, from its birth as an idea in nature to its discovery and population. It is the longest poem Lanier ever wrote, and in this respect more nearly approximates the scope and breadth of the symphony, but like his other ode, it does not and cannot read too well, because of his theories of a proper “libretto” for music. The stanzas and the rhythmic patterns follow the shifts in idea in the poem, much like movements in a symphony. It was Lanier's effort to sum America in song, using the scope and breadth of the symphony as a pierre de touche.

These poems, the two choral odes and “The Symphony,” inspired Lanier and it is natural that he wrote most of his best lyrics in 1876-77. He said:

As for me, life has resolved simply into a time during which I want to get upon paper as many as possible of the poems with which my heart is stuffed like a schoolboy's pocket.96

During the Southern period when the poet was making a final fight for health in Georgia and Florida he wrote those few poems which were to give him any lasting fame: “The Bee,” “The Stirrup Cup,” “To Beethoven,” “To Richard Wagner,” “Song of the Chattahoochee,” “The Mocking Bird,” “Tampa Robins,” and “Evening Song.” The simple forms of these poems, with the opportunity for nature descriptions or praise of music, seem to be the best Lanier had so far conceived. “Evening Song” has had some remarkably beautiful song settings, and it was written for such a purpose. Its song-like simplicity is noticeable as well as the ease with which the nature metaphor is handled:

Look off, dear Love, across the sallow sands,
          And mark yon meeting of the sun and sea;
How long they kiss, in sight of all the lands!
          Ah, longer, longer, we.
Now in the sea's red vintage melts the sun,
          As Egypt's pearl dissolved in rosy wine,
And Cleopatra Night drinks all. 'Tis done!
          Love, lay thine hand in mine.
Come forth, sweet star, and comfort Heaven's heart;
          Glimmer, ye waves, round else unlighted sands;
O Night, divorce our sun and sky apart—
          Never our lips, our hands.(97)

Lanier listened to Schubert's songs and defined the perfect poetic song as “expressing but a single idea … in the simplest, noblest, most beautiful, and most musical words. …”98 Always a good song poet, Lanier's poems for music improved with his connection with Dudley Buck and through the collaboration they so happily achieved. Buck regarded “Evening Song” as nearly a perfect lyric: “simply lovely.” The imagery here is exceedingly simple, yet rich in color. The mood is quiet, reflective, and ideally suited to the treatment of music, which deals best in large simplicities and introspective ideas. Each stanza of this lyric—and it took Lanier years of practice to learn to write so simply—is capable of being treated as a “tone mood” since one technique which Lanier surely learned from his study of Schubert was that the mood of love and descriptions of nature are ideally suited to musical settings. In 1876 he wrote his poem “To Beethoven” and in 1877 “To Richard Wagner.” A part of his tribute to Beethoven is quoted here.

O Psalmist of the weak, the strong,
          O Troubadour of love and strife,
Co-Litanist of right and wrong,
          Sole Hymner of the whole of life,
I know not how, I care not why,—
          Thy music sets my world at ease,
And melts my passion's mortal cry
          In satisfying symphonies. …
Yea, it forgives me all my sins,
          Pits life to love like rhyme to rhyme,
And tunes the task each day begins
          By the last trumpet-note of Time.(99)

This poem is quite lengthy, as is the tribute “To Richard Wagner.” Wagner, who shared with Lanier advanced ideas on the composition of poetry for music and who wrote many essays on the subject of the interaction of the arts, also interested Lanier because of his strong opinions on the subjects of economics and politics. Lanier wrote:

O Wagner, westward bring thy heavenly art.
          No trifler thou: Siegfried and Wotan be
Names for big ballads of the modern heart.
          Thine ears hear deeper than thine eyes can see.
Voice of the monstrous mill, the shouting mart,
          Not less of airy cloud and wave and tree,
Thou, thou, if even to thyself unknown,
Hast power to say the Time in terms of tone.(100)

“Song of the Chattahoochee” has been universally accepted as one of the most unusual poems in American poetry. Most of the inherent musicality does not stem from repetitive consonants or rhyme or alliteration; it is not, in short, melodious—but it has a structure that is repetitive, impetuous, and ideally suited to the subject. Half of the wonder in Lanier's verse surely grows from the unmusical subjects of which he makes a kind of pure music. His similarity to Whitman can be noticed in the construction of prepositional phrases in “Song of the Chattahoochee,” written in 1877 after his ideas on music and poetry had crystallized:

Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall. …
In the clefts of the hills …
In the beds of the valleys. …

This parallelism of pattern is borne out in the rest of the structure, where even many of the lines attain a singular balance.

The most important thing about “Song of the Chattahoochee,” and the quality which differentiates it from all previous nature writing, is the poet's approach to the river itself, which approach is extremely personal, and yet altogether lacking in any ordinary descriptiveness on the poet's part. Here the verse lines become the river's voice, just as Debussy's music became the wind's voice. This is an “impression” of the river told in the flow and ebb of rhythm. The poem excels in its rhythmic freedom. While the larger foot patterns may be thought of as running dactyls, there is a constant releasing of sounds through these, followed by a springing return to the shorter leaps of trochees, interrupted at points by sluggish spondees, etc., so that the poet is obviously more interested in the movement to the two repetitious lines at the end of each stanza than he is concerned with foot patterns. He is writing in musical or (rather here) in poetic phrases—prepositional and verbal—and balanced clauses.

Both his alliterative patterns and the use he made of equal time units rather than foot patterns are everywhere noticeable. The important concern of the poet was with the rush and flow of the river, and his effort was expended to keep the stanza in a fluid shape, with occasional little springing phrases to push the metrical pattern down the page. His use of parallel structure, alliteration, and logical syllabic groupings can be seen in this stanza as well as any other:

I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover's pain to attend the plain
          Far from the hills of Habersham,
          Far down the valleys of Hall.(101)

The series of verb phrases culminating in “and flee,” move the poem downward to the completion of that stanza. The alliterative devices in “run the rapid and leap the fall,” and “flee from folly” are only the apparent links in the stanza; not quite so obviously alliterative is “hurry amain” and “reach the plain,” and “lover's pain,” “narrow or wide,” etc. The rhyming device, suspending a return to “fall” until the last word in the stanza, moves through a pattern inverted from -am, -all, -ain, to -ain, -am, -all. This pattern of rhyme inversion works in every stanza. Lanier was fond of varying rhythms from iambs:

The rushes cried Abide, abide,
The willful waterweeds held me thrall

to dactyls. Note also his consciousness of a choral element in nature.

Another device used here is that of making the first stanza the voice of the Chattahoochee, and the second and third the voices, successively, of the rushes and reeds, and the various “overleaning” trees. The fourth strophe introduces not only colors and gemlike minerals, but spondaic rhythms which lengthen the line and widely space the emphases; these really slow down the flow of the movement and impede, just as the sense of the poem signifies:

The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
—Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet and amethyst—
Made lures with lights of streaming stone
          In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
          In the beds of the valleys of Hall.(102)

The imagery here is sharply cut, clear, sparkling. Then the final strophe occurs with the voice of the Chattahoochee saying that all depends upon the call of the lordly “main.” Here all of the lines point in the direction of the verb “calls” and fall from “downward” and “and”:

          But oh, not the 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.(103)

All the rhythms are alternately bound and released, caught, and sprung free. Parallelisms, short internal rhymes, and a certain ebbing and flowing from the initial line repetitions are caught in successive and alternate rhyme endings. The poem is, of course, a slight one, lacking many of the graver overtones so often found in Lanier's work. But it is a little art-work, not simple, delighted in for its tiny and perfectly wrought mosaic rhyme scheme.

Music is the subject of “To Nannette Falk-Auerbach,” one of the great nineteenth century Beethoven interpreters, as it is in the humorous but rather fine little verses “To Our Mocking Bird Died of a Cat” with its original figure of speech:

Trillets of human,—shrewdest whistle-wit,—
          Contralto cadences of grave desire …
Bright drops of tune, from oceans infinite
Of melody, sipped off the thin-edged wave
And trickling down the beak. …
Ah me, though never an ear for song, thou hast
          A tireless tooth for songsters: thus of late
          Thou camest, Death, thou Cat! and leapst my gate,
          And … snatched away, how fast, how fast,
          My bird—wit, songs, and all—thy richest freight
          Since that fell time when in some wink of fate
Thy yellow claws unsheathed and stretched, and cast
Sharp hold on Keats, and dragged him slow away,
And harried him with hope and horrid play—
          Ay, him, the world's best wood-bird, wise with song—
          Till thou hadst wrought thine own last mortal wrong. …
Nay, Bird; my grief gainsays the Lord's best right.
          The Lord was fain, at some late festal time,
          That Keats should set all Heaven's woods in rhyme,
And thou in bird-notes. Lo, this tearful night,
Methinks I see thee, fresh from death's despite …
Methinks I hear thy silver whistlings bright
Mix with the mighty discourse of the wise,
          Till broad Beethoven, deaf no more, and Keats,
          Midst of much talk, uplift their smiling eyes,
          And mark the music of thy wood-conceits,
                    And halfway pause on some large courteous word,
                    And call thee “Brother,” O thou heavenly Bird!(104)

Though his 1876 volume of verse was published while the poet lay seriously ill, he was writing from Tampa in 1877, “I ‘bubble song’ continually these days, and it is as hard to keep me from the pen as a toper from his tipple,”105 (which has a sound to it surprisingly like Emily Dickinson). And all of 1878 he was writing poems like the above, and reading for the first time Walt Whitman and Emerson.

Lanier's relationship to Whitman already has been the subject of much discussion. Most critics have recognized the strong interest of both poets in moving toward something new in the way of poetic forms, and though Lanier wrote Whitman that he disagreed with him on all matters referring to form and “taste” in poetry, he recognized the “modern song at once so large and so naive … propounded in such strong and beautiful rhythms.”106 Anderson commented astutely on this relationship between the two men: “Perhaps the greatest likeness is between Whitman's practice and Lanier's theory.”107 Though The Science of English Verse made no direct reference to Leaves of Grass, Anderson called attention to the fact that Lanier must have had it sometimes in mind.108

“The Marshes of Glynn” is undoubtedly one of the best poems Lanier ever wrote. It is full of his complex rhythmic patterns, overlaid with alliteration, and a muted syzygy. It was never widely published because it was not finished until July, 1878, long after the collected poems had been published. All of the qualities that represent the inwoven style which is peculiarly Lanier's own can be found in this poem. Here are all the devices for moving the line and concluding the stanza that have been observed in incipient stages. Here is all the minutely wrought detail that blurs the larger outline with its vividness. Every corner, every facet of one man's impression of the marsh is explored, and the large symbol of the marsh sweeps into the poet's heart so that he no longer fears the unending, unknown, and water-flooded areas. Here Lanier has made of the marsh a wonderful mystic symbol:

Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
          Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
          From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin
          By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn. …

The sense of light and shadow that plays initially on the leaves of the live oaks plays fitfully throughout the poem, now blazing here in clarity, now shadowing and suggesting. It is noticeably true that these marsh poems have a rhythmic perfection—dactyls tying line to line—with innumerable substitutions of feet and subtleties of phrases, of melodic interplay, but they also have a freeness in the stanza that may have been in part inspired by the evolution of cantata odes and poems like “Psalm of the West.” Perhaps the chief influence upon this great poem of Lanier's—and it is considered his best poem by many critics—was the Maryland Musical Festival of 1878 which Lanier undoubtedly took part in, and which he reviewed. One of the most striking phases of the review is his interest in Beethoven's worship of nature, as revealed in the Seventh Symphony, Mendelssohn's “Calm of the Sea,” and the beauties of Wagner's “Siegfried Idyl,” of which he wrote:

This is the explanation of much of the difficulty which most persons feel in perceiving the drift of Wagner's pieces. Probably it will be long before the ears of average audiences will be practised to such keenness that they can detect the multitudinous melodies which arise, sing together, vanish, and re-appear, all through the Idyl. … To follow these through their sinuous windings and interweavings is possible only to a practised ear and concentrated attention. …109

Certainly there was much in the Festival that excited the poet, and “The Marshes of Glynn” came from his pen only two months later. It differs in many respects from any previous poem; Lanier's consciousness of God is everywhere apparent in it; and the longer lines sweep with artistic surety. The poet's personal impression of nature is bound up with religion. Stanza two begins with a reference to the lights and darks of the woods while the sun is still high:

          Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noon-day fire,—
          Wildwood privacies, closets of lone desire,
Chamber from chamber parted with wavering arras of leaves,—
Cells for the passionate pleasure of prayer to the soul that grieves,
          Pure with a sense of passing of saints through the wood,
          Cool for the dutiful weighing of ill with good. …(110)

Here the flickering light, reference to the cathedral-like woods and arches, and the “wavering arras of leaves” parting hermit chambers constitute only a part of the stanza's beauty: the careful handling of time within the phrases, with their varied rhythms, is another. Rich imagery and verbal music combine here, while foot forms give way to a flowing, changing accentual pattern.

Another influence that acted upon this poem was Lanier's discovery for the first time of Whitman (1878) and his profound appreciation of Leaves of Grass. Whitman's feeling for nature could hardly have escaped Lanier. The lengthened lines that stretch across the Whitman page suggest the wide “Marshes of Glynn.” Lanier, for the first time, seems to have found here a sufficiently broad and powerful subject with which to deal.

Part of the beauty of “The Marshes of Glynn” comes not only from the treatment of the woods, the marshes, and the sea as facets of nature the poet no longer fears, but also from the reverence felt for nature which the poet seems to be exhibiting fully for the first time. Here are scarcely any lines of even length. How Lanier's varied rhythmic patterns run across the page, urged on by “and” and the development of the idea of a cessation of works as evening sets in and the sun sinks, can be seen in this stanza:

          But now when the moon is no more, and riot is rest,
          And the sun is a-wait at the ponderous gate of the West,
                    And the slant yellow beam down the wood-aisle doth seem
                    Like a lane into heaven that leads from a dream,—
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. …
          Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face
                    The vast sweet visage of space.
          To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn,
Where the gray beach glimmering runs, as a belt of the dawn,
          For a mete and a mark
          To the forest-dark:—
          Affable live-oak, leaning low,—
Thus—with your favor—soft, with a reverent hand,
(Not lightly touching your person, Lord of the land!)
Bending your beauty aside, with a step I stand
          On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea. …(111)

The final impression the poet leaves in this tone poem of nature is that of the sea spilling over into the marsh, flooding it in silver veins which reflect the last rosy glow of the sun. And then the whirring wings of some homeward bound bird sound in the looming dark and silence. And it is night. Finally the quite wonderful lines which query the shapes that appear in dreams, and those other final dreams:

And the sea lends large, as the marsh: lo, out of his plenty the sea
          Pours fast: full soon the time of the flood-tide must be:
                    Look how the grace of the sea doth go
          About and about through the intricate channels that flow
                                        Here and there,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
                    And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
          That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
                    In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
                                        Farewell, my lord Sun!
          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 whirr;
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease to run;
                    And the sea and the marsh are one.
                    How still the plains of the waters be!
                    The tide is in his ecstasy.
                    The tide is at his highest height:
                                        And it is night.
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 marvelous marshes of Glynn.

The rhythmic principle again is quantitative, for nearly every line represents quick and fairly subtle rhythmic changes from dactyls, and yet the logic of the inner voice speaking is not at all disturbed by the underlying rhythms and the sense is not obscured. The old question—what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil—was perplexing the poet. The superiority of “The Marshes of Glynn” lies not alone in its rhythmic fecundity, nor in its memorable imagery, but also in the suiting of the rhythms and the tonal colors of the words to the mood of the poem. Despite the deceptive quietness of the wood, there is a passionate quality in the lines in which the first person “I” appears, in the “oh's,” and in the final questioning. On the whole, the poem is a quiet, almost reflective piece of writing, lacking the pacing of many of Lanier's verses. But the lines which deal with the movement of water—the sea—move quickly. Note how the poet smoothly calls attention to the sea; then how the “intricate” channels hold it back; then how it quickly flows “here and there—everywhere” till it again spreads out smoothly and has flooded the lands. And when the poet turns to a philosophical idea, how the dignified lines roll across the page, not only in length, but also in sound pattern: “And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep. …” Then note the careful spacing of vowel sounds as an alternate “Roll in on the souls of men” and the final line—“On the length and the breadth of the marvelous marshes of Glynn.”

In 1878 when this poem was written, Lanier had learned to handle completely the music of his lines, the complexity of his ideas, the alliteration of his syllables, and the organic shaping of a poem through some great mystical or spiritual experience. In short, he had found his subject matter, and his moral sense enlarged itself into a powerful faith in God, and his love for nature served as a wonderful symbol of that faith.

One of his last poems, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” written for music in the simple lyrical song style he also mastered, has been set to music and recorded. It is one of the most beautiful songs he wrote:

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.(113)

Lanier's preoccupation with trees and the days in the wilderness resulted in this significant religious poem. He suggested harp-accompaniment for this late poem. The simplicity and dignity of this song mark it for posterity.

“Sunrise,” the last expression of the consumptive poet who loved life with such passion that its delineation led to charges of obscurity, is in reality another marsh hymn, with the same spiritual significance, but lacking in the philosophic quiet that the first is built upon. “Sunrise” seems almost imbued with the poet's life blood. It exhibits in the fullest degree his passion for nature and all of his poetic devices at once. It approaches a climax amid a luxuriant flowering of image and sound, and a strain and upward reaching that come from the very depths of his fevered soul. His worship of the sun in terms of nearly pagan joy, in Christian symbols, in terms of its meaning for man and for one particular dying man, almost overwhelms the music of the verse by the heavy freight of ornate and elaborate imagery that frets it. There is nothing easy or simple in Lanier's “Sunrise” and those who come to it lightly feel some despair that anything which sounds so melodious should appear at first too obscure for perception. Reading Lanier's late poetry is not easy, and even a good reader must repeat and repeat the pattern of the lines to realize how profoundly thought out the rhythms and many of Lanier's thoughts are. “Sunrise,” for instance, demands a creative effort from the reader fully proportionate to the poem itself. In the creation of a word picture attempting to capture the actual feeling of dawn itself rising out of the sea, the various steps leading up to that sunrise all have their different rhythmic modes and patterns like movements in music. The poem itself is written in a series of hushed stanzas, while the ear strains for the sounds of dawn with the whispering leaves, and the old “alchemist” marsh “distilling silence.” Occasionally the poet's easy circling and bounding rhythms dissuade the reader that anything of moment is being said, and yet here the poet is describing a state of tension which music alone had never achieved by a climbing, straining, piling up of sound that waits and waits for a single tone to dash the whole structure. In the verse, the poet has reached that quiet, breathless moment in nature which heralds the dawn. Here the stars gleam in the dome of night while beauty and silence strain forward:

          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.(114)

Then the wonderful description of that first movement, so vibrant in feeling that it suggests only the parallel of Whitman's “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” where the same speaking quality of the verse, the same address to nature occurs. Lanier's capture here of the immediacy of the action is musical, and reads like an improvisation of Grieg's “Morning.” The images, however, are very clearly conceived, like the movement of expectation in the marsh-grass; the duck, sailing silently around the river bend. It may seriously be doubted whether any better description of dawn with so carefully sustained a crescendo has been achieved in the English language. How it fits the descriptive quality of music in describing our alive senses in listening for sound:

But no: it is made: list! somewhere,—mystery, where?
                                        In the leaves? in the air?
                    In my heart? is a motion made:
'Tis a motion of dawn, like a flicker of shade on shade.
In the leaves, 'tis palpable: low multitudinous stirring
Upwinds through the woods; the little ones, softly conferring,
Have settled, my lord's to be looked for; so; they are still;
          But the air and my heart and the earth are a-thrill,—
And look where the wild duck sails round the bend of the river,—
                    And look where a passionate shiver
                    Expectant is bending the blades
          Of the marsh-grass in serial shimmers and shades,—
          And invisible wings, fast fleeting, fast fleeting,
                                                            Are beating
The dark overhead as my heart beats,—and steady and free
          Is the ebb-tide flowing from marsh to sea …
          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. …(115)

Unfortunately for Lanier, too many times the first strophe of this poem has been quoted to illustrate his metrical practice, and readers have found it, out of context, quite devoid of sense. The impressionistic descriptions of the rising sun itself are twofold: first the golden rays of the sun are described with Dionysiac jubilation and then a different, slower pacing as the great orb itself rises from the sea:

Now a dream of a flame through that dream of a flush is uprolled:
To the zenith ascending, a dome of undazzling gold
Is builded, in shape as a bee-hive, from out of the sea:
The hive is of gold undazzling, but oh, the Bee,
          The star-fed Bee, the build-fire Bee,
          —Of dazzling gold is the great Sun-Bee
          That shall flash from the hive-hole over the sea. …(116)

The dactyls of which Lanier was so fond quickly change, when the sun itself is hailed, to the spondees so native to a rather primitive rhythmic beat:

The star-fed Bee, the build-fire Bee
… is the great sun Bee. …

Punctuated rhythm like this can appear any place in a stanza in the last verses of Lanier, indicating the greatest freedom within a line. Then again the slow paced dactylic line:

Not slower than Majesty moves, for a mean and a measure
Of motion,—not faster than dateless Olympian leisure
Might pace with unblown ample garments from pleasure to pleasure,—
The wave-serrate sea-rim sinks, unjarring, unreeling,
          Forever revealing, revealing, revealing,
Edgewise, bladewise, halfwise, wholewise,—'tis done!
                    Good-morrow, lord Sun!

The sun is finally greeted as a symbol of power, of strength, first as a creative force, and then as a symbol of security for the dying man:

O Artisan born in the purple,—Workman Heat,—
Parter of passionate atoms that travail to meet
And be mixed in the death-cold oneness,—innermost Guest
At the marriage of elements …
Thou, in the fine forge-thunder, thou, in the beat
Of the heart of a man, thou Motive,—Laborer Heat: …
Yet ever the artist, ever more large and bright
Than the eye of a man may avail of:—manifold One,
I must pass from thy face, I must pass from the face of the Sun:
Old Want is awake and agog, every wrinkle a-frown;
The worker must pass to his work in the terrible town:
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.
          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.(117)

Lanier revised “Sunrise” extensively and it has been highly praised by a variety of critics, many of whom saw relatively little in his earlier verse. It was called exceptionally original and his poems were called “so entirely unlike the poems of the day, that one has no standard to judge them by.”118 The English journals in particular hailed Lanier's verse, and, said the Spectator,

There is more of genius in this volume than in all Poe's poems, or all Longfellow's, or all Lowell's. … Lanier is an original poet,—more original, we think, than the United States has ever yet produced, more original than any poet whom England has produced during the last thirty years.119

And the London Times called him “the greatest master of melody of any of the American poets.”120 After arriving in Samoa, Stevenson was asked what he would do for intellectual companionship, and pulling the poems of Lanier from his pocket, he replied: “I am always well-companioned so long as I have this.”121 And Hamlin Garland, strangely enough, was fascinated by Lanier's verse. He wrote:

His verse puzzled me at first by its complexity, but it grew in music with each rereading.

Eager for more knowledge of this singer, I read every accessible article by him or about him, … every obtainable comment, until at last I felt it my duty to let the world know (so far as I was able) the message this poet, this thinker, had given me. …

… In opening his volume of verse, I chanced upon “Sunrise” and was instantly and profoundly stirred by its freedom of form, its wealth of thought, its intricacy of metaphor and its glorious music, and yet the subtleties of the metaphors, the changes in the rhythm, like the infinite shimmering lights of a near-seen landscape, distracted me. To this day “Sunrise” lives with me more closely than any other nature poem.

This striving after something dimly seen and dimly felt I soon discovered arose from an overwhelming musical tendency, which made of Lanier first of all a singer, establishing the lyric quality of his writing as absolutely as it did that of Blake or Shelley. … He was too intellectual, too masterful, too original, too sane to be affected by Poe. … He was lyric not as Poe was lyric; rather he was symphonic. …

“Whatever else his poetry may not be, it is perfect song,” I said to my pupils. “It has a flexible, variant, vibrant quality which is well-nigh unapproached by any American poet.”

