The Marshes of Glynn

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The fairest assessment of the life and work of Sidney Lanier (1842–1881) was written while he was dying of tuberculosis in the mountains of North Carolina. In September 1881 an editor for Scribner's Monthly claimed: "Sidney Lanier is a rare genius. No finer nature than his has America produced. His work is not popular, nor is it likely to become so, for his mind is of an unusual cast and his work is of exceptional character" (CE 1:lxxxiv, n. 171). In the time since this observation, critics have both lauded and condemned Lanier, but his achievement, despite the difficult circumstances of his life and times, remains secure. Jay B. Hubbell observes that apart from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, "Lanier was beyond question the most important American poet to emerge in the later nineteenth century" (p. 771).

Of the few poems on which Lanier's renown rests—all written in the last decade of his life, beginning with the publication of "Corn" in 1875 and ending with "Sunrise," penciled out in the fever of his final illness—"The Marshes of Glynn" is the most representative. It is quintessential Lanier, "the poem of Lanier's aesthetic and spiritual maturity" (CE 1:lxiii), according to Charles R. Anderson, the editor of The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier (1945). The diverse forces that shaped Lanier's philosophy and style merge and find expression in this single poem, reflecting the poet's synthesis of the volatile era in which he lived.


"The Marshes of Glynn" had an obscure beginning. In April 1878 George Parsons Lathrop, an editor for the Boston publisher Roberts Brothers, invited Lanier to contribute a poem to A Masque of Poets. This book is one volume in a series of works, mostly novels, that were published anonymously; according to Aubrey Harrison Starke, the publisher believed that sales would be stimulated by a reading public eager to guess the identities of the contributing authors, among them some of the best poets in America and England ("An Omnibus of Poets," p. 312). Lanier consented to become part of the endeavor, and in a letter to his father on 13 July 1878, he announced that he had just sent the poem off "hot from the mint" (CE 10:53).

The circumstances of its composition are sketchy. Local legend in Brunswick, Georgia, a coastal town located in the tidal marshes of Glynn County, maintains that Lanier had begun to write the poem on a visit there as early as 1875. He may, however, have composed the initial stanzas while he was in the area in 1877, on a tour he made of Florida to gather material for a guidebook (CE 1:358). Certainly the source of the poem lay in Lanier's intimate knowledge of the region, though most of it was written in Baltimore the summer of 1878, specifically for A Masque of Poets.

Although it went through three editions, the book received unfavorable reviews from critics. Lanier himself held it in contempt, calling it "an intolerable collection of mediocrity and mere cleverness" (CE 10:88). He claimed he could find only four poems of any merit and dismissed the rest: "This is the kind of poetry that is technically called culture-poetry: yet it is in reality the product of a want of culture" (CE 10:88).

Negativity aside, "The Marshes of Glynn" was generally acclaimed. Lanier's friend and fellow writer Richard Malcolm Johnston heralded it as "the greatest poem written in a hundred years" (CE 10:53). Lanier wrote his father that it had "won most of the honors of the book" (CE 10:97). Some critics surmised that Lanier was the rightful author; others credited the poem to Edgar Fawcett, Jean Ingelow, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson (CE 1:lxiii). A review in the Atlantic attributed to William Dean Howells, who had previously rejected Lanier's work, noted that the poem reflected the influence of Algernon Swinburne and that "the poet has almost bettered, in some passages, his master's instructions" (Starke, Sidney Lanier, p. 316). Within a year of the poem's publication in A Masque of Poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow republished it in his collection devoted to southern poetry, Poems of Places (1879).

Before his death, Lanier made several substantive revisions to the poem, but these changes were not published until 1884, when his wife, Mary Day Lanier, edited a posthumous volume titled Poems of Sidney Lanier, which included William Hayes Ward's "Memorial" as its introduction. The revised "Marshes of Glynn" in this edition has become the standard version (CE 1:xc). Poems went through three editions (1884, 1891, 1916) and has been reprinted more than twenty times, including an online version in 1998, part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill project Documenting the American South. It is deplorable that Lanier's best poem should have had such an inauspicious start, for it gives voice to the major principles that shaped Lanier as a poet.


