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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Burton (1861–1940)

By Sidney Lanier (1842–1881)

THE QUIET steady widening of the influence of Sidney Lanier since his death is more than a pleasant justification of faith to those who have loved him and believed in him from the first. It suggests the comforting thought that good literature, unconventional in form and original in quality, although for this very reason slower to get a hearing, is sure to receive the eventual recognition it deserves. Sixteen years have elapsed since Lanier’s taking-off; and he is now seen more clearly every day to be the most important native singer the Southern United States has produced, and one of the most distinctive and lovely of American singers wherever born. Enthusiastic admirers and followers he has always attracted to him; now the general opinion begins to swing round to what seemed to many, a little time ago, the extravagant encomium of partiality and prejudice.

The circumstances of Sidney Lanier’s life furnish a pathetically tragic setting to his pure-souled, beautiful work. A Georgian, he was born at Macon, February 3d, 1842; his father was a well-known lawyer of that city. The family on the male side was of Huguenot French descent; on the maternal side the stock was Scotch. Sidney was educated at Oglethorpe College in his native State. The war found him on the Confederate side; and while a prisoner he consoled his spirit with his beloved flute and wrote fugitive verses,—early pledges of the twin master passions of Lanier’s whole life, literature and music. It was while immured thus that he and Father Tabb, the Maryland poet-priest, struck up the friendship which the latter has commemorated in more than one loving song. Lanier’s constitution was delicate; and the exposures and hardships of war developed the seeds of the consumption which he fought heroically through young manhood and into middle life, and finally succumbed to. Some years of experimental occupation followed upon the war experience: he was successively clerk, teacher, and lawyer, taking up the legal profession at the earnest instigation of his father, who could not realize that Lanier’s vocation was so different from his own. The letter which the son wrote from Baltimore, taking the decisive step that made him a literary man and musician for better or worse, is impressive and revelatory of his character:—

  • “I have given your last letter the fullest and most careful consideration. After doing so, I feel sure that Macon is not the place for me. If you could taste the delicious crystalline air and the champagne breeze that I’ve just been rushing about in, I am equally sure that in point of climate you would agree with me that my chance of life is ten times as great here as in Macon. Then as to business. Why should I—nay, how can I—settle myself down to be a third-rate struggling lawyer for the balance of my little life, as long as there is a certainty almost absolute that I can do some other thing so much better?… My dear father, think how for twenty years, through poverty, through pain, through weariness, through sickness, through the uncongenial atmosphere of a farcical college and of a bare army, and then of an exacting business life,—through all of the discouragement of being wholly unacquainted with literary people and literary ways,—I say, think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances and of a thousand more which I could enumerate, these two figures of music and of poetry have kept in my heart so that I could not banish them. Does it not seem to you as to me, that I begin to have the right to enroll myself among the devotees of these two sublime arts, after having followed them so long and so humbly, and through so much bitterness?”
  • One can well believe that with a man like Lanier, such a choice had in it the solemnity of a consecration. His ideal of Art in the broad sense—whether literary or other—was so lofty that a dedication of himself to the service was the most serious of acts. Nor, through whatever of set-back, stress, and failure, did he for a moment swerve from that ideal; he held himself as a very priest of Beauty, dignifying at once himself and his calling.

    Lanier’s literary career began with the publishing of a novel, ‘Tiger Lilies’ (1867), a book founded on his war experiences, and not a success: fiction was not his natural medium of expression. There is luxuriant unpruned imagination in the story, however, and it is evident that a poet in his first ferment of fancy is hiding there. Meanwhile Lanier was sending his poems to the magazines and getting them back again,—the proverbial editor on the lookout for budding genius proving mostly chimerical. Gradually a critic here and there became aware of his worth. ‘Corn,’ one of his finely representative pieces, appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1875, and attracted attention which led to his being employed to write the words for a cantata by Dudley Buck, performed at the Centennial Exhibition in the next year. The Centennial year, too, marks the appearance of the first edition of his poems,—a volume containing tentative immature verse, though promising much to one of critical foresight. The Independent and the Century also opened their doors to the Southern singer. But these chance contributions to periodicals—birds of passage finding a lodgment as it might hap—were grotesquely inadequate for the support of a man with a family;—for so far back as 1867, the year his first book was published, he had married Miss Mary H. Day, also of Macon,—a woman who in all the gracious ministries of heart and home and spirit was his leal mate. Hence was he forced to do hack-work; a sorry spectacle of Pegasus in harness. He could only use his pen between hemorrhages; and the slender financial resources thus heavily taxed would have utterly failed had it not been for the kind ministries of brother and father. Lanier made a guide-book on Florida, as unlike the customary manual as an Arabian blood mare is unlike a dray-horse. He edited Froissart for boys,—a more congenial task; and did youth the same service with respect to King Arthur, the ‘Mabinogion,’ and Bishop Percy. Brave, beautiful books they are; for the full-mouthed old words and the bygone deeds of chivalry both appealed to the poet-editor. Then in 1879 came what looked like brighter fortune: he was appointed lecturer on English literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, to which city he had gone in 1873 to take the position of first flute in the Peabody Orchestra. It must be remembered that to the end music and poetry were the beacon stars in Lanier’s overcast, uncertain skies. Now a modest yearly income at least was assured,—for the first time in his experience. The alleviation was but brief; for two years later, in the mountains of North Carolina, whither he had wearily gone to make one more struggle for breath, Sidney Lanier’s noble soul was loosened from its frail tenement of flesh, and, his wife beside him, he fell on sleep:—

  • “From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
  • He is secure.”
  • But that final span of time enabled him to prosecute with diligence and system his favorite studies in the old English literature, and to leave two critical volumes of great value and individuality. ‘The Science of English Verse,’ published in 1880, is an elaborate and unique analysis of the technical structure and underlying principles of the native metric, developing a new and most interesting theory: that the time quality obtains in English poetry as in music; this thesis being aptly illustrated from the sister art. ‘The English Novel and the Principles of its Development,’ which appeared three years later, in 1883, is made up of lectures delivered at Johns Hopkins, at a time when Lanier was obliged to sit down while speaking, so weak was he. The book is the most philosophic treatment of the development of our fiction that has been written, seizing upon the central fact of the steady growth of the idea of personality in the novel from Greek days to the present time. It was not until 1884, several years after his death, that his poems were collected finally into a volume, with an admirable introductory essay upon the man and his work by Dr. William Hayes Ward. With this book Lanier came into his own of praise and love.