Curious as it may seem to other lovers of Lanier, I found much in common between “The Marshes of Glynn” and Whitman's “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”

Whitman is wilder, sterner and more iconoclastic than Lanier, yet both were poets of cosmic sympathy. With singularly individual outlook on nature, each believed in uttering himself in characteristic fashion, each instinctively avoided conventional forms. I found no difficulty in loving and admiring them, both.122

Coulson and Webb made a considerable study of Lanier's contemporary status as a poet and found a surprising difference in the reactions of critics and poets, as well as general readers, to Lanier's verse.123 A partial explanation for this phenomenon must lie in the fact that not all of Lanier's work appears in anthologies, and that what does appear is often something he surpassed quickly. His early experiments, taken singly, while interesting in proving how rapidly he mastered a medium, are too slight to gain for him lasting fame as a great poet. If Lanier's reputation is to be succored in any way, a genuine effort must be made to see that his later poems have wide currency. In the Centennial Edition of Lanier's works Anderson wrote:

… [his poems] achieve the impression of freedom by carefully chosen and consciously controlled devices, sparingly employed but of considerable variety: occasional extremes of line-length, the frequent use of run-on lines, skillful foot-substitutions, and the reproduction in words of all the sound effects known to the ear of the professional musician. Others had made such experiments before him, of course; Lanier's contribution lies in the elaborateness with which he tried to combine music and poetry, and this is the explanation of why his poems are both liked and disliked. …124

Thus, it can be seen that the influence of music upon the poetry of Sidney Lanier can scarcely be overestimated. It is responsible for the kinds of poetry that he wrote; it had much to do with his concept of the line and the pacing of that line. Sometimes he threw off a spate of syllables like a group of notes in music with swiftness and excitement; at other times the accents are widely separated and the line lengthened by sonorous consonants so that it quietly eddies across the page. His stanzas after 1874 were elongated by the greater musical force which coursed through them, and the shifts between these strophes became subtler so that the poems gained in unity. He came to feel late in life less dependence upon end rhyme, and more dependence upon epanaphora, and all of the lines in a poem were directed toward a climax achieved not so much in the meaning as in the verbal coloring and rhythmic resolution. His rhythms, which were often very regular, in general, and in the best verse, came to have a complete freedom from repeated foot forms so that scarcely a line of “Sunrise” had the same feet in it. This freedom from foot forms makes for music in verse because, like music, when the only criteria are equal temporal values, melody is freed. But Lanier used foot forms with conscious success, interpolating exact patterns at sudden intervals to bring a kind of order to an idea and differentiate or emphasize a point. Sometimes dactyls or anapests appear, with their repetitious rhythms, and are swung faster and faster through a line as he handles his syllables like notes in music, until finally the tension breaks and the rhythms flood out from the feet in widely undulant waves. His stanzas seem to have little relationship with rhymes, but they do have some primitive relationship to the phrasal units with which Lanier preferred working. The speaking quality of many of his lines he learned from handling the choral medium.

But Lanier's was also a symphonic conception, though all of the voices were subservient to the melody or subject that he had chosen. This homophonic, or “symphonic,” quality can be seen at work in “The Marshes of Glynn” and “Sunrise,” both superior to “The Symphony.” Here are three voices sounding in “Sunrise” all of which await the sun's arrival: the marsh, the sea, and the wood:

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 or wild sea-liberties, drifting,
          Came through the lapped leaves sifting, sifting,
          Came to the gates of sleep.

Not only are three voices announced but the pattern of this verse follows the sense of the lines, so that the thought of sleep impels “drifting, sifting, sifting” as repetitive soft sounds of leaves in nature and leads to dreams—the next section. The poet finally awakens:

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.

The poet then addresses himself first to the leaves of the live-oak which he treats as symbols of conscience and passions:

                    And there, oh there
As ye hang with your myriad palms upturned in the air,
          Pray me a myriad prayer.

Then he turns to the marsh which is an

Old chemist, rapt in alchemy,
          Distilling silence. …

And finally the sea, which sweeps into the marsh, glimmering beneath the stars:

The tide's at full: the marsh with flooded streams
Glimmers, a limpid labyrinth of dreams.
Each winding creek in grave entrancement lies
A rhapsody of morning-stars. …

Then the period of strain and quiet listening sets in which is so rarely described in the present in poetry:

Oh, what if a sound should be made!
Oh, what if a bound should be laid. …

And suddenly the slightest movement among leaves, and then the soft movement of winds up through the woods, the air, “my heart,” and the earth—the marsh grass bends in the breeze, and a sail catches the wind, while dawn comes. And then the sun rises slowly above the horizon:

Now a dream of a flame through that dream of a flush is uprolled. …

And the sea and the marsh and the woods and “my soul” are the various voices that greet their “lord Sun.” The poet closes with a tribute to the might and power of the sun.

Lanier's last two poems are in the nature of “tone” poems, showing many of the qualities that must cause him to be placed among that group of artists appearing at the end of the century who came to be called impressionists. One of these qualities is love for color and, specifically, for the play of light and shadow. Another is the extremely subjective and personal reading of the poet's experience into nature, which gives to his descriptions something of an air of obscurity; in fact, so personal is the reaction that the wealth of finical detail—like pointillism in painting—obscures the general outline and meaning of the poem until one steps back and observes the larger sweep of the poet's canvas that gives an over-all “impression” of nature divorced from “real” nature.

Impressionism, in its reaction against the realism that followed the romantic movement, was more individual in its expression than almost any other “movement.” In poetry it found its expression in the symboliste work of the French: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Valery, etc., whose theories had been profoundly influenced, initially, by Edgar Allan Poe. In music, so disparate a group as Wagner, an early musical “symboliste,” Resphighi, Franck, Berlioz, Debussy, Grieg and a host of minor “nationalistic” composers have all been called “impressionists.” Closely related to descriptive or programme music, impressionism excels in the capture of the fleeting moment in nature. Grieg was dealing in impressionism in “Morning” from Peer Gynt. Debussy's personal impression of “Clouds” is one of the more famous musical impressions. In some ways the impressionism of painters such as Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, to name only a few, was a higher kind of realism than had before existed in painting. It is true that the outline itself was frequently blurred by the painter's intellectual judgment of nature, but nature had never before been so conceived and painted. For this reason those paintings, intellectually, possess great popularity and significance. In all of the arts, impressionism was the effort to suggest a thing by its human appeal, by relating it to some human faculty to a far greater extent than had ever before been attempted.

Since impressionism received fullest development in painting, some comment on that movement might help here; Lang said of impressionism:

… it is rather the sum total of man's experiences and observations, his artistic temperament … the painters fled into the open … declaring color the carrier of life; and since they endeavored to apprehend life in its minute momentary aspects, they reduced color to its finest particles. The final aim was an art bent on seizing the impressions of volatile, scurrying moments. …

Contour and silhouette have lost most of their qualities, the forms are dissolved into color patches. If we still want to find rhythm in these pictures we must seek it in the innumerable color particles, in the most subjective oscillation of the subtle color patterns. This rhythm, flickering restlessly, can no longer be abstracted from content and form; it rests on the relationship of theme, form, and color, receiving its validity exclusively from the creator.125

How much of this can be applied to Lanier's verse must rest with the eye of the beholder, but certainly there is much to be said for his impressionistic style in the last works, for the elaborate daubs of color and detail (pointillism). Since impressionism has never adequately been explored in American poetry, it is understandable that Lanier's attempts should exist now in a sort of demimonde. For the “art for art's sake” school has hardly yet received adequate treatment either on the continent or in England. This parallel to impressionism explains Lanier's surprising success with such apparently unlyrical subjects as “Corn” and “The Marshes of Glynn.” Lang said of this faculty: “The sensuous, corporeal, and actual stimuli of color and light become the main subjects, while the importance of the concrete subjects is minimized.”126

It is important to remember that impressionism existed independently in verse, as it did in music and painting, before it became a movement. All of the impressionistic poets “struggle against rhyme, verse, and strophe,” and demand “free rhythm,” according to Lang. In music, the only binding quality is that of mood and the treatment of the “fleeting” moment. Impressionistic music is colorful, blurred, mystic, dreamy. Debussy typifies musical impressionism. Certainly there is this personal subjective approach to nature in Lanier, and the initial difficulty the reader feels when first he hears (sees) trees so described as in the “Marshes of Glynn” can be rightly understood as impressionism:

Glooms of the live-oak, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
          Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs—
                    Emerald twilights,—
                    Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
          Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
                    Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
                    The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;—

Agreed that this is a kind of nature realism, it is only such realism as stems from the personal impression of a sensitive musician or poet, just as the impression of dawn and the rising sun move along, in point of time, with the actual rising of some sun. In this strange temporal quality Lanier seems again to be doing in poetry what music can do—recreating and sustaining the interest in the poem in that very moment, as a musician would in music. This is a difficult task and an almost original one that Lanier has attempted, for while music can depend upon a lulling of tone, a crescendo of interest by rhythm, melody, and intensity—and intensity was a quality that Lanier borrowed freely from music—poetry is faced with either using repetitive patterns or else with striking off new ideas which will sustain the flow of music to the climax. The richness of Lanier's poetic fancies made possible poetry such as he wrote, where every movement forward is impelled along that same line by the addition of some fancy in the same vein.

It is the immediacy and vibrancy more than anything else in this last verse of Lanier's that suggest a musical analogy, for only music, not art, shared with poetry the ability to be created and enjoyed in the moment. Music is wonderfully suited to sound the hush and the first stirrings of nature; it is something new when a poem achieves that same sort of effect. These little “tone poems” of Lanier's seem to owe to music their conception and their form. The lines in themselves, unlike the Whitman line, lack the symphonic quality; they are melodious. Lanier's verses would make good programs or program notes for a symphony on such a theme. There is the provision for the same sort of intensity and climax music handles so well. Descriptive poetry and descriptive music were the best products of Lanier's imagination. Lanier belongs to the lesser, finer workers in tone and colors that made up a certain coterie in the arts as the century waned.

It must therefore be admitted in any study of Lanier's verse that the influence of music was most profound. It shaped his stanzas; it was responsible for the forms and kinds of verse he wrote; it resulted in attempts at musical parallels: of symphonies in verse, of choral elements in verse, and of a kind of musical impressionism transferred to verbal terms. Though he wrote sonnets, the development of his musical gift led him into always greater structural irregularities, until in his “programme music,” “The Marshes of Glynn” and “Sunrise,” he seems to have followed only the forms of music. Add to these his numerous songs and the excellence of his musical images, and one can say of Lanier's verse, quite apart from the metrical dexterity and melodic beauty it often revealed, that if music had not been known to him his verses as we know them simply would not exist. He was a natural song poet, like Poe; he became fascinated by the symphonic forms of his day, like Whitman; but it is quite apparent now that the best poems he wrote were musical “impressions.” It is probably true that Sidney Lanier will someday be recognized as America's first great impressionistic poet and only a very musical poet would attempt to write in terms of such sounds and colors.


  1. See Lanier's letter to Clifford Lanier, January 4, 1874 in the Sidney Lanier Letters, eds. Charles R. Anderson and Aubrey Starke, Centennial Edition, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), VIII, 425f.; IX, 8. Subsequent references to this edition will appear only with the volume title and number.

  2. Ibid., 28ff.

  3. Gay Wilson Allen wrote: “It is doubtful whether any other prosodist has presented the quantity argument with such clarity and force as we find in The Science of English Verse.” See Gay W. Allen, American Prosody (New York: American Book Company, 1935), 277-306, for his comments. Cf. also The Science of English Verse, II, xxx-xxxviii.

  4. Quoted in Dorothy Blount Lamar, Sidney Lanier, Musician, Poet, Soldier (Macon, Georgia: J. W. Burke & Company, 1927; [1940], 12.

  5. See Aubrey Starke, “Sidney Lanier as a Musician,” Musical Quarterly, XX (October, 1934), 384.

  6. See William R. Thayer, “Letters of Sidney Lanier to Mr. Gibson Peacock,” Atlantic Monthly, LXXIV (July, 1894), 16.

  7. See “From Bacon to Beethoven,” Essays on Music”, II, 289.

  8. See Starke, loc. cit., 386.

  9. He said of himself at this time: “The difficulty with me is not to write poetry,” but, conversely, “Whatever turn I have for Art is purely musical; poetry being with me, a mere tangent into which I sometimes shoot.” See Letters, VIII, 347.

  10. See Tiger Lilies and Southern Prose, V, xxf.

  11. “A Poet's Musical Impressions,” The Letters of Sidney Lanier, ed. Henry W. Lanier, Scribner's Magazine, XXV (May, 1899), 623.

  12. Ibid., 624.

  13. Quoted by Norman C. Schlichter, “Sidney Lanier—Musician and Poet,” Quarterly Review, (October, 1899), 327-328.

  14. See Starke, 389.

  15. See “A Poet's Musical Impressions,” 626.

  16. He traveled to Wheeling, West Virginia, and Macon, Georgia, to give concerts. See Starke, 390.

  17. “A Poet's Musical Impressions,” 625.

  18. See Letters, VIII, 329f.

  19. See Starke, 394.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid., 395.

  22. Ibid., 396.

  23. He wrote redactions of Percy, Froissart, the Mabinogian, and Malory.

  24. Starke, 395.

  25. Quoted in Edwin Mims, Sidney Lanier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1905), 38-39.

  26. The Science of English Verse, 22.

  27. [Edgar Allan] Poe, Complete Tales and Poems, 916.

  28. Calvin S. Brown, Music and Literature (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1948), 8-12.

  29. It is the exaggerations of ordinary quantitative properties in poems like the “Congo” which make them seem so rhythmical.

  30. The Science of English Verse, 11, n. 2.

  31. Ibid., 33.

  32. Ibid., 31.

  33. Ibid., 47f.

  34. Ibid., 60ff.

  35. Ibid., 77.

  36. Ibid., 108.

  37. This results in a kind of syncopation. Thus he indicated that “typic” rhythms could only be decided by looking at the “sum of appearances” in the verse. See ibid.

  38. See ibid., 113-122.

  39. Ibid., 166.

  40. Ibid., 168-174. The relative nearness of the two patterns is illustrated more freely than I have ever seen before.

  41. Lanier said initially here that his work was but an “outline,” an “elementary work” written in the hope of promoting research in these fields. See ibid., 196.

  42. Ibid., 211.

  43. Bayard Q. Morgan has an interesting study in his unpublished manuscript: “Question Melodies in English.”

  44. Pope said his own theory of the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon verse “sprang from a study of Sidney Lanier's pioneering work.” See J. C. Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), Preface.

  45. “… the consensus appears to be that Lanier was in general nearer right than wrong …” The Science of English Verse, xxxvii.

  46. Allen wrote further: “… a great part of his treatise is scientifically correct, and all of it is challenging and suggestive.” See Allen, 271-285 passim.

  47. See Evelyn H. Scholl, “English Metre Once More,” PMLA, LXIII (March, 1948), 293-326.

  48. Schramm's experiments proved Lanier's theories about rhyme to be valid. Rhyme is a phase of speech tunes, for experiments prove that the voice will leap as much as a full octave to return to a rhyme pitch. See Wilbur S. Schramm, “A Characteristic of Rime,” PMLA, L (December, 1935), 1223-1227.

  49. See Calvin S. Brown, Chapters II-IV, 7-31.

  50. Lanier wrote Bayard Taylor in 1875: “I could never describe to you what a mere drought and famine my life has been, as regards that multitude of matters which I fancy one absorbs when one is in an atmosphere of art, or when one is in conversational relation … with persons who have … done large things.” See Sidney Lanier Letters, IX, 230.

  51. Thayer, “Letters of Sidney Lanier to Gibson Peacock,” 25.

  52. “Corn” was received by a small but very appreciative audience. As a result of this poem and “The Symphony,” Lanier became friends with Peacock, Bayard Taylor, and Charlotte Cushman.

  53. Poems, I, 224.

  54. Ibid., 5.

  55. Ibid., 16.

  56. Ibid., 19.

  57. See Anderson's comment in ibid., xxviii.

  58. Ibid., 19.

  59. Ibid., 29.

  60. Ibid., 30f.

  61. Ibid., 34f.

  62. Ibid.

  63. Ibid., 36f.

  64. Ibid., 39.

  65. Ibid., 42f.

  66. Letters, IX, 182.

  67. Lanier said of “The Symphony”: “I have dared almost to write quite, at my ease in the matters of rhythm, rhyme, and substance, in this poem. You will be glad to know that it has had a grand success.” Ibid., 203.

  68. [Richard] Webb and [Edwin R.] Coulson [Sidney Lanier, Poet and Prosodist], 66f.

  69. Anderson said that there was “no attempt made to parallel the structural design of a symphonic composition. Instead, this is a sort of counterpart to programme music …” Poems, I, xliii.

  70. Ibid., 48-50 passim.

  71. Ibid., 48.

  72. Ibid., 52.

  73. Ibid.

  74. Ibid., 53.

  75. Ibid., 56.

  76. Ibid., 55f.

  77. Actually his experiments here and with his later “Centennial Ode” matured his conception of musical verse and made possible his later attempts at impressionism.

  78. Lanier wrote: “… the gigantic illustrations of Richard Wagner … have … widened the province of orchestral effects to such a magnificant horizon that every modern musical composer, whether consciously Wagnerite or not, is necessarily surrounded with a new atmosphere which compels him to write for the whole orchestra, and not for the human voice as a solo instrument …” “The Centennial Cantata,” II, 263.

  79. It was Bayard Taylor's recommendation that the commission for the cantata ode go to Lanier, whom he knew, at that time, only as a “promising” writer.

  80. Thayer, loc. cit., 25.

  81. See Poems, I, xlvii.

  82. Letters, IX, 295.

  83. Ibid., 296f.

  84. Ibid., 297f.

  85. Ibid., 298f.

  86. This line, which seems more ambiguous than most, Lanier explained to the composer, Dudley Buck, as indicating the “weltering flow” of the remote past breaking like a sea against the firm existence of our Republic. See Letters, IX, 301.

  87. Poems, I, 60-62.

  88. Letters, IX, 349.

  89. Poems, I, xlvi.

  90. Letters, IX, 353.

  91. Ibid., 354.

  92. Quoted by Lincoln Lorenz, The Life of Sidney Lanier (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1935), 162.

  93. The music Lanier wrote to “Psalm of the West” was entitled “Choral Symphony” after the pattern of Beethoven and Wagner. Unfortunately the music manuscript has never been found.

  94. Lanier wrote: “By the grace of God 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 soul travail was of choice out of multitude.” Letters, IX, 350.

  95. It runs forty-one pages, and it is important to remember that the writing of this poem taught Lanier more about the choral idiom and the symphonic orchestra than any writing to date.

  96. See Poems, I, xlix.

  97. Ibid., 88.

  98. Ibid., 1.

  99. Ibid., 88-90 passim.

  100. Ibid., 103.

  101. Ibid.

  102. Ibid., 104.

  103. Ibid.

  104. Ibid., 117-118 passim.

  105. Letters, IX, 428.

  106. See Aubrey Starke, “Lanier's Appreciation of Whitman,” American Scholar, II (October, 1933), 399.

  107. Poems, I, lxi.

  108. Ibid. Anderson felt that the recognition on Lanier's part of “rhythmic but unmetric” verse to be written without line divisions was due to Whitman's influence.

  109. “The Maryland Musical Festival,” II, 326f.

  110. Poems, I, 119.

  111. Ibid., 119ff.

  112. Ibid., 121.

  113. Ibid., 144.

  114. Ibid., 147.

  115. Ibid.

  116. Ibid., 148.

  117. Ibid., 148f.

  118. The London Quarterly, quoted in Ibid., lxxxvii.

  119. Ibid.

  120. Ibid.

  121. Quoted in Oliver Huckel, “The Genius of the Modern in Lanier,” Johns Hopkins Alumni Magazine, XIV (June, 1926), 164.

  122. Hamlin Garland, “Roadside Meetings of a Literary Nomad,” Bookman, III (December, 1929), 404.

  123. Coulson wrote: “Lanier's acceptance today by poets and students of poetry and versification has enabled the poet's fame to beat down the barriers which persisted after a long period of civil strife … Lanier's position as one of America's first ranking poets is secure.” See Webb and Coulson, 102f.

  124. Poems, I, lxxixf.

  125. Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1941), 1014f.

  126. Ibid., 1016.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77

The Centennial Meditation of Columbia 1876

Poems 1877

Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife 1884

Hymns of the Marshes 1907

Poem Outlines 1908

The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier 1945

Tiger-Lilies (novel) 1867

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

The Science of English Verse (criticism) 1880

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

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

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

Lewis Leary (essay date 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3597

SOURCE: Leary, Lewis. “The Forlorn Hope of Sidney Lanier.” In Southern Excursions: Essays on Mark Twain and Others, pp. 131-41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1971.

[In the following essay, Leary offers a brief survey of critical opinion about Lanier's poetry and prose.]

Some years ago three prominent Southern poets set upon Sidney Lanier with vehemence which might be supposed to have silenced him and his disciples forever. “His poetry,” said Allen Tate, “has little to say to this century either in substance or technique.” Lanier's was a “commonplace and confused mind,” intellectually and morally insincere, irresponsible, and incapable of precise expression. Robert Penn Warren called him “The Blind Poet,” so full of self and egocentric theory that his aesthetic perception was atrophied. Sentimental, sensual, and effeminate, his poetry, said Mr. Warren, was at best absurd. Finally, John Crowe Ransom, spokesman for a new Southern agrarianism, disowned Lanier as an apostate who had sold his rebel birthright for a mess of Yankee praise.

This was honest reaction, inevitable and healthy. It was reaction against a man who in the nineteenth century did not think and write as articulate intellectuals from their perspective in the twentieth century saw that he might have thought and written. It was reaction, also, against a reputation which had been swollen by what Lanier called “the cheap triumph of wrong praise” far beyond its proper proportions. Lanier's friends—those of them who, he explained, “do not know what I am about”—had in zeal done him great harm by presenting him as the Galahad of Southern letters, champion of the truest and best of a chivalry which had been despoiled by greed. Even his own protest, seventy years ago, that “any success seems cheap which depends so thoroughly on local pride as does my present position in the South” did little to stem the tide. His reputation grew to become an embarrassment to Southern men like Mr. Ransom, Mr. Tate, and Mr. Warren, who recognized, as he recognized, the invalidity and essential shoddiness of its origin.

Critically, Lanier has always been hard to handle. Except for the juvenile novel called Tiger-Lilies, the guidebook on Florida, and the compilations of stories for boys, only two volumes were published during his lifetime: a thin book of ten poems in 1877 and, three years later, the treatise on The Science of English Verse, which few in his time or ours have had patience to understand. His posthumous volumes were badly edited. Biographical sketches were almost without exception distorted with apology or special pleading. Here and there a careful man like Edwin Mims or Stanley Williams attempted judicious appraisal, with Lanier's faults on one side, his achievements on the other, but the scale, weighted by the critic's intention or his remembrance of past estimates, has swayed so perilously, now up, now down—sometimes in the course of a single examination—that a definitive reading has been difficult, perhaps impossible.

It is well, then, that Sidney Lanier was again to be allowed to speak for himself, as clearly and as completely as he could, of his intention and his achievement. The opportunity was given him by the university which he served two years as a lecturer, through publication in 1945 by the Johns Hopkins Press of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, edited by Charles R. Anderson and prominent Southern associates. Handsome in format and binding, these ten volumes “bring together in definitive form the body of Lanier's writings so they can be judged as a whole.” The editors have been unobtrusive and skillful, particularly in the essential first two volumes, so that the principal voice throughout is that of Lanier. Only when he is hard to understand or when, as is too often the case, he does not quite seem to know what he is about, do the editors step in with comment or explanation. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that each of them is Southern-born or connected with an outstanding Southern institution: it is as if the South in this edition, which only another war prevented from appearing on the hundredth anniversary of Lanier's birth, were offering its poet in all his excellence and deficiency to the nation for new and unbiased examination. No gesture could be more appropriate or more significant of maturity.

Lanier was allowed to display himself for all critical purposes complete. The first volume contains his verse, all of it, 164 poems, 44 of them collected for the first time, together with fragments, outlines for unfinished poems, and variant readings. Here is the end product, what is essential to knowledge of Lanier as a practicing poet, that on which, in last analysis, he is to be judged. It is fitting that it should be placed first and that its introduction should detail so objectively and with such discrimination the history of Lanier's literary career. It is equally fitting that the second volume should present not only The Science of English Verse, which Karl Shapiro in his Essay on Rime finds to contain suggestions of the “mines of new rhythm” explored in this century by James Joyce, but also the occasional papers on music, which are almost of equal importance for an understanding of Lanier's fumbling for prosodical method. Whatever there is of truth or significance in his theory, which explains poetic technique in terms of musical sound, is there as Lanier formally, though too hurriedly, set it down, enhanced by sixty pages of comment and authoritative explanation.

