Sidney Lanier Lanier, Sidney (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

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

Edwin Mims (essay date 1905)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.”...

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Charmenz S. Lenhart (essay date 1956)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 27701 words.)

Lewis Leary (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3597 words.)

Jane S. Gabin (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Stephen M. Richman (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jack Kerkering (essay date March 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 587 words.)