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The Sunrise Poet Sidney Lanier

by La Salle Corbell Pickett

In my memory-gallery hangs a beautiful picture of the Lanier home as I saw it years ago, on High Street in Macon, Georgia, upon a hillock with greensward sloping down on all sides. It is a wide, roomy mansion, with hospitality written all over its broad steps that lead up to a wide veranda on which many windows look out and smile upon the visitor as he enters. One tall dormer window, overarched with a high peak, comes out to the very edge of the roof to welcome the guest. Two, smaller and more retiring, stand upon the verge of the high-combed house-roof and look down in friendly greeting. There are tall trees in the yard, bending a little to touch the old house lovingly.

Far away stretched the old oaks that girdled Macon with greenery, where Sidney Lanier and his brother Clifford used to spend their schoolboy Saturdays among the birds and rabbits. Near by flows the Ocmulgee, where the boys, inseparable in sport as well as in the more serious aspects of life, were wont to fish. Here Sidney cut the reed with which he took his first flute lesson from the birds in the woods. Above the town were the hills for which the soul of the poet longed in after life.

Macon was the "live" city of middle Georgia. She made no effort to rival Richmond or Charleston as an educational or literary centre, but she had an admirable commercial standing, and offered a generous hospitality that kept her in fond remembrance. In the Macon post-office Sidney Lanier had his first business experience, to offset the drowsy influence of sleepy Midway, the seat of Oglethorpe College, where he continued his studies after completing the course laid out in the "'Cademy" under the oaks and hickories of Macon.

January 6, 1857, Lanier entered the sophomore class of Oglethorpe, where it was unlawful to purvey any commodity, except Calvinism, "within a mile and a half of the University"—a sad regulation for college boys, who, as a rule, have several tastes unconnected with religious orthodoxy.

Lanier carried with him the "small, yellow, one-keyed flute" which had superseded the musical reed provided by Nature, and practised upon it so fervently that a college-mate said that he "would play upon his flute like one inspired."

Montvale Springs, in the mountains of Tennessee, where Sidney's grandfather, Sterling Lanier, built a hotel in which he gave his twenty-five grandchildren a vacation one summer, still holds the memory of that wondrous flute and yet more marvellous nature among the "strong, sweet trees, like brawny men with virgins' hearts." From its ferns and mosses and "reckless vines" and priestly oaks lifting yearning arms toward the stars, Lanier returned to Oglethorpe as a tutor. Here amid hard work and haunting suggestions of a coming poem, "The Jacquerie," he tried to work out the problem of his life's expression.

When the guns of Fort Sumter thundered across Sidney Lanier's dreams of music and poetry, he joined the Macon volunteers, the first company to march from Georgia into Virginia. It was stationed near Norfolk, camping in the fairgrounds in the time that Lanier describes as "the gay days of mandolin and guitar and moonlight sails on the James River." Life there seems not to have been "all beer and skittles," or the poetic substitutes therefor, for he goes on to say that their principal duties were to picket the beach, their "pleasures and sweet rewards of toil consisting in ague which played dice with our bones, and blue mass pills that played the deuce with our livers."

In 1862, the Company went to Wilmington, North Carolina, where they indulged "for two or three months in what are called the 'dry shakes of the sand-hills,' a sort of brilliant tremolo movement." The time not required for the "tremolo movement" was spent in building Fort Fischer, until they were ordered to Drewry's Bluff, and then to the Chickahominy, where they took part in the Seven Days' fight.

Even war places were literary shrines for Lanier, for wherever he chanced to be he was constantly dedicating himself anew to the work of his life. In Petersburg he studied in the Public Library. In that old town he first saw General R.E. Lee, and watched his calm face until he "felt that the antique earth returned out of the past and some mystic god sat on a hill, sculptured in stone, presiding over a terrible, yet sublime, contest of human passions"—perhaps the most poetic conception ever awakened by the somewhat familiar view of an elderly gentleman asleep under the influence of a sermon on a drowsy mid-summer day. Writing to his father from Fort Boykin, he asks him to "seize at any price volumes of Uhland, Lessing, Schelling, Tieck."