Less crucial, but also necessary for interpretation of what Lanier intended, were the next two volumes, which included the lectures delivered in Baltimore from 1878 to 1881 at the Peabody Institute and at the Johns Hopkins University. Here is a generous display of literary wares, lore on “Shakespeare and His Forerunners” and in exposition of Lanier's theory of “personality” as it developed from Greek drama to what seemed to him the apex of modern fiction, the novels of George Eliot. They were popular lectures, interspersed with great chunks of “readings” (many of which have now been wisely omitted), and, as gathered here, with errors of previous editions quietly corrected, probably reproduce as effectively as scholarly legerdemain ever can the combination of excitement and lofty sentiment that attracted so many people to Lanier as he spoke. Hastily written, sometimes pretentious, and full of ex-cathedra asides which must have been the delight of the unlearned, these two volumes are perhaps the bravest of the ten, because they present many of Lanier's ideas, half-formed and pompously inconsistent, just as they came from his pen when the deadline of next week's lecture hurried him on. They were meant for oral delivery, cadenced, we suppose, to the mellow tones of Lanier's voice. Certainly no eye was to read them until they had been cleared of debris.

Yet, cluttered as these lectures are with the repetitious and unessential, Lanier does speak to us through them of his critical theory and literary aim. Perhaps he did pontificate, posturing behind learning which he had not made his own, because he was on trial and wanted a job at the splendid new university at Baltimore; but, for all this, his own sincere prejudices and enthusiasms break persistently through. He was certainly doing more than appealing to conservative convictions of audience or trustees when, after a conventional diatribe directed against Whitman's man of brawn and muscle, he confided:

My democrat, the democrat whom I contemplate with pleasure, the democrat who is to write or to read the poetry of the future, may have a mere thread for his biceps, yet he shall be strong enough to handle hell; he shall play ball with the earth; and albeit his stature may be no more than a boy's, he shall still be taller than the great redwoods of California; his height shall be the height of great resolution and love and faith and beauty and knowledge and subtle meditation; his head shall be forever among the stars.

Perhaps it seems ridiculous that so many words are wrapped so lovingly about so small a thought, or that so well-conceived a figure is allowed to dribble off to so tenuously meaningful an end. Lanier's own head was forever among the stars, and he seems never to have learned enough of language or himself to translate what he found of vision there into other than conventional generalities. His Tiger-Lilies is unreadable, not so much because of bad models in Novalis and Longfellow, but because it never succeeds in saying what Lanier must have meant it to say. It is a young man's headful of ideas, allowed to churn meaninglessly because the words he had learned got in the way of his expression. So the pieces gathered as “Southern Prose,” which share the same volume with his early novel, also represent Lanier at his loquacious and inarticulate worst. His models seem often the grandfathers of Senator Claghorn, and the tight-clenched sincerity of what he meant cannot, even in tolerance, gainsay such things as his approval of photography as an “etherealization” of painting because it portrays “little ones saying prayers at mothers' knees” rather than “bloody heeled conquerors soiling the plains”; or his sentimental apostrophe to “old comrades who lie sleeping about the yard beneath tomb and hillock and sculptured pillar”; or the funeral oration in which, after picturing partners, colleagues, brethren of the bar, admirers, and friends glorifying the tomb of the deceased with floral offerings, Lanier portrays himself as one who “steals in modestly and quietly, and as it were in secret lets fall his humble violet from the woods upon the glorious pile of homage, dropping thereon his unobtrusive tear.” Surely, the English language and sincerity of grief have seldom been more unfeelingly profaned.

It may be unfair to Lanier to catch him up on these words, which only echo tones and phrases of his mellifluous generation. But we cannot pass them by, as we can the hack work of the volume which follows, the guide to Florida, the magazine articles on India, and other prose, which he wrote to sell so that he might have money to support him as he meditated poetry; for the honeyed tone and heightened phrase become as much a part of Lanier's personality as his straight, black beard and his deep-set, consumptive's eyes. His own words seem to have acted on Lanier much as did the playing of sweet music, suggestive of meaning never expressed. Like the tones he drew from his flute, they served as an opiate which allowed him to escape the traps of poverty, obscurity, and disease which mortality had laid for him, to soar for a moment to a pure atmosphere of his own making, where love ruled as kindly despot and where coughs and the ugly noise of trade had no place. Such luxuriance of expression was not, then, a pose struck as Lanier faced an audience: it became his natural idiom (though as a younger and more robust man he fought against it), the best he could find to communicate the warm glow of understanding with which the words themselves transfused him.

But our rational generation would make a thinker out of each of its prophets. And Lanier presents himself as a man of very few thoughts. He did draw both the evolutionary doctrines of the late nineteenth century and an earlier romantic perfectionism into his tolerant embrace to explain what he called the “etherealization” of all things from gross to spiritual manifestations, but his exposition could have convinced few, even of his generation, except as it reinforced their desire to believe that all things work together toward good. His reaction against trade and his championship of love as a panacea for earthly ills was certainly less intellectual than emotional. Even his theories of art, specifically his analogies between music and poetry, grew from his attempt to transfer to words the exquisitely sweet feelings which music induced and were the results of feeling rather than thought. Like most of us, Lanier seems to have been an enthusiastic rationalizer of what he believed to be true. Let us, he said, “feel more and think less! … Let us, who surely have seen and known some genuine Beauty and genuine Sorrow—let us trust these more.”

As a thinker Lanier may in formal exposition deceive for a moment, but in the more than eleven hundred letters reproduced in the last four volumes of this edition he offers himself more candidly for examination. Struck off in varied tempos of exhilaration, despair, affection, or indignation, some dulled with fatigue, others hysterical with fever, these bring us as close as we have probably ever been brought to the day-by-day workings of an artist's mind. Lanier writes with no audience in view except the person to whom he is writing. Now he is the poet misunderstood, complaining of the “entire loneliness” of his literary life or ridiculing the “tobacco-sodden bosh such as Southern editors are prone to eject.” Now he brags: whatever the world's estimate, he had “never yet failed to win favor with an artist.” We, more properly schooled in reticence, may be embarrassed by the unrestrained outpourings of his love for Mary Day Lanier or by his proudly innocent flirtations with other women. We may be repelled by his intensity throughout. But the man finally revealed is—we must borrow his favorite words to describe him—infinitely sweet and courageous, to the point that we are again tempted to agree that Lanier's life was incomparably his greatest poem. Here, certainly, is material of which the biographer, the psychologist, and the critic can make amply effective use.

Now, as we read Lanier in moods he never meant us to discover, we are impressed with the single-minded purpose of his ambition, how hard he worked, how much he planned, how fervently he aspired toward greatness. He would tour the country with an orchestra to lecture the public into appreciation of fine music. He would organize “Schools for Grown People” in leading Eastern cities to instruct American adults in literature, art, science, and the improvement of home life. With his brother as partner, he would start his own publishing house, to which he would commit himself for at least two books a year for the next ten years. He would produce a new flute to revolutionize the modern orchestra. He would be Professor of the Physics of Music at Peabody, Professor of Law at Mercer, Professor of Metaphysics at the Johns Hopkins, Professor of English Literature at the proposed new state university at Thomasville, Georgia.

While he sought a livelihood which would allow him to live quietly with his family, his music, and his poetry, Lanier's head teemed with plans—“if the days were forty-eight hours long I would scarcely get through the modicum of work for each.” He jumped at each opportunity to write for money so that he could find time to write for fame. He accepted every possible employment as musician. He planned a treatise on metaphysics which would make him famous, a four-volume history of The First Thousand Years of English Verse, more books for boys and girls, and on his deathbed listed ten works half-finished or contemplated. We marvel at him—almost six feet tall, weighing sometimes only 113 pounds, and tortured, withal, “with a living egg of pain under my collarbone.” Even The Science of English Verse, he tells us, “was wrung out of me. I have no desire ever to write anything but poetry, and keenly feel that I go to all else with only half my heart.”

This, only a little more than a year before he died, hints at a climax of Lanier's lifetime struggle between his passion for music and his dedication to poetry. It was compromise rather than victory, the result perhaps of failure ever satisfactorily to answer the question he first asked himself in his teens: “What is the province of music in the economy of the world?” In 1861 he was sure that “the prime inclination, that is natural bent … of my nature is to music.” Three years later he found that “gradually … my whole soul is merging itself into the business of writing, especially writing poetry.” Just after the war, however, he wrote to Mary Day of music: “Cling to it, it is the only thing, the only reality”; and by 1873 he could explain to Paul Hamilton Hayne: “Whatever turn I have for art, is purely musical; poetry being, to me, a mere tangent.” When knowledge that tuberculosis must inevitably cut short his life made Lanier vow that, in spite of being “born on the wrong side of Mason-and-Dickson's line,” he would devote his remaining years to art, he admitted: “Things come to me mostly in one of two forms,—the poetic or the musical. I express myself with most freedom in the former modus: with most passionate delight in the latter.”

More than fifty years ago H. A. Beers suggested that Lanier's failure as an artist resulted from his wrong choice of the two roads of music and poetry, and many critics since have caught at the hint to explain that he was first and spontaneously a musician, only secondly and more artificially a poet. However this may be, the possibility of Lanier's ever having attained breadth of achievement as a creative musician (one large quarrel with the Centennial Edition is that it does not reproduce his songs) must be discounted by his critical attitude toward music. His approach to it was literary. He expected it to say things. It did say things to him, of cavaliers and fair ladies, of huntsmen and wooded glens, of flirtations and minuets. As Edwin Mims has said, “He saw music as he heard poetry.” And he felt music, as “a great, pure, unanalyzable yearning after God.” Music was thus the matrix, not only of Lanier's personality and profound religious belief, but of his artistic creed: “Language is a species of music.” The poet expressed the inexpressible so that “every poet worthy of that name must in his essential utterance belong to the School of David.” He is the “Forlorn Hope that marches ahead of mankind,” singing even truths which are belied by appearances.

Music inspired Lanier with vague imaginings, “infinitely sweet and high and lovely.” When he played his flute, he watched listeners who “grew solemn and tender, and gazed at me with earnest and half-wondering eyes as at one bringing news from other worlds.” Music bore messages, created images, and by means—Lanier learned this in the hardest of ways, as a neophyte in a professional orchestra—of a technique which was greatly exact and scientific. Language, then, as adjunct to music, might through discovery of its own laws more clearly explain the tantalizing “great deeps, the wild heights, the dear, sweet springs, the broad and generous-bosomed rivers, the manifold exquisite flowers, the changeful seasons, the starry skies, the present, the past, the future—of the world of music.”

Again Lanier's words ran away with whatever thought had originally called them up, hypnotizing him by the rise and swell of their rhythm, by the “sweet” images they evoked. It was not only, as Lanier said of Poe, that he did not know enough. Lanier recognized his intellectual shortcomings and tried pathetically to cram himself with knowledge that could give meaning to his imaginings. If only he might have one year in the universities of Europe! He applied for a fellowship at Johns Hopkins—to study science, metaphysics, and literature. Oh, for a few weeks more in the laboratory of the physicist friend he found in New York! But life drove him relentlessly on, so that he died at thirty-nine without opportunity ever to mold what he did know into forms which more than suggested his meaning. Harried by poignant assurance that his years were few, handicapped by pain and poverty, overworked and distracted, he was allowed neither time nor tranquillity properly to examine himself or the words to which he intrusted his interpretation of what Virginia Woolf called the “luminous halo” which surrounds existence.

Another way of expressing much the same thing might be to say that Lanier simply never matured, or, better, that amid the febrile business of his life, he never allowed himself opportunity for maturity. His reach so far exceeded his grasp that the present edition may seem, as someone has said, a cumbersomely large pedestal for a very small statue. But Lanier's acknowledgment of literary debts to Emerson, Whitman, Poe, and Hayne, and the ample suggestions offered here and elsewhere that he has spoken in our generation to Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe, perhaps to Robert Frost, place him unequivocally within the main current of American poetry. He knew, as did Walter Pater, that “all art constantly aspires.” And he knew, as Milton knew, that only very great men write great poems. It is not difficult to pick him apart, to expose, as he exposed better than any commentator, his grievous deficiencies. He stood for a moment breathlessly on tiptoe to see beyond sectional, beyond national boundaries to a world of spirit, which all men might enter. Though the mysterious regions he dared explore with such meager equipment yielded him few poems which measure to his standards or ours, none need be ashamed of Sidney Lanier, or embarrassed that his was a forlorn hope. He knew, as W. H. Auden said many decades after him, that “we must love one another or die.” And he knew, most surely, that “beauty dieth not, and the heart that needs it will find it.”

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587


Bradford, Gamaliel. “Sidney Lanier.” In American Portraits: 1875-1900, pp. 61-83. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1922.

Examination of Lanier's inner life as revealed in his letters, biography, and poems.

Brooks, Van Wyck. “Sidney Lanier.” In A Chilmark Miscellany, pp. 297-303. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1948.

Comments on the originality of Lanier's experiments in verse form, but also notes that Lanier “struck one in later times as more important in the role of a personage and thinker than he was as a poet.”

De Bellis, Jack. “The Poetry of Freedom.” In Sidney Lanier. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

In De Bellis' general introduction to Lanier's life and works, this chapter focuses on individual poems that celebrate American democracy, from the perspective of Lanier's post-Civil War southern perspective.

Introductions to The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, Vols. I-X, edited by Charles R. Anderson. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945.

Thorough, scholarly introductions to Lanier's works and letters.

Coulson, Edwin R. “Lanier's Place as American Poet and Prosodist.” Sidney Lanier: Poet and Prosodist, by Richard Webb and Edwin R. Coulson, pp. 73-103. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 1941.

Survey of modern critical opinion regarding Lanier's influence and stature as a poet and prosodist.

De Bellis, Jack. “Sidney Lanier.” In Sidney Lanier, Henry Timrod, and Paul Hamilton Hayne: A Reference Guide, edited by Joseph Katz, pp. 1-105. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978.

Extensive bibliography on Lanier's life and works published from 1868 through 1976.

Harman, Henry E. “A Study of Sidney Lanier's ‘The Symphony’.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 17, no. 1 (January 1918): 32-9.

A consideration of “The Symphony” as Lanier's poetic masterpiece.

Monroe, Harriet. “Rhythms of English Verse.” In Poets and Their Art, pp. 268-84. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1926.

Credits Lanier with providing conclusive proof that time is the basis of rhythm in English verse.

Parks, Edd Winfield. Sidney Lanier: The Man, The Poet, The Critic. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1968, 108 p.

A tripartite, primarily descriptive account of Lanier's life, poetry, and critical views.

Ransom, John Crowe. “Hearts and Heads.American Review 2, no. 5 (March 1934): 554-71.

Considers whether Lanier was a model agrarian as suggested in Aubrey Harrison Starke's Sidney Lanier, maintaining that Lanier “failed strategically” in overlooking the hostile relationship that existed between Reconstruction-era nationalism and agrarianism.

Starke, Aubrey Harrison. Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933, 525p.

Portrays Lanier as a writer of uneven accomplishments who yet “appeals to posterity” because of the fineness of character revealed in his life and works. Promotes Lanier as a poet of national interest and appeal.

Tate, Allen. “A Southern Romantic.” New Republic 76, no. 978 (30 August 1933): 67-70.

Closely analyzes Lanier's symbols, exposing their apparent vagueness and detecting in these and other shortcomings the “general weakness of the romantic sensibility.”

Warren, Robert Penn. “The Blind Poet: Sidney Lanier.” American Review 2, no. 1 (November 1933): 27-45.

Contends that Lanier's œuvre is beset with vagueness, contradiction, abstraction, and sentimentality.

Webb, Richard and Edwin R. Coulson. Sidney Lanier: Poet and Prosodist. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1941, 108 p.

A biographical and critical study of Sidney Lanier published one hundred years after his birth.

Additional coverage of Lanier's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors Modules; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Vol. 6; Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism; Vol. 6; Poetry for Students Vol. 14; Reference Guide to American Literature; and Something About the Author Vol. 18.

Jane S. Gabin (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3721

SOURCE: Gabin, Jane S. “The Musicality of Lanier's Later Poetry.” In A Living Minstrelsy: The Poetry and Music of Sidney Lanier, pp. 157-66. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Gavin examines the relationship between music and poetry in Lanier's work, focusing particular attention on three poems: “Song of the Chattahoochee,” “The Marshes of Glynn,” and “Sunrise.”]

Lanier found in music and musicians a natural focus for the tribute of words; yet it was also just as natural for music to become so involved in his writing process that he was eventually composing poetry not just about melody and tone, but with it. In the dozen years between “Life and Song” (1868) and “Sunrise” (1880), Lanier's poetry absorbed music steadily and increasingly, transforming it from a subject to a creative process until the verse was no longer a vehicle for describing music, but music itself.

Most of these poems were written while he was in Baltimore. Accordingly, Lanier never wrote about music from afar, except “Life and Song,” but always under its direct influence and inspiration. Perhaps with the strains of a recently played symphony still reverberating in his consciousness, Lanier began to compose so that his nature-poetry became musical creations. In some cases, the extreme emotionality that music always created within Lanier spilled over onto the pages of his verse, creating what critics have termed an excess, “lush” quality. That the role of music was sometimes a self-conscious one cannot be denied; yet it is equally true that without music, Lanier's verse would also have been without its charm and would likely be completely forgotten today.

How successfully did Lanier integrate musical elements into his work? Of his musically oriented poems, those about musicians are much less successful than those in which music is the medium rather than the subject. His poem dedicated to the Swedish diva Christine Nilsson (1871), one untitled work evidently dedicated to Baltimore singer Jenny Busk (1874),1 one to Peabody colleague Nanette Falk-Auerbach (1878), one to Richard Wagner (1877), and two to Ludwig van Beethoven (1876)—all reveal evident love for his subjects. But they are written formally, in conventional verse styles, rather strict and stiff, self-conscious in construction. The one exception in Lanier's poetry about music is “The Symphony,” which does convey musical meaning through the manipulation of sound, albeit in an occasionally rudimentary fashion.

Lanier's genius as a creator of synaesthetic verse, first evident in “Corn,” appears in full flower in his mature nature-poetry: “Song of the Chattahoochee,” “The Marshes of Glynn,” and “Sunrise.” The parallels between music and verse are most closely drawn in these poems, and Lanier's words form something more than poetry—an evocative realm of rich sound.

It must also be remembered that Lanier's poetry is for the ears, not the eyes. In writing verses for the ear, Lanier is again a composer, this time for voice alone; but he is also returning to the original conception of poetry as a spoken art. Because Lanier's works are designed to be heard, their effect is more sensuous than intellectual. Only a very few people can experience music by reading an orchestral score; the music must be played and listened to before sense can be made of the notes and pleasure obtained. In the same way, Lanier's poetry must be read aloud for ideal effect.

“Song of the Chattahoochee” was written in Baltimore in November 1877, and Lanier was so pleased with it that he had “some suspicion that it is the best poem I ever wrote.”2 It describes the journey of the Chattahoochee River from Habersham County in northern Georgia, to Marietta and Atlanta, flowing west to form the western boundary of the state, then down through Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the river is more than a topographical feature—and this is true of all of Lanier's nature-poetry—it is a metaphor of life. As the river narrates its journey past various obstacles, it reveals that the call of “the voices of Duty”3 is more powerful than any mundane hindrance or distraction. But this is not the source of the poem's beauty. Its magic lies in the true singing quality of the verses. The tonal suggestiveness of the words, the steady but far from monotonous rhythm, and the refrain echoing with “the hills of Habersham” and “the valleys of Hall,” all contribute to a complete aural experience.

The emphasis upon repetition, alliteration, and onomatopoeia underscores the musical effects of this poem. Speaking of its passage past narrow banks and thick foliage, the river relates how

The rushes cried Abide, abide,
The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said Stay


This liquid, caressing sound gives way to stately and measured sound as the river passes the tall forests, and becomes correspondingly harsh as rocks agitate the path of the water:

The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl


The musical qualities of “Song of the Chattahoochee” are far from subtle, to the point that it is always in danger of being read or recited in a sing-song fashion, something which would be extremely difficult to do with “The Marshes of Glynn.” “Song of the Chattahoochee” has often been compared with Tennyson's The Brook (a poem with which Lanier was familiar), and Philip Graham has compared the musical effects of Lanier's poem with those of Coleridge's Song of Glycine, finding them alike in “tone-color.”4 Graham assumes that, as an admirer of Coleridge, Lanier knew this song; however, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Coleridge's poem served as inspiration for Lanier or that Lanier definitely knew the piece. But certainly Lanier's familiarity with the river, and his sensitivity to the music of nature, provided sufficient background for the composition of the poem.

Curiously, the work with which “Song of the Chattahoochee” is most similar is a musical work written about the same time: Bedrich Smetana's The Moldau (Vltava). This is one of the most popular nineteenth-century “tone poems,” describing the progress of the river Moldau from a trickling mountain stream, through woods, past meadows, and over rapids, until it flows broadly past the city of Prague. Lanier did not know the work, yet it is remarkable how closely the journey of his own river parallels the one of Smetana; the poem could almost serve as a programme for the music. Reading “Song of the Chattahoochee” while listening to The Moldau will reinforce an appreciation of Lanier's ability to create a sound-picture in verse.

A more tangible musical parallel exists between Lanier's most famous poem, “The Marshes of Glynn,” and one of his favorite musical works, the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz. Many similarities between the two works can be noted, strongly suggesting that Lanier's familiarity with Berlioz's work helped shape the poem. Both works are “visionary,” but of course in quite different ways; Berlioz's is a hellish portrayal of opium-induced dreams, while Lanier's meditation reveals that man can find internal peace in nature. But in structure, if not in conception, there is a definite relationship between the two works.

The Symphonie Fantastique, according to Berlioz's own programme, depicts the dreams of a young artist obsessed with a “Beloved” who haunts and torments him. Though each movement is distinctly different, describing subjects as disparate as a ball, a pastoral scene, a march to the scaffold, and a witches' sabbath, they are connected by one melodic theme that recurs in various forms in each section. Lanier was aware of this because a programme to the music was printed in the Peabody concert program; he also wrote to his wife that in the Symphonie Fantastique, “as difficult and trying a piece of Orchestration as was ever written,” each movement “centereth about a lovely melody, repeated in all manner of times and guises, wh. representeth the Beloved of the opium-eating musician.”5 This recurring melody is what Berlioz termed the “idée fixe,” a constant motif. So the symphony is doubly programmatic; each movement, describing in tone a stage in the artist's obsession and its related experience, is an individual tone poem. But the recurrent “idée fixe,” as it weaves through the movements, unites them to form a compelling whole.

Lanier's revelation, unlike that of Berlioz's artist persona, is affirmative, strengthening, and full of joy. As he tries to fathom the significance of the marshes, he also moves through several stages, guided in each by his own “idée fixe”: this is the repetition (with some variation) of “the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.” The incantorial sound of the line itself suggests the impressive expanse of the marsh.

As Berlioz uses different instrumental tonal colors to create setting (for example, the English horn to open the pastoral “Scène aux champs”), Lanier uses color and tone to develop his atmosphere.6 There is constant interplay of light and dark—the time is twilight—sunlight and shadow. The poem opens with “glooms,” “intricate shades,” dim and dark woods, and “braided dusks”; all of these half-tones are resolved by the end of the poem when night, which neutralizes all shades, falls. But before this happens, the marshes offer Lanier an understanding of his universe; he exults in the colors revealed by the sun: green marsh-grass, the blue main, and a “rose-and-silver evening glow” (l. 88). Where he was troubled before by “the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin” (l. 63), he is “suddenly free.” The marshes, now signifying an embodiment of God's infinite plan, show him the paradox of experience: there is ultimate good in everything. The marshes are made “to suffer the sea and the rains and the sun” (l. 67), but they are yet beautiful and steadfast, symbolizing the “good out of infinite pain” (l. 69) and “sight out of blindness” (l. 70) that come with faith. Lanier sees the marsh not as a desolate and barren area, but as the one place where land, sea, and sky meet and mesh in a harmony of nature.

The effect of the poem as a whole is similar to that of the third (the pastoral “Scène”) and first movements of the Symphonie Fantastique. The first movement (“Rêveries, Passions”) begins calmly and builds in excitement as the “idée fixe” of the Beloved gains intensity. So too “The Marshes of Glynn” opens quietly as the poet moves through the silent and dim woods on his way to the edge of the marsh, but becomes more exuberant as the poet's confidence and faith increase. He once feared the overwhelming sweep of the marshes, which suggested the magnitude of the dreariness of earthly existence, but now his “belief overmasters doubt,” and he declares: “I know that I know” (l. 28).

