The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Within the framework of five stanzas of ten lines each, Sidney Lanier’s “Song of the Chattahoochee” takes the reader on a river journey from the mountains to the sea. Essentially, the poem foretells the 436-mile route of the Chattahoochee River as it rises in Habersham County in northeast Georgia to flow southwest diagonally across the state to form Georgia’s western boundary with Alabama before crossing into Florida and eventually spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. The poem draws parallels between the gravitational momentum of the river and the social, creative, and spiritual responsibilities of humankind.

Told from the perspective of the river itself, the poem begins in the higher elevations of Habersham and Hall, both counties in northeast Georgia. It is here that the river’s source can be traced and here that the river acquires its impetus “to reach the plain.” Already in the first stanza, however, there are topographical impediments to the river’s motion: steep heights, rock-strewn beds, and narrow banks.

The middle three stanzas serve to add to these topographical obstructions a host of organic distractions, all aimed at inducing the river to delay its journey. The second stanza, for example, is populated by water vegetation such as rushes, reeds, and “willful waterweeds” as well as shoreside vegetation like the “laving laurel” and “fondling grass.” All combine forces to convince the river to “Abide,...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

“Song of the Chattahoochee” was published in 1877, just twelve years after the end of the Civil War. As for Sidney Lanier, who contracted...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As evidenced by his 1880 volume The Science of English Verse, Lanier was long interested in the relationship between music and poetry. This is not surprising, since he made a living as a professional musician (first flutist of the Peabody Orchestra in Baltimore, Maryland) and composer before he published his first poem. Once he took up the pen, as both theorist and practitioner, he experimented with verbal materials in order to achieve the auditory effect of music in his writing.

In its basic form, “Song of the Chattahoochee” is lyrical. All five stanzas of ten lines each follow the same scheme of end rhyme: abcbcddcab. Furthermore, each stanza begins and ends with a two-line refrain.

Some critics have argued that the essence of Lanier’s verse lies not in the sense but in the sound. Certainly “Song of the Chattahoochee” derives most of its interest from the poet’s ability to mimic the sound of the river and its course. In this regard, there are two countervailing clusters of poetic devices. On the one hand, there are effects that are used to establish and maintain momentum; on the other hand, there are devices used to slow the rhythm of the poem.

In the first category are those devices that Lanier uses to mirror the river’s fundamental propulsion. His use of internal and end rhyme, repetition, action verbs, long prepositional phrases, consonantal alliteration (“Run the rapid” in line 4 and...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“Song of the Chattahoochee,” as the title suggests, is a song. Lanier tries to make the sounds of words have the rhythm and tonal...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1877: The Chattahoochee River flows freely across the northern part of Georgia.

Today: A dam constructed near...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

• Two poetic techniques used frequently in this poem are alliteration—the repetition of the first sound in words, such as “flee from...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

• Lanier’s serious involvement in musical composition can be examined in his musical scores, published under the title The Sidney...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

• Some academic libraries still have available copies of Lanier’s influential collection of theoretical essays, The Science of English...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Hubbell, Jay B., “The New South, 1865–1900: Sidney Lanier” in The South in American Literature:...

(The entire section is 315 words.)