In the spring of 1863, on a visit to his old home in Macon, Lanier met Miss Mary Day and promptly fell in love, a fortunate occurrence for him, in that he secured an inspiring companion in his short and brilliant life, and for us because it is to her loving care that we owe the preservation of much of his finest work. On the return to Virginia, he and his brother Clifford had as companions the charming Mrs. Clement C. Clay and her sister, who wanted escorts from Macon to Virginia. She claims to have bribed them with "broiled partridges, sho' 'nuf sugar, and sho' 'nuf butter and spring chickens, 'quality size,'" to which allurements the youthful poets are alleged to have succumbed with grace and gallantry. I recall an evening that General Pickett and I spent with Mrs. Clay at the Spotswood Hotel, when she told us of her trip from Macon, and her two poet escorts. I remember that Senator Vest was present and played the violin while Senator and Mrs. Clay danced.

Sidney Lanier said of his experience at Fort Boykin, on Burwell's Bay, that it was in many respects "the most delicious period" of his life. It may be that no other young soldier found so much of romance and poetry in the service of Mars or put so much of it into the lives of those around him. There are old men, now, who in their youth lived on the James River, in whose hearts the melody of Sidney Lanier's flute yet lingers in golden fire and dewy flowering. At Fort Boykin he decided the question of his vocation, writing to his father so eloquent a letter upon the desirability of pursuing his tastes, rather than trying to follow the paternal footsteps in a profession for which he had no talent, that his father relinquished all hope of making a lawyer of his gifted son.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, Lanier served as signal officer until he was captured and taken to the prison camp at Point Lookout, in which gloomy place was developed the disease which in a few years deprived literature and music of a light that would have sparkled in beauty through the mists of centuries. Imprisonment did not serve as an interruption to the work of the student, for even a prison cell was a shrine to the radiant gods of Lanier's vision. Probably Heine and Herder were never before translated in surroundings so little congenial to those masters of poesy. One of his fellow-prisoners said that Lanier's flute "was an angel imprisoned with us to cheer and console us." To the few who are left to remember him at that time, the waves of the Chesapeake, with the sandy beach sweeping down to kiss the waters, and the far-off dusky pines, are still melodious with that music.

After his release he was taken to the Macon home, where he was dangerously ill for two months, being there when General Wilson captured the town and Mr. Jefferson Davis and Senator Clement C. Clay were brought to the Lanier house on their gloomy journey to Fortress Monroe. In that month Lanier's mother died of consumption, and he spent the summer months at home with his father and sister. In the autumn he taught on a large plantation nine miles from Macon, where, with "mind fairly teeming with beautiful things," he was shut up in the "tare and tret" of the school-room. He spent the winter at Point Clear on Mobile Bay, breathing in health with the sea-breezes and the air that drifted fragrantly through the pines.

As clerk in the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery, the property of his grandfather and his uncles, he may have found no more advantageous a field for his "beautiful things" than in the Georgia school-room, but even in that "dreamy and drowsy and drone-y town" there was some life "late in the afternoon, when the girls come out one by one and shine and move, just as the stars do an hour later." But Lanier was as patient and self-contained in peace as he had been brave in war, and he accepted the drowsy life of Montgomery as he had accepted the romance and adventures of Fort Boykin, on Sundays playing the pipe-organ in the Presbyterian Church, and spending his leisure in finishing "Tiger Lilies," begun in the wild days of '63, on Burwell's Bay. In 1867 he returned to Macon, where in September he read the proof of his book, his one effort at romance-writing, chiefly noticeable for its musical element. The fluting of the author is recalled by the description of the hero's flute-playing: "It is like walking in the woods among wild flowers just before you go into some vast cathedral."

The next winter Sidney Lanier was teaching in Prattville, Alabama, a town built on a quagmire by Daniel Pratt, of whom one of his negroes said his "Massa seemed dissatisfied with the way God had made the earth and he was always digging down the hills and filling up the hollows." Prattville was a small manufacturing town, and Lanier was about as appropriately placed there as Arion would have been in a tin-shop, but he kept his humorous outlook on life, departing from his serenity so far as to make his only attempts at expressing in verse his political indignation, the results of which he did not regard as poetry, and they do not appear in the collection of his poems. His muse was better adapted to the harmonies than to the discords of life. Some lines written then furnish a graphic picture of conditions in the South at that time:

Young Trade is dead,

And swart Work sullen sits in the hillside fern

And folds his arms that find no bread to earn,

And bows his head.