Many prose writers after 1850 sharply criticized the materialistic values of the nineteenth century, but Lanier was one of the first Americans to make commercialism, with its social, economic, and moral consequences, the subject of poetry. By the time Lanier declared in "The Marshes of Glynn" that his "heart is at ease from men, and the wearisome sound of the stroke / Of the scythe of time and the trowel of trade is low" (ll. 26–27), he had already pronounced his invective against Trade. In April 1870 Lanier articulated his views on industrialism in his "Confederate Memorial Address": "The nineteenth century worships trade; and Trade is the most boisterous god of all the false gods under Heaven" (CE 5:266). Enumerating the ills of the factories, Lanier laments that trade has blunted human sensibility. Instead of promoting southern industries, Lanier advocated agricultural reform—the diversification of crops and a return to the stable economy of individual farms to counterbalance the sharecropping system, which fostered inefficiency and debt. Jeffersonian in outlook, Lanier condemned trade in his poem "The Symphony" and promoted his reforms in essays such as "The New South," in dialect poems such as "Thar's More in the Man than Thar Is in the Land," and in the prescriptive lyric "Corn."

Lanier's distaste for the corruptive effects of the Industrial Revolution have precedents in the sentiments of Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, but Lanier's views also echoed the attitudes of many southerners, both before and after the Civil War, who felt that industrialization symbolized northern aggression and soullessness. Nevertheless, Lanier's aim was not to foster sectionalism. He could easily have justified feeling bitter: he had passionately fought for the Confederacy, had had his health broken in a Federal prison camp, and had walked hundreds of miles back home to Macon, Georgia, to a world where, as he wrote Bayard Taylor in August 1875, "with us of the younger generation in the South since the War, pretty much the whole of life has been merely not-dying" (CE 9:230). But he was among the promising writers of the New South who believed that the only hope of recovery for the region lay in reconciliation, in becoming a viable part of the Union without repudiating the cherished values of southern heritage. These ideas were embodied in Lanier's hymn "The Centennial Meditation of Columbia. A Cantata" and in "The Psalm of the West," both composed in 1876 to commemorate the nation's centennial.

More than just a protest against mercantilism, Lanier's opposition to Trade was a plea for the restoration of the human spirit through love, art, music, and nature, exemplified in "The Marshes of Glynn." Progressing like the movements of a symphony, from noon to night, this poem embodies Lanier's release from the mundane concerns of daily life. Escaping the din of trade in the "Wildwood privacies" (l. 13) of the live oaks, the poet regenerates his soul: "And my spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within" (l. 29). Lanier announces that "belief overmasters doubt" (l. 28); he has exchanged a preoccupation with temporal concerns for the certainty of faith.


In this poem as in all his work, Lanier's wisdom and faith emanate from nature. While the melodic and intricate description offers a unique portrait of Georgia's coastal marshes and is, as Louis D. Rubin Jr. points out, "characteristically southern . . . in its strong emphasis on place" (p. 139), Lanier's view of nature clearly reflects the influence of transcendentalism, one of the most important literary movements of the nineteenth century. Lanier's empathetic relationship to the live oaks recalls a statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) in Nature: "The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them" (p. 24). Likewise, the trees serve as Lanier's mentors, reciprocating his affection: "Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine" (l. 20). Nature is all-healing: the live oaks provide "Cells for the passionate pleasure of prayer to the soul that grieves" (l. 15), and the vast expanse of marsh, sea, and sky liberate the soul "From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin" (l. 63). Most significant is the revelation of intuitive knowledge through nature. The poet declares, "I know that I know" (l. 28).


