Lanier, Sidney (1842-1881)
Sidney Lanier (1842-1881)
Verse. Though his career was shortened by his death at the age of thirty-nine, Sidney Lanier wrote poetry that attempted to adapt and respond to a world disrupted by the violence of the Civil War, the unsettling advances of science, and the social upheaval of industrialization. He recognized the unsuitability of traditional forms—particularly those of the English Romantics—for dealing with modern realities, and he experimented with new rationales for the construction of verse based on sound. Along with his precursors Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe and his contemporary Emily Dickinson, Lanier helped pave the way for the revolution in poetic forms and content that took place in the early twentieth century.
Civil War. Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia, on 3 February 1842. The son of a successful lawyer, he was raised in an atmosphere that mixed strict Presbyterian morality with the Southern gentleman’s ideal of social graces and intellectual refinement. He attended Oglethorpe University near Milledgeville, Georgia, where he was inspired by recent advances in science and instilled with a desire for serious scholarly study. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was published while Lanier was still an undergraduate and convinced him of the need to reconcile the claims of modern science with a traditional respect for religion and the arts. He graduated in 1860 and hoped to study abroad in Germany, but after the shelling of Fort Sumter he enlisted in the Confederate army. In 1864 he was captured and imprisoned for four months, and during his confinement he was stricken with tuberculosis.
Devoted Intellectual. For the remainder of his life Lanier struggled with his health and poverty. He worked a variety of jobs—hotel clerk, teacher, lawyer—before deciding to devote himself to a career in music and literature. His first novel, Tiger Lilies, was published in 1867, and in 1873 he began playing flute for the Peabody Orchestra in Baltimore. In 1875 the first of his important poems, “Corn” and “The Symphony,” appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine. His lectures on Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature caught the eye of the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, and in 1879 he accepted a position as a lecturer in English literature. Though he continued to produce poems and scholarly essays, Lanier’s health rapidly declined. He died from tuberculosis on 2 September 1881.
Nature and Music. For his poetic material, Lanier drew primarily on the landscape of his native state, and his series of poems on the marshes of Georgia remain his best-known works. He had great distrust of the increasingly commercial nature of American society, and his verses condemn industrialism and trade for stifling life and civilization. As a corrective he offered the abstractions of music and art and expressed an almost-religious admiration for nature. More important than his themes, however, are his experiments in sound and verse forms. A talented musician since his childhood, Lanier increasingly emphasized the musical elements in his poetry and experimented with repetition, alliteration, rhyme, and irregular meter and line lengths. From these experimentations he developed a theory, expressed in his book The Science of English Verse (1880), that the laws of music and verse are identical. Both, he argued, are based on “a set of specifically related sounds,” and the form and technique of poetry can be reduced to a science, broken down and classified in the same manner as musical pitch, tone, and duration. Lanier’s ideas were well-received but seldom imitated. His experiments, nevertheless, both indicated a growing awareness of the need for more-vigorous and relevant verse forms and laid the groundwork for the future American reassessment of the rules of poetic composition.
Aubrey H. Starke, Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933).
The work of Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), American poet, critic, and musician, bridged southern romantic literature and 20th-century realism. He spent his life trying to convince America that poetry and music are governed by similar artistic laws.
Sidney Lanier was born in Macon, Ga., on Feb. 3, 1842, of Huguenot and Scottish parentage. As a child, he was devoted to music, concentrating on study of the flute. After graduating from Oglethorpe University, he tutored for a year, then joined the Macon Volunteers in the Civil War. He was captured in 1864. During his imprisonment he developed tuberculosis. Discharged, he walked home to Georgia, arriving dangerously ill. The rest of his life was a losing battle with bad health.
From 1866 to 1872 Lanier worked at a variety of jobs: bookkeeper-clerk in Montgomery, Ala., teacher in rural Alabama schools, lawyer in his father's Macon office, and novelist (Tiger-lilies, 1867, deals partly with his war experiences). He and his wife moved to San Antonio, Tex., in 1873 to recover his health, but to no avail. That same year he became first flutist in the Peabody Orchestra of Baltimore and began to work on Florida, a guidebook (1875).
Thereafter Lanier divided his time between music and poetry. He published two poems in Lippincott's Magazine (1876) and attended the Philadelphia premiere of his cantata, The Centennial Meditation of Columbia, written to Dudley Buck's music. After a few months in Florida for his health, he resettled his family in Baltimore. His Poems (1877) brought neither the sales nor the reputation he expected, so he turned to hack work for income—writing tales for boys from classical literature. The Boy's King Arthur (1882) was his best-selling book.
In 1879 Johns Hopkins University invited Lanier to lecture on Shakespeare, the novel, and his theories of prosody. When the appearance of The Science of English Verse (1880) did not bring an offer of a professorship from the university, he moved to the mountains of North Carolina. He died there on Sept. 7, 1881.
Lanier's reputation grew rapidly after his death. Two of his best-known poems, "The Song of the Chattahoochee" and "The Marshes of Glynn," are noted for their fluid measure and orchestral effects. Mrs. Lanier edited The English Novel (1883) from his lecture notes.
The standard collection of Lanier's writings is The Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier (10 vols., 1945). Letters of Sidney Lanier (1899) and Selections from Sidney Lanier: Prose and Verse (1916) were both edited by Henry W. Lanier. The most recent collection is Selected Poems, edited by Stark Young (1947). Three biographies offering critical judgments of Lanier's work are Edwin Mims, Sidney Lanier (1905); Aubrey H. Starke, Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (1933), which includes previously unpublished material and an extensive bibliography; and Lincoln Lorenz, The Life of Sidney Lanier (1935). Historical estimates of Lanier's work are in Robert E. Spiller, ed., Literary History of the United States (1948; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1963), and in Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968).
Gabin, Jane S., A living minstrelsy: the poetry and music of Sidney Lanier, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985. □