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Mar 22, 2020
From an ambrotype made in 1857
VOL. XXXV. JUNE, 1940. No. 2.
SIDNEY LANIER, " FAMILIAR CITIZEN OF THE TOWN "
By JOHN SAULSBURY SHORT 1
In the preface to his first book, Tiger Lilies, a novel o£ his own experiences in the Civil War, Sidney Lanier said that " A man has seventy years in which to explain his life ..."
The Georgia veteran was in his early twenties when he wrote that. Even so young, he had mapped out a long career in music, literature and scholarship. He had chosen to devote himself to an " art life." Earnestness and enthusiasm were boundless. There was a Huguenot buoyancy of spirit about him. But the tragedy of his life is that he lived scarcely more than half the seventy years he had allotted, for he was dead at 39-
Yet in that short life-span he created such a personality in char- acter, in poetry, in music, in scholarship, in family devotion, in friendships, in fortitude, that the accomplishment constitutes him a sort of genius in humanity, in social quality, as distinguished merely from his genius as poet.
He won a place among the nine great, or "" elder," American poets who were, in the order of their chronological appearance in Ameri- can letters, Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Whitman and Lanier.2 But since his literary accomplish- ment is so closely interwoven with his love for music, a musical
1 This article has been prepared in large part from talks recently made by Mr. Short before meetings of the Woman's Literary Club of Baltimore, The Baltimore Music Club, the Woman's Club of Govans and the Maryland Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy. Quotations from the Poems of Sidney Lanier are made with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.
2 See The Chief American Poets, ed. by Curtis Hidden Page, Houghton, Mifflin Company, first published in 1905 and still widely used as anthology and text in colleges.
122 MARYLAND HISTORICAL MAGAZINE
comparison is essential to reach an estimate, in a general way, of his position in those fields of national art.
It may be said, for instance, that he was the foremost musician in American literature and the foremost literary figure in American music. But he was not a mere " Dixie singer," nor a competitor in the field of romanticism or balladry which has been almost pre- empted by the genius of Stephen Collins Foster. If Whitman's "" Leaves of Grass " and Longfellow's '" Hiawatha " are regarded as grand operas, Poe's " Raven " as a tone poem, Whittier's " Barbara Frietchie " as a march or martial music; and if other poems are classed as hymns, ballads or dances, then it may be said that Lanier wrote the symphonies of American literature.
He usually took a static idea or theme and developed it. He chose sunrise, corn, marshes, freedom, trade. They were just plain sub- jects,—still life, so to speak,—not scenes, nor stories, nor historic events. These themes he developed into musical words and concepts. He developed them into majesties of thought and with expressions of language that at times reach sublimity.
It is a most difficult type of poetry, for the poet is not aided by any accompanying plot or picture, whether sad or gay. It calls for sheer, unaided artistry. If there were any accompaniment, Lanier seemed to supply it himself, in much the same way as had caused old white-bearded Herr Thielepape, the orchestra leading ex-mayor of San Antonio, Texas, to exclaim, amidst a torrent of bravos niter Lanier had played, " that he hat never heert de flude accompany itself pefore! "
Just as symphonies are not so widely known and hummed, so, too, Lanier is the least generally known of the major American poets. This is not entirely strange, for not only has America proceeded slowly to the final estimates of her giants in art, but, more specifically, the poetry of Lanier, from its very nature and content, could hardly be classed as of the so-called " popular kind." It is not particularly romantic or spectacular. Its structure is at times complicated. Lanier distilled thoughts as well as words. He seems to have foregone popularity for more individualistic, more stylistic expression. Thus, he became unique, although not remote. Lanier appeals to an in- creasingly widening audience by about the same process of artistic selection as that which impels many sensitive music lovers, growing older and wiser, more discriminating, less satisfied with brilliant instrumental solos and arias and obvious musical forms, to turn for their ultimate, highest pleasure to the symphonies.
