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Outlines of English and American Literature
Sidney Lanier
by Long, William J.

The name of Lanier is often associated with that of Timrod, and the two southern poets were outwardly alike in that they struggled against physical illness and mental depression; but where we see in Timrod the tragedy of a poet broken by pain and neglect, the tragedy of Lanier's life is forgotten in our wonder at his triumph. It is doubtful if any other poet ever raised so pure a song of joy out of conditions that might well have occasioned a wail of despair.

The joyous song of Lanier is appreciated only by the few. He is not popular with either readers or critics, and the difficulty of assigning him a place or rank may be judged from recent attempts. One history of American literature barely mentions Lanier in a slighting reference to "a small cult of poetry in parts of America"; [Footnote: Trent, History of American Literature (1913), p. 471.] another calls him the only southern poet who had a national horizon, and accords his work ample criticism; [Footnote: Moses, Literature of the South (1910), pp 358-383] a third describes him as "a true artist" having "a lyric power hardly to be found in any other American," but the brief record ends with the cutting criticism that his work is "hardly national." [Footnote: Wendell, Literary History of America (1911), pp 495-498.] And so with all other histories, one dismisses him as the author of a vague rhapsody called "The Marshes of Glynn," another exalts him as a poet who rivals Poe in melody and far surpasses him in thought or feeling. Evidently there is no settled criticism of Lanier, as of Bryant or Longfellow; he is not yet secure in his position among the elder poets, and what we record here is such a personal appreciation as any reader may formulate for himself.


America has had its Puritan and its Cavalier writers, but seldom one who combines the Puritan's stern devotion to duty with the Cavalier's joy in nature and romance and music. Lanier was such a poet, and he owed his rare quality to a mixed ancestry. He was descended on his mother's side from Scotch-Irish and Puritan forbears, and on his father's side from Huguenot (French) exiles who were musicians at the English court. One of his ancestors, Nicholas Lanier, is described as "a musician, painter and engraver" for Queen Elizabeth and King James, and as the composer of music for some of Ben Jonson's masques.

Early Traits

His boyhood was spent at Macon, Georgia, where he was born in 1842. A study of that boyhood reveals certain characteristics which reappear constantly in the poet's work. One was his rare purity of soul; another was his brave spirit; a third was his delight in nature; a fourth was his passion for music. At seven he made his first flute from a reed, and ever afterwards, though he learned to play many instruments, the flute was to him as a companion and a voice. With it he cheered many a weary march or hungry bivouac; through it he told all his heart to the woman he loved; by it he won a place when he had no other means of earning his bread. Hence in "The Symphony," a poem which fronts one of life's hard problems, it is the flute that utters the clearest and sweetest note.

In War Time

Lanier had finished his course in Oglethorpe University (a primitive little college in Midway, Georgia) and was tutoring there when the war came, and the college closed its doors because teachers and students were away at the first call to join the army. For four years he was a Confederate soldier, serving in the ranks with his brother and refusing the promotion offered him for gallant conduct in the field. There was a time during this period when he might have sung like the minstrels of old, for romance had come to him with the war. By day he was fighting or scouting with his life in his hand; but when camp fires were lighted he would take his flute and slip away to serenade the girl who "waited for him till the war was over."

We mention these small incidents with a purpose. There is a delicacy of feeling in Lanier's verse which might lead a reader to assume that the poet was effeminate, when in truth he was as manly as any Norse scald or Saxon scop who ever stood beside his chief in battle. Of the war he never sang; but we find some reflection of the girl who waited in the poem "My Springs."

War's Aftermath

Lanier was at sea, as signal officer on a blockade runner, when his ship was captured by a Federal cruiser and he was sent to the military prison at Point Lookout (1864). A hard and bitter experience it was, and his only comfort was the flute which he had hidden in his ragged sleeve. When released the following year he set out on foot for his home, five hundred miles away, and reached it more dead than alive; for consumption had laid a heavy hand upon him. For weeks he was desperately ill, and during the illness his mother died of the same wasting disease; then he rose and set out bravely to earn a living,--no easy matter in a place that had suffered as Georgia had during the war.