The meters of the poem are varied, but they blend easily, and lines of varied lengths flow gently into each other. There is a primary metrical pattern, though: rhymed couplets of pentameter and hexameter lines. Lanier seems equally comfortable with short, strong, and emphatic lines:

                    Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face
                                        The vast sweet visage of space.
                    To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn,
Where the grey beach glimmering runs, as a belt of the dawn,
                                                            For a mete and a mark
                                                            To the forest-dark:—

(ll. 35-41)

as with longer, mellifluous, and sensuous lines:

Inward and outward to northward and southward the beach lines linger and curl
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows the firm sweet limbs of a girl

(ll. 51-52)

The only regularly metered part of the poem is a hymn-like section towards the end. These eight lines (ll. 71-78) contain the key image of the marsh hen. As the hen builds a nest in marsh grass that sends its roots deep into the “watery sod,” so Lanier will build a nest of faith “on the greatness of God” (l. 77). He has found the roots of his faith in God's world of nature, and it is this faith which has, for him, transformed the marshes from a frightening expanse to “the greatness of God.”

The “idée fixe” returns again at the end of the poem; the poet now feels he understands the marshes, but has no knowledge of the “forms that swim and the shapes that creep / Under the waters of sleep” (ll. 102-103). He only wishes he “could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in / On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn” (ll. 104-105). As Berlioz's “idée fixe” continues to haunt him, even to the end of the symphony, so Lanier's returns to confront him with the ultimate meaning of life. There is some understanding which actually is marvelous and which, it is suggested, we cannot have.

Lanier's last completed poem, “Sunrise,” is also a tone poem and complements “The Marshes of Glynn,” for it moves from darkness to light, from troubled night to inspiring day. The musical feeling in this poem is even more powerful. Like the “Rêveries” of the Symphonie Fantastique, this has a visionary and dreamlike quality.7 It depicts the poet waking to a dawn that promises communion between his soul and the sun, a premonition and acceptance of death. This is presented not through simple narrative, but through the mingled voices of the soul and several elements of nature.

The poem can be divided into six segments of varied length. The introduction (ll. 1-18) and conclusion (ll. 182-93) are the shortest. Four longer sections lie between; each of the first three is a “voice” of nature, and these combine in a fourth section (ll. 149-81), a hymn to the sun. The voices—those of the woods, the marsh, and the sea—can be heard as distinct musical voices or lines, eventually uniting in one strong harmony. These voices can be interpreted, musically, in several ways.

They may be understood as individual instruments playing solos before combining as an ensemble. Here Lanier may have been utilizing his knowledge of the polyphonic construction of music, knowledge he gained in the orchestra. When a piece of music is heard in its entirety and never fragmented, a multiplicity of sounds is heard as one. The music is comprehended as a total aural sensation; individual voices not involved in solo passages are rarely heard (perhaps, in the case of a violin or piano concerto, an individual instrumental voice does make an impression). But sitting within the orchestra, the listener begins to understand the complex patterning of composition; the conductor pauses in rehearsal and concentrates upon the strings, or the winds, or the brass, and the other players listen while looking at their parts and hear how other voices are designed to mesh with their own. A good musician always listens to other players and accepts the notes he has to play as his individual contribution to one ensemble sound. This is also how a musician gains an added dimension to his own musical appreciation; when it is his turn to sit in the audience, he can hear both the total sonorous impact of the piece and the smaller voice of his instrument weaving through the harmonies. A flutist will always be sensitive to flute notes when he listens to a band or orchestra, and a bass player will always feel the lowest timbres beneath any music he hears.

In “Sunrise,” Lanier works backwards. He has experienced the joy of a new day before, but now he has become aware of the various sensuous components of the hour. He hears first the whispers of the leaves; then the silent breathing of the marsh; and finally the flowing of the ebb tide. Only after he has become aware of each element of nature involved in the scene can he absorb the scene as a whole.8

“Sunrise” could be compared to a skillfully constructed string or wind quartet, in which the dominant voice or melody may shift, for instance, from violin to viola to cello, while the other instruments maintain integral lines of their own; they never merely accompany, but combine to form a rich tapestry of sound. Their independent lines are also dependent upon the entire ensemble for a fulfilling sound. Therefore, when Lanier hears the whispering and sifting of the leaves, the marsh and the sea are neither absent nor silent; and when he shifts his attention to the rippling water, the woods do not cease their murmur—the poet has simply become attuned to a different voice.

In the introduction, the poet is called from sleep by the voices of nature. This is a mini-overture in which the succeeding themes are suggested in brief introduction:

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


Thus the voices of leaves, marshes, and sea are presented in the order of their entrances.

After waking, the poet first addresses the leaves (ll. 19-57) and listens to their whispering, singing, and murmuring (ll. 39-46), hoping to understand the meaning of silence and the importance of patience. As he moves to the beach, he hears another voice, within the woods, of an owl (l. 54). The “reverend Marsh” is next approached as it is “distilling silence” (l. 60), a silence which is “ministrant” (l. 71). The marsh has another type of silent music; its many interwinding streams repeatedly reflect the heavens, and therefore the marsh is also “A rhapsody of morning-stars” (l. 83).

A bridge passage (ll. 86-97) prepares for the quietly building sound of the sea and for the vision of sunlight. The beauty and silence of the predawn hour creates a “bow-and-string tension” (l. 88) that anticipates the awakening of the day: “Oh, what if a sound should be made!” (l. 86).

Motion, sound, and light now come from the sea (ll. 98-140). The key image within this section reintroduces Lanier's bee-symbol—the bringer of sweetness, life, and light. The aureate dome of the day rises over the marsh and sea, followed by the golden sun-bee rising to its zenith. Since the sun is rising directly over the water, it is the sea that is “Forever revealing, revealing, revealing” (l. 146) its majesty.

Now Lanier connects all the various thematic lines; “with several voice, with ascription one, / The woods and the marsh and the sea and my soul” (ll. 149-50) sing together in praise of the sun. The “voice” of the soul has not been specially mentioned, nor does it have to be, for it has been sounding all along, an obligato to the other sounds. If the soul were absent, the whispers and sighs of nature would not be heard at all. This hymn to the “innermost Guest / At the marriage of elements” (ll. 155-56), the “chemist of storms” (l. 168), and “manifold One” suggests that this illuminating force is God, and the following coda, or conclusion, of the poem is an affirmation of faith.

In the conclusion (ll. 175-92), emphasis shifts to the poet—that is, to the soul. For some, the advent of the day means “The worker must pass to his work in the terrible town” (l. 177), but the poet fears 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.

(ll. 179-81)

But Lanier does not leave the reader on this note; he concludes with nightfall and, therefore, with a return to sleep and the opening situation of the poem. This time, sleep will be easy since he has come to a harmonious understanding with his universe during the day. Lanier's musical groping for the ethereal in nature, as in “Wind-Song,” is tangibly rewarded through its combination of verbal meaning and musical sound.

During his later years, Lanier did not cease writing short, lyrical poems (if anything, these were made even more lyrical by his musical knowledge). “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” also written in 1880 and intended to be placed within “Sunrise,” is one example. It is a religious poem whose internal rhymes and unobtrusive repetition, as well as its subject matter, made it very popular with American composers at the beginning of this century. But poems of symphonic effect, rather than those originated with the song-concept, are the ones which distinguish Lanier as an innovator, and so these are given emphasis here.

Paradoxically, music gave Lanier's poetry the qualities that cause it to be both admired and criticized. Music gave it life, rhythm, and rich texture, but many critics will point out that this texture is sometimes too rich, “lush,” or “heavy”—too full of conscious attention to mellifluous sound. A phrase from “Sunrise” identifies the problem; Lanier's verses are sometimes “Over-sated with beauty” (l. 94). Perhaps he would have been able to “prune” his “luxuriance,” as Bayard Taylor suggested, if he had had time.

It is for this very over-rich quality that Lanier's poetry is remembered and valued as an important development in American poetry. His experimentation in the mingling of sounds, in the exploitation of the possibilities of language, make him one of the most courageous and original of our poets. Like his beloved marshes, his poems are “beautiful-braided and woven / With intricate shades.” His layered stages of sound, depicting the layers of nature—for nothing is seen that is not a combination of images, and nothing is heard that does not contain several sounds—represent the layers of our universe, some of which can be seen, some heard, and others only suggested.


  1. The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson et al., 10 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945) 1:378, notes (hereafter cited as CE).

  2. Sidney Lanier, “To Robert S. Lanier,” 30 November 1877, CE, 9:501.

  3. CE, 1:103-104.

  4. “A Note on Lanier's Music,” in Studies in English (Austin) 17 (1937): 107-10.

  5. Lanier, “To Mary Day Lanier,” 21 December 1873, CE, 8:437.

  6. The Marshes of Glynn, CE, 1:119-22.

  7. This is influenced to some extent by the 104° fever from which Lanier was suffering. CE, 1:366, notes.

  8. The individual entrances of four voices, followed by an ensemble effort, suggest the idea of a fugue, but without overlapping entrances this idea is undermined (for example, if the beginning of the marsh's description referred to the previous “woods” section).

Stephen M. Richman (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7849

SOURCE: Richman, Stephen M. “Sidney Lanier and the Poetry of Legal Morality.” Cumberland Law Review 25, no. 2 (1995): 309-29.

[In the following essay, Richman discusses the jurisprudential value of Lanier's poetry and the influence of Lanier's legal training on his literary pursuits.]


While the Courts of Chivalry may be dead,1 American courts still remain attuned to the concept of chivalry, even in commercial contexts.2 The concept is more than a casual topic of discussion. On occasion, it can rise to a level of judicial concern. For example, in Lee v. Commissioner,3 Judge Cameron, in dissent, wrote in a case involving review of income tax deficiencies and fraud penalties:

It is fundamental in the Anglo-Saxon scheme of justice, recognized at common law and by statutes in practically all the states, that those who are not able to speak for themselves shall be accorded protection by the sealing of the lips of their adversaries as to transactions between them. We ought to apply such a principle of rudimentary justice here. We ought to avoid giving color to the thesis that the exigencies of the exchequer are such that those employed to keep it replenished may deal with taxpayers in any spirit not dominated by absolute fairness, tinctured even by a touch of chivalry and magnanimity.4

That chivalry may still form a part of Southern legal life is also demonstrated by the colorful brief submitted by a Georgia attorney in a civil action arising out of a barroom brawl, in which the unsuccessful appellant complained:

In the days of chivalry and knighthood, men of courage would joust for the love of a woman. Damsels in distress would be rescued by fearless knights. It was not only a duty, but an honor to give one's life for one in imminent danger.

The times have changed, like all things, and civilization bellows that chivalry is lost and gone, of another era. The final imprimatur that chivalry is lost in civilization is the courts of our society interpreting the laws to approve of cowardice and strike down the actions of a gallant knight in modern times, for almost having lost his life, in the aid of a damsel in distress.5

Chivalry as a concept is, therefore, attentive to and necessary for the protection of the individual. Contrary to popular conceptions, it is not purely concerned with outdated notions of protecting a “fairer sex.” It finds its contemporary expression in discussions of morality in law or, more basically put, in terms of right and wrong. While initially appearing quixotic, the issue is not. To the extent chivalry marks an effort to define acceptable behavior in society in terms of a more lofty ideal of mutual respect, it is vital since it addresses the core of what is occurring in the American legal system today.

The issue is not new. Notions of chivalry in law are implicit in the writings of the Southern poet and practicing lawyer Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). He is dismissed as insignificant by some and heralded by others. Brooks finds importance in Lanier's attention to social problems.6 Waggoner dismisses him virtually as a jingle-maker.7 Stauffer and Pearce recognize the importance of his attempt to codify rules for verse.8 However, Lanier's poetry has not been discussed in terms of its jurisprudential value, nor has it been approached from the perspective of Lanier's legal training.9

From 1878-85, Lanier, a veteran of the Civil War and prisoner of war in a Union camp, practiced law in order to survive economically. He did so at his lawyer-father's urging, and worked in his father's office, primarily involving himself in title searches as opposed to courtroom litigation. No reported decisions of Lanier have turned up, consistent with his non-litigation practice, although he has been cited for his poetry.10

Lanier is most known for his attempts to write poetry in the manner of one writing music. His poetry for the most part is naturalistic and traditional in meter and rhyme. His legal themes are present and can be found within these lyrical expressions. This combination of legal and chivalric themes is not unique among lawyer-poets,11 but continues to warrant attention. The medieval chivalry with which Lanier concerned himself embodied more than stereotypical notions of behavior towards women; it was “a moral system, governing the whole of noble life.”12 At its core, it commended the knight to serve “justice, right, piety, the Church, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed.”13 To the extent that medieval chivalry, replete with its own specific laws, combined legal practice, with a heightened sense of the place of morality, it provides a window through which to examine current theories of right and wrong. Consonant with the increasingly useful approach afforded by resort to literature to elucidate law, we can do so through the relevant poetry of Sidney Lanier.

His Southern background itself was one of a latter day chivalric code;14 “[t]hinking of himself as a knight and minstrel, he imagined that the new Confederate nation would embody all that was finest in the chivalric life, and later his prose and verse abounded in figures of paladin and paynim, the tournament and the battle-axe and crossbow.”15 The notion that law is conduct, and that conduct cannot be separated from morality, persists. Morality is essential to law, regardless of one's views of adherence to rules of law; it is the need to understand the interaction between moral values and rules of law that give morality its relevancy.16

In discussing Lanier as a legal moralist, I shall relate his poetry to the perspective of Charles Fried in his work Right and Wrong,17 as well as certain other works exploring the nature of justice in contemporary jurisprudence. It is not my intention to critically or exhaustively survey the growing mountain of work and counterwork, reply and surreply in the journals involving such writers as John Rawls, but rather to outline the major concepts that are establishing the beachhead for a more humanistic approach to legal theory. In so doing, I attempt to reaffirm the importance of literature, particularly that written by those trained as lawyers, as allowing insight into the nature of what law is. The hope is that this will lead to an introspection by practicing members of an increasingly distracted and distressed profession.

Finally, it is interesting to observe that to the extent we return to medieval concepts of chivalry to address Lanier's contribution, we might note in passing that a leading commentator in the jurisprudential and in law and literature fields has already compared contemporary American lawyers to medieval guilds.18 In discussing a nineteenth century poet who reached back to the fourteenth century for inspiration, we might do well to remember that the more things change, the more they stay the same.19


Like Wallace Stevens, another lawyer-poet, who perceived being a “money-making lawyer” as one of the “practical” lives to lead,20 Lanier wrote to his brother in 1869 that “[i]t is best that you and I make up our minds immediately to be lawyers, nothing but lawyers, good lawyers, and successful lawyers; and direct all our energies to this end.”21 Even in his poetic career Lanier continued to display the lawyer's caution and the businessman's concern over money.22 Ultimately, Lanier concluded—unlike Stevens, who after a trepidatious start in private practice became a successful in-house surety attorney—that he could not “settle myself down to be a third-rate struggling lawyer for the balance of my little life, as long as there is a certainty almost absolute that I can do some other thing so much better.”23

Decades before yet another lawyer-poet, Edgar Lee Masters, made a poetic theme of law and economic injustice in the early twentieth century,24 Lanier focused on the power of law and lawyers to expand the influence of railroads and capitalism. He attacked mercantilism and trade in terms of its impact on the small, previously self-reliant farmers that formed the backbone of the post-bellum South.

By the time Lanier became a lawyer, he had endured imprisonment as a prisoner of war in a Union camp during the Civil War, an arduous journey back home, and a breakdown while teaching at a plantation.25 After learning he had tuberculosis, he abandoned teaching for the presumably less demanding practice of law; in 1868 he entered the law office of his father, Robert Sampson Lanier.26 He began as a clerk and later became a junior partner; though not appearing in court he provided back-up research and advice for those going into court.27 His specialty was difficult property title and probate cases.28

In 1869, 1870, and 1871, at a time when travel was difficult, Lanier was in New York on business and for medical reasons; on at least one of those visits he was involved in a sale of blast furnace plants and other lands,29 indicating an involvement in the “real world” of transactional law. While some view Lanier as “temperamentally ill-suited” for a career in law,30 others generally recognize his proficiency.31 Ultimately, it was a temporary absence from law that improved Lanier's health before he returned to law and his health again deteriorated.32

Like Wallace Stevens, Lanier was knowledgeable of the intricacies of his field, although Lanier found parallel interests in music instead of the modern art that so inspired Stevens. Also like Stevens (who regretted the time lost to poetry in practicing law), Lanier was forced to yield to the demands of his practice: “‘I have not put pen to paper in a long time. … How I thirst to do so, how I long to sing …—a thousand various songs oppress me unsung—, is inexpressible. Yet the mere work that brings bread gives me no time.’”33 In another letter he wrote “[m]y 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.”34 (The parallel to Stevens is intriguing: Lanier's father-lawyer, as well, stressed the financial security of the law office,35 but Lanier eventually left law for a career in music and academia. Both bemoaned the time lost for poetry, although Stevens of course remained a practicing lawyer. Both traveled in the course of their business and that travel influenced their writings. Both were involved in fairly sophisticated, if not tedious, specialties.)

As a lawyer, Lanier had little occasion to directly address issues of right and wrong in his field of practice. Nonetheless, while some read his poems purely in terms of social protest, I suggest that his legal training afforded him an avenue to approach this protest from a jurisprudential perspective, and it is impossible to separate law from the social and economic environment addressed in Lanier's poetry. Given the interweaving of legal terminology in his poetry, as well as Lanier's own broad philosophical readings, we can identify legal arguments of right and wrong, anticipating current work in the area.


Right and Wrong is a book by Professor Charles Fried in which he argues for roles for individuals in society that fulfill demands of justice but reject a purely utilitarian approach based upon the “greatest good.” The so-called economic analysis of rights, based upon a cost-benefit analysis, fails because of its moral vacuity. Discretion remains in the individual as to the contribution to be made, provided that certain minimum moral commitments exist.

Fried posits absolute concepts of right and wrong, which are preemptive of choice.36 Such norms are targeted towards proscription of intentional, rather than inadvertent, acts.37 While Fried acknowledges the difficulty in distinguishing between intention of acts and intention of consequences, he nonetheless finds a connection between intention and the categorical norms of right and wrong in the common denominator of the “central concept” of “respect for persons.”38 He elaborates that “[i]t is wrong to do those things which violate the integrity of other persons, but whether we have indeed done wrong will depend on whether as agents we have engaged our persons in causing harm to another.”39 Desire and consequence are opposite aspects of intention.40 Law separates intention from consequence, since judgments are based upon unity of intention and result.41 At the core of Fried's argument over respect for persons and his theory of rights is the central notion that “there are some things we may not do to each other, no matter what, some things that are categorically wrong.”42 His two categorical wrongs are doing harm and lying.43

Rights are privileges defined in such a way that to interfere with them would violate the first precept of doing harm; in other words, if persons have negative rights that prevent someone from doing harm to them, and persons have positive rights that allow them to do what they want, then a right is ultimately considered to be “a function of the logically prior judgment that intentional interference with the exercise of the privilege—even after calculation of the balance of advantage—would be wrong.”44 In criticizing the economic analysis of rights, Fried concludes that rights are different from interests because to violate a right is not merely bad, but wrong.45 Therefore, in correlating wrongs with rights of victims, it becomes clear that “harming is wrong as it violates a right.”46 Moving to his “substantive” rights theory, Fried suggests that “substance and form go together: a substance of personal integrity and a form which is the form of rights, rights as categorical entities morally tied by bonds of necessary argument to the person whom they protect and who is invested with them.”47

Positive rights are a function of an objective entitlement of the individual to a share of the limited resources of a society.48 Common humanity is the source of positive rights.49 Negative rights are not simply general rights to be left alone or not imposed upon, but rather are particular and afford the system its concreteness and specificity.50 Negative rights based upon personal and physical integrity constrain positive rights.51

As for the lawyer in Fried's system, he “is not morally entitled, therefore, to engage his own person in doing personal harm to another, though he may work the system for his client even if the system then works injustice.”52 This is so because the wrong is institutional and does not exist outside of a specified legal framework.53

At their base, these are chivalric concepts, whether expressed in those terms or not. Chivalry was a reaction to the brutalization of the Middle Ages. The knights and nobles who practiced it held to an internal morality that was enforced by a common acceptance of it. Chivalry, while embodying principles common to the church and state, contained its own notion of “fair play.” I suggest that chivalry had, at its basis, a similar theme to that of Fried: a reaction to the economic or self-serving justification by others for the exploitation of a workforce.

Lon L. Fuller adopts a similar viewpoint in comparing his morality of aspiration with morality of duty, and finding at the heart of his system the prescription that people must respect and communicate with one another.54 In arguing for external as well as internal morality of law, Fuller notes that his “one central indisputable principle of what may be called substantive natural law—Natural Law with capital letters—I would find it in the injunction: Open up, maintain, and preserve the integrity of the channels of communication by which men convey to one another what they perceive, feel and desire.”55 Part of that internal morality is a respect for man's self-determination, and although internal morality can be neutral over a wide variety of areas, “[i]t cannot be neutral in its view of man himself.”56

In this regard, a literary definition of morality is not too different from the concept posited by Fried and Fuller. In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner defines morality as,

nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that in the long run as well as the short we won't be sorry for what we've done, whether or not it was against some petty human law. Moral action is action which affirms life.57

These are chivalric notions.

John Rawls complements the discussion of the subject of justice, which he defines as “the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation.”58 The main idea of his theory begins with justice as fairness with a position of equality of all citizens, who have chosen their contract from ignorance, with none knowing his or her place in society.59 It is this equality that leads to a rejection of an utilitarian analysis that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number, and instead focuses on two principles: (1) there must be an equality in assignment of rights and duties, and (2) social inequality can only be just if it results in compensating benefits for the remainder of society.60 These principles are more specifically stated as (1) “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” and (2) “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.”61 One aspect of this latter principle is that “undeserved inequalities call for redress.”62 Individuals have two natural duties, later iterated by Fried: to uphold justice and not to injure.63

Rawls notes that his principles of justice and his concept of justice as fairness take priority over efficiency and social and economic advantage.64 As he writes, “[t]he long range aim of society is settled in its main lines irrespective of the particular desires and needs of its present members.”65 Utilitarianism, which has as its basis the argument that the greatest good will be produced by rejection of individual ideals in favor of a larger one, neglects the ideal that Rawls injects into his first principle, and thus yields uncertainty; the stability of the system is a key factor for Rawls, and his argument flows from the initial contract based upon fairness.66 In lines that will find support from Lanier's poems, Rawls writes: “the essential point is that despite the individualistic features of justice as fairness, the two principles of justice are not contingent upon existing desires or present social conditions.”67

In sum, Rawls states his first principle to be that “[e]ach person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all,” and his second principle as “[s]ocial and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”68 He then sets out his two first priority rules with the priority of liberty and priority of justice.69

This all too brief summary is meant only to set the stage; the complexity of thought of these writers is the subject of extended discussion. I have made no effort to explore the nuances, the criticisms, and the subsequent replies. I mean only to show that the common thread of the major writers about “justice” is that of individual respect, and that a system that ignores it cannot have legitimacy. If this is, indeed, at the core of Fried in particular, and Rawls and Fuller in general, then it is also at the core of Lanier's poetry.


Fried's two precepts of not harming others and not lying form linchpins of Lanier's poetry and, therefore, enable us to discern the influence of his legal practice upon his poetry.

In “Individuality,”70 Lanier focuses upon a single cloud that drifts away from others to brood upon mankind. It is a poem in which he attacks, in 1878-79, factories and merchant ships as symbols of the overall enemy of trade. While the cloud is a “visible conscience,” it nonetheless is criminally “arraign[ed]” on the grounds that it sends lightning to kill a child, and also causes ruinous rains.71

Lanier asks the cloud “why not plunge thy blades about / Some maggot politician throng / Swarming to parcel out / The body of a land, and rout / The maw-conventicle, and ungorge Wrong?”72 He criticizes the lack of control, since “not as clouds dim laws have plann'd / To strike down Good and fight for Ill,— / Oh, not as harps that stand / In the wind and sound the wind's command: / Each artist—gift of terror!—owns his will.”73 The cloud is seen as an individual that must exercise individual control and not otherwise respond to group morality. The bitter and cynical view of legitimate lawmakers reflected in the reference to maggot politicians stems from the reality of Lanier's time and place. It is also an indictment of “Rule of Law” principles.

Lanier repeats this theme of individual morality as preferable to amoral positivist principles in various other poems that attack “trade” as antithetical to the concept of respect for individuals. In various poems relating to corn, which Lanier proffers as the salvation of the cotton-dependent Southern small farmer, the “terrible Towns” noted in “The Waving of the Corn”74 where trading is done are rendered synonymous with evil. Lanier perceived trade itself to be a source of evil in the feudal system,75 infecting the otherwise noble age of chivalry he so admired.

