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Sidney Lanier by F.V.N. Painter

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Lanier's genius was predominantly musical. He descended from a musical ancestry, which included in its line a "master of the king's music" at the court of James I. His musical gifts manifested themselves in early childhood. Without further instruction in music than a knowledge of the notes, which he learned from his mother, he was able to play, almost by intuition, the flute, guitar, violin, piano, and organ. He organized his boyish playmates into an amateur minstrel band; and when in early manhood he began to confide his most intimate thoughts to a notebook, he wrote, "The prime inclination—that is, natural bent (which I have checked, though)—of my nature is to music, and for that I have the greatest talent; indeed, not boasting, for God gave it me, I have an extraordinary musical talent, and feel it within me plainly that I could rise as high as any composer."

This early bent and passion for music never left him. His thought continually turned to the subject of music, and in the silences of his soul he frequently heard wonderful melodies. In his novel,Tiger Lilies, he lauds music in a rapturous strain: "Since in all holy worship, in all conditions of life, in all domestic, social, religious, political, and lonely individual doings; in all passions, in all countries, earthly or heavenly; in all stages of civilization, of time, or of eternity; since, I say, in all these, music is always present to utter the shallowest or the deepest thoughts of man or spirit—let us cease to call music a fine art, to class it with delicate pastry cookery and confectionery, and to fear to make too much of it lest it should make us sick." At a later period, while seeking to regain his health by a sojourn in Texas, he wrote to his wife: "All day my soul hath been cutting swiftly into the great space of the subtle, unspeakable deep, driven by wind after wind of heavenly melody. The very inner spirit and essence of all wind-songs, bird-songs, passion-songs, folk-songs, country-songs, sex-songs, soul-songs, and body-songs, hath blown upon me in quick gusts like the breath of passion, and sailed me into a sea of vast dreams, whereof each wave is at once a vision and a melody."

This predominance of music in the genius of Lanier is at once the source of his strength and of his weakness in poetry. In his poems, and in his work entitled The Science of English Verse, it is the musical element of poetry upon which the principal emphasis is laid. This fact makes him the successor of Poe in American letters. Both in theory and in practice Lanier has, as we shall see, achieved admirable results. But, after all, the musical element of poetry is of minor importance. It is a means, and not an end. No jingle of sound can replace the delicacy of fancy, nobleness of sentiment and energy of thought that constitute what we may call the soul of poetry. Rhapsody is not the highest form of poetic achievement. In its noblest forms poetry is the medium through which great souls, like Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, give to the world, with classic self-restraint, the fruitage of their highest thought and emotion.

The life of Lanier was a tragedy. While lighted here and there with a fleeting joy, its prevailing tone was one of sadness. The heroic courage with which he met disease and poverty impart to his life an inspiring grandeur. He was born at Macon, Georgia, February 3, 1842. His sensitive spirit early responded to the beauties of Nature; and in his hunting and fishing trips, in which he was usually accompanied by his younger brother Clifford, he caught something of the varied beauties of marsh, wood, and sky, which were afterwards to be so admirably woven into his poems. He early showed a fondness for books, and in the well-stored shelves of his father's library he found ample opportunity to gratify his taste for reading. His literary tastes were doubtless formed on the old English classics—Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Addison—which formed a part of every Southern gentleman's library.

At the age of fifteen he entered the Sophomore class of Oglethorpe College, near Milledgeville, an institution that did not have sufficient vitality to survive the Civil War. He did not think very highly of the course of instruction, and found his chief delight, as perhaps the best part of his culture, in the congenial circle of friends he gathered around him. The evenings he spent with them were frequently devoted to literature and music. A classmate, Mr. T. F. Newell, gives us a vivid picture of these social features of his college life. "I can recall," he says, "my association with him with sweetest pleasure, especially those Attic nights, for they are among the dearest and tenderest recollections of my life, when with a few chosen companions we would read from some treasured volume, it may have been Tennyson, or Carlyle, or Christopher North's Noctes Ambrosianoe, or we would make the hours vocal with music and song; those happy nights, which were veritable refections of the gods, and which will be remembered with no other regret than that they will nevermore return. On such occasions I have seen him walk up and down the room and with his flute extemporize the sweetest music ever vouchsafed to mortal ear. At such times it would seem as if his soul were in a trance, and could only find existence, expression, in the ecstasy of tone, that would catch our souls with his into the very seventh heaven of harmony."