The Gleam

We shall not enter into his struggle for bread, or into his wanderings in search of a place where he could breathe without pain. He was a law clerk in his father's office at Macon when, knowing that he had but a slender lease of life, he made his resolve. To the remonstrances of his father he closed his ears, saying that music and poetry were calling him and he must follow the call. The superb climax of Tennyson's "Merlin and the Gleam" was in his soul:

      O young mariner,
      Down to the haven
      Call your companions,
      Launch your vessel
      And crowd your canvas,
      And, ere it vanishes
      Over the margin,
      After it, follow it,
      Follow the Gleam!

Thus bravely he went northward to Baltimore, taking his flute with him. He was evidently a wonderful artist, playing not by the score but making his instrument his voice, so that his audience seemed to hear a soul speaking in melody. His was a magic flute. Soon he was supporting himself by playing in the Peabody Orchestra, living joyously meanwhile in an atmosphere of music and poetry and books; for he was always a student, determined to understand as well as to practice his art. He wrote poems, stories, anything to earn an honest dollar; he gave lectures on music and literature; he planned a score of books that he did not and could not write, for he was living in a fever of mind and body. Music and poetry were surging within him for expression; but his strength was failing, his time short.

The Struggle

In 1879 he was appointed lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and for the first time he had an assured income, small, indeed, but very heartening since it was enough to support his family. He began teaching with immense enthusiasm; but presently he was speaking in a whisper from an invalid's chair. Under such circumstances were uttered some of our most cheering words on art and poetry. Two years later he died in a tent among the hills, near Asheville, North Carolina, whither he had gone in a vain search for health.

There is in all Lanier's verse a fragmentariness, a sense of something left unsaid, which we may understand better if we remember that his heart was filled with the noblest emotions, but that when he strove to write them his pen failed for weariness. Read the daily miracle of dawn in "Sunrise," for example, and find there the waiting oaks, the stars, the tide, the marsh with its dreaming pools, light, color, fragrance, melody,--everything except that the hand which wrote the poem was too weak to guide the pencil. The rush of impressions and memories in "Sunrise," its tender beauty and vague incompleteness, as of something left unsaid, may be explained by the fact that it was Lanier's last song.

Works of Lanier

Many readers have grown familiar with Lanier's name in connection with The Boy's Froissart, The Boy's King Arthur, The Boy's Mabinogion and The Boy's Percy, four books in which he retold in simple language some of the old tales that are forever young. His chief prose works, The English Novel and The Science of English Verse, are of interest chiefly to critics; they need not detain us here except to note that the latter volume is devoted to Lanier's pet theory that music and poetry are governed by the same laws. Of more general interest are his scattered "Notes," which contain suggestions for many a poem that was never written, intermingled with condensed criticisms. Of the poet Swinburne he says, "He invited me to eat; the service was silver and gold, but no food therein except salt and pepper." One might say less than that with more words, or read a whole book to arrive at this summary of Whitman's style and bottomless philosophy: "Whitman is poetry's butcher; huge raw collops slashed from the rump of poetry, and never mind the gristle, is what he feeds our souls with.... His argument seems to be that because the Mississippi is long, therefore every American is a god."

His Best Poems

Those who read Lanier's poems should begin with the simplest, with his love songs, "My Springs" and "In Absence," or his "Ballad of Trees and the Master," or his outdoor poems, such as "Tampa Robins," "Song of the Chattahoochee," "Mocking Bird," and "Evening Song." In the last-named lyrics he began the work (carried out more fully in his later poems) of interpreting in words the harmony which his sensitive ear detected in the manifold voices of nature.

Next in order are the poems in which is hidden a thought or an ideal not to be detected at first glance; for to Lanier poetry was like certain oriental idols which when opened are found to be filled with exquisite perfumes. "The Stirrup Cup" is one of the simplest of these allegories. It was a custom in olden days when a man was ready to journey, for one who loved him to bring a glass of wine which he drank in the saddle; and this was called the stirrup or parting cup. In the cup offered Lanier was a rare cordial, filled with "sweet herbs from all antiquity," and the name of the cordial was Death:

  Then, Time, let not a drop be spilt:
  Hand me the cup whene'er thou wilt;
  'T is thy rich stirrup cup to me;
  I'll drink it down right smilingly.