In 1868, after Lanier's marriage, he took up the practice of law in his father's office in Macon. In that town he made his eloquent Confederate Memorial address, April 26, 1870.

Lanier, to whom "Home" meant all that was radiant and joyous in life, wrote to Paul Hamilton Hayne that he was "homeless as the ghost of Judas Iscariot." He was thrust upon a wandering existence by the always unsuccessful attempt to find strength enough to do his work. At Brunswick he found the scene of his Marsh poems in "the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn," in which he reaches his depth of poetic feeling and his height of poetic expression.

From Lookout Mountain he wrote Hayne that at about midnight he had received his letter and poem, and had read the poem to some friends sitting on the porch, among them Mr. Jefferson Davis. From Alleghany Springs he wrote his wife that new strength and new serenity "continually flash from out the gorges, the mountains, and the streams into the heart and charge it as the lightnings charge the earth with subtle and heavenly fires." Lanier's soul belonged to music more than to any other form of art, and more than any other has he linked music with poetry and the ever-varying phenomena of Nature. Of a perfect day in Macon he wrote:

"If the year was an orchestra, to-day would be the calm, passionate, even, intense, quiet, full, ineffable flute therein."

In November, 1872, Lanier went to San Antonio in quest of health, which he did not find. Incidentally, he found hitherto unrevealed depths of feeling in his "poor old flute" which caused the old leader of the Maennerchor, who knew the whole world of music, to cry out with enthusiasm that he had "never heard de flude accompany itself pefore."

That part of his musical life which Sidney Lanier gave to the world was for the most part spent in Baltimore, where he played in the Peabody Orchestra, the Germania Maennerchor, and other music societies. An old German musician who used to play with him in the Orchestra told me that Lanier was the finest flutist he had ever heard.

It was in Baltimore, too, that he gave the lectures which resulted in his most important prose-writings, "The Science of English Verse," "The English Novel," "Shakespeare and His Forerunners."

In August, 1874, at Sunnyside, Georgia, amid the loneliness of abandoned farms, the glory of cornfields, and the mysterious beauty of forest, he wrote "Corn," the first of his poems to attract the attention of the country. It was published in Lippincott's in 1875. Charlotte Cushman was so charmed by it that she sought out the author in Baltimore, and the two became good friends.

At 64 Centre Street, Baltimore, Lanier wrote "The Symphony," which he said took hold of him "about four days ago like a real James River ague, and I have been in a mortal shake with the same, day and night, ever since," which is the only way that a real poem or real music or a real picture ever can get into the world. He says that he "will be rejoiced when it is finished, for it verily racks all the bones of my spirit." It appeared in Lippincott's, June, 1875.

Lanier was at 66 Centre Street, Baltimore, when he wrote the words of the Centennial Cantata, which he said he "tried to make as simple and candid as a melody of Beethoven." He wrote to a friend that he was not disturbed because a paper had said that the poem of the Cantata was like a "communication from the spirit of Nat Lee through a Bedlamite medium." It was "but a little grotesque episode, as when a catbird paused in the midst of the most exquisite roulades and melodies to mew and then take up his song again."

In December of that year he was compelled to seek a milder climate in Florida, taking with him a commission to write a book about Florida for the J.B. Lippincott Company. Upon arriving at Tampa, he wrote to a friend:

Tampa is the most forlorn collection of little one-story frame houses imaginable, and as May and I walked behind our landlord, who was piloting us to Orange Grove Hotel, our hearts fell nearer and nearer towards the sand through which we dragged. Presently we turned a corner and were agreeably surprised to find ourselves in front of a large three-story house with old nooks and corners, clean and comfortable in appearance and surrounded by orange trees in full fruit. We have a large room in the second story, opening upon a generous balcony fifty feet long, into which stretch the liberal arms of a fine orange tree holding out their fruitage to our very lips. In front is a sort of open plaza containing a pretty group of gnarled live-oaks full of moss and mistletoe.

In May he made an excursion of which he wrote:

For a perfect journey God gave us a perfect day. The little Ocklawaha steamboat Marion—a steamboat which is like nothing in the world so much as a Pensacola gopher with a preposterously exaggerated back—had started from Palatka some hours before daylight, having taken on her passengers the night previous; and by seven o'clock of such a May morning as no words could describe, unless words were themselves May mornings, we had made the twenty-five miles up the St. John's to where the Ocklawaha flows into that stream nearly opposite Welaka, one hundred miles above Jacksonville.