Lanier was concerned with the economic imprisonment of Southerners during Reconstruction, just as peasants were economically imprisoned during the Middle Ages, and addressed this imprisonment in his poems “Corn”76 and “Nine from Eight,”77 as well as his essay, The New South. In “Corn,” mortgages entrap the careless landowner, who “sailed in borrowed ships of usury— / A foolish Jason on a treacherous sea. …”78 He is “[a] gamester's catspaw and a banker's slave.”79 By way of comparison, in the Middle Ages, the law of private property was assuming significance; ownership was delineated with wooden poles stuck into the ground, and hedges marked specific property as well.80

Lanier portrayed most mortgages as an oppression upon individuals struggling to survive in the Southern economy; perhaps his in-depth exposure to them through his title work helped shape his understanding of the impact of these liens on property.81 Mortgages were a pervasive and significant, if not controversial, means of property control and security. Following the Civil War, which had disrupted the American legal system, the American philosophy changed from a “frontier” mentality to limitation of growth, of “hold[ing] the line.”82 In the South in particular, a major shift occurred after the Civil War in terms of landlord-tenant relationships: tenant's rights became strictly commercial contracts, and more power vested in landlords.83

“Corn” begins with idyllic, almost eerie sensuousness in portraying fields of corn. The sassafras tree by the fence “[c]ontests with stolid vehemence / The march of culture, setting limb and thorn / As pikes against the army of the corn.”84 The poem shifts to fields where corn's “mild content”85 rebukes the lands built on shifting sands of trade. Corn symbolizes a kind of self-reliant integrity, as opposed to cotton (which brought ruin upon the chivalric South). Cotton is “coquette;”86 it is uncertain and forces farmers to watch for “telegram[s] of Future Sale.”87 Such dependency violates Rawls's first principle; it creates uncertainty and contravenes the notion of fundamental fairness even despite a (perceived) greater good in a legal system that protects nineteenth-century trade. These legalistic references are no accident. We know that Lanier wrote extensively to Judge Beckley and received comment from him on “Corn.” Whether expressed in jurisprudential philosophy or not, Lanier clearly articulated an argument of right and wrong that had at its core a notion akin to Fried's directive to uphold justice and not hurt others.

In “Corn” Lanier elaborates the moralistic theme of chivalry: the stalks of corn are “[t]eaching the yeomen selfless chivalry / That moves in gentle curves of courtesy.”88 This is set against the “whimsical” alternations and “capricious Commerce” of trade, with “restless-hearted children left to lie / Untended there beneath the heedless sky, / As barbarous folk expose their old to die.”89 Once again there is a Rawlsian argument to be made by Lanier that justice cannot be dependent upon social conditions. Farmers who are servants of Cotton are caught up in fields that are a “gambler's hell;” and each year the “farmer to the neighboring city ran; / Passed with a mournful anxious face / Into the banker's inner place;” and ultimately procured “small loans by pledges great renewed, / He issues smiling from the fatal door, / And buys with lavish hand his yearly store / Till his small borrowings will yield no more.”90

Trade symbolizes not only the influence of the North, but a legal system—it cannot be separated from a social or economic system—that protects and rewards oppressive behavior. Trade represented the kind of utilitarianism and economic analysis of rights rejected by Fried and Rawls. So much so that by 1888, Lanier, wrote in “Tyranny” that “Young Trade is dead, / And swart Work sullen sits in the hillside fern / And folds his arms that find no bread to earn, / And bows his head.”91 Lanier, therefore, practiced law at a time not only of change, but change that reflected power and political interests in, perhaps, an unprecedented way, and he implicitly argued for a jurisprudence based upon something other than profit for the greatest number. Indeed, in “The Symphony,” he asks the question: “Does business mean, Die, you—live, I?92 His response is that if so, Trade “sings a lie.”93 This bold expression suggests Rawls's argument that social conditions and economic benefit cannot legitimize an otherwise individually unjust system.

In “The Symphony” Lanier indicates that art comes from the heart, the center of morality, as opposed to the head, symbolizing a more clinical sense or, simply stated, rule. He laments a system where honor has gone and justice is “smirch-robed.”94 Opening the poem with the wish that Trade was dead, he writes: “The poor, the poor, the poor, they stand / Wedged by the pressing of Trade's hand / Against an inward-opening door / That pressure tightens evermore.”95

“The Symphony” puts the lie that chivalry is permanently dead. The poem contains a cry for restoration of chivalry. “Giant Trade” has “slain / All great contempts of mean-got gain / And hates of inward stain.”96 All that the “smirch-robed Justice” can do is “feebly scold / At Crime all money-bold.”97 This essentiality to the place of moral concern in a legal system is emphasized in “Psalm of the West,” in which Lanier writes that “straight Law, in freedom, will curve to the rounding of grace.”98 While it might appear that a “curving law” is incompatible with Fuller's notion of consistency of law, Lanier is actually lending credence to Fuller's concept of law that it “cannot be neutral in its view of man himself,” as quoted above.99 It is also further recognition of Fried's proscription against harming one another, which must be at the basis of a legitimate legal system.

Like John Rawls, Lanier implicitly argues that a society needs a concept of justice, and that concept is a function of value, right, and moral worth. In discussing the role of justice, Rawls states “[a] theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”100 Lanier's conception is similar, as in his condemnation of corrupt lawmakers—those who posit the rules of law—and, therefore, a positivist system.

I have mentioned the dialogue poems of Lanier. Lanier uses dialect and first-person poems to emphasize the condition of the poor and the impact of law upon them. They are entitled to value, right, and moral worth. In “Nine from Eight” an impoverished farmer is cheated and bewildered in a sea of law and legal terms: “But shuh! 'fore I even had settled my price / They tuck affidavy without no bones / And levelled upon me fur all ther loans.”101 In “Jones's Private Argyment”102 farmers are subject to bankers and warehousemen, prisoners to loans, and spend their time staving off bankruptcy. In this poem Lanier's protagonist, Jones, swears “[t]hat farmers must stop gittin' loans, And git along without 'em.”103 He urged Southern farmers to plant corn instead of cotton to get away from the bankers and to prevent bankruptcy. What these poems share is a common thread with “Corn” and “Symphony.”

In his satirical ballad about Christmas Eve, “The Hard Times in Elfland,”104 published in 1877, Santa Claus complains about the bad times in Elfland: “‘All Elfland's mortgaged! And we fear / The gnomes are just about to strike.’”105 The railroads want to replace Santa, and Santa signed the contract: “‘My woes began, that wretched day. / The President plied me like a tool. / In lawyer's fees, and rights of way, / Injunctions, leases, charters, I / Was meshed as in a mighty maze.’”106 This last line is a fascinating (if not coincidental) foreshadowing of the phrase “seamless web” that some use as a euphemism for law. The theme of “Elfland” is not complex: Even a dignified tradition can be ruined by greed, and that greed protected by laws that ignore fundamental concepts of justice. At its base, this is the premise of Fried's Right and Wrong107.

If trade and commerce are synonymous with contemporary legal analyses dependent upon economic rights and utilitarianism, then Lanier's South has parallels to post-industrial America today. He also recognized parallels in medieval France. The final poem to be examined in detail, then, has its basis in an event from that time.

In “The Jacquerie—A Fragment”108 Lanier contrasted the practice of amorality of established institutions with the morality of the individual, drawing a comparison with medieval France to the South in which Lanier lived and worked.109 Political institutions were not responsive to the plight of the South, as reflected in his bitter poem “Laughter in the Senate:”

The tyrants sit in a stately hall;
They jibe at a wretched people's fall;
The tyrants forget how fresh is the pall
                    Over their dead and ours.
Look how the senators ape the clown,
And don the motley and hide the gown,
But yonder a fast rising frown
                    On the people's forehead lowers.(110)

“The Jacquerie” opens with a description of a time and place marked by forces of hate; law is a function of revenge.111 The Church, a symbol of legitimacy, “is far too fat” to win the people's faith and lead them.112 Similarly, the kings of France, representing the rule of law, “in piteous file,” wear “deadly diamonds … in their crowns,” “[a]s if they smiled to think how men are slain / By the sharp facets of the gem of power.”113 These are the words of the Franciscan friar John de Rochetaillade in the poem. His mystical vision included the peroration that the established order no longer sufficed to provide justice: “Now if the priesthood put such shame upon / Your cry for leadership, can better help / Come out of knighthood?”114

The cripple, Gris Grillon, without limbs and in a basket, is confronted by the knight, Lord Raoul; Grillon had fallen in battle and been mutilated fighting off four men to save Lord Raoul, and Lord Raoul's horse had knocked Grillon down and out as Raoul apparently retreated to save himself. Raoul rode into the place where Friar John was speaking, ignoring the sycophantic urgings of his entourage to avoid the scene. After Grillon's taunt to Raoul reciting this, Raoul tries to stab Grillon and is thrust aside by Grillon's son; as one of Raoul's lords pins the son and attempts to cut off his ears, the Virgin Mary appears, and the son is saved.115

“The Jacquerie” reflects Lanier's interest in the peasant uprising in France.116 He worked on it at the same time he was studying law.117 The revolution in 1358 in France, termed The Jacquerie, arose from sheer hatred and frustration by the peasantry.118 Law seemed to favor the commercial interests.119 On the other hand, the medieval lawyer (in a chivalric time that Lanier idealized) was preoccupied with justice as a concern.120 The peasants, like the Southerners, were subject to laws made in distant places, far removed from reality; Lanier mourned “your fall into daintier hands / Of senators, rosy fingered, / That wrote while you fought, / And afar from the battles lingered.”121

De Bellis suggests that Lanier used chivalry to focus on good and evil, and inject the element of morality into institutional relations.122 In a letter to Judge Beckley, Lanier expressly referred to

‘[t]hat 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.’123

Lanier's heroic view in “The Jacquerie,” contrasted by the bombastic self-interest in “Laughter in the Senate,” attacks the notion that simply because a system is efficient it must be justifiable. Just as Fried argues that efficiency is irrelevant “if the initial endowments are somehow improper,”124 so Lanier protests those arguments that are based upon a justification of the efficiency of trade and commerce. Taken cumulatively, and allowing for the now-perceived deficiencies of nineteenth century poetic style, we can look past that and discern a very modern bitter edge to the philosophies set forth in his poetry. “The Jacquerie,” fragment though it is, exemplifies this.


One commentator has summed up Lanier as being able to

neither bear with his South's sense of its own peculiar community, in which there was no felt need to establish the dignity and stature of the self; nor could he discover a way of establishing that dignity and stature which did not cut the self off entirely from its community.125

It is this keen concern for individuality and self-dignity that places him within the realm of Fried's discussion of right and wrong.

Interestingly enough, Fuller posits the morality of duty at the end of the scale concerned predominantly with traders and economics; it is a negative-oriented morality that is based upon mutual survival and necessity. It is implicitly “evil” in that there is no affirmative basis to it; there is a morality of duty because it suits those honoring it to do so. On the other hand, there is and must be a morality of aspiration, even if there can be no definitive exposition of an ultimate good. These concepts are Lanier's as well: he portrays the implications of unchecked morality of duty without regard to morality of aspiration.

The express legal references in the amusing and satirical “Elfland,” and the more bitter metaphors found in “Corn” and “Symphony,” demonstrate Lanier's facility with legal process, and his willingness to integrate such concepts in his poetry. I suggest that his strong social consciousness was inseparable from his legal work, and that on a certain level his poetry—often taken as social criticism—may be placed neatly within the discussion of jurisprudential themes in poetry. In other words, there is something to be learned from practicing attorneys who also wrote extensive poetry; to the extent that their work comments upon American society, a uniquely legal perspective may be present and be as significant a contribution to jurisprudence.


  1. William Blackstone, Commentaries *264-65. The High Court of Chivalry, successor to the Court of Constable and Marshall, last met in 1955. Charles Donahue, Jr., Ius Commune, Canon Law, and Common Law in England, 66 Tul. L. Rev. 1745, 1755 (1992).

  2. See, e.g., United States v. MacKenzie, 510 F.2d 39, 41-42 (9th Cir. 1975) (in deciding whether federal law defers to or adopts state laws regarding questions of deficiency when United States is plaintiff, court noted that it “cannot say that Nevada's and Arizona's concern in protecting their debtors from economic overreaching in foreclosure sales is less weighty than Texas' interest (whether spawned by chivalry or chauvinism) in shielding a married woman's property from debts that she acquired.”).

  3. 227 F.2d 181 (5th Cir. 1955), cert. denied, 351 U.S. 982 (1956).

  4. Lee, 227 F.2d at 186-87 (Cameron, J., dissenting).

  5. Fagan v. Atnalta, Inc., 376 S.E.2d 204, 206 (Ga. Ct. App. 1988) (Deen, J., dissenting) (quoting Appellant's Brief in Support of Motion for Rehearing).

  6. Van Wyck Brooks, A Chilmark Miscellany 301 (1948).

  7. Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets from the Puritans to the Present 235-40 (1968).

  8. Donald B. Stauffer, A Short History of American Poetry 123-31 (1974); Roy H. Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry 236-46 (1961).

  9. “Men trained in the law utterly dominated Southern literature between 1830 and 1870.” Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture 291 (1984). In addition to Lanier, Ferguson mentions Henry Timrod as one of “the most important poets.” Id.

  10. See Gibson v. State, 238 S.E.2d 562, 562, 563 n.1 (Ga. Ct. App. 1977) (a case involving motor vehicle theft, in which the defendant hid himself “up to his eyeballs” in Lake Lanier, which the court noted was named after Sidney Lanier, author of “Song of the Chattahoochee.”) Lanier was quoted in an article co-authored by former Attorney General Griffin Bell, in a tribute to law professor Daniel J. Meador. Griffin B. Bell & Terrence B. Adamson, Daniel J. Meador—Visionary, 80 Va. L. Rev. 1209, 1215 (1994) (quoting from “The Marshes of Glynn”). He was also quoted in Carl Erhardt, The Battle Over “The Hooch”: The Federal-Interstate Water Compact and the Resolution of Rights in the Chattahoochee River, 11 Stan. Envtl. L.J. 200 (1992) (quoting from “The Song of the Chattahoochee.”).

  11. For example, John Gardner argues that Geoffrey Chaucer was legally trained and that this training manifested itself throughout his poetry. John Gardner, The Life and Times of Chaucer 129-37 (1977). See also Ferguson, supra note 9, at 96-128; Paul D. Carrington, Law and Chivalry: An Exhortation from the Spirit of the Hon. Hugh Henry Brackenridge of Pittsburgh (1748-1816), 53 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 705, 708 (1992) (for discussion of a lawyer-writer who wrote some (unsuccessful) poetry). Brackenridge's work, Modern Chivalry, derived from Cervantes' Don Quixote and satirized the legal, political, and social situation in the Pennsylvania of his day. Brackenridge equated a modern chivalry with the idea of pure democracy. Carrington, supra at 714.

  12. Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror 62 (1978).

  13. Id. See also Sir Arthur Bryant, The Age of Chivalry (1963).

    [I]n place of the old suicidal law of tribal vengeance and the bloody anarchy of might is right had been substituted an elaborate code of chivalry and even, within the narrow bounds of class, of gentleness; of comradely tenderness towards one's knightly companions, of mercy and magnanimity in victory, of fidelity to vows, of fine manners.

    Id. at 240. He might almost have been describing the antebellum South in nineteenth century America, or even the idealized vision of the South that some hold. The replacement of vengeance by a code of conduct is the beginning of legal institutions. Richard A. Posner, Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation 27-33 (1988).

  14. For an interesting discussion of Southern virtue, see Thomas L. Shaffer, Growing Up Good in Maycomb, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 531 (1994), part of a symposium on To Kill a Mockingbird.

  15. Brooks, supra note 6, at 298.

  16. See Don Welch, The State as a Purveyor of Morality, 56 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 540 (1988).

  17. Charles Fried, Right and Wrong (1978). See also Charles Fried, Constitutional Doctrine, 107 Harv. L. Rev. 1140 (1994). Fried argued against rigid adherence to doctrine, and noted that “[a] judicial decision is both an intellectual and a moral act.” Id. at 1155.

  18. Richard A. Posner, The Material Bases of Jurisprudence, 69 Ind. L.J. 1, 2-3 (1993).

  19. For the purists, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes [Janvier 1849], quoted in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 443:19 (John Bartlett & Justin Kaplan eds., 16th ed. 1992).

  20. Holly Stevens, Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens 53 (1977).

  21. Edwin Mims, Sidney Lanier 99 (1968).

  22. In a letter near the end of his life, Lanier wrote to his publisher:

    I should have an uncomfortable sense of monotony, in sending you another book, but this time it is a volume of my poems and offers some contrast to those which have been offered you before.

    … Please make me a cash offer for the book,—if you see any profit in it. I am absolutely obliged to raise ready money.

    Letter to Scribners, May 22, 1879, in Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Libraries, Princeton, New Jersey. He displays a frugalness and questioning of costs in connection with the publication, and was intimately involved in the process. See Letter to Scribners, dated May 20, 1880 (Princeton Collection).

  23. Letter from Lanier to his father (Nov. 29, 1873), quoted in Mims, supra note 21, at 124-25.

  24. I have explored this in Richman, Edgar Lee Masters and the Poetics of Legal Realism, 32 Cal. W. L. Rev. 103 (1994).

  25. Thomas D. Young, “Sidney Lanier 1842-1881,” in American Writers 349, 349-50 (Leonard Unger ed., Supp. I pt. 1 1979).

  26. Id. at 351.

  27. Id. at 352.

  28. Id.

  29. Mims, supra note 21, at 114; see also Lincoln Lorenz, The Life of Sidney Lanier 80 (1935).

  30. Alice Hall Petry, “Sidney Lanier,” in 4 Critical Survey of Poetry: English Language Series 1658 (Frank N. Magill ed., 1982).

  31. Lorenz, supra note 29, at 80-81.

  32. Id. at 85.

  33. Young, supra note 25, at 354.

  34. 1 William M. Baskervill, Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies 211 (1897).

  35. Young, supra note 25, at 356.

  36. Fried, supra note 17, at 9-10. See also Edward Cahn, The Moral Decision: Right and Wrong in the Light of American Law (1955). There seems little commentary on Cahn, who nonetheless makes an effort to address in lay, not simplistic, terms the issue of morality and right and wrong as reflected in American law.

  37. Fried, supra note 17, at 21-22.

  38. Id. at 24.

  39. Id.

  40. Id. at 27.

  41. Id.

  42. Id. at 28.

  43. Id. at 30-78.

  44. Id. at 84.

  45. Id. at 104.

  46. Id.

  47. Id. at 105.

  48. Id. at 130-31.

  49. Id. at 118.

  50. Id. at 132.

  51. Id. at 139-43.

  52. Id. at 193.

  53. Id. at 192.

  54. Lon L. Fuller, The Morality of Law (rev. ed. 1969).

  55. Id. at 186.

  56. Id. at 162.

  57. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction 23 (1978).

  58. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice 7 (1971).

  59. Id. at 12.

  60. Id. at 14-15.

  61. Id. at 60.

  62. Id. at 100.

  63. Id. at 108-17.

  64. Id. at 261.

  65. Id.

  66. Id. 262-63.

  67. Id. at 263.

  68. Id. at 302.

  69. Id. at 302-03. For a critique of Fuller and Rawls in the context of an argument for a reinterpretation of the concept of Rule of Law, see Margaret J. Radin, Reconsidering the Rule of Law, 69 B.U. L. Rev. 781 (1989). I cite this article (which is only one of many, of course, discussing Rawls and Fuller) because of the author's attempt to argue for a rule of law that is consistent with Lanier's implicit view of law as a “pragmatic normative practice.” Id. at 819. The common thread is a Lanier-like one that recognizes an underpinning of the necessity of rules but also the particular social, political, and practical environment.

  70. Sidney Lanier, “Individuality,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier (Mary D. Lanier ed., 1918). All quotations from poems are taken from The Poems of Sidney Lanier.

  71. Id. at 10-11.

  72. Id. at 11.

  73. Id. at 12.

  74. Sidney Lanier, “The Waving of the Corn,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 23.

  75. Mims, supra note 21, at 157-59 (quoting letter from Sidney Lanier to Judge Logan E. Beckley, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia (Nov. 15, 1874)).

  76. Sidney Lanier, “Corn,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 53.

  77. Sidney Lanier, “Nine From Eight,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 177.

  78. Lanier, supra note 76, at 57.

  79. Id. at 58.

  80. A History of Private Life II: Revelations of the Medieval World II (Georges Duby ed. & Arthur Goldhammer trans., 1988).

  81. For a brief overview of the place of the law of mortgages in American law, see Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law 215-18 (1973) and authorities cited therein.

  82. Id. at 295-96.

  83. Id. at 373-74.

  84. Lanier, supra note 76, at 54.

  85. Id. at 56.

  86. Id. at 57.

  87. Id. at 58.

  88. Id. at 55.

  89. Id. at 56-57.

  90. Id. at 57-58.

  91. Sidney Lanier, “Tyranny,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 94.

  92. Sidney Lanier, “The Symphony,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 61.

  93. Id.

  94. Id. at 68.

  95. Id. at 60.

  96. Id. at 68.

  97. Id.

  98. Sidney Lanier, “Psalm of the West,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 115.

  99. Fuller, supra note 54, at 162.

  100. Rawls, supra note 58, at 3.

  101. Lanier, supra note 77, at 178.

  102. Sidney Lanier, “Jones's Private Argyment” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 183.

  103. Id.

  104. Sidney Lanier, “The Hard Times in Elfland,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 159.

  105. Id. at 164.

  106. Id. at 165.

  107. See supra note 17.

  108. Sidney Lanier, “The Jacquerie—A Fragment,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 191.

  109. See Jack De Bellis, Sidney Lanier 7 (Georgia Humanities Council: 1988) [hereinafter DeBellis I]; see generally Jack De Bellis, Sidney Lanier, 43-45 (Sylvia E. Bowman ed., 1972).

  110. Sidney Lanier, “Laughter in the Senate,” in The Poems of Sidney Lanier, supra note 70, at 223. See also Mims, supra note 21, at 223.

  111. See generally Posner, supra note 13, at 25-70.

  112. Lanier, supra note 108, at 199.

  113. Id. at 197.

  114. Id. at 202.

  115. Id. at 206-11.

  116. Mims, supra note 21, at 38.

  117. Id. at 100-01.

  118. For a general account, see Tuchman, supra note 12, at 176-82. Those interested in a general perspective on peasantry itself should review the introduction by John Berger to his trilogy of novels, John Berger, Into Their Labours xii-xxix (1990).

  119. Morris Bishop refers to the commercial courts set up in France to settle disputes among merchants. Morris Bishop, The Horizon Book of the Middle Ages 183 (Norman Kotker ed., 1968). In France the merchant class, the bourgeoisie, formed the third estate, and their legal interests were intertwined with church interests. Id. See also R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages 148-51 (1953) for a discussion of secular and religious courts that were a prelude to fourteenth-century legal France, and Walter Ullmann, A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages 12-13 (1965), noting that the Middle Ages were a time in which two competing theories of law and government were in play: the ascendent theory, in which law derived from communal wishes, and the descendent theory, in which law was imposed from rulers. Feudal society itself was contract-based. Id. at 147.

  120. Deborah L. Rhode, Ethical Perspectives on Legal Practice, 37 Stan. L. Rev. 589, 632 n.147 (1985), and sources cited therein. Compare Gordon A. Christenson, Uncertainty in Law and its Negation: Reflections, 54 U. Cin. L. Rev. 347, 357 (1985) (comparing “advocates who represent a particular morality or a particular social philosophy fight and prevail as warriors and advocates in an existing decision making process, akin to chivalry, aimed at changing official behavior or custom by fighting injustice, admittedly a subjective construct”).

  121. From Steel in Soft Hands and To Our Hills, unpublished poems reprinted in part in Mims, supra note 21, at 93.

  122. De Bellis I, supra note 109, at 7.

  123. Quoted in Mims, supra note 21, at 158-59.

  124. Fried, supra note 17, at 93.

  125. Roy H. Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry 237 (1961). Compare Waggoner, supra note 7, at 235-40 (for an unsympathetic view of Lanier) with Stauffer, supra note 8, at 123-31 (for a more sympathetic portrait).

Jack Kerkering (essay date March 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14365

SOURCE: Kerkering, Jack. “‘Of Me and of Mine’: The Music of Racial Identity in Whitman and Lanier, Dvořák and DuBois.” American Literature 73, no. 1 (March 2002): 147-84.

[In the following essay, Kerkering compares the American Centennial-era poetry of Sidney Lanier and Walt Whitman, noting significant contrasts in form, structure, voice, and historic vision.]