Lanier was a diligent student, and easily stood among the first of his classes, particularly in mathematics. His reading took a wide range. In addition to the leading authors of the nineteenth century, he showed a fondness for what was old and quaint in our literature. He delighted in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and in the works of "the poet- preacher," Jeremy Taylor. At this time, too, his thoughtful nature turned to the serious problem of his life work. He eagerly questioned his capabilities as preliminary, to use his own words, "to ascertaining God's will with reference to himself." As already learned from his notebook, he early recognized his extraordinary gifts in music. But his ambition aimed at more than a musician's career, for it seemed to him, as he said, that there were greater things that he might do.

His ability and scholarship made a favorable impression on the college authorities, and immediately after his graduation he was elected to a tutorship. From this position, so congenial to his scholarly tastes, he was called, after six months, by the outbreak of the Civil War. In his boyhood he had shown a martial spirit. With his younger brother he joined the Macon Volunteers, and soon saw heavy service in Virginia. He took part in the battles of Seven Pines, Drewry's Bluffs, and Malvern Hill, in all of which he displayed a chivalrous courage. Afterward he became a signal officer and scout. "Nearly two years," he says, in speaking of this part of his service, "were passed in skirmishes, racing to escape the enemy's gunboats, signaling dispatches, serenading country beauties, poring over chance books, and foraging for provender." In 1864 he became a blockade runner, and in his first run out from near Fort Fisher, he was captured and taken to Point Lookout prison.

It is remarkable that, amid the distractions and hardships of active service, his love of music and letters triumphantly asserted itself. His flute was his constant companion. He utilized the brief intervals of repose that came to him in camp to set some of Tennyson's songs to music and to prosecute new lines of literary study. He took up the study of German, in which he became quite proficient, and by the light of the camp fire at night translated from Heine, Schiller, and Goethe. At the same time his sympathy with the varied aspects of Nature was deepened. Trees and flowers and ferns revealed to him their mystic beauty; and like Wordsworth, he found it easy, "in the lily, the sunset, the mountain, and rosy hues of all life, to trace God."

It was during his campaigns in Virginia that he began the composition of his only novel, Tiger Lilies, which was not completed, however, till 1867. It is now out of print. Though immature and somewhat chaotic, it clearly reveals the imaginative temperament of the author. War is imaged to his mind as "a strange, enormous, terrible flower," which he wishes might be eradicated forever and ever. As might be expected, music finds an honored place in its pages. He regards music as essential to the home. "Given the raw materials," he says, "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 that music is the one essential. After the evening spent around the piano, or the flute, or the violin, how warm and how chastened is the kiss with which the family all say good night! Ah, the music has taken all the day cares and thrown them into its terrible alembic and boiled them and rocked them and cooled them, till they are crystallized into one care, which is a most sweet and rare desirable sorrow—the yearning for God."

After the war came a rude struggle for existence—a struggle in which tuberculosis, contracted during his camp life, gradually sapped his strength. Hemorrhages became not infrequent, and he was driven from one locality to another in a vain search for health. But he never lost hope; and his sufferings served to bring out his indomitable, heroic spirit, and to stimulate him to the highest degree of intellectual activity. Few men have accomplished more when so heavily handicapped by disease and poverty. The record of his struggle is truly pathetic. In a letter to Paul Hamilton Hayne, written in 1880, he gives us a glimpse both of his physical suffering and his mental agony. "I could never tell you," he says, "the extremity of illness, of poverty, and of unceasing toil, in which I have spent the last three years, and you would need only once to see the weariness with which I crawl to bed after a long day's work, and after a long night's work at the heels of it—and Sundays just as well as other days—in order to find in your heart a full warrant for my silence. It seems incredible that I have printed such an unchristian quantity of matter—all, too, tolerably successful—and secured so little money; and the wife and the four boys, who are so lovely that I would not think a palace good enough for them if I had it, make one's earnings seem all the less." During all these years of toil he longed to be delivered from the hard struggle for bread that he might give himself more fully to music and poetry.

In 1867, while in charge of a prosperous school at Prattville, Alabama, he married Miss Mary Day, of Macon, Georgia. It proved a union in which Lanier found perpetual inspiration and comfort. His new-found strength and happiness are reflected in more than one of his poems. In Acknowledgment we read:—

  "By the more height of thy sweet stature grown,
  Twice-eyed with thy gray vision set in mine,
  I ken far lands to wifeless men unknown,
  I compass stars for one-sexed eyes too fine."

And in My Springs, he says again, with great beauty:—

  "Dear eyes, dear eyes and rare complete—
  Being heavenly-sweet and earthly-sweet—
  I marvel that God made you mine,
  For when He frowns, 'tis then ye shine!"

