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Sidney Lanier, 1842-1881
Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by his Wife
New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1884.


Sidney Clopton Lanier, a notable musician and poet, was born February 3, 1842 in Macon, Georgia to Robert Sampson Lanier and Mary Jane Anderson Lanier. His father worked as an attorney, and Lanier briefly joined his father's law practice following his military service. In 1857 Lanier entered Oglethorpe College, located in Milledgeville, Georgia, as a sophomore. While at Oglethorpe, he developed his interest in writing and music, read extensively, participated in debating societies, and became an accomplished flutist. After his graduation in 1860, Lanier intended to pursue graduate studies in Europe, but his plans were interrupted by the Civil War. Joining the Macon Volunteers in April 1861, Lanier served in the signal corps and then as a blockade-runner until he was captured in 1864 and imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland. While in the Union prison, Lanier contracted tuberculosis, a disease that plagued him until his death at age thirty-nine. Because of his respiratory problems, Lanier frequently moved in search of a climate that might improve his health. After one such move in 1872, while briefly residing in San Antonio, Texas, Lanier encountered a number of music enthusiasts and first experienced some success as a performer.

For a number of years, Lanier struggled vocationally, working as a hotel clerk, tutor, and headmaster, in addition to working with his father. Despite his passion for poetry and remarkable musical ability, he resigned himself to pursuing financial stability in place of personal fulfillment. In the midst of these unrewarding, unprofitable occupations and his unrelenting illness, Lanier found solace in his 1867 marriage to Mary Day, who encouraged her husband's artistic interests. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage and had four children. In 1873, having resolved to embrace his love for music and the arts, Lanier moved north to New York City, hoping to find an orchestral position. Yet it was in Baltimore where he finally gained entrance into an artistic society that would support him. There Lanier became first flutist in the Peabody Conservatory of Music under conductor Asger Hamerik and generated a tremendous amount of poetry, composed the opening cantata for the 1876 centennial celebration, gave a series of private literary lectures, and assumed a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University in 1879. In summer 1881, having grown steadily weaker, Lanier traveled to the mountains of North Carolina in hopes of slowing his disease's progress and regaining his strength. He died there on September 7, 1881.

Lanier's musical training profoundly influenced his poetry, and he sought to infuse his poems with a decidedly melodious quality. His 1880 book of criticism, The Science of English Verse, argued for the musical foundations of poetry, suggesting that music and poetry were inextricably linked. In addition to evoking intense human emotion, he argued, both utilized similar techniques of rhythm, harmony, meter, and variation. Lanier also subscribed to the notion that art and literature should serve a moral function, prompting readers toward moral thoughts, feelings, and actions. And with the 1874 publication of "Corn" in Lippincott's, he first achieved national recognition as a poet.

His 1884 collection, The Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife, was published posthumously by Charles Scribner's Sons. This work opens with a somewhat maudlin memorial, written by William Hayes Ward, an editor at the New York weekly The Independent. Much of Sidney Lanier's poetry celebrates nature's glory, which in poems such as "Sunrise" and "The Marshes of Glynn," is presented in deeply resonant tones that musically imitate natural sounds. "The Psalm of the West" is similarly cadenced to resemble music. With echoing lines, phrases, and rhythms repeated, the reader seems directed to contemplate the musical effects rather than the literal meaning of the poems. Lanier, who gave public lectures on Shakespeare, also included Shakespearean references and allusions in poems such as "Marsh Song—At Sunset" and "The Crystal." In "The Symphony," a poem that perhaps represents his own internal struggle, Lanier dramatizes the conflict between Trade, which he terms "only war grown miserly," and Art, voiced by the violin strings. Should humanity obey the material dictates of Trade or instead seek to fill the heart's artistic longings? The poem concludes with a triumphant call to Love. First published in The Independent in 1876 and dedicated to the memory of John Keats, "Clover" seems especially poignant. Invoking Keats, the English poet who fell victim to an early death from tuberculosis (1821), the poem ostensibly gestures towards the artist's own sense of mortality. For in the tradition of great poets, such as Dante and Chaucer, and great composers, including Chopin and Beethoven, Lanier's life will also be cut down. Contemplating both the artist's struggle and enduring legacy, Lanier seeks comfort in the divine. As he concludes, "Tease not thy vision with vain search for ends./The End of Means is art that works by love./The End of Ends . . . in God's Beginning's lost."

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., et al., eds., The Literature of the American South, New York: Norton, 1998; Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Knight, Lucian Lamar, comp., Biographical Dictionary of Southern Authors, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978; Rathburn, John W. and Monica M. Grecu, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1850-1880, volume 64, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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