    Lanier’s characteristics as a poet—and despite his achievements in prose, it is as a poet he must be considered primarily—are such as to separate him from other American makers of literature. In the first place, his work has the glow and color of the South,—an exuberance of imagination and a rhythmic sweep which awaken a kind of exultant delight in the sensitive reader. A consummate artist, Lanier showed himself a pioneer in the handling of words and metres: his richness of rhymes and alliterations, his marvelous feeling for tone-color, fellow him with an English poet like Swinburne. He opened new possibilities of metrical and stanzaic arrangements, and therewith revealed new powers of word-use and combination in modern English poetry; drawing on the treasures of the older word-hoard which his study, taste, and instinct suggested. He certainly broadened in this way the technic of verse, and on this side of his art was truly remarkable. He was too that rare thing, a song-writer. His ‘Song of the Chattahoochee,’ ‘A Song of the Future,’ ‘A Song of Love,’ ‘An Evening Song,’ and others, are not only to be read but set to music; they are felt to be songs in the full and literal sense. The fact that he was a trained musician, a maker in the neighbor art, qualified him peculiarly in this respect. The musician helped the poet, the poet enriched the maker of music.

    Looking to the essential traits that are to technic as the completed structure to the scaffolding that makes it possible, Lanier was a man of fine culture, much read, assimilative, strong of thought, endowed with sane imagination. He did not take petty conceits or stale and attenuated ideas and deck them out in the fine garments of art: he had the modern zest for fact, and was abreast of the times in his conceptions,—often an intellectual forerunner. On the problems of State, religion, society, science, art, and literature, his words were deep and wise; and his work reveals him as an advanced thinker on the vital themes of his century. And along with this marked breadth and independency of thought went a profound ethical earnestness, having in it a subtle spirituality that above all else makes this poet distinctive and precious. In his own lovely phrase, reversing the wonted words, he believed in the “holiness of beauty”: he perceived that beauty is but one phase of that Triune power, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, divinely interplaying into each other, never to be dissevered without violence to each and all. Lanier applied the Platonic philosophy to art, and it had for him perfect credence, absolute allegiance.

    These gifts and powers, then,—technical mastery, original thought, and spiritual perception and fervor,—are to be recognized in his best poems. In the shorter, simpler lyrics, notice how the characteristic qualities shine out. How full of the broad spirit of worship is the ‘Ballad of Trees and the Master’; how valiantly soul rises above the failing flesh in ‘The Stirrup Cup’! What a knightly devotion to womanhood is expressed in ‘My Springs,’ as high a strain as was ever sung to wife! What a hymning of the ideal relation of word and deed is heard in the melodious measures of ‘Life and Song’! And when we turn to the larger, more broadly conceived pieces, what a stanch Americanism blows like a sea-wind through the remarkable ‘Psalm of the West’; with what exaltation yet fearless fraternity the Christ is glorified in that noble poem, ‘The Crystal’; and what a lesson on the mean, sordid standards of trade is preached in ‘The Symphony,’—that wonderful creation, which under the allegory of music, is vital with high suggestions for every aspiring soul. Nor must that side of the work in which Nature is limned and worshiped be passed by; for it includes some of the most unforgettable things. Lanier’s attitude towards Nature was that of a passionate lover; a pantheist who felt God in everything. ‘Clover,’ ‘From the Flats,’ ‘Tampa Robins,’ ‘Corn,’ ‘The Bee,’ ‘The Dove,’ are poems of this class, and such as have come from no other American singer. They express his loving observation of the picturesque phenomena of his own and other Southern States. They transmute Nature in an ideality which fills the air with voices not of earth, and makes the very grass whisper immortal words.

    The culmination of Lanier’s art and thought and spiritual force is found in the ‘Hymns of the Marshes’; two of which, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘The Marshes of Glynn,’ are magnificently imaginative organ-chants of a dying man, never so strong of soul as when his body hung by a tenuous thread to life. The finest of this great series, a majestic swan-song, was written when Lanier lay so weak that he could not lift hand to mouth. And the marvel of it is, that poetry never was made through which pulsed and surged a more puissant vitality. These ‘Marsh Hymns’ stand among the major productions of modern poetry.

    It may be granted that Sidney Lanier in the full tide of plethoric utterance sometimes sacrificed lucidity. His teeming fancy was now and then in surplusage, and ran into the arabesque; though this is not true of his latest work. It is possible, again, that he pushed to an extreme his theory of the close inter-relations of music and verse, claiming for the latter not only lyric but symphonic powers,—a view illustrated to a degree in his Centennial Ode with its verbal orchestration. Poetry is a human product, and subject to human limitations. Had Lanier lived longer, had he had a freer opportunity, doubtless his literary bequest would have been richer and more completely expressive of himself. But as it is, in quality and in accomplishment Sidney Lanier takes his place as an American poet of distinction. He is one of those rare illustrations of the union, in a son of genius, of high character and artistic production in harmony therewith; a spectacle feeding the heart with tender thoughts and pure ideals:—

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