In 1873, after giving up the study of law in his father's office, he went to Baltimore, where he was engaged as first flute for the Peabody Symphony concerts. This engagement was a bold undertaking, which cannot be better presented than in his own words. In a letter to Hayne he says: "Aside from the complete bouleversement of proceeding from the courthouse to the footlights, I was a raw player and a provincial withal, without practice, and guiltless of instruction—for I had never had a teacher. To go under these circumstances among old professional players, and assume a leading part in a large orchestra which was organized expressly to play the most difficult works of the great masters, was (now that it's all over) a piece of temerity that I don't remember ever to have equaled before. But I trusted in love, pure and simple, and was not disappointed; for, as if by miracle, difficulties and discouragements melted away before the fire of a passion for music which grows ever stronger within my heart; and I came out with results more gratifying than it is becoming in me to specify." His playing possessed an exquisite charm. "In his hands the flute," to quote from the tribute paid him by his director, "no longer remained a mere material instrument, but was transformed into a voice that set heavenly harmonies into vibration. Its tones developed colors, warmth, and a low sweetness of unspeakable poetry; they were not only true and pure, but poetic, allegoric as it were, suggestive of the depths and heights of being and of the delights which the earthly ear never hears and the earthly eye never sees."

Henceforth Baltimore was to be Lanier's home. In addition to music, he gave himself seriously to literature. Before this period he had written a number of poems, limited in range and somewhat labored in manner. The current of his life still set to music, and his poetic efforts seem to have been less a matter of inspiration than of deliberate choice. In literary form the influence of Poe is discernible; but in subject-matter the sounds and colors of Nature, as in the poetry of his later years, occupy a prominent place. Of the poems of this early period the songs for The Jacquerie are the best. Here is a stanza of Betrayal:—

  "The sun has kissed the violet sea,
    And burned the violet to a rose.
  O sea! wouldst thou not better be
    More violet still? Who knows? Who knows?
      Well hides the violet in the wood:
      The dead leaf wrinkles her a hood,
      And winter's ill is violet's good;
      But the bold glory of the rose,
      It quickly comes and quickly goes—
      Red petals whirling in white snows,
            Ah me!"

After taking up his residence in Baltimore, Lanier entered upon a comprehensive course of reading and study, particularly in early English literature. He studied Anglo-Saxon, and familiarized himself with Langland and Chaucer. He understood that any great poetic achievement must be based on extensive knowledge. A sweet warbler may depend on momentary inspiration; but the great singer, who is to instruct and move his age, must possess the insight and breadth of vision that come alone from a profound acquaintance with Nature and human history. With keen critical discernment Lanier said that "the trouble with Poe was, he did not know enough. He needed to know a good many more things in order to be a great poet." It was to prepare himself for the highest flights possible to him that he entered, with inextinguishable ardor, upon a wide course of reading.

In 1874 he was commissioned by a railroad company to write up the scenery, climate, and history of Florida. While spending a month or two with his family in Georgia, he wrote Corn, which deservedly ranks as one of his noblest poems. The delicate forms and colors of Nature touched him to an ecstasy of delight; and at the same time they bodied forth to his imagination deep spiritual truths. As we read this poem, we feel that the poet has reached a height of which little promise is given in his earlier poems. Here are the opening lines:—

  "To-day the woods are trembling through and through
  With shimmering forms, and flash before my view,
  Then melt in green as dawn-stars melt in blue.
    The leaves that wave against my cheek caress
    Like women's hands; the embracing boughs express
        A subtlety of mighty tenderness;
    The copse-depths into little noises start,
    That sound anon like beatings of a heart,
    Anon like talk 'twixt lips not far apart.
    The beach dreams balm, as a dreamer hums a song;
    Through that vague wafture, expirations strong
    Throb from young hickories breathing deep and long
  With stress and urgence bold of prisoned spring
        And ecstasy burgeoning."

This poem is remarkable, too, for its presentation of Lanier's conception of the poetic office. The poet should be a prophet and leader, arousing mankind to all noble truth and action:—

  "Look, out of line one tall corn-captain stands
  Advanced beyond the foremost of his bands,
    And waves his blades upon the very edge
    And hottest thicket of the battling hedge.
  Thou lustrous stalk, that ne'er mayst walk nor talk,
    Still shalt thou type the poet-soul sublime
    That leads the vanward of his timid time,
    And sings up cowards with commanding rhyme—
  Soul calm, like thee, yet fain, like thee, to grow
  By double increment, above, below;
    Soul homely, as thou art, yet rich in grace like thee,
    Teaching the yeomen selfless chivalry
    That moves in gentle curves of courtesy;
  Soul filled like thy long veins with sweetness tense.
          By every godlike sense
  Transmuted from the four wild elements."