With Reconstruction entering its tenth year in 1875, plans were underway in Philadelphia for a gala event to mark the following year's national centennial. Opening ceremonies would feature a choral cantata with music by Northerner Dudley Buck and words by Southerner and former Confederate soldier and poet Sidney Lanier. This collaboration between North and South was deliberately meant to symbolize the national unity that Reconstruction had so far failed to restore.1 Lanier's poem “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” or the Centennial Cantata, asserts national continuity by personifying America as a single entity, the goddess Columbia, whose declaration “I was: I am: and I shall be” asserts a national will to endure.2 Lanier was not the only poet, however, to mark the centennial, for Walt Whitman's 1876 “Preface” also references “the Centennial at Philadelphia,” describing Leaves of Grass as “my contribution and outpouring to celebrate … the first Centennial of our New World Nationality.”3 Both Lanier and Whitman, then, seize the centennial moment to look beyond civil war toward national unity.

In doing so, however, each poet provides a different account of the nation's history. Whitman invokes the Revolution of 1776 to celebrate a “New World Nationality” that coincides with “the Hundred Years' life of the Republic” (LG, [Leaves of Grass] 751). Figuring the Revolution as a national birth, he asserts: “[A]ll the hitherto experience of The States, their first Century, has been but preparation, adolescence—and … This Union is only now and henceforth (i.e., since the Secession war) to enter on its full Democratic career” (LG, 750). In contrast to this account of national maturation, Lanier's Columbia announces not progress but stasis. The line “I was: I am: and I shall be” echoes assertions of divine permanence in the Bible's Old and New Testaments,4 and the poem itself supports such permanence by reaching back to a time well before the Revolution when “Jamestown” and “Plymouth” first struggled against “Famine” and “War” (“CMC,” [“The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” or the Centennial Cantata,] 61). Thus Whitman's narrative of maturation—the struggle of American patriots to free themselves from the British and pursue a “Democratic career”—contrasts with Lanier's narrative of perpetuation, in which British settlers struggle to extend the ways of the Old World into the New.

Bound up with these different narratives of national history are different approaches to poetic form. “[M]y form,” writes Whitman, “has strictly grown from my purports and facts, and is the analogy of them”—that is, free verse is the “analogy” of “a revolutionary age” (LG, 755). For Lanier, the Centennial Cantata's form involves “the short, sharp, vigorous Saxon words [that] broke, rather than fell, from the lips of the chorus”5—and these are not “analogies” of the Revolution but relics of a prior civilization: “[T]he author desiring to experiment upon the quality of tone given out by choral voices when enunciating Saxon words, as compared with that from smoother Latin derivatives, wrote his poem almost entirely in the former” (“CC,” [“The Centennial Cantata”] 272). Thus, while Whitman's centennial writings link poetic form to America's revolutionary origins (“Out of the Hundred Years just ending … my Poems too have found genesis” [LG, 756]), Lanier derives the formal features of his Centennial Cantata from a source that predates both the Revolution and colonization—from the “abrupt vocables” of Anglo-Saxon (“CC,” 273).

By insisting on Anglo-Saxon sounds in the text of his cantata, Lanier redirects the force of the line “I was: I am: and I shall be,” for although spoken by the New World's goddess Columbia, these are Old World sounds. And it is this focus on sounds, I will argue, that underwrites Lanier's break from Whitman's “New World Nationality.” Where Whitman asserts an “Indissoluble Union” (LG, 747), Lanier's concern is the sounds of Anglo-Saxon; where Whitman's poetic form underwrites an American nation, Lanier's embodies an Anglo-Saxon race. This difference between racial and national forms extends beyond these two writers and into the late-century work of Antonín Dvořák and W. E. B. DuBois. Although the 1890s posed different challenges to the integrity of the nation's identity, replacing Reconstruction's problem of overcoming sectional division with the problem of assimilating newly arrived immigrants, Dvořák and DuBois nevertheless consolidate a people by reproducing their predecessors' reliance on form: Dvořák repeats Whitman's emphasis on the forms of a New World nation and DuBois follows Lanier's reliance on those of an Old World race—not the Anglo-Saxon but, to use DuBois's term, the Negro race.

By linking Lanier's and DuBois's commitments to racial forms, I will demonstrate that their categories of Anglo-Saxon and Negro are structurally identical, each relying on racialized sound. What this similarity suggests is that the commitment to race-specific sound was not just to what Houston Baker has called “African sound” and Eric Sundquist “a sound that is … Pan-African”—but it was also, and initially, to Pan-Anglo-Saxon sound.6 Moreover, by questioning the plausibility of such panracial sound, whether Anglo-Saxon or Negro, I will show that relying on form to do the work of racial identity ultimately amounts to an act of arbitrary imposition, one that appropriates literary form to the project of underwriting the racial politics emerging in the postbellum United States. Finally, I will show that this racialist approach to sound substantially alters the cultural significance of poems, shifting the focus from the meanings they convey to the sounds—and thus the races—they embody.


Lanier's interest in Anglo-Saxon sounds stands apart from other prominent discussions of Anglo-Saxon in the United States during the nineteenth century. The centrality of Anglo-Saxon to the curriculum at the University of Virginia (1819), for instance, reflected Thomas Jefferson's aim of inculcating solid citizenship in young Americans who, he writes, “will imbibe with the language their free principles of government.”7 By midcentury this educational goal had escalated into Manifest Destiny's geopolitical mission of imposing Anglo-Saxon institutions on “inferior” non-Americans.8 A corollary to this expansionist Anglo-Saxonism was an insular nativist desire to protect New England's Anglo-Saxon elite from the influx of supposedly “degenerate” immigrants.9 In a specifically Southern version of this insularity, one presumably closer to Lanier's interests, defeated Confederates drew “a cultural analogy that aligned Southerners with Anglo-Saxons and Northerners with the Normans,” an analogy that “provided comfort to Southerners who believed their region had been unjustly conquered by antidemocratic forces”; like the Anglo-Saxons before them, they too would preserve and perpetuate their indigenous values, embodied in the Confederate cause.10 While this analogy may help explain an upsurge in Anglo-Saxon language instruction in the postwar South,11 such nostalgia for the Confederacy runs counter not only to ideas Lanier put forth in the Centennial Cantata but also to his other statements of support for sectional reconciliation. Lanier's interest in Anglo-Saxon sound was driven, then, not by lingering sectionalism but by a desire for national reunification, and he was able to turn it in that direction through his involvement with two emerging academic disciplines.

The first of these disciplines was scientific philology, which Lanier encountered at Johns Hopkins, a research university patterned after the German model and founded in Baltimore in 1876. Having moved to Baltimore in 1873 to play flute in a local orchestra, Lanier petitioned Daniel Coit Gilman, the university's first president, for an appointment in “Poetry and Music,”12 and he later proposed a course “suitable to a student of philology who is pursuing Anglo-Saxon.”13 Gilman, however, was seeking a specialist in philology; although Lanier was eventually appointed Lecturer in English in 1879, in the meantime Gilman arranged visiting lectures by William Dwight Whitney, whose The Life and Growth of Language (1875) had set out the general aim of the new school of philologists.14 Countering earlier romantic philologists who claimed that “words get themselves attributed to things by a kind of mysterious natural process, in which men have no part,” Whitney describes language as made up of “signs which have no … natural and necessary connection with the conceptions they indicate … but are … arbitrary and conventional.”15 Language is ultimately a human “institution” in which “the community as final tribunal … decides whether anything shall be language or not” (LGL, [The Life and Growth of Language] 280, 150). This commitment of the new philology to what Kenneth Cmiel calls a “social compact theory of language” figures prominently in Lanier's “From Bacon to Beethoven,” an essay composed in 1876, the year of Whitney's lectures in Baltimore.16 “A language,” Lanier insists, “is a set of tones segregated from the great mass of musical sounds, and endowed, by agreement, with fixed meanings. The Anglo-Saxons have, for example, practically agreed that if the sound man is uttered, the intellects of all Anglo-Saxon hearers will act in a certain direction, and always in that direction for that sound.”17 Lanier's phrase “endowed, by agreement” echoes Whitney's “arbitrary and conventional” signs, demonstrating Lanier's embrace of the fundamental claims of the new philology.

In embracing these claims, however, Lanier ultimately aims to redirect attention away from scientific philology and toward his own, somewhat different, concern: pure sound. If a language is “a set of tones segregated from the great mass of musical sounds, and endowed, by agreement, with fixed meanings,” then “in the case of music,” he continues, “no such convention has been made” (“BB,” [“From Bacon to Beethoven”] 276). Musical tones do not start out as meaningful; on the contrary, as part of “the great mass of musical sounds,” they are “wholly devoid of intellectual signification in themselves” (“BB,” 277), acquiring meanings only when incorporated into the conventions of a given language. The mistake, then, according to Lanier, is to read the effects of this social process—the arbitrary assignment of meanings to sounds—back onto the original reservoir of musical sounds and assume that music itself is meaningful.18 Thus Lanier urges readers “to abandon immediately the idea that music is a species of language,—which is not true,—and to substitute for that the converse idea that language is a species of music” (“BB,” 276); language, then, is music with a difference—with conventional meanings attached. Moreover, although linked arbitrarily to a meaning, tones retain their initial independence from that meaning, and Lanier's aim is to focus attention on this ongoing musical dimension of a language, its status as an object not of linguistics but of “Acoustics.”19 Scientific philologists like Whitney, then, helped Lanier specify how linguists approach language, treating musical tones as arbitrary but meaningful signs, so that he could then set out his own quite separate desire to restore the tones of a language to their status as mere sound. Rescuing language's “musical sounds” from the procedures of linguistic analysis marks an important first step in Lanier's effort to imagine the Anglo-Saxon sounds of his Centennial Cantata as a basis for sectional reconciliation.

Lanier not only separates a language's musical status from its semantic function, he also elevates the former over the latter; to do so, he draws from a second academic discipline, the opera theory of Richard Wagner. Wagner's Beethoven (1870)—which Lanier read and on which he commented20—describes the Ninth Symphony as a “choral cantata” (much like Lanier's Centennial Cantata) and asserts that “the music bears no relation to the verses other than it would bear to any ‘vocal text’”—that is, the words to Schiller's “Ode to Joy” bear no special or privileged relation to Beethoven's music.21 Thus the words matter to Beethoven's symphony not for the message Schiller asks them to convey but for the sounds Beethoven himself uses them to produce. “[I]n truth,” writes Wagner, “it is not the sense of the words that takes hold of us when the human voice enters, but the tone of the human voice itself” (B, [Beethoven] 70). Because Beethoven composes with the tones of human voices as well as those of violins and trumpets, this attention to tone over sense illustrates, for Wagner (and for Lanier), the general principle that “[a] union of music with poetry must … always result in … a subordination of the latter” (B, 74).22 Having praised Beethoven for this innovation, Wagner goes on to compose his remaining operas according to this principle of subordinating libretto to score.23

What Wagner does for opera, Lanier's The Science of English Verse (1880) does for poetry, but while Wagner sees a hierarchy between the libretto and the score that subordinates words to music, Lanier finds it within the poem itself—that is, between its words understood as Whitney's arbitrary signs and its words understood as Wagner's musical sounds. Anglo-Saxons may well have “practically agreed that if the sound man is uttered, the intellects of all Anglo-Saxon hearers will act in a certain direction, and always in that direction for that sound,” but this convention is effectively suspended when the sound “man” appears in a poem (“BB,” 276). “In fine,” writes Lanier, “when the term ‘words’ is used as describing the peculiar set of sounds used in verse, the reader must understand it merely as a convenient method of singling out that specialized set of musical sounds made by the musical instrument called ‘the human speaking-voice.’”24 And for Lanier, “[T]he tones of the human voice are in themselves as meaningless, intellectually, as the tones of all other reed-instruments” (“BB,” 280). In the case of “formal poetry silently perused by the eye of a reader,” the words on the page are not semantic symbols but sound-indicators: “[T]he characters of print or writing in which the words are embodied are simply signs of sounds” (SEV, [The Science of English Verse] 21). Ultimately, for Lanier, “formal poetry … impresses itself upon the ear as verse only by means of certain relations existing among its component words considered purely as sounds, without reference to their associated ideas.”

By abandoning the philologist's concern with conventional meaning while retaining the medium of musical sound, the writer of poetry thus becomes a composer of music. This 1880 treatise helps clarify Lanier's 1876 cantata text. Unlike Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, in which the text of Schiller's “Ode to Joy” is, according to Wagner, subordinate to the music, Lanier's poem is music; Columbia's statement “I was: I am: and I shall be,” then, does not produce meaning conventionally, for as a line of poetry, it is just sound, and as sound, it has no meaning. Properly construed, this “meaningless” line tells us nothing at all about the continuity of national identity in the United States; rather, it is just being music. Thus the Centennial Cantata is not the union of a Southerner's text with a Northerner's music so much as a single, jointly composed musical score; in that sense, it would seem to provide a more potent symbol of postwar reconciliation than a pairing of text and music ever could. Instead of reproducing the distinction between North and South in the difference between text and music, it replaces that distinction with an internally unified national artifact—one medium for one United States.


To describe the Centennial Cantata as national music, however, is to overlook Lanier's concern with race, which emerges as he distances himself from contemporary debates on proper usage. Whitney, among others, used his philological findings to critique the notion, widely held among verbal critics, that “proper” language was the basis of an ideal cultural ethos. If all conventions of usage are intrinsically arbitrary, Whitney reasons, then no pattern of usage is more proper than another, and thus no speaker can legitimately invoke language practice to claim superior standing. This line of argument leads scientific philologists like Whitney to accept the shifting usage and slang so galling to verbal critics, for as Whitney asserts, the ultimate justification of any usage, whether refined or slang, is necessarily circular: “‘It was the usage’” (LGL, 141).25 A similar turn from the goal of “proper” usage is evident in Lanier's 1879 Johns Hopkins lectures, but instead of merely dismissing usage as Whitney does, Lanier replaces the ethos of language users with the ethos of the language itself:

You may have observed that I sometimes speak of the Anglo-Saxon tongue with that peculiar kind of veneration which we accord to a great hero who has fought his way into a lofty position through unspeakable checks and discouragements. English is indeed the Washington of languages; and when you shall have reviewed with me for a moment the astonishing vicissitudes and overwhelming oppressions through which our Anglo-Saxon tongue has managed not only to preserve its idioms but to conquer into its own forms all the alien elements which have often seemed to tyrannize over it, I feel sure your reverence for it will be as great as my own.26

While “reverence” is central here, it is reverence not for users of proper English but for English itself, as a self: by personifying Anglo-Saxon as an entity in its own right, as “the Washington of languages,” Lanier makes explicit his impulse in the Centennial Cantata to replace the heroic national figure Columbia with his real hero, “our Anglo-Saxon tongue.” Like Whitney, Lanier has no “reverence” for high usage over low, but unlike Whitney, Lanier does have reverence for persistent identity over assimilation. Thus the ability of Anglo-Saxon “to conquer … alien elements” and to incorporate them into its “lofty position” is ultimately a tribute to its ability to “preserve its idioms [and] … its own forms”—to remain itself. Whitney takes for granted the fact that “[a]ll living language is in a condition of constant growth and change” and seeks a descriptive “classification of the kinds of linguistic change,” but Lanier personifies the language as an entity struggling to resist such change (LGL, 33, 36).27 While philologists describe and verbal critics prescribe usage, Lanier sets usage aside altogether to focus on the identity inhering in the language itself: despite the changes that Whitney catalogues and verbal critics castigate, the language was, is, and ever shall be.

Lanier does more than praise the language's heroic self-preservation; his lecture also analyzes how it was achieved, addressing what he calls “poetic Form.”28 While Lanier admits that the language has undergone the very changes Whitney describes in grammar, pronunciation, and semantics, becoming almost unrecognizable to contemporary English speakers,29 in poetic form, Anglo-Saxon remains, as he claims here of Beowulf, the same as it always was: “These words look strange and rugged enough to you at first; but on scanning them attentively, presently you will find one after another putting on a very familiar face and speaking to you with the voice of an old friend.”30 This familiarity stems from a “sense of rhythm which is well-nigh universal in our race,” something “founded upon the rhythmic practices of the fathers” (SEV, 113, 146)—not founding fathers like Washington but Anglo-Saxon poets of a thousand years ago. Thus while Thomas Jefferson's Anglo-Saxonism focuses on the legal codes of tribal chiefs (leading him to propose two such chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, as central figures on the great seal of the United States),31 Lanier's Anglo-Saxonism subordinates codes of conduct to scansion of poetic form, inspiring him to prepare two editions of ancient poetry to introduce children to Anglo-Saxon rhythms.32 Lanier thus replaces Jefferson's reliance on Anglo-Saxon legal codes for instilling national character with a pattern of sound for perpetuating Anglo-Saxon racial identity.

Lanier's The Science of English Verse gets more specific about racial sounds when it identifies the formal features constituting the persistence of the Anglo-Saxon race over time: “From the beginning of English poetry … through all the wonderful list down to the present day, every long poem and nearly every important short poem in the English language has been written in some form of 3-rhythm” (SEV, 110). Focusing on an example from the tenth century [“The Battle of Maldon,” reproduced in Sidney Lanier, The Science of English Verse (1880; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894), 146-48.] Lanier proceeds “to arrange twenty-five lines … so that the general reader though wholly unacquainted with Anglo-Saxon may represent to himself with tolerable accuracy the swing and lilt of the original sounds.” Setting the words beneath musical staves, with each staff containing the three primary beats of his “3-rhythm,” he provides “directions” for “pronunciation” (SEV, 114). What results is a “musical map” for reproducing, even in the absence of comprehension, “the mighty rhythm which beats through all these songs” (SEV, 118, 112). Commenting on the result, he concludes: “[I]n truth I do not know where to look in English poetry, old or new, for a succession of words which make more manly music as mere sounds” (SEV, 119).33

Not only older poems display this race-specific sound; Lanier also finds “the most modern English verse tending into the very specific forms of 3-rhythm used by our earliest ancestral poets” (SEV, 137). Lanier describes Tennyson, his contemporary, as having “carried-on the ancient battle-rhythmus of the fathers,” which “never varies from the beginning to the end of what we may call Anglo-Saxon poetry” (SEV, 142, 120). This continuity likewise applies to Lanier's own work. Having composed his Centennial Cantata in the precise forms—the “abrupt vocables”—of these Anglo-Saxon fathers, his line “I was: I am: and I shall be” is not only, as we saw before, simply being music (rather than being about the United States), it is also being Anglo-Saxon. Lanier, it would seem, is less an American than an Anglo-Saxon poet, and his Centennial Cantata is less a centennial celebration of the nation than a millennial celebration of what he calls “our race” (SEV, 113).

Yet if words, as poetry, cease to mean and thus become pure sounds, why should the designation Anglo-Saxon still apply? If a poem's sound is just sound, with no institution of meanings behind it, then there is nothing necessarily Anglo-Saxon about it. Lanier himself effectively acknowledges this point when he suggests “the simple experiment of substituting for the words of a formal poem any other words which preserve the accentuation, alliteration, and rhyme, but which convey no ideas to the mind,—words of some foreign language not understood by the experimenter being the most effective for this purpose. Upon repeating aloud the poem thus treated,” he says, “it will be found that the verse-structure has not been impaired” (SEV, 21). If the verse-structure remains intact, then the poem, which is nothing more than this verse-structure, remains itself. The words of a language like Anglo-Saxon are thus sufficient but not necessary to produce these sounds. But why, after separating these sounds from a given language's conventional codes, retain that language's name? If the label Anglo-Saxon serves to specify the institutionalized codes or conventions needed to decipher meanings but no meanings are present—if poems are music, not language—then why make reference to such codes?34

Yet it is precisely Lanier's assimilation of poetry to music that enables a poem's Anglo-Saxon identity. Standing aloof from changing conventions, a rhythmic pattern arbitrarily designated as the embodiment of a language's identity allows that language to appear to be one self—like “the Washington of languages.” For Lanier, the heterogeneity of conventions is overcome by the continuity of sound, which is more than mere sound in its also being Anglo-Saxon sound. As such, it remains itself across time, from the tenth century through Tennyson. For Lanier, the arbitrariness of casting these forms as essentially racial presents no obstacle; race inheres in the formal features of archaic poetry, and the superintendents of racial continuity are people like himself, literary scholars empowered by their critical procedures to discern the racial identity intrinsic to a line. Poems become a repository for metrical effects that lie ready to be disclosed by formal analysis so that they can do the work of embodying the persistence of a race. While Lanier's application of musical notation to the study of poems has made only a marginal impact on prosody,35 of far greater significance, we will see, has been this idea of reducing poems to racial music in order to assert the persistence of a race's identity.36


Lanier's reduction of poems to music encounters the opposite claim in Whitman's “Eidólons,” a poem first published in 1876 and collected in that year's edition of Leaves of Grass. The poem's speaker meets a “seer” who encourages him to “Put in thy chants … / … eidólons,” which “Ever shall be, ever have been and are” (LG, 5, 7). Whitman's line virtually repeats Lanier's “I was: I am: and I shall be,” but while Lanier's line consists not of words but sounds (sounds that do not refer but, rather, embody “the ancient battle-rhythmus of the fathers”), Whitman's line contains words that merely mean, describing without also embodying “[t]he entities of entities, eidólons” (LG, 7). Thus Whitman separates the poem itself from the eidólon, and his commitment to doing so stems from the poem's more general adherence to a Swedenborgian doctrine of correspondences.37 That is, the poem aligns all physical objects with privileged metaphysical counterparts (“The true realities” [LG, 7]), as in the following correlation of the physical body with its more “permanent” eidólon:

                    Thy body permanent,
The body lurking there within thy body,
The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself,
                    An image, an eidólon.

(LG, 8)

By establishing a correspondence between the “body” and the “body permanent,” the poem precludes a conflation of the two entities: “Thy very songs not in thy songs” (LG, 8). But if the poem cannot be its own eidólon, its “very song,” it can at least be about such eidólons, and this is precisely the seer's advice. To “Put in thy chants … / … eidólons” is to make poems that sing “No more the puzzling hour nor day, nor segments, parts” but that, instead, sing about “The whole … summ'd, added up, / In its eidólon” (LG, 5, 6). To embrace the seer's advice, however, is to turn from Lanier's practice. For Whitman's speaker, poems are words instead of music, so they merely represent instead of embodying the eidólons that “Ever shall be, ever have been and are”; instead of embodying permanence (as does Lanier's line), they merely report it.

If Whitman differs from Lanier in distinguishing between the “very song” and the poem, he resembles him in equating these very songs with the identity of a people—not Anglo-Saxons but Americans. Just as material objects have eidólons, so do nations, and as the United States emerges materially as a nation, it releases corresponding national eidólons:

                    The present now and here,
America's busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
Of aggregate and segregate for only thence releasing,
                    To-day's eidólons.

(LG, 6)

In the 1876 “Preface” to Leaves of Grass, Whitman quotes from “Eidólons” to specify the general project of all his poems: “The Prophet and the Bard / … Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy—interpret yet to them, / God and Eidólons” (LG, 755). Himself such a “Bard,” Whitman writes poems that, as a group, seek to “mediate” the relation between Americans and the eidólons they release, helping them look past their selves to see their very selves: “I … now bequeath Poems and Essays as nutriment and influences … to furnish something toward what The States most need of all, … namely, to show them, or begin to show them, Themselves distinctively” (LG, 754). This ambition to “show” Americans their very selves makes Whitman the kind of poet the seer suggests, a witness (“as I have lived in fresh lands … in a revolutionary age, … I have felt to identity the points of that age” [LG, 755]) whose poems testify to the enduring significance of the United States as a nation. Thus while Lanier features poems that embody (and indeed perpetuate by embodying) the sounds of the Anglo-Saxon past, Whitman searches for poems that “show” the eidólons produced in an unfolding American present; thus, Lanier's and Whitman's poetry opposes racial embodiment in a poem's musical sound to national representation via a poem's mediating words.