It was on this journey that he saw the most magnificent residence that he had ever beheld, the home of an old friend of his, an alligator, who possessed a number of such palatial mansions and could change his residence at any time by the simple process of swimming from one to another.



From a photograph owned by H.W. Lanier


On his return to Baltimore he lived at 55 Lexington in four rooms arranged as a French flat. He makes mention of a gas stove "on which my comrade magically produces the best coffee in the world, and this, with fresh eggs (boiled through the same handy little machine), bread, butter, and milk, forms our breakfast." December 3 he writes from the little French flat, announcing that he "has plunged in and brought forth captive a long Christmas poem for Every Saturday," a Baltimore weekly publication. The poem was "Hard Times in Elfland." He says, "Wife and I have been to look at a lovely house with eight rooms and many charming appliances," whereof the rent was less than that of the four rooms.

The next month he writes from 33 Denmead Street, the eight-room house, to which he had gone, with the attendant necessity of buying "at least three hundred twenty-seven household utensils" and "hiring a colored gentlewoman who is willing to wear out my carpets, burn out my range, freeze out my water-pipes, and be generally useful." He mentions having written a couple of poems, and part of an essay on Beethoven and Bismarck, but his chief delight is in his new home, which invests him with the dignity of paying taxes and water rates. He takes the view that no man is a Bohemian who has to pay water rates and street tax.

In addition to supporting his new dignity he finds time and strength for his usual work, and he writes on January 30, 1878, "I have been mainly at work on some unimportant prose matter for pot-boilers, but I get off a short poem occasionally, and in the background of my mind am writing my Jacquerie." Unfortunately, "Jacquerie" remained in the background of his mind, with the exception of two songs—all we have to indicate what a stirring presentation our literature might have had of the fourteenth century awakening of "Jacques Bonhomme," that early precursor of the more terrible arousing in 'Ninety-Three.

In the latter part of the year Lanier was living at Number 180 St. Paul Street, and in December he wrote to a friend:

"Bayard Taylor's death slices a huge cantle out of the world.... It only seems that he has gone to some other Germany a little farther off.... He was such a fine fellow, one almost thinks he might have talked Death over and made him forego his stroke."

At Bayard Taylor's home, where Lanier visited, were two immense chestnut trees, much loved by the two poets. Mrs. Taylor wrote that one of the trees died soon after the death of its poet owner. The other lingered until a short time after the passing of Lanier. It was in connection with the lines of the "Cantata," written in the Baltimore home of the Southern poet, that the poet friends began a long-continued series of letters which one loves to read on a winter night, when the winds are battling with the world outside, and the fire gleams redly in the open grate, and the lamp burns softly on the library table, and all things invite to poetic dreams.

November 12, 1880, Sidney Lanier wrote to his publisher a letter of appreciation of the beautiful work done upon his volume, "The Boy's King Arthur." It is dated at Number 435 North Calvert Street, the latest Baltimore address that we have.

The distinction Sidney Lanier achieved as first flutist in the orchestra of the Peabody Institute led to an offer of a position in the Thomas Orchestra, which the condition of his health did not permit him to accept.

In the summer of 1880 his "Science of English Verse" was published. "Shakespeare and His Forerunners" resulted from his work with his classes in Elizabethan Poetry. "The English Novel" is the course of lectures on "Personality Illustrated by the Development of Fiction," delivered at Johns Hopkins University in the winter of 1880-'81. As we read the printed work in its depth and strength, we do not realize that his wife took the notes from his whispered dictation, and that his auditors as they listened trembled lest, with each sentence, that deep musical voice should fall on eternal silence. All this while he had been working at lectures and boys' books, when, as he said, "a thousand songs are singing in my heart that will certainly kill me if I do not utter them soon." One of the thousand, "Sunrise," he uttered with a temperature of 104 degrees burning out his life, but it is full of the rapture of the dawn.

To the pines of North Carolina the poet was taken, in the hope that they might give him of their strength. But the wind-song through their swaying branches lulled him to his last earthly sleep. On the 7th of September the narrow stream of his earthly existence broadened and deepened and flowed triumphantly into the great ocean of Eternal Life.