Sidney Lanier

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216

Although Sidney Lanier (luh-NIHR) is remembered primarily as a poet, he wrote in a surprising variety of genres. His The Science of English Verse (1880) is a handbook of prosody that is still valuable as a discussion of poetic theory and technique despite its overemphasis on the importance of sound. It was originally meant to be a textbook for Lanier’s students at The Johns Hopkins University, and in fact his lecture notes were collected and published posthumously as The English Novel (1883) and Shakspere and His Forerunners (1902). Lanier’s first book, however, was an autobiographical novel titled Tiger-Lilies (1867), which drew on his Civil War experiences and his reading of the German Romantics. His second published volume was Florida: Its Scenery, Climate, and History (1875), a travel book commissioned by the Atlantic Coast Line Railway and the standard guide to Florida for many years. Lanier was especially successful at revising classics, such as The Boy’s King Arthur (1880) for juvenile audiences—a literary endeavor that appealed to his strong romantic sensibility while providing a welcome source of income. Finally, Lanier produced a remarkable number of essays, including “Retrospects and Prospects” (1871) and the four “Sketches of India” (1876), which were originally published in magazines. Lanier’s writings are most readily available in The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier (1945).


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Sidney Lanier was the first distinctively southern poet to achieve a truly national recognition and acceptance. This is an honor usually accorded to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), but unlike Poe, who was born in Boston, spent several of his formative years in Britain, and did much of his literary work in the Northeast, Lanier was a Georgian by birth who spent his entire life in the South. Nevertheless, by virtue of such works as “The Centennial Meditation of Columbia” and “Psalm of the West,” Lanier came to be regarded as a spokesperson for the American, rather than only the southern, experience; yet, by one of those paradoxes of literary history, at the same time that he achieved this national status, Lanier won for southern writers a degree of respect and credibility that was unprecedented in American literature and that is still evident today.

Lanier was one of the earliest American poets to use dialect in his verse, most notably the “Georgia cracker” speech used in “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land.” In this regard, Lanier was an early practitioner of “local-color” writing, that literary movement that flourished at the end of the nineteenth century. Imbued with a strong social conscience, Lanier was noted for his poetic treatment of current economic difficulties. In poems such as “The Symphony,” he pleaded that love and music be used as antidotes for the miseries generated by “Trade” (read “industry and commercialism”), and in “Corn” and “Thar’s More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land” he offered a practical solution to the economic problems of the postwar South: the cultivation of corn and grain instead of cotton. Lanier was also a tireless poetic experimenter. He is to be recognized for his ambitious attempts at metrical innovation (see “The Revenge of Hamish,” an experiment in the use of logaoedic dactyls), as well as his attempts to achieve heightened musical effects in his verse (see, for example, “Song of the Chattahoochee”). He also is remembered for his The Science of English Verse (1880), a textbook that is still interesting and perceptive, despite Lanier’s unfortunate attempt to formulate a “science” of prosody that is analogous to musical notation.

Lanier is frequently cited as an example of a writer who could have achieved a great deal had he lived longer. There is no question that at the time of his death at the age of thirty-nine, his career was just getting under way. As Charles Anderson observes, Lanier wrote 164 poems; of these, 104 were written in two periods of intense creativity (1865-1868; 1874-1878), with the latter period producing his best work—58 major poems. At the time of his death, Lanier had made plans for at least three more volumes of poetry, as is clear from the so-called Poem Outlines (see the Centennial Edition).


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De Bellis, Jack Angelo. Sidney Lanier. New York: Twayne, 1972. Examines Lanier’s growth by analyzing his growing awareness of the ways to make poetry express the morality of feeling. “The Symphony” is treated as a poem in which Lanier discovered how to symbolize the conflict between feeling and thought, and how to inject great feeling into the poem via the musicality of his verse. “The Marshes of Glynn” and “Sunrise” are shown to be rhythm experiments. Includes indexes.

Gabin, Jane S. A Living Minstrelsy: The Poetry and Music of Sidney Lanier. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985. Maintains that Lanier is unique in American literature because he is the only poet who was both active and accomplished in music. Gabin believes his poetry developed as a direct result of his pursuit of musical interests and that his achievements and innovations came as a direct result of his exposure to innovation in musical composition. Includes bibliography and index.

Mims, Edwin. Sidney Lanier. 1905. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968. Mims’s study relies heavily on Lanier’s letters and stresses his modernity. He suggests that the advances the poet made in “The Marshes of Glynn” and The Science of English Verse were negated by his weak health and short life. Includes introduction and illustrations.

Prins, Yopie. “Historical Poets, Dysprosody, and the Science of English Verse.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 123, no. 1 (January, 2008): 219. Lanier asserted that only through sound could poetry be defined as poetry. He said that when one imagines verse, one imagines a set of relations between sounds. Prins explores Lanier’s thoughts on unheard sounds.

White, Donna R. A Century of Welsh Myth in Children’s Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. A chronological study of the adaptations in children’s books of the Welsh legends collectively known as the Mabinogi. Includes a discussion of Lanier’s The Boy’s Mabinogion.

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