In four stanzas of "Night and Day" he compresses the tragedy of Othello, not the tragedy that Shakespeare wrote but the tragedy that was in the Moor's soul when Desdemona was gone. In "Life and Song" he sought to express the ideal of a poet, and the closing lines might well be the measure of his own heroic life:

  His song was only living aloud,
  His work a singing with his hand.

In "How Love Looked for Hell" the lesson is hidden deeper; for the profound yet simple meaning of the poem is that, search high or low, Love can never find hell because he takes heaven with him wherever he goes. Another poem of the same class, but longer and more involved, is "The Symphony." Here Lanier faces one of the greatest problems of the age, the problem of industrialism with its false standards and waste of human happiness, and his answer is the same that Tennyson gave in his later poems; namely, that the familiar love in human hearts can settle every social question when left to its own unselfish way:

  Vainly might Plato's brain revolve it,
  Plainly the heart of a child might solve it.

Marshes of Glynn

The longer poems of Lanier are of uneven merit and are all more or less fragmentary. The chief impression from reading the "Psalm of the West," for example, is that it is the prelude to some greater work that was left unfinished. More finely wrought and more typical of Lanier's mood and method is "The Marshes of Glynn," his best-known work. It is a marvelous poem, one of the most haunting in our language; yet it is like certain symphonies in that it says nothing, being all feeling,--vague, inexpressible feeling. Some readers find no meaning or satisfaction in it; others hail it as a perfect interpretation of their own mood or emotion when they stand speechless before the sunrise or the afterglow or a landscape upon which the very spirit of beauty and peace is brooding.

The Quality of Lanier

In order to sympathize with Lanier, and so to understand him, it is necessary to keep in mind that he was a musician rather than a poet in our ordinary understanding of the term. In his verse he used words, exactly as he used the tones of his flute, not so much to express ideas as to call up certain emotions that find no voice save in music. As he said, "Music takes up the thread that language drops," which explains that beautiful but puzzling line which closes "The Symphony":

  Music is Love in search of a word.

Music and Poetry

We have spoken of "The Symphony" as an answer to the problem of industrial waste and sorrow, but it contains also Lanier's confession of faith; namely, that social evils arise among men because of their lack of harmony; and that spiritual harmony, the concord of souls which makes strife impossible, may be attained through music. The same belief appears in Tiger Lilies (a novel written by Lanier in his early days), in which a certain character makes these professions:

    "To make a home out of a household, given the raw
    materials--to wit, wife, children, a friend or two and a house--two
    other things are necessary. These are a good fire and good music.
    And inasmuch as we can do without the fire for half the year, I may
    say music is the one essential."

    "Late explorers say they have found some nations that have no God;
    but I have not read of any that had no music." "Music means
    harmony, harmony means love, love means--God!"

One may therefore summarize Lanier by saying that he was poet who used verbal rhythm, as a musician uses harmonious chords, to play upon our better feelings. His poems of nature give us no definite picture of the external world but are filled with murmurings, tremblings, undertones,--all the vague impressions which one receives when alone in the solitudes, as if the world were alive but inarticulate:

  Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-witholding and free
  Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
  Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
  Ye spread and span like the catholic man that hath mightily won
  God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
  And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

His poems of life have similar virtues and weaknesses: they are melodious; they are nobly inspired; they appeal to our finest feelings; but they are always vague in that they record no definite thought and speak no downright message.

Lanier and Whittier

The criticism may be more clear if we compare Lanier with Whittier, a man equally noble, who speaks a language that all men understand. The poems of the two supplement each other, one reflecting the reality of life, the other its mysterious dreams. In Whittier's poetry we look upon a landscape and a people, and we say, "I have seen that rugged landscape with my own eyes; I have eaten bread with those people, and have understood and loved them." Then we read Lanier's poetry and say, "Yes, I have had those feelings at times; but I do not speak of them to others because I cannot tell what they mean to me." Both poets are good, and both fail of greatness in poetry, Whittier because he has no exalted imagination, Lanier because he lacks primitive simplicity and strength. One poet sings a song to cheer the day's labor, the other makes a melody to accompany our twilight reveries.


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