For all its affinity with transcendentalism, the knowledge Lanier embraces in "The Marshes of Glynn" is derived from Christianity. Nature is not God, in Lanier's view, it is simply a manifestation of divinity: "Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within / The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn" (ll. 77–78; emphasis added). Furthermore, the poem introduces the contrary element of doubt: "a sense of the ultimate unknowableness of nature," says Jack De Bellis (Sidney Lanier, p. 117). Lanier asks, "Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?" (l. 61). What Lanier discovers through his contemplation of live oak, marsh, and sea is not Emerson's cosmic Oversoul but complete acceptance of the inevitable eternity of death, symbolized by the interminable marshes, and the infinite incomprehensibility of God, made even more poignant by Lanier's impending demise. Lanier states: "Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face / The vast sweet visage of space" (ll. 35–36). Using the tide to represent death, the poet replaces irrational fear with unorthodox curiosity: "And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in" (l. 101).

Philip Graham maintains that the natural images in "The Marshes of Glynn" illustrate Lanier's theory of "etherealization," or the constant progression of all matter from a state of physical sensuality to a more spiritual form of love and beauty. Graham believes the poem shows that "physical life (represented by the live oaks and the dark), through death (the marsh and the dawn), merges into spiritual existence (the sea and full light)" ("Sidney Lanier and the Pattern of Contrast," pp. 506–507). This may well be Lanier's idealized interpretation of Darwinian evolution, a concept Lanier accepted on the whole, though he rejected the theory of the genesis of species.

By grappling with evolution and the questions of faith and doubt in an age of materialism, Lanier shared the concerns of other enlightened Victorians, men such as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, and Robert Browning. Lanier's achievement is all the more remarkable, however, for emerging from the ruins of the post–Civil War South, where deprivation and conservative attitudes created an atmosphere of literary and intellectual stagnation.


More recent criticism of Lanier's works is very limited and usually considers the poet in relationship to other writers or to music or medievalism. In one article of note, Jack Kerkering (2001) presents an extensive analysis of Lanier's racial identity in comparison to that of W. E. B. Du Bois, Walt Whitman, and the musician Antonín Dvořák. Starke's Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (1933) remains the definitive biography, while Anderson's Centennial Edition, despite the notable omission of the musical compositions, is unsurpassed in its comprehensive treatment of Lanier as man, poet, and writer.

Specific studies of "The Marshes of Glynn" include a comparison by D. M. R. Bentley of the form and content of Lanier's poem to "Tantramar Revisited" by the Canadian poet Charles G. D. Roberts. In 1965 Harry R. Warfel maintained that "The Marshes of Glynn" represents a mystic vision and that the blending of images and musical elements produces a program poem, which Warfel defines as a poem "structured in analogy with program music" (p. 34). Five years later Owen T. Reamer rejected Warfel's views, contending that the natural symbols represent Lanier's reaffirmation of God. In addition to Anderson, Roy Harvey Pearce, Edd Winfield Parks, Jack De Bellis, Louis D. Rubin Jr., and Jane S. Gabin provide insightful interpretations of the poem as part of their broader considerations of Lanier's work.

The harshest criticism of "The Marshes of Glynn" concerns its form and style. In particular, Robert Ross finds the symbolism of the woods, marsh, and sea obscure and imbalanced. Ross's argument reiterates the objections of the New Critics, notably the Fugitive-Agrarians Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom, who in the 1930s denounced Lanier for his policies on economic reform and for his poetics, which they believed lacked consistency and clarity and substituted sentimentality and didacticism for paradox, irony, and wit.

It is easy to understand these critics' quarrel with Lanier's style, for "The Marshes of Glynn" is complex, written in logaoedic dactyls, with a cacophony of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme used to create an orchestral effect. An accomplished flutist and professional musician, Lanier postulated that music and poetry are governed by identical principles of sound, a theory he developed in The Science of English Verse (1880). With its free-flowing syntax and word tones, "The Marshes of Glynn" is the premier demonstration of these principles. In departing from the predominant style of his contemporaries, Lanier's experiments with liberated forms parallel Whitman's free verse, though neither poet fully recognized the similarity.

