Sidney Lanier: Contribution to American Music Literature

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      Sidney Lanier was the product of a long line of cultured ancestors, among whom appeared, both in England and America, men of striking musical and artistic ability. He was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1842. He served in the Confederate army during the four years of the war, and was taken prisoner and exposed to the hardest conditions, both during his confinement and after his release. The remainder of his life was a losing fight against the ravages of consumption.

Sidney Lanier Literary Contribution to American Music Literature
Sidney Lanier

      He was fairly successful for a short time in his father's law office; but if ever a man believed that it was his duty to devote his every breath to the gift of music and poetry bestowed upon him, that man was Lanier. His wife agreed with him in his ideals and faith, so in 1873 he left his family in Georgia and went to Baltimore, the land of libraries and orchestras. He secured the position of first flute in the Peabody orchestra, and, by sheer force of genius, took up the most difficult scores and faultlessly led all the flutes. He read and studied, wrote and lectured like one who had suffered from mental starvation. In 1879 he received the appointment of lecturer on English literature at the Johns Hopkins University, a position which his friends had long wished to see him fill. He held it only two years, however, before his death. His health had fast been failing. He wrote part of the time while lying on his back, and, because of physical weakness, he delivered some of his lectures in whispers. In search of relief, he was taken to Florida, Texas, and North Carolina, but no permanent benefit came, and he died in his temporary quarters in North Carolina in 1881.

      Works.—Lanier wrote both prose and poetry. His prose comprises books for children and critical studies. The Science of English Verse (1880) and The English Novel (1883) are of interest because of their clear setting forth of his theory of versification and art. In his poetry he strives to embody the ideals proclaimed in his prose work, which are, first, to write nothing that is not moral and elevating in tone, and, second, to express himself in versification which is obedient to the laws of regular musical composition, in rhyme, rhythm, vowel assonance, alliteration, and phrasings.

      Lanier's creed, that the poet should be an inspiration for good to his readers, is found in his lines:—

 "The artist's market is the heart of man,
 The artist's price some little good of man."

      The great inspiration of his life was love, and he has some fine love poems, such as My Springs, In Absence, Evening Song, and Laus Mariae. In The Symphony, which voices the social sorrow for the overworked and downtrodden, he says the problem is not one for the head but the heart:—

 "Vainly might Plato's brain revolve it,    Plainly the heart of a child could solve it."  In ending the poem, he says that even "Music is Love in search of a word."

      Strong personal love, tender pitying love for humanity, impassioned love of nature, and a reverent love of God are found in Lanier. The striking musical quality of Lanier's best verse is seen in these stanzas from Tampa Robins:—

 "The robin laughed in the orange-tree:
 'Ho, windy North, a fig for thee:
 While breasts are red and wings are bold
 And green trees wave us globes of gold,
 Time's scythe shall reap but bliss for me
 —Sunlight, song, and the orange-tree.
 * * * * *
 "'I'll south with the sun and keep my clime;
 My wing is king of the summer-time;
 My breast to the sun his torch shall hold;
 And I'll call down through the green and gold,
 Time, take thy scythe, reap bliss for me,
 Bestir thee under the orange-tree.'"

      The music of the bird, the sparkle of the sunlight, and the pure joy of living are in this poem, which is one of Lanier's finest lyrical outbursts. The Song of the Chattahoochee is another of his great successes in pure melody. The rhymes, the rhythm, the alliteration beautifully express the flowing of the river.

      His noblest and most characteristic poem, however, is The Marshes of Glynn. It seems to breathe the very spirit of the broad open marshes and to interpret their meaning to the heart of man, while the long, sweeping, melodious lines of the verse convey a rich volume of music, of which he was at times a wonderful master.

 "Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
 Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
 From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
 By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn."

      This poem, original and beautiful, both in subject and form, expresses Lanier's strong faith in God. He says:—

 "As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
 Behold, I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
 I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
 In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies:
 By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
 I will heartily lay me a-hold of the greatness of God."

       No Puritan could show a truer faith than Lanier's, nor a faith more poetically and devoutly expressed. In his Sunrise he attains at times the beauty of The Marshes of Glynn, and voices in some of the lines a veritable rhapsody of faith. Yet for sustained elevation of feeling and for unbroken musical harmonies, Sunrise cannot equal The Marshes of Glynn, which alone would suffice to keep Lanier's name on the scroll of the greater American poets.

      General Characteristics.—Lanier is an ambitious poet. He attempts to voice the unutterable, to feel the intangible, to describe the indescribable, and to clothe this ecstasy in language that will be a harmonious accompaniment to the thought. This striving after practically impossible effects sometimes gives the feeling of artificiality and strain to his verse. It is not always simple, and sometimes one overcharged stanza will mar an otherwise exquisite poem.

      On the other hand, Lanier never gives voice to anything that is merely trivial or pretty. He is always in earnest, and the feeling most often aroused by him is a passionate exaltation. He is a nature poet. The color, the sunshine, the cornfields, the hills, and the marshes of the South are found in his work. But more than their outer aspect, he likes to interpret their spirit,—the peace of the marsh, the joy of the bird, the mystery of the forest, and the evidences of love everywhere.

      The music of his lines varies with his subjects. It is light and delicate in Tampa Robins, rippling and gurgling in The Song of the Chattahoochee, and deeply sonorous in The Marshes of Glynn. Few surpass him in the long, swinging, grave harmonies of his most highly inspired verse. In individual lines, in selected stanzas, Lanier has few rivals in America. His poetical endowment was rich, his passion for music was a rare gift, his love of beauty was intense, and his soul was on fire with ideals.

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