Whitman's 1876 “Preface” describes his poems as “my recitatives” (LG, 755) in reference to the inspiration he drew from the opera (“But for the opera I could never have written Leaves of Grass38), but his model was the libretto rather than the score, and in his 1881 essay “The Poetry of the Future” Whitman explicitly criticizes contemporary poetry's excessive focus on sound.39 Assessing “our New World Progress,” Whitman laments that “the prevailing flow of poetry … is (like the music) an expression of mere surface melody,” which, while “perfectly satisfying to the demands of the ear,” nevertheless “shrinks with aversion from the sturdy, the universal, the democratic” (PW, [Prose Works] 2:490, 481). Mere surface melody fails to mediate these New World “eidólons,” and like Lanier, Whitman associates this melodic impulse with a “current leading literary illustrator of Great Britain” (PW, 2:485, 478)—Tennyson—whose “verbal melody” shows him to be a “feudalistic” “attaché of the throne” (PW, 2:477, 479, 477). What Whitman seeks, instead, is the work of “future poets … referring not to a special class, but to the entire people,” the people of “the great radical Republic with its … loud, ill-pitch'd voice, utterly regardless whether the verb agrees with the nominative” (PW, 2:486, 478). This embrace of improper grammar not only invokes contemporary debates about proper usage (that is, the distinction between the proper language use of a “special class” and the improper language use of the “entire people”), it also superimposes on that distinction a further distinction between two nations, between the English (who speak properly) and the Americans (who do not).40 Calling for writing that Tennyson “cannot stomach,” Whitman hopes to encourage an “autochthonous national poetry,” “a national poetry which was not English but American” (PW, 2:478, 484, 481).

In a rebuttal explicitly targeted at this essay, Lanier equates Whitman's call for a “loud, ill-pitch'd voice” with the “crye” of an enemy attacking “English warriors”: “And so the Poetry of the Future has advanced upon us …, relying upon its loud, ill-pitched voice.”41 In response to this assault, Lanier alters Whitman's terms: no longer a matter of improper American usage attacking proper English usage (a question of national difference), he sees in this confrontation Anglo-Saxon forms perpetuating themselves (a question of racial identity). Thus although Whitman “shouts … of a progress that claims to be winning freedom by substituting formlessness for form,” Anglo-Saxon—“the Washington of languages”—nevertheless retains its essential forms: “Perhaps we may fairly say, gentlemen, it is five hundred years too late to attempt to capture Englishmen with a yell,” for Whitman's strategy “never yet succeeded as against Anglo-Saxon people.”42 It is not that proper usage defeats improper usage (one nation defeats another) but that form preserves itself against formlessness (racial form remains itself, preserves its identity).

Indeed, this victory of formal persistence is not so much in spite of Whitman but because of him, for according to Lanier, Whitman—despite his effort to write in an English that embraces improper American usage—writes unwittingly in the rhythmic forms of Anglo-Saxon. …

What Lanier finds in Whitman's lines are not brash claims but Anglo-Saxon forms, and he suggests that Whitman's best results come when he quits trying to pass as an American poet and instead embraces his poetry's essential Anglo-Saxonness: “[O]n the occasion when Whitman has abandoned his theory of formlessness and written in form he has made My Captain, O My Captain [sic] surely one of the most tender and beautiful poems in any language” (LII, [“Lecture II”] 39).43 Whitman claimed that his poems were written for Americans in order “to show them … Themselves distinctively,” but Lanier's formal analysis is indifferent to showing and concerned instead with being, so he recasts revolutionary “formlessness” as persistent Anglo-Saxon sound. Properly construed, the American national poet is in fact—just like Tennyson—a poet of the Anglo-Saxon race.44


I emphasize these differences in the poetics of Whitman and Lanier to suggest that what is at stake in their disagreement is what one might describe as the emergence of a distinctly racialist poetics. Whitman could insist on the difference between patterns of usage in America and Great Britain because he thought differences in usage were consistent with differences in nationality. Lanier, however, equates the American and English languages, insisting both are Anglo-Saxon, because he considers their national differences entirely compatible with their racial identity; that is, he treats the difference between Great Britain and the United States (the difference between two nations and their conventions of usage) as separate from and subordinate to the continuity of Anglo-Saxon form. Indeed, for Lanier, differences in usage between two nations are as easily overcome as those between two periods in history—all are unified by the ongoing presence of racial rhythm. Lanier extends this Anglo-Saxon identity across national boundaries when he claims to find examples of pure Anglo-Saxon pronunciation not only among Americans—thus, “many words in Chaucer [are] spelled exactly as they are pronounced by a Georgia ‘cracker’ at this day”45—but also among Scotsmen: “[T]he Scotch dialect to the present day … presents us with many interesting old Anglo-Saxon words in the very forms used by our forefathers.”46 For Lanier, the Scots are, from the perspective of race, as Anglo-Saxon as the Americans.

This racialist poetics helps Lanier solve a problem he had posed in an earlier poem, “Civil Rights” (1874). Written in opposition to the Civil Rights Bill of 1874, this poem registers Lanier's more general disappointment with the legal measures through which Reconstruction sought to reunite the nation.47 It features a Southern speaker who, while conceding that “My way was clear to like 'em [the Yankees], and to treat 'em brotherlee,” then complains about the racial equality imposed by “this Civil Rights”:

“Them Yanks had throwed us overboard from off the Ship of State.
Yes, throwed us both—both black and white—into the ragin' sea,
With but one rotten plank to hold; while they, all safe and free,
Stands on the deck, and rams their hands into their pockets tight,
And laughs to see we both must drown, or live by makin' fight!
For, Jeems, what in this mortal world of trouble kin be done?
They've made this Southern plank so rotten, it will not bear but one!
.....By God! ef they don't fling a rope, I'll push the nigger in!”

(PPO, [Poems and Poem Outlines] 41-42)

The problem, according to this speaker, is that Northern-backed legislation like the Civil Rights Bill places Southern whites, many of whom were already denied civil status because of their rebel activities, in competition with newly enfranchised blacks.48 The response this speaker envisions, to “push the nigger in,” both offensively and succinctly captures the contemporary politics that Eric Foner describes: while the late 1860s saw a “New Departure” in which Southern “Democrats … proclaimed their realism and moderation and promised to ease racial tensions,” the period after the 1873 depression saw a change as “Democrats throughout the South were abandoning the centrist rhetoric of the New Departure in favor of a return to the open racism of early Reconstruction” (R, [Reconstruction] 412, 547). Assisted by Klan violence, this change ultimately led to a widespread sense of “Redemption” for whites, and their return to an exclusive hold on power.49 More than merely a Southern policy, Redemption enjoyed the tacit support of Northern whites as well, for as Foner notes, by 1875, “Northern support for Reconstruction was on the wane” and “Congressional Republicans had little stomach for further intervention in Southern affairs” (R, 544, 556). They thus permitted a return to “home rule” (R, 581), the 1877 Hayes-Tilden compromise reflecting implicit acceptance of the Redeemers' white supremacist programs.50 As the Nation remarked after the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, “The negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.”51 Lanier's speaker proves prophetic: it is now blacks, and no longer Southern whites, who would be thrown overboard from the ship of state, and the remaining Northerners and Southerners would now stand together as whites—no longer as regional antagonists but as racial partners. Taking the initiative upon themselves, Southern whites like Lanier would “fling a rope” to Northern whites and replace the regional conflict of Reconstruction with the supposed racial unity of Redemption.

Lanier's “Civil Rights” anticipates Redemption not only thematically, in the proposal to “push the nigger in,” but also formally, in its being “written in the dialect of the Georgia crackers,”52 a medium, as we have seen, that Lanier treats as a repository for Anglo-Saxon sounds. Thus, when viewed from the perspective of Lanier's later racialist poetics, this poem's form solves the problem raised by its theme: its Anglo-Saxon sounds already embody the shared racial whiteness that would provide the basis of Redemption. Viewed in this way, “Civil Rights” anticipates the racial commitments of the following year's Centennial Cantata text. The chief difference between the two poems, then, is not formal (since both have Anglo-Saxon sounds) but thematic: the Centennial Cantata replaces the threat of resistance that “Civil Rights” presents to Northern legislation (“I'll push the nigger in!”) with its own commitment to Anglo-Saxon racial identity (“I was: I am: and I shall be”). Placing the North's “Plymouth” in apposition—and not opposition—to the South's “Jamestown,” the Centennial Cantata gives each region a link to white colonial settlement while making no mention of the slave trade or the middle passage. By ignoring the connections of blacks to the Old World (of Africa, not Europe) and emphasizing instead each section's shared tie to Old World Anglo-Saxonism, Lanier directs the nation toward his own vision of postwar unity. We see, then, the political implications of Lanier's poetic break with Whitman: by emphasizing continuity with Britain over Whitman's New World Nationality, Lanier's Centennial Cantata does not so much restore the legal Union as it imposes a racial alternative to Union, and the celebration that results features a unity and continuity that are ultimately more racial than national.


Lanier's exclusion of African Americans from the American centennial exemplifies the kind of treatment the Fisk Jubilee Singers frequently endured. Although the group “sang the slave songs so deeply into the world's heart that it can never wholly forget them again,”53 J. B. T. Marsh's history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers registers the “odious and cruel caste-spirit” that confronted the group during its 1870 performances. But Marsh goes on to emphasize that the group's music did much to “break down” such “prejudice against color” and to promote, instead, the cause of “social equality.”54 An 1872 concert in Boston, for instance, “was worth more than a Congressional enactment in bringing that audience to the true ground on the question of ‘civil rights’” (SJS, [The Story of the Jubilee Singers] 42). This openness proved even greater when the tour left the United States for Britain: at the same time that Lanier was writing the “cracker” dialect of his poem “Civil Rights,” the Jubilee Singers were receiving special reception in Scotland (SJS, 62), and soon after, while Lanier was proposing Anglo-Saxon sounds as the basis of his Centennial Cantata, “the great Christian heart of England gave [the Jubilee Singers] a specially fraternal greeting” (SJS, 82). “After three months in London,” observes one historian, “they invaded and conquered the rest of the British Isles.”55 Capturing Englishmen with a song, their performance succeeded where, according to Lanier, Whitman's “loud, ill-pitched voice” could not.56

The Jubilee Singers did not limit themselves to conquering the seat of Lanier's Anglo-Saxon language, for their success led them to ask the same question about their songs that Lanier had raised about poems: “Would the slave songs keep their power where the words lost their meaning?” The “where” in question was “on the Continent,” and the answer proved to be a resounding yes (SJS, 86). As in England, where “that earnest, evangelistic element in the churches … prized their services of song as an effective ally in gospel effort,” so too in Germany “the same class of Christian people … met them with the same fraternal heartiness, and rejoiced in this unique instrumentality for bringing gospel truth to the formalists and the materialists whom it was so difficult to reach” (SJS, 96). Thus the songs are an “instrumentality” for producing a “Christian people,” one that is “the same” despite differences in language, nationality, and race—a people, in other words, that is neither racial nor national but ecumenical.57 Encouraged by their international success, the Jubilee Singers “decided to circumnavigate the globe,” making stops in Australia, Japan, and India. While in India they sang at the Taj-Mahal, where “the tones of that beautiful slave song, ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ … awoke the stillness of that most wonderful of temples” (SJS, 124, 146). By singing at the Taj-Mahal they effectively accomplished their own version of the passage to India confidently predicted in Whitman's poetry, for by establishing “the spiritual as a worldwide phenomenon,”58 their songs became the “international poems” that Whitman had called for in “The Poetry of the Future.”59

In 1890, “having made the circuit of the globe,” the Jubilee Singers returned to America to find, as the group's leader put it, that they were “no longer free from that prejudice … which we had not met with in any other quarter of the globe” (SJS, 152-53). What distinguishes the United States from other nations of the world is its persistent racial prejudice toward African Americans, even despite the achievements of the Jubilee Singers. The notion that the slave songs serve as a reproach to American nationality stands diametrically opposed to the claim Antonín Dvořák would make about them: “It is my opinion,” he wrote the New York Herald in May 1893, “that I find a sure foundation in the Negro melodies for a new national school of music … in America.”60 Instead of belonging anywhere but America, as the leader of the Jubilee Singers had suggested, the “Negro melodies,” Dvořák claims, belong to America exclusively. To Dvořák, they are a unique instrumentality for bringing not gospel truth but national identity; the same songs whose international appeal had enabled the Jubilee Singers to overcome national difference serve Dvořák as a “foundation … for” it. For Dvořák, the songs are not ecumenical but national, consolidating not a Christian but an American people.

The question of American national identity became a matter of concern for Dvořák after he assumed the directorship of New York's National Conservatory of Music in September 1892. Immediately after his arrival he found himself drawn into ongoing debates about the prospect of an American national music. “I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner for the public,” he asserts. “This is not my work and I would not waste any time on it. I came to discover what young Americans had in them and to help them to express it.”61 As this search unfolded, however, Dvořák discovered that Americans themselves were increasingly unsure about how to describe their nationality, given the ever expanding influx of foreign immigrants, and, in particular, the so-called “new immigration” from southern and eastern Europe.62 Dvořák's experience in New York led him to recognize the perspective of those who would argue against an American national music: “Because the population of the United States is composed of many different races … and because … the music of all the world is quickly absorbed in this country, they argue that nothing specially original or national can come forth.”63 But while Dvořák acknowledges this account of a hopelessly heterogeneous nation, he nevertheless continues to search for a music that will give it unity:

All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never hea[r]d them before. When a Tcech, a Pole, or a Magyar in this country suddenly hears one of his folk-songs or dances, no matter if it is for the first time in his life, his eyes light up at once, and his heart within him responds, and claims that music as his own. So it is with those of Teutonic or Celtic blood. … It is a proper question to ask, what songs, then, belong to the American and appeal more strongly to him than any others? What melody could stop him on the street if he were in a strange land and make the home feeling well up within him?

(DA, [Dvořák in America] 376)

As potential sources for this American music, Dvořák lists “the songs of the creoles, the red man's chant, or the plaintive ditties of the homesick German or Norwegian,” but “according to my estimation,” he concludes, the “most potent as well as the most beautiful among them … are certain of the so-called plantation melodies and slave songs” (DA, 377), the same music he had singled out early in his visit. Dvořák associates these songs not with Africa but with the Negro in the South,64 and he casts them as the music of all Americans, regardless of race or region: “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. … The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.”65 This sentiment is not racial (as with Lanier's “veneration” for the tones of the Anglo-Saxon tongue) or ecumenical (as with the “Christian song” of the Jubilee Singers) but national: “To read the right meaning the composer need not necessarily be of the same blood,” Dvořák asserts, since “white composers” can write “touching Negro songs” that show a “sympathetic comprehension of the deep pathos of slave life.”66 Dvořák himself undertook such an effort in his symphonic arrangement of the spiritual “Old Folks at Home,” and he described the resulting work as “purely national.”67

Dvořák, then, envisions an America like Whitman's, a New World nation distinct from its European antecedents. Just as Whitman's poems advocate a “New World Nationality,” so Dvořák has a similar ambition in his symphony From the New World: “My new symphony is … an endeavor to portray characteristics, such as are distinctly American.”68 In preparing it, Dvořák sought exposure to Negro melodies by asking Henry Burleigh, an African American student at the National Conservatory, to sing spirituals for him. “It was my privilege,” Burleigh wrote, “to sing repeatedly some of the old plantation songs for him at his house, and one in particular, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ greatly pleased him, and part of this old spiritual will be found in the second theme of the first movement of the [symphony From the New World], first given out by the flute.”69

The flute was Lanier's instrument—he played first chair in Baltimore's Peabody Orchestra—and had he not suffered an early death at age 39, the Baltimore premiere of Dvořák's symphony would no doubt have featured him on this solo. The scenario, although hypothetical, is worth considering: Lanier, a former Confederate soldier and ardent Anglo-Saxon, performing a Negro spiritual in Dvořák's all-American symphony. Lanier had turned to music to identify an Anglo-Saxon race, an alternative to Reconstruction's ongoing conflict between sections, but the hypothetical idea of his playing the “Swing Low” melody suggests that Dvořák's music produces an entirely different kind of identity, one that rises above the friction Lanier experienced between North and South and blacks and whites, or the conflict Dvořák observed between immigrants and natives. Dvořák's effort to transform cultural heterogeneity into U.S. nationality aligns his project with Whitman's: both turn to songs—whether Whitman's recitatives or Dvořák's melodies—to establish a national people in the United States.

In describing these musical forms as national, Dvořák diverges from the description in the book distributed by the Jubilee Singers during their tours. That book's “Preface to the Music” casts the songs as resistant to national designations, like the international audience of the touring singers:

It is a coincidence worthy of note that more than half the melodies … are in the same scale as that in which Scottish music is written; that is, with the fourth and seventh tones omitted. The fact that the music of the ancient Greeks is also said to have been written in this scale suggests an interesting inquiry as to whether it may not be a peculiar language of nature, or a simpler alphabet than the ordinary diatonic scale, in which the uncultivated mind finds its easiest expression.70

Here the songs Dvořák built into his symphony From the New World are the “peculiar language of nature,” not of a nation—the mark of a primitive human, not a specific national, culture. In one sense Dvořák agreed, for in a newspaper interview he concedes the formal identity between the plantation melodies and the music of other nations: “I found that the music of the Negroes and of the Indians was practically identical,”71 adding that “the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland” (DA, 362): “[T]he Scotch scale, if I may so call it, has been used to impart a certain color to musical composition. … The device is a common one”—so common, he continues, that many composers have used it, including Mendelssohn, David, Verdi, and Dvořák himself. “In fact,” he notes, “the scale in question is only a certain form of the ancient ecclesiastical modes” that “have been employed time and time again” (DA, 363)—a mode so common that musicologists continue to discuss it, labeling it Dorian,72 which is itself, according to Webster's Tenth, the name of “an ancient Hellenic race.”

To Dvořák, these plantation songs are as plausibly Scottish or Greek as they are Negro or Indian, yet acknowledging this point in no way diminishes his conviction that they are the basis for a music that is distinctively American. This problem of classification raises the same question about Dvořák's symphony that I asked about Lanier's Anglo-Saxon poem: as musical sounds devoid of conventional meanings, on what grounds should these expressive works bear the name of a specific social group? These sounds may be found in these cultures, but if these cultures impose none of their conventional meanings upon them, are these cultures—Scottish, Negro, U.S., Greek—in these sounds?73

A contemporary music critic, James Huneker, raises this very question in his review of Dvořák's From the New World. Turning to the first movement's second theme (the version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” played by the flute), he describes it as “negro or oriental, just as you choose.”74 When Dvořák chooses, he calls it American, and while Huneker implies that such choices are purely arbitrary, Dvořák, openly acknowledging the formal identity among these scales, nevertheless insists that his designation is the right one. Lanier had taken the same approach to the “3-rhythm” of poems, insisting that it was intrinsically Anglo-Saxon. And just as sound's embodiment of a culture was an opportunity for Lanier, helping him unify the heterogeneity of Anglo-Saxon across time, so too it was an opportunity for Dvořák, a means for unifying the people of the United States despite an accelerating influx of diverse immigrant groups.


The orchestras Dvořák conducted figure prominently in another work from this period, W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In chapter 13, “Of the Coming of John,” John attends a New York performance of Wagner's Lohengrin; as the orchestra plays he begins “to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled” (SBF, [The Souls of Black Folk] 193). But no sooner has John's reverie begun than it is cut short. John's boyhood playmate, a white man, is also in the audience and is uncomfortable with John's presence; he requests that the color line be enforced, so the opera house and its liberating music are suddenly off limits to John. It was in 1895, the year of Dvořák's return to Prague, that the color line received its infamous sanction from Booker T. Washington: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”75 For John, this separation affects him as much in Georgia as it had in New York, and the cumulative insult drives him to kill his boyhood playmate. Lingering by the body, he once again hears Wagner's music, his memory of it blending with the sound of an approaching lynch mob: “Hark! was it music, or the hurry and shouting of men? Yes, surely! Clear and high the faint sweet melody rose and fluttered like a living thing, so that the very earth trembled as with the tramp of horses and murmur of angry men” (SBF, 202). Wagner's white swan becomes indistinguishable from the “white-haired man” with his “coiling twisted rope” (SBF, 203). John had initially treated Wagner's music as a symbol of escape from the South and the color line—as a way to “dwell above the veil” (SBF, 90)—but here the music ultimately merges with the white oppressors and becomes, effectively, white.76

In his next chapter, DuBois explicitly contrasts “the songs of white America” with what Dvořák calls “plantation melodies” and DuBois himself “the Sorrow Songs” (SBF, 209, 204). Dvořák had predicted that Americans would embrace the Negro spirituals as their “distinctively national songs, which they [would] at once recognize as their own, even if they had never hea[r]d them before.” DuBois attributes to the Sorrow Songs the same autochthonous power: “[T]hese songs … came out of the South unknown to me, one by one, and yet at once I knew them as of me and of mine” (SBF, 204). But there is an important difference in the positions of DuBois and Dvořák, for while Dvořák imagines as “American” the person who “claims that music as his own,” DuBois's description of the Sorrow Songs as “of me and of mine” is meant to cast the listener not as an American among Americans but a Negro among Negroes. This is “primitive African music,” he writes, “the voice of exile” in “the foster land” (SBF, 208, 209). Thus DuBois's turn to the Sorrow Songs looks less like Dvořák's search for American national identity and more like Lanier's assertion of Anglo-Saxon racial continuity. DuBois, in other words, treats these songs not as an alternative to racial distinctions but, like Lanier's Anglo-Saxon rhythm, as a basis for making them.77 If DuBois's Sorrow Songs are “of me and of mine,” then others' songs—“the songs of white America” (SBF, 209)—must be of them and of theirs.

What DuBois might have called white Sorrow Songs can be found in Lanier's The Science of English Verse. Here Lanier quotes a thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon poem, “calling attention to a profound mournfulness and gentle dignity which breathe subtly out of the melodious movement of the verse. … Even those who understand no word of Anglo-Saxon must be deeply impressed with the tender sing [sic] which goes all along through the poem, when it is properly read aloud” (SEV, 123). DuBois offers a remarkably similar account of the Negro Sorrow Songs: “My grandfather's grandmother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; and … she … often crooned a heathen melody [that] … we sing … to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music” (SBF, 207). Although “[w]ords and music have lost each other,” DuBois nonetheless knows that “these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world” (SBF, 209, 207); loss of meanings, then, does not compromise the standing of the songs as the embodiment of a race. Agreeing with Lanier that words can be separated from music, DuBois also agrees that these extralinguistic sounds are tied to a particular people. Just as DuBois offers a catalog of the Sorrow Songs, singling out “Ten master songs …—songs of undoubted Negro origin … and … peculiarly characteristic of the slave” (SBF, 208), so Lanier provides his own race-based canon of song: “I have selected out of the body of English poetry five battle-songs, written at intervals of three centuries apart. … Surely no one can regard without interest this succession of manful songs, all moving in exactly the same verse-beat and carrying us on their rhythmic movement, by three-century leaps, through twelve centuries of English verse” (SEV, 137). Both Lanier and DuBois place their respective Sorrow Songs on opposite sides of a musically based color line.78

Included in DuBois's list of “master songs” is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which appears in musical notation as an epigraph to chapter 12 of The Souls of Black Folk. This is the same song that Dvořák gives to the flute in his symphony From the New World, but while Dvořák wants to present it as American national music, DuBois, we see, claims it as distinctively Negro—not of the New World but of the Old World (African, not European) that the slaves brought to America.79 Above this song, DuBois prints a passage from Tennyson. Tennyson had been the explicit object of Whitman's complaint about poetry that is British instead of American, but Lanier had praised Tennyson for having “carried-on the ancient battle-rhythmus of the fathers”; moreover, as we have seen, Lanier assimilated all poetry to music, even placing “the alphabet on exactly the same plane with the common European musical system of notation.”80 Thus Lanier (if not DuBois himself) would have viewed this epigraph from Tennyson as nothing more than musical notation for an Anglo-Saxon song. From Lanier's perspective, then, DuBois's page presents us with two adjacent instances of sound notation; no words, only music. But they are not simply two songs; they are, according to Lanier and DuBois, an Anglo-Saxon song and a Negro song.

While DuBois may not have shared Lanier's investment in reducing Tennyson's poems to Anglo-Saxon sounds, he was deeply invested in the blackness of the Sorrow Songs: “We are that people whose subtle sense of song has given America its only American music,” DuBois wrote in “The Conservation of Races” (1897).81 But this is not “American music” in the Dvořák sense, for while Dvořák had envisioned a single music for a unified New World nation, DuBois asserts of “the Negro people” that “their destiny is not absorption by the white Americans” (“CR,” [“The Conservation of Races”] 23). Seeking to avoid such racial “self-obliteration,” DuBois imagines “200,000,000 black hearts beating in one glad song of jubilee” (“CR,” 24, 23). Race is conserved, then, through the racial identity inherent in these sounds, sounds that were, are, and ever shall be.82 The question, then, is not whether the jubilee songs are intrinsically racial but whether the race they embody is one's own—whether they are “of me and of mine”—and whether one will choose to acknowledge them as such. On this point DuBois's instruction is clear: “[I]t is our duty to conserve … our spiritual ideals; as a race we must strive” toward “that broader humanity”—that cultural pluralism—“which freely recognizes differences in men, but sternly deprecates inequality in their opportunities of development” (“CR,” 25). Difference among races is something DuBois “freely recognizes” so long as its effect on cultural resources is not to restrict access to them (such as excluding John from the Wagner concert) but to regulate how people identify with them. If no one is socially barred from hearing these songs, some are racially barred from identifying with them and others are racially required—“it is our duty” (“CR,” 25)—to view them as “of me and of mine.”

