Sidney Lanier, the prince of American poets!
Lanier, Sidney, poet and musician, was born Sidney Clopton Lanier in Macon, Georgia, the son of Robert Sampson Lanier, a lawyer, and Mary Jane Anderson. Early in life, Lanier showed remarkable love and aptitude for music, but this talent was encouraged only as a social grace, for the southern genteel tradition looked with disfavor upon a man's following the arts as a profession. After he graduated in 1860 from Oglethorpe University in Milledgeville, Georgia, his family assumed he would follow his father's example and practice law. Lanier intended instead to follow a scholar's life in Europe, but this dream was cut short by the Civil War. In 1861 he joined the Macon Volunteers, serving in the signal corps and then on a blockade runner until his capture; while imprisoned at a federal camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, he contracted the tuberculosis that eventually killed him.
Upon his return to Macon, he worked as a hotel clerk, tutor, and headmaster, then entered his father's law firm, but found all this unrewarding. During this time he also wrote some lyrical verse and a Civil War novel (Tiger-Lilies ), but his unstimulating work, financial worries, and illness made the postwar period a very depressing one for Lanier. The only positive note was his wedding to Mary Day of Macon in 1867; it was a very happy marriage, and the couple had four children. Mary Day Lanier always supported her husband's dreams, even to the extent of raising their sons by herself in Macon for several years while he went to Baltimore to pursue a life in the arts. She and the boys joined him in Baltimore in 1876. The detailed and loving letters between the Laniers during their separation is a rich source of information.
Lanier spent precious and frustrating years trying to resolve the conflict between what his tradition expected of him and his own desires. The resultant tension in his life became one of the major themes in his work: the conflict between the spiritualism of Art and the materialism of Trade. This conflict is best expressed in his long poem "The Symphony." Despite society's expectations of him, his inclinations drew Lanier with increasing intensity to music and poetry. He traveled to New York several times on business and to seek medical care, and attended many concerts while in the city. In 1872 he went for a period to San Antonio, Texas, hoping that the drier climate would provide some relief from his respiratory illness. The large German community of that city impressed him with its love of music. Lanier played there as a flutist in a number of ensembles. Encouraged by his success as a musician, he decided to pursue what he loved. With the understanding of his father and the supportiveness of his wife, Lanier broke with tradition and moved north in the fall of 1873 to attempt entry into artistic circles. As he wrote to his brother Clifford, "An impulse, simply irresistible, drives me into the world of poetry and music."
He went first to New York City, seeking an orchestral position. Lanier was largely self-taught as a flutist. From all contemporary accounts he possessed remarkable natural skill and virtuosity, but he may have underestimated the competition he would face from conservatory-trained musicians in the country's largest city. His "break" actually came in Baltimore, then establishing itself as a cultural center. Stopping here briefly to visit a friend, Lanier met and played for Asger Hamerik, the Danish-born conductor of the orchestra of the newly established Peabody Conservatory of Music. After hearing Lanier play one of his own compositions, Hamerik immediately offered him the position of first flute.
In Baltimore Lanier entered a society dedicated to the enjoyment of the arts, with the European cultural ambience he had dreamed of. He was no amateur among professionals; reviews of the time always praised his musical skill, and the conservatory faculty treated him as an equal, inviting him to play in chamber ensembles and to join them for concert tours. At this point considering himself primarily a musician, he joined the prestigious Wednesday Club's musical rather than literary section. But he was also writing a great deal of poetry, which was profoundly influenced by the music he heard every day at rehearsals.
Hamerik introduced his musicians and audiences to avant-garde music by such contemporary composers as Wagner, Berlioz, and Tchaikovsky; much of this was "program" music in which ideas, stories, or emotions were conveyed through tone. Lanier found this thrilling, for it complemented his idea that poetry ought to convey images through sound as much as through specific words. The influence of program music is evident in his own verse. His early poems are stylistically simple, following the ABAB song concept. But his more mature works, such as "The Marshes of Glynn," mark him as a literary innovator. They blend various voices, lines, and tones; they are symphonic, rich in imagery and in deliberately manipulated sound patterns. Best known for the musicality of his verse, Lanier is the only notable American poet who was also an accomplished musician. This is crucial to an understanding of his poetry, which developed from traditional nineteenth-century verse into a highly individual and innovative form. Lanier's verse is unique in American literature as the only poetry whose musical qualities come from direct, practical, artistic experience.
Though Lanier continued to perform music, and even composed a number of art songs and flute studies, he now began to devote more effort to writing poetry. His national reputation as a poet began in 1874 with the publication of "Corn" in Lippincott's. As a result of this success he was asked by the Atlantic Coast Railroad to write a rail travelers' guide to Florida. The assignment paid well, but he was upset because he had to accept such work to put bread on the table. Lanier's intellectual energy, constantly challenged by illness and financial pressures, was pulled in many different directions. He was often forced to waste precious time and strength, and suffer wounded artistic pride, writing "potboilers"--such as a series for Scribner's of classic tales retold for younger readers--to support his family.
