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.
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.
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.
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.