For a time Lanier had difficulty in finding a publisher. He made a visit to New York, but met only with rebuffs. But upheld, like Wordsworth, by a strong consciousness of the excellence of his work, he did not lose his cheerful hope and courage. "The more I am thrown against these people here, and the more reverses I suffer at their hands, the more confident I am of beating them finally. I do not mean by 'beating' that I am in opposition to them, or that I hate them or feel aggrieved with them; no, they know no better and they act up to their light with wonderful energy and consistency. I only mean that I am sure of being able, some day, to teach them better things and nobler modes of thought and conduct." Corn finally appeared in Lippincott's Magazine for February, 1875.

From this time poetry became a larger part of Lanier's life. His poetic genius had attained to fullness of power. He gave freer rein to imagination and thought and expression. Speaking of Special Pleading, which was written in 1875, he says: "In this little song, I have begun to dare to give myself some freedom in my own peculiar style, and have allowed myself to treat words, similes, and meters with such freedom as I desired. The result convinces me that I can do so now safely." In the next two or three years he produced such notable poems as The Song of the ChattahoocheeThe SymphonyThe Revenge of HamishCloverThe Bee, and The Waving of the Corn. They slowly gained recognition, and brought him the fellowship and encouragement of not a few literary people of distinction, among whom Bayard Taylor and Edmund Clarence Stedman deserve especial mention.

Perhaps none of Lanier's poems has been more popular than The Song of the Chattahoochee. It does not reach the poetic heights of a few of his other poems, but it is perfectly clear, and has a pleasant lilting movement. Moreover, it teaches the important truth that we are to be dumb to the siren voices of ease and pleasure when the stern voice of duty calls. The concluding stanza is as follows:—

  "But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
    And oh, not the valleys of Hall,
  Shall hinder the rain from attaining the plain,
    For downward the voices of duty call—
  Downward to toil and be mixed with the main.
  The dry fields burn and the mills are to turn,
  And a thousand meadows mortally yearn,
    And the final main from beyond the plain
    Calls o'er the hills of Habersham,
    And calls through the valleys of Hall."

In 1876, upon the recommendation of Bayard Taylor, Lanier was invited to write the centennial Cantata. As a poem, not much can be said in its favor. Its thought and form fall far below its ambitious conception, in which Columbia presents a meditation on the completed century of our country's history. On its publication it was subject to a good deal of unfavorable criticism; but through it all, though it must have been a bitter disappointment, the poet never lost his faith in his genius and destiny. "The artist shall put forth, humbly and lovingly," he wrote to his father, "and without bitterness against opposition, the very best and highest that is within him, utterly regardless of contemporary criticism. What possible claim can contemporary criticism set up to respect—that criticism which crucified Jesus Christ, stoned Stephen, hooted Paul for a madman, tried Luther for a criminal, tortured Galileo, bound Columbus in chains, and drove Dante into a hell of exile?"

The need of a regular income became more and more a necessity. "My head and my heart," he wrote, "are both so full of poems, which the dreadful struggle for bread does not give me time to put on paper, that I am often driven to headache and heartache purely for want of an hour or two to hold a pen." He sought various positions—a clerkship in Washington, an assistant's place in the Peabody Library, a consulship in the south of France—all in vain. He lectured to parlor classes in literature—an enterprise from which he seems to have derived more fame than money. Finally, in 1879, he was appointed to a lectureship in English literature in Johns Hopkins University, from which dates the final period of his literary activity and of his life.

The first fruits of this appointment were a series of lectures on metrical forms, which appeared, in 1880, in a volume entitled The Science of English Verse. It is an original and suggestive work, in which, however, the author's predilections for music carry him too far. He has done well to emphasize the time element in English versification; but his attempt to reduce all forms of verse to a musical notation can hardly be regarded as successful. His work, though comprehensive in scope, was not intended to impose a new set of laws upon the poet. "For the artist in verse," he says in his brief concluding chapter, "there is no law: the perception and love of beauty constitute the whole outfit; and what is herein set forth is to be taken merely as enlarging that perception and exalting that love. In all cases, the appeal is to the ear; but the ear should, for that purpose, be educated up to the highest possible plane of culture."

A second series of lectures, composed and delivered when the anguish of mortal illness was upon him, was subsequently published under the title, The English Novel. Its aim was to trace the development of personality in literature. It contains much suggestive and sound criticism. He did not share the fear entertained by some of his contemporaries, that science would gradually abolish poetry. Many of the finest poems in our language, as he pointed out, have been written while the wonderful discoveries of recent science were being made. "Now," he continues, "if we examine the course and progress of this poetry, born thus within the very grasp and maw of this terrible science, it seems to me that we find—as to the substance of poetry—a steadily increasing confidence and joy in the mission of the poet, in the sacredness of faith and love and duty and friendship and marriage, and the sovereign fact of man's personality, while as to the form of the poetry, we find that just as science has pruned our faith (to make it more faithful), so it has pruned our poetic form and technic, cutting away much unproductive wood and effloresence, and creating finer reserves and richer yields." Among novelists he assigns the highest place to George Eliot, who "shows man what he maybe in terms of what he is."