An assignment of greater importance came from the U.S. Centennial Commission: to write the words of a cantata for opening-day ceremonies of the national exhibition at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. This Centennial Meditation of Columbia, with music by Dudley Buck of Connecticut (the collaboration was designed to suggest the reconciliation of North and South) was performed on 10 May 1876. This work represented for Lanier the culmination of his idea of a total aesthetic experience, in which words and music were mutually suggestive of each other's meaning. In this year, also, Mary Day Lanier moved to Baltimore with their sons, as Lanier's more steady financial situation made it possible for the family to live together at last.
The only volume of Lanier's poetry to be published during his lifetime appeared in 1877; by the end of that year, his activities had become primarily literary. He delivered a very popular series of private lectures, called "parlor classes," and in 1878 was asked to give a series of lectures on Shakespeare at the Peabody Institute. He wanted very much to teach at the new Johns Hopkins University, established in Baltimore in 1876, and was finally invited to join the faculty in the spring of 1879. He was so well admired and popular as a lecturer in Baltimore that twice as many tickets were requested for his first presentation as were available. At last fulfilled in the academic life he had desired since his college days, Lanier had only a little time left to enjoy it. By early 1881 he was quite weak and had to lecture from a chair. In the summer, accompanied by his family, Lanier went to western North Carolina, hoping to find relief in the cool mountain air. He died there.
Lanier's grave in Baltimore is marked with an inscription from his poem "Sunrise": "I am lit with the Sun." Despite the setbacks of professional frustration and increasingly poor health, Lanier had remained an optimistic man. He was a cheerful companion who enriched the lives of his colleagues and friends and was devoted to his family. He loved the arts and looked to them as beacons to light the path of all humankind. Even in his last days, he was planning new artistic projects and books.
As with any artist who dies prematurely, there is the difficulty of assessing an unfulfilled career. Lanier wrote most of his major poetry late in life; his innovative poetic techniques were just being fine-tuned at the time of his death, so much must be left to speculation. Despite his many accomplishments and his popularity, Lanier has never been granted more than minor literary status. He was not part of any literary "set," nor did he strive to emulate other poets of his day. But although his literary career was brief, he produced a prodigious amount of serious work. His poetry delights the imagination and senses, and his prose (particularly the essays and letters) gives us a rich picture of American intellectual and artistic life in the decade and a half following the Civil War. He was deeply concerned with the power of nature and with science as a progressive force, and had a deep religious faith. The worlds of poetry and music inspired his strongest works. For him music symbolized human harmony: "Music is Love in search of a word" ("The Symphony"). His mature poems--"The Symphony," "The Marshes of Glynn," and "Sunrise"--are designed for their sound as much as for their literal meaning. Lanier's creation of synaesthetic verse, in which he merged sound and idea into musical poetry, has drawn negative comments from critics who find it lush and "overwritten." But it ultimately has secured his reputation.
The major collection of Lanier's papers--letters, journals, notebooks, memorabilia, musical manuscripts--is housed at Johns Hopkins University. The standard edition of Lanier's writing is the Centennial Edition of the Works of Sidney Lanier (1945), ed. Charles R. Anderson; each of the ten volumes contains detailed introductory material and notes, and there is an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources of works up to the mid-1840s. The definitive biography is by Aubrey Harrison Starke Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study (1933; repr. 1964). See also the section on Lanier in Lewis Leary, Articles on American Literature 1900-1950 (1954), pp. 174-77, and the Lanier entry and bibliography in Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 6, ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris and Sheila Fitzgerald (1984), pp. 230-82. For more recent bibliographic information, see Jack De Bellis, Sidney Lanier, Henry Timrod, and Paul Hamilton Hayne: A Reference Guide (1978), De Bellis's entry on Lanier in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 64 (1988), and Jane S. Gabin, "Sidney Lanier," in Fifty Southern Writers before 1900, ed. Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora (1987). Recent full-length studies are De Bellis, Sidney Lanier (1972), and Gabin, A Living Minstrelsy: The Poetry and Music of Sidney Lanier (1985).
Jane S. Gabin
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the American National Biography of the Day and Sample Biographies provided that the following statement is preserved on all copies: From American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press, Inc., copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Further information is available at http://www.anb.org. American National Biography articles may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, reproduced or otherwise altered without the written permission of Oxford University Press which acts as an agent in these matters for the copyright holder, the American Council of Learned Societies. Contact: Permissions Department, Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016; fax: 212-726-6444.More information is coming soon.