DuBois opposed Booker T. Washington's call for “separation” in “all things purely social,” but he doesn't eliminate the color line so much as displace it, transporting it from a social context to a literary one, making sounds—and, by extension, the people whose sounds they are—seem “as separate as the fingers” of a hand. In 1876 Whitman heralds an American nation emerging from civil war to embark upon its “full Democratic career,” and in 1895 Dvořák proposes the musical forms on which such a “New World Nationality” will be based. Lanier and DuBois, however, subordinate American national identity to racial identity, and their respective commitments to Anglo-Saxon and Negro music together inscribe within literary form what would become “the problem of the Twentieth Century,” the problem of the color line (SBF, 1).


  1. In his discussion of the Centennial Cantata, Charles Hamm observes that “the idea was to have a ‘Yankee’ and a ‘Rebel’ combine talents, as a symbol of reconciliation between North and South” (Music in the New World [London: Norton, 1983], 325).

  2. Sidney Lanier, “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia,” in Poems and Poem Outlines, ed. Charles R. Anderson, vol. 1 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Anderson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1945), 61. Further references to this poem, hereafter called the Centennial Cantata, will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as “CMC”; subsequent references to Poems and Poem Outlines will be cited parenthetically in the text as PPO.

  3. Walt Whitman, “Preface 1876—Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets,Leaves of Grass, ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Boldgett (New York: Norton, 1973), 751, 746-47; further references to “Preface 1876” and to Whitman's poems will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as LG.

  4. See Exodus 3:14, where God reveals himself to Moses with a name that can be translated as either “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be”; see also Revelation 1:8: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version [1991]).

  5. Lanier, “The Centennial Cantata,” in “The Science of English Verse” and Essays on Music, ed. Paull Franklin Baum, vol. 2 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1945), 272-73. Further references to this essay will be to this volume and will be cited parenthetically in the text as “CC.” Subsequent references to “The Science of English Verse” and Essays on Music will be cited parenthetically in the text as “SEV.

  6. See Houston A. Baker Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 57, 62; and Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 529-30.

  7. Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Stanley R. Hauer, “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language,” PMLA 98 (October 1983): 880. For further discussion of Jefferson's Anglo-Saxonism, see Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981), 18-23; and Allen J. Frantzen, Desire for Origins (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990), 203-7.

  8. For discussions of the role played by Anglo-Saxon in accounts of Manifest Destiny, see Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny, 1-6; and J. R. Hall, “Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Anglo-Saxonism: The Question of Language,” Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, ed. Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles (Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 1997), 134.

  9. Arthur Mann, The One and the Many: Reflections on the American Identity (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), 128.

  10. Gregory A. VanHoosier-Carey, “Byrhtnoth in Dixie: The Emergence of Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Postbellum South,” in Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, ed. Frantzen and Niles, 165.

  11. See VanHoosier-Carey, “Byrhtnoth in Dixie,” 161-63; and J. R. Hall, “Nineteenth-Century America and the Study of the Anglo-Saxon Language: An Introduction,” in Preservation and Transmission of Anglo-Saxon Culture, ed. Paul E. Szarmach and Joel T. Rosenthal (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan Univ., 1997), 47-49.

  12. Lanier, Letter to Daniel C. Gilman, 22 October 1876, Letters 1874-1877, ed. Charles R. Anderson and Aubrey H. Starke, vol. 9 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1945), 406.

  13. Lanier, Letter to Daniel C. Gilman, 13 July 1879, Letters 1878-1881, ed. Charles R. Anderson and Aubrey H. Starke, vol. 10 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1945), 130.

  14. On the activities of Gilman, Lanier, and Whitney at Johns Hopkins, see Hugh Hawkins, Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874-1889 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1960).

  15. William Dwight Whitney, The Life and Growth of Language (New York: Dover, 1979), 145, 24; hereafter this source will be cited parenthetically in the text as LGL. Whitney's position was later invoked by Ferdinand de Saussure: “To emphasize the fact that language is a genuine institution, Whitney quite justly insisted upon the arbitrary nature of signs; and by so doing, he placed linguistics on its true axis” (Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin [New York: Philosophical Library, 1959], 76).

  16. Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: William Morrow, 1990), 156. For a useful discussion of the contemporary debate between scientific philologists like Whitney and verbal critics like Richard Grant White, see chaps. 4-6, especially 153-56.

  17. Lanier, “From Bacon to Beethoven,” in “SEV,” 276. Further references to this essay will be to this volume and will be cited parenthetically in the text as “BB.”

  18. While Lanier's early public defense of his Centennial Cantata pairs “conventionally significant words” with “unconventionally significant tones,” taking the “general idea” of the words to be “reproducible … by orchestral effects” (“BB,” 267, 271), he later explicitly distances himself from this central commitment of “programme-music” (see “The Physics of Music,” in “SEV,” 252; and “BB,” 278-81).

  19. Lanier, quoted in introduction to “SEV,” xiii.

  20. See Lanier, “CC,” 268; and “Appendix,” “SEV,” 338.

  21. Richard Wagner, Beethoven; With a Supplement from the Philosophical Works of Arthur Schopenhauer, trans. Ed Dannreuther (London: New Temple Press, 1870), 70; further references to this source will be cited parenthetically in the text as B.

  22. A slightly longer passage helps clarify Wagner's views: “Music loses nothing of its character when very different words are set to it; and this fact proves that the relation of music to the art of poetry is an entirely illusory one; for it holds true that when music is heard with singing added thereto, it is not the poetical thought … that is grasped by the auditor; but, at best, only that element of it which, to the musician, seemed suitable for the music, and which his mind transmuted into music” (B, 74).

  23. For useful discussions of Wagner's changing views on opera, with particular reference to the influence of Schopenhauer, see Carl Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism: Four Studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century, trans. Mary Whittall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1980), 33-39; and Bryan Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 350-402.

  24. Lanier, The Science of English Verse, in “SEV,” 42. Further references to this source will be to this volume and will be cited parenthetically in the text as SEV.

  25. Whitney goes on to assert, “The very earliest dialects are as exclusively conventional as the latest; the savage has no keener sense of etymological connection than the man of higher civilization” (LGL, 297; see also 19).

  26. Lanier, “Lecture XI: The Sonnet-Makers from Surrey to Shakspere,” Shakspere and His Forerunners: The Peabody Lectures, in Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Kemp Malone, vol. 3 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1945), 87.

  27. Here I emphasize Lanier's notion of Anglo-Saxon self-identity (that is, the language's relation to itself over time) rather than his notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority (the language's relation to other languages at a given moment), but the latter notion is also present in Lanier's thinking. For a discussion that emphasizes this aspect of Lanier's work, see VanHoosier-Carey, “Byrhtnoth in Dixie,” 169-70.

  28. Lanier, “Lecture I,” in Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Malone, 7.

  29. On the remote grammar of Anglo-Saxon, see Lanier, “Lecture VII: Beowulf and Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Malone, 24; on its remote pronunciation, see “Lecture XVI: Pronunciation of Shakspere's Time,” Shakspere and His Forerunners, 173; and on its remote semantics, see “Lecture X: The Wife in Middle English Poetry,” Shakspere and His Forerunners, 83. For Whitney's similar statements about the dramatic changes in English, see LGL, 32-44.

  30. Lanier, “Lecture VII,” in Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Malone, 23.

  31. See Hauer, “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language,” 882, 880.

  32. See Lanier's focus on sound in “Introduction to the Boy's Froissart” in “The English Novel” and Essays on Literature, ed. Clarence Gohdes and Kemp Malone, vol. 4 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1945), 353; and “Introduction to the Boy's King Arthur” (“The English Novel” and Essays on Literature, 361-64).

  33. While the word “sound” here refers specifically to rhythm, rhythm is just one aspect of Lanier's complex account of sound, an account that addresses questions of duration, intensity, pitch, and tone color (see SEV, 23-29). I focus on rhythm because Lanier singles it out to do the work of racial continuity.

  34. Lanier offers the following account of why the word “English” appears at all in the title of his The Science of English Verse: “The science of verse, then observes and classifies all the phenomena of rhythm, of tune, and of tone-color, so far as they can be exhibited to the ear directly by spoken words,—or to the ear, through the eye, by written or printed signs of spoken words,—or to the mind by the conception of spoken words; and, The science of English verse observes and classifies these phenomena so far as they can be indicated through the medium of spoken English words” (SEV, 48; Lanier's emphasis). Here English is transformed from an institution of arbitrary signs into a “medium” for sound notation. But if, as we have seen, English is sufficient but not necessary to record the sounds of poems, then calling this the science of English verse seems mistaken: the sounds in question may coincide with the sounds in English, but without meanings attached they have ceased to be English and belong instead to the (in his view) extralinguistic domain of music. To continue to describe these sounds as Anglo-Saxon is to imagine this Anglo-Saxonness residing within them at a level deeper than conventional meaning.

  35. For a thorough summary of the critical reception of Lanier's theories up to 1945, see introduction to “SEV,” xxx-xliv. For more recent treatments, see Jane S. Gabin, A Living Minstrelsy: The Poetry and Music of Sidney Lanier (Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press, 1985), 153-56; and Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, 2d ed. (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), 5.

  36. The concern with musical sound among nineteenth-century writers involved not only poems but also, as Caroline Levander observes, “the tone of the female voice” (Voices of the Nation: Women and Public Speech in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture [New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998], 14). The writers Levander addresses “increasingly identified the nation's integrity with the voices of American women” (9) and thus, in “attempt[ing] to ensure the exclusive tonality of women's speech” (21), sought to perpetuate not racial but national identity. Consolidating this national identity involved preserving the “purity” of women's voices rather than perpetuating the rhythm of poems, and the vehicle of the former was “women's relegation to the private sphere” (16, 22) while the vehicle of the latter was the attribution of racial form to poetic texts.

  37. See David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995), 514-15.

  38. Whitman, quoted in Robert D. Faner, preface to Whitman & Opera (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1951), v.

  39. This essay was later retitled “Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—The Future” (see Whitman, Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall, 2 vols. [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1964], 2:474). Subsequent references to this essay and to others in Prose Works will be cited parenthetically in the text as PW.

  40. Whitman elaborates on this point in his “Slang in America” (1885) (in PW, 2:572-77). Jonathan Arac usefully observes a problem that, contrary to Whitman's own aims, often arises as critics discuss Whitman's celebration of nonstandard usage: “[H]aving been used to define one set of bounds (America versus the Old World), vernacular becomes a means for drawing further bounds within the United States, as to what will count as authentically ‘American’” (“Whitman and Problems of the Vernacular,” in Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies, ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996], 48).

  41. Lanier, “Lecture III,” “English Novel” and Essays on Literature, ed. Gohdes and Malone, 50.

  42. Lanier, “Lecture II,” “English Novel” and Essays on Literature, ed. Gohdes and Malone, 27, 50; further references to this lecture will be to this volume and will be cited parenthetically in the text as “LII.”

  43. For his part, Whitman accused Lanier of all too strong an immersion in melody and sound: “Study Lanier's choice of words …, [which] are too often fit rather for sound than for sense. … [H]is over-tuning of the ear, this extreme deference paid to oral nicety, reduced the majesty, the solid worth, of his rhythms” (quoted in Aubrey Starke, “Lanier's Appreciation of Whitman,” The American Scholar 2 [October 1933]: 408).

  44. Many subsequent critics follow Lanier in locating Whitman's poetics in an ongoing Anglo-Saxon tradition. For early versions of this view, see Sculley Bradley, “The Fundamental Metrical Principle in Whitman's Poetry,” American Literature 10 (January 1939): 437-59; and John E. Bernbrock, “Walt Whitman and ‘Anglo-Saxonism’” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of North Carolina, 1961), 159-88. In a more recent version of this approach, Dana Phillips laments that Whitman “merely refers” to “the sounds of different cultures from all around the world” instead of providing a “degree of onomatopoeia, or actual physical likeness to the sounds.” Having been filtered through Whitman as “medium,” the sounds of other cultures are thereby subordinated to the sounds of Whitman's speaker who—as Lanier would say—speaks in racial sounds, the sounds of a “White Father” (“Nineteenth-Century Racial Thought and Whitman's ‘Democratic Ethnology of the Future,’” Nineteenth-Century Literature 49 [December 1994]: 292, 293 n. 4). The difference between Phillips and Lanier, then, is that while Lanier considers the racial identity intrinsic to Whitman's sounds a good thing (since Anglo-Saxon rhythm thereby perpetuates itself, even in a speaker explicitly resistant to the Old World), Phillips finds it objectionable, since Whitman's essentially “White” sound excludes other sounds and the racial identities embodied in them. Martha C. Nussbaum defends Whitman's ambition to speak for “excluded people,” but in her account Whitman succeeds not because of his poems' formal features but because his “commitment both to narrative and to the concrete depiction of different ways of life brings him into close contact with the novel” (Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life [Boston: Beacon Press, 1995], 119, 7).

  45. Lanier, “Lecture XII: The Sonnet-Makers,” in Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Malone, 114.

  46. Lanier, “Lecture VII,” in Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Malone, 33. This emphasis on Scottish sounds is apparent in the concluding words of Lanier's The Science of English Verse: “King James has summed up the whole matter in his homely Scotch words: ‘Zour eare maun be the onely iudge, as of all the other parts of Flowing,’ (that is, of rhythmic movement) ‘the verie twichestane quhairof is musique’” (“SEV,” 244).

  47. Lanier fought for the Confederacy as “a full-blooded secessionist” (introduction to “Tiger-Lilies” and Southern Prose, ed. Garland Greever, vol. 5 of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier, ed. Charles R. Anderson [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1945], liv). Although Lanier ultimately accepted the North's victory, his poems of the period immediately following the war frequently criticize the policies of Reconstruction; see “To Our Hills” (1867; PPO, 167); “Laughter in the Senate” (1868; PPO, 14); and “Steel in Soft Hands” (1868; PPO, 169). See also Lanier, “Furlow College Address” (1869; “Tiger-Lilies” and Southern Prose, ed. Greever, 258); “Confederate Memorial Address” (1870; “Tiger-Lilies” and Southern Prose, 269); “Retrospects and Prospects” (1871; “Tiger-Lilies” and Southern Prose, 303); and Aubrey Harrison Starke, Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1933), 112-13.

  48. According to Eric Foner, “This measure … made it illegal for places of public accommodation and entertainment to make any distinction between black and white patrons, and outlawed racial discrimination in public schools, jury selection, churches, cemeteries, and transportation” (Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 [New York: Harper & Row, 1988], 532-33). Subsequent references to this source will be cited parenthetically in the text as R.

  49. Joel Williamson describes this change as “a beginning of ‘white soul.’ In the end,” Williamson continues, “the essence of the old order, the sense of Southernness and whiteness as qualities uniquely valuable, was saved. … The term that they applied to regaining control of their states was as fully laden with meaning as the Christian view of the rebirth of the spirit. They called it ‘Redemption’” (A Rage for Order: Black/White Relations in the American South since Emancipation [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986], 39).

  50. Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, who would ascend to the presidency through the compromise that ended Reconstruction, wrote to a Southern friend, “‘The let alone policy’ seems now to be the true course; at any rate nothing but good will now exists towards you” (quoted in R, 558; see also, 567).

  51. Nation, 5 April 1877; quoted in R, 582.

  52. Starke, Sidney Lanier, 186.

  53. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin, 1989), 205. Subsequent references to this source will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as SBF.

  54. J. B. T. Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs. With Supplement Containing an Account of Their Six Years' Tour around the World, and Many New Songs, by F. J. Loudin, new edition (Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Printing & Publishing, 1892), 17, 18; hereafter, this source will be cited parenthetically in the text as SJS. On the array of contemporary editions of this text, see Dena J. Epstein, “The Story of the Jubilee Singers: An Introduction to its Bibliographic History,” New Perspectives on Music: Essays in Honor of Eileen Southern, ed. Josephine Wright (Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 1992), 151-62.

  55. John Lovell Jr., Black Song: The Forge and the Flame; The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 406.

  56. Their successes included gaining an audience with the queen, earning an invitation to Gladstone's residence, and prompting the following comment from Lord Shaftsbury: “I don't want them to become white, but I have a strong disposition myself to become black. If I thought color … brought with it their truth, piety, and talent, I would willingly exchange my complexion to-morrow” (SJS, 50, 84, 80).

  57. For discussion of the religious orientation of the Jubilee Singers, see G. D. Pike, The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1873), 9-24; Louis D. Silveri, “The Singing Tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers: 1871-74,” in Feel the Spirit: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Music, ed. George R. Keck and Sherrill V. Martin (New York: Greenwood, 1988), 106-9; and Andrew Ward, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 100-106.

  58. Lovell, Black Song, 415.

  59. Whitman, “Lately, I have wonder'd whether the last meaning of this cluster of thirty-eight States is not only practical fraternity among themselves … but for fraternity over the whole globe” (PW, 2:484).

  60. Antonín Dvořák, “Letter to the Editor,” New York Herald, 28 May 1893; reprinted in Dvořák in America: 1882-1895, ed. John C. Tibbetts (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1993), 359; subsequent references to Dvořák in America will appear parenthetically in the text as DA.

  61. Dvořák, “The Real Value of Negro Melodies,” New York Herald, 21 May 1893; reprinted in DA, 356-57.

  62. As John Higham notes, this shift in immigration patterns altered the reception new immigrants received: “No longer scorned simply for ‘mere habits of life,’ each of the major groups from southern and eastern Europe stood forth as a challenge to the nation, either endangering American institutions by unruly behavior or threatening through avarice to possess them” (Strangers in the Land [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1963], 94). This perceived challenge led some to respond with plans for legal restriction and others with programs of aggressive assimilation (97-105, 74-75).

  63. Dvořák, “Music in America,” Harper's, February 1895; reprinted in DA, 376.

  64. See Dvořák's claim in “The Real Value of Negro Melodies” that “Many of the negro melodies—most of them, I believe—are the creations of negroes born and reared in America. That is the peculiar aspect of the problem. The negro does not produce music of that kind elsewhere. I have heard black singers in Hayti for hours and, as a rule, their songs are not unlike the monotonous and crude chantings of the Sioux tribes. It is so also in Africa. But the negro in America utters a new note, full of sweetness and as characteristic as any music of any country” (DA, 357-58).

  65. Dvořák, “Real Value of Negro Melodies,” in DA, 355-56.

  66. Dvořák, “Music in America,” in DA, 377.

  67. Dvořák, “Hear the ‘Old Folks at Home,’” New York Herald, 23 January 1894; quoted in DA, 366.

  68. Dvořák, “For National Music,” Chicago Tribune, 13 August 1893; reprinted in DA, 362.

  69. Henry Burleigh, quoted in Thomas L. Riis, “Dvořák and his Black Students,” Rethinking Dvořák: Views from Five Countries (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), 266. For a skeptical reading of Dvořák's nationalism, see Michael Beckerman, “The Master's Little Joke: Antonín Dvořák and the Mask of Nation,” in Dvořák and His World, ed. Michael Beckerman (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), 134-54.

  70. Theodore F. Seward, “Preface to the Music,” SJS, 156.

  71. Quoted in “Dvořák on His New Work,” New York Herald, 15 December 1893; reprinted in DA, 363.

  72. “Dvořák seems to be describing familiar pentatonic and Dorian scales” (Riis, “Dvořák and His Black Students,” 267).

  73. Michael Beckerman responds to this question by arguing, “Composers who wish to employ exotic material are often in search of what I call ‘multicultural puns,’ that is, musical figures or devices that are common to at least two cultures”; Dvořák, then, is choosing sounds that belong both to his own culture and to U.S. culture (“Henry Krehbiel, Antonín Dvořák, and the Symphony ‘From the New World,’” Notes 49 [December 1992]: 462). But if the example of the pun demonstrates how multiple meanings (signifieds) can be associated with the same sound (signifier), this linguistic analogy relegates cultural difference to signifieds and thus begs the question of how multiple cultures can be embodied in the same nonlinguistic, or musical, sound.

  74. James Huneker, “Dvořák's New Symphony: The Second Philharmonic Concert,” Musical Courier, 20 December 1893; reprinted in Dvořák and His World, ed. Beckerman, 163; see also 160.

  75. Booker T. Washington, “The Atlanta Exposition Address,” in Up from Slavery, in Three Negro Classics (New York: Avon Books, 1965), 148.

  76. For a similar account, which likewise reads Wagner's music as “white,” see Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 523. For an alternative reading, which interprets Wagner's music in this scene as symbolizing DuBois's “desire for a race-blind love,” see Russell A. Berman, “Du Bois and Wagner: Race Nation, and Culture between the United States and Germany,” German Quarterly 70 (spring 1997): 130.

  77. In other words, just as Lanier had opposed the Civil Rights Bill and sought instead to consolidate one people—Anglo-Saxons—out of Northern and Southern whites, so DuBois opposes both the Redeemers' oppressions and Booker T. Washington's concessions, seeking instead to consolidate one people—Negroes—out of Northern and Southern blacks (SBF, 47). Just as Lanier tried to consolidate Anglo-Saxon people by asserting the race inherent in poetic rhythm, so DuBois consolidates a Negro people by asserting the race inherent in the Sorrow Songs. For a useful critical discussion of DuBois's effort to achieve racial unity and that effort's problematic legacy, see Kenneth Warren, “Delimiting America: The Legacy of Du Bois,” American Literary History 1 (spring 1989): 172-89.

  78. Sundquist notes that DuBois's analysis of the Sorrow Songs “reduces language to sound” (To Wake the Nations, 529), and Sundquist follows DuBois's lead in racializing that sound when he argues that since the Sorrow Songs enter “the domain of sheer sound,” they inhabit “the extremity of African American cultural expression, the domain where the cry fades into an articulacy reaching beyond European American apprehension” (531). My analysis suggests, however, that in the writers of this period, the domain of sheer sound is providing a new opportunity to assert the existence of race, whether Anglo-Saxon or Negro. Although Sundquist denies that his own account of DuBois is “a brief for Afrocentrism” (15), he is generally more appreciative than critical as he repeatedly highlights DuBois's assertions of sound as intrinsically African (472, 511, 525-39). Houston Baker shares Sundquist's commitment to identifying a specifically African American sound in The Souls of Black Folk (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, 56-68). Shamoon Zamir likewise takes race to be “embodied” in the spirituals (Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888-1903 [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995], 170, 171, 172, 175), but he sees the spirituals less as a vehicle for consolidating racial identity (“an essentialized idea of communitas” [181]) than as a vehicle for DuBois's own autobiographical narrative of “self-transformation” (184). Paul Gilroy recognizes that DuBois installs “slave music … in its special position of privileged signifier of black authenticity,” but he goes on to “resist … the idea that an untouched, pristine Africanity resides inside these forms” (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993], 91, 101). For a similar statement of resistance, see Ronald M. Radano, “Soul Texts and the Blackness of Folk,” Modernism/Modernity 2 (January 1995): 84.

  79. This melody undoubtedly came to the United States from Africa (see Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 519-20), but the question of its provenance is not the same as the question of its essence, and it is this latter question—the question of what people, if any, the song embodies—that I am addressing here.

  80. Lanier, “Lecture XVI: Pronunciation of Shakspere's Time,” Shakspere and His Forerunners, ed. Malone, 169.

  81. DuBois, “The Conservation of Races,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader, ed. David Levering Lewis (New York: Henry Holt, 1955), 25; further references to this source will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as “CR.

  82. Anthony Appiah and Ross Posnock have shown that in his later career DuBois sought to achieve something Lanier never imagined: abandoning race as a central category of social organization. While Appiah argues that this effort failed and Posnock counters that it succeeded, they agree that DuBois's early writings set out the commitment to race from which he would later seek to retreat. It is these early writings and their commitment to “the unifying ideal of Race” that I am addressing here (SBF, 11); see Anthony Appiah, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), 21-37; and Ross Posnock, Color & Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), 88-89, 18-19.

I thank Walter Benn Michaels for invaluable guidance as I formulated the argument of this essay. I am grateful also to others who offered helpful responses to earlier drafts: Jerome Christensen, Steven Newman, Christopher Lukasik, Amy Hungerford, Caroline Levander, and Heather Sullivan.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Lanier, Sidney (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)