There are other factors which have retarded somewhat the general
SIDNEY LANIER, " FAMILIAR CITIZEN OF THE TOWN " 123
acclaim of Lanier. Some o£ these have not been fully weighed by critics and writers making estimates of the poet. Briefly, they are:
He was a Southerner during a period of crisis: the Civil War. His poetry came during the period of reconstruction when Ameri-
cans were more occupied with economics than with poetry. He died young: he was not a white-bearded Greek god—a national
figure—like Longfellow and Whitman: there was no Lanier legend. He followed just on the heels of the great, prolific New England
School whose work followed an accepted pattern. Lanier was new, somewhat unorthodox.
He was ill and poor during the whole of the period of his pro- ductivity, and was not able to make many helpful acquaintances and associations.
His work was necessarily hurried, in part unfinished: he fully realized that he was running " a race with eternity."
He wrote no poetic " best sellers," like " The Village Blacksmith " or " Paul Revere's Ride," obvious little pieces which could fix in the school-child mind and then carry on to settled acceptance in later life.
Yet, despite all drawbacks, the judgments of time and of critical study have awarded him a very conspicuous place in the American scene. He is an exceptional figure,—a "" rarer " genius who represents the harmony of poetry and music and gracious personality. For
His song was only living aloud, His work, a singing with his hand!3
The biography of Lanier falls readily into two parts, the War Years4 and the Baltimore Decade. Just as easily, the division might be made between the two States, Georgia and Maryland, which claim him, for the War Years period includes not only his service as Confederate soldier from his native state, but also the few years of Claude Bowers's " tragic era " of reconstruction that Lanier spent in the homeland yearning to go away in search of more congenial, more responsive atmosphere. Not that Lanier disliked '" the South," —not at all! By nativity, inspirationally (Glynn, Chattahoochee), traditionally, patriotically, he was of Georgia.
8 The poet's widow at first selected this quotation from Lanier's "' Life and Song " as appropriate for his tombstone.
4 Dr. Garland Greever, of the University of Southern California, is now engaged in writing a book tentatively entitled Troubadours in Gray, with the sub-title. The War Years of Sidney and Clifford Lanier.
124 MARYLAND HISTORICAL MAGAZINE
But, for some time at least, the aftermath of war had suspended there all possibilities for the devotion of his career to the pursuits of music, literature and scholarship. And, because of these circum- stances, Lanier matured in Baltimore. In the words of Governor O'Conor:
Sidney Lanier is a Marylander by a particularly binding tie. You have heard the old saying that one difference between our relatives and our friends is that we have a choice in regard to the latter. Well, Lanier does not belong to us by birth and blood; but he very strongly does become a Marylander by affec- tion and adoption. ... I have no better way of closing these remarks than by quoting four lines of verse written by a living Baltimore poet as a tribute to Sidney Lanier:
And, ah, it haunts me just to know His feet along these streets did go . . .
A haloed man—who also trod The clouds around the throne of God.5
Lanier was born in Macon, February 3, 1842.6 His father, Robert Sampson Lanier, a fairly prosperous ante helium lawyer there, was of French-English origin. His mother, Mary Anderson, was of Scots- Irish descent.
Family tradition and some research establish evidences of descent from Laniers who had been professional musicians as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries. Andrea and Clement had appointments as flute players in the English Royal Orchestra. James played the flute at the burial of Queen Elizabeth. Thomas was commissioned to play '" upon the flutes and cornets, . . . amongst the lutes or voice in ordinary," and Nicholas had distinguished service not only as performer but as composer and instructor under Charles I and Charles II.
It was, therefore, quite to be expected that slender, gray-eyed young Sidney Lanier, of Macon, "" could play passably on several instruments before I could write legibly." r In his teens, he entered the old staunchly Presbyterian Oglethorpe University, near Milledge- ville, Ga., where, in his room, he alternately played the flute and studied according to the plan proposed by his most stimulating pro-
5 Address of Governor Herbert R. O'Conor, of Maryland, " Sidney Lanier Com- memoration Day " exercises, Peabody Institute, Baltimore, February 3, 1940. The verse quoted is from the poem "Lanier Walked Here! " by Folger McKinsey, "