Lanier was caught between two ideologies: the conservative traditions of the Old South and the progressive ideas of the New, fraught with all the unsettling doubts, conflicts, and controversies that characterized the last half of the nineteenth century. Yet he approached life with a receptive mind and optimism in the face of adversity. His work endures—in anthologies and on the Internet, as the inspiration for poetic works such as Andrew Hudgins's After the Lost War, and as an early proponent of the ecocritical perspective. It is this timelessness that "The Marshes of Glynn" celebrates.

see alsoLyric Poetry; New South; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. In Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Organic Anthology, edited by Stephen E. Whicher, pp. 21–56. Riverside edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Lanier, Sidney. The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier. 10 vols. Edited by Charles R. Anderson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945. "The Marshes of Glynn" appears on pages 119–122 of the first volume. Individual volumes have introductions and notes by Anderson and other Lanier scholars. References to this work are indicated in parentheses within the text as CE.

Lanier, Sidney. Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife: Electronic Edition. Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1998.

Secondary Works

Allen, Gay Wilson. American Prosody. New York: American Book, 1935.

Bentley, D. M. R. "Roberts' 'Tantramar Revisited' and Lanier's 'The Marshes of Glynn.'" Studies in Canadian Literature 5 (1980): 316–319.

De Bellis, Jack. Sidney Lanier. New York: Twayne, 1972.

De Bellis, Jack. Sidney Lanier, Henry Timrod, and Paul Hamilton Hayne: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. A comprehensive annotated bibliography of secondary source material.

Gabin, Jane S. A Living Minstrelsy: The Poetry and Music of Sidney Lanier. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985.

Graham, Philip. "Lanier and Science." American Literature 4, no. 3 (November 1932): 288–292.

Graham, Philip. "Sidney Lanier and the Pattern of Contrast." American Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1959): 503–508.

Havens, Elmer A. "Lanier's Critical Theory." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 55 (1969): 83–89.

Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature, 1607–1900. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1954.

Hudgins, Andrew. After the Lost War: A Narrative. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Kerkering, Jack. "'Of Me and of Mine': The Music of Racial Identity in Whitman and Lanier, Dvorák, and DuBois." American Literature 73, no. 1 (2001): 147–184.

Leary, Lewis. "The Forlorn Hope of Sidney Lanier." In his Southern Excursions: Essays on Mark Twain and Others, pp. 131–141. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Mims, Edwin. Sidney Lanier. 1905. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968.

Parks, Edd Winfield. Sidney Lanier: The Man, the Poet, the Critic. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1968.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Ransom, John Crowe. "Hearts and Heads." American Review 2 (March 1934): 554–571.

Reamer, Owen T. "Lanier's 'The Marshes of Glynn' Revisited." Mississippi Quarterly 23 (May 1970): 57–63.

Ridgely, J. V. Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

Ross, Robert H. "'The Marshes of Glynn': A Study in Symbolic Obscurity." American Literature 32, no. 4 (1961): 403–416.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. "The Passion of Sidney Lanier." In his William Elliott Shoots a Bear: Essays on the Southern Literary Imagination, pp. 107–144. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975.

"Sidney Lanier (1842–1881)." The New Georgia Encyclopedia. The Georgia Humanities Council in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia. Available at This website provides links to the entry on Lanier in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame Honorees, the online version of Poems of Sidney Lanier, Edited by His Wife: Electronic Edition, and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government: Sidney Lanier Commemorative Stamp.

Snyder, Henry Nelson. Modern Poets and Christian Teaching, Sidney Lanier. 1906. Foreword by Robert E. Sharp. Nashville, Tenn.: Parthenon Press, 1954.

Starke, Aubrey Harrison. "The Agrarians Deny a Leader." American Review 2 (March 1934): 534–553.

Starke, Aubrey Harrison. "An Omnibus of Poets." Colophon 4, pt. 16 (March 1934), n.p. Provides details about and reception of A Masque of Poets.

Starke, Aubrey Harrison. 1933. Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.

Tate, Allen. "A Southern Romantic." New Republic 76 (30 August 1933): 67–70.

Warfel, Harry R. "Mystic Vision in 'The Marshes of Glynn.'" Mississippi Quarterly 19 (1965): 34–40.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Blind Poet: Sidney Lanier." American Review 2 (November 1933): 27–45.

Rosemary D. Cox

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