There are two poems of this closing period that exhibit Lanier's characteristic manner at its best. They are the high-water mark of his poetic achievement. They exemplify his musical theories of meter. They show the trend forced upon him by his innate love of music; and though he might have written much more, if his life had been prolonged, it is doubtful whether he would have produced anything finer. Any further effort at musical effects would probably have resulted in a kind of ecstatic rhapsody. The first of the poems in question is the Marshes of Glynn, descriptive of the sea marshes near the city of Brunswick, Georgia.

  "Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding 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 who hath mightily won
  God out of knowledge, and good out of infinite pain,
  And sight out of blindness, and purity out of a stain."

The other poem of his closing period, Sunrise, his greatest production, was written during the high fever of his last illness. In the poet's collected works, it is placed first in the series called Hymns of the Marshes. At times it almost reaches the point of ecstasy. His love of Nature finds supreme utterance.

  "In my sleep I was fain of their fellowship, fain
    Of the live-oak, the marsh, and the main.
  The little green leaves would not let me alone in my sleep;
  Up-breathed from the marshes, a message of range and of sweep,
  Interwoven with waftures of wild sea-liberties, drifting,
  Came through the lapped leaves sifting, sifting,
    Came to the gates of sleep.
  Then my thoughts, in the dark of the dungeon-keep
  Of the Castle of Captives hid in the City of Sleep,
  Upstarted, by twos and by threes assembling:
    The gates of sleep fell a-trembling
  Like as the lips of a lady that forth falter yes,
      Shaken with happiness:
    The gates of sleep stood wide.

* * * * *

  "Oh, what if a sound should be made!
    Oh, what if a bound should be laid
  To this bow-and-string tension of beauty and silence a-spring,—
  To the bend of beauty the bow, or the hold of silence the string!
  I fear me, I fear me yon dome of diaphanous gleam
  Will break as a bubble o'erblown in a dream,—
  Yon dome of too-tenuous tissues of space and of night,
  Overweighted with stars, overfreighted with light,
  Oversated with beauty and silence, will seem
    But a bubble that broke in a dream,
  If a bound of degree to this grace be laid,
      Or a sound or a motion made."

Throughout his artistic life Lanier was true to the loftiest ideals. He did not separate artistic from moral beauty. To his sensitive spirit, the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty seemed interchangeable terms. He did not make the shallow cry of "art for art's sake" a pretext or excuse for moral taint. On the contrary, he maintained that all art should be the embodiment of truth, goodness, love. "Can not one say with authority," he inquires in one of his university lectures, "to the young artist, whether working in stone, in color, in tones, or in character- forms of the novel: so far from dreading that your moral purpose will interfere with your beautiful creation, go forward in the clear conviction that, unless you are suffused—soul and body, one might say— with that moral purpose which finds its largest expression in love—that is, the love of all things in their proper relation—unless you are suffused with this love, do not dare to meddle with beauty; unless you are suffused with beauty, do not dare to meddle with truth; unless you are suffused with truth, do not dare to meddle with goodness. In a word, unless you are suffused with truth, wisdom, goodness, and love, abandon the hope that the ages will accept you as an artist."

Through these years of high aspiration and manly endeavor, the poet and musician was waging a losing fight with consumption. He was finally driven to tent life in a high, pure atmosphere as his only hope. He first went to Asheville, North Carolina, and a little later to Lynn. But his efforts to regain his health proved in vain; and on the 7th of September, 1881, the tragic struggle was brought to a close.

The time has hardly come to give a final judgment as to Lanier's place in American letters. He certainly deserves a place by the side of the very best poets of the South, and perhaps, as many believe, by the side of the greatest masters of American song. His genius had elements of originality equaled only by Poe. He had the high moral purpose of the artist- prophets; but his efforts after musical effects, as well as his untimely death, prevented the full fruitage of his admirable genius. Many of the poems that he has left us are lacking in spontaneity and artistic finish. Alliterative effects are sometimes obtrusive. His poetic theories, as presented in The Science of English Verse, often outstripped his execution. But, after all these abatements are made, it remains true that in a few pieces he has reached a trembling height of poetic and musical rapture that is unsurpassed in the whole range of American poetry.


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