Sidney Clopton Lanier: Poet of the Marshes

In about 1500 AD, the human race reached a period in history known as the
Renaissance, or rebirth. This rebirth referred to the emergence of the human mind from
the darkness and squalor of the Middle Ages, and into the light of true wisdom and
knowledge. It was in this age that the term "classic" first came into use. Classic literature
was those works which, having stood the test of time, proved themselves extraordinary
by continuing to enlighten the human mind long after their authors had passed away. The
Renaissance scholars, called humanists, studied the ancient Greek and Roman texts,
rediscovering as it were theories and knowledge which had lain dormant, forgotten, or
repressed for over a thousand years. These books fueled one of the most brilliant periods
in history of the advancement of the human mind. In this way, the first classics were
born. Today, there is a designated faction of books, know as the Literary canon, which
acknowledges all of the classics written over the centuries. It is these books which are
studied in classrooms all over the world, enlightening new generations with their
messages and themes. The American literary canon is a group of American books which
are considered truly great, having risen out of the fetters of the ages in which they were
written to share universal and timeless themes with posterity. Sidney Clopton Lanier,
poet, critic, novelist, and historian, was born in Macon, Georgia in 1842, and his
contribution to the world consists of some of the most strikingly particular and uniquely
beautiful verse American poetry has ever seen. Although Sidney Lanier died of
consumption before his genius had been fully realized, his contribution to American
poetry is of such distinction that he definitely should be included in the American literary
canon based on his depth of insight both morally and socially, the eloquent beauty,
musical artistry, and technical mastery of his writing, and the profoundly cultural tone
and character of his work, imparting the reader with a vivid sense of life in the South
during the late Romantic era. In order to prove this thesis, the following paper will chart
the life of Sidney Lanier and the historical era in which he wrote, discuss the current
canon debate and expound upon criteria for great literature, fully explore all of his works
and contributions, and finally, discuss how and why the body of Sidney Lanier's work
should definitely be included in the American literary canon.

Sidney Lanier's life and the historical era in which he wrote are integral to
studying his contribution to the canon. Sidney Clopton Lanier was born in Macon,
Georgia on February 3, 1842, to Robert S. Lanier and Mary Jane Anderson. Both sides of
his family were extremely gifted with talent in music and poetry, and he was one of a
long line of excellent musicians and brave soldiers dating back to French Huguenots in
the time of queen Elizabeth I of England. "[…] it is remarkable that four others of the
name of Lanier were among the few incorporators, one of them, John Lanier, very likely
father of the Sir John Lanier who fought as Major-General at the Battle of the Boyne, and
fell gloriously at Steinkirk along with the brave Douglas" (Ward xii). He was an
extraordinarily talented musician; as a child he learned to play, almost on his own, every
kind of instrument he could find, and while yet a boy playing the flute, organ, piano,
violin, guitar, and banjo. Later he devoted himself primarily to the flute because his
father feared for him the powerful fascination of the violin. "For it was the violin-voice
that, above all others, commanded his soul. He has related that during his college days it
would sometimes so exalt him in rapture, that presently he would sink from his solitary
music-worship into a deep trance, thence to awake, alone, on the floor of his room, sorely
shaken in nerve" (Ward xii). When he was fourteen, Lanier entered the sophomore class
of Oglethorpe College, graduating in 1860, at the age of eighteen, with the top honors of
his class. By this time, Sidney Lanier knew he was a genius, and that he had an enormous
amount of talent and freedom—enough, in fact, to pursue an artistic career and excel
above others. He himself wrote in his college-notebook:
I am more than all perplexed by this fact, that 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. (Ward xiv)
Regrettably, in his early years Lanier decided to pursue law, as it was the more profitable
profession and, as he thought at the time, of more use to the world. He wrote in that same
notebook, "But I cannot bring myself to believe that I was intended for a musician,
because it seems so small a business in comparison with other things which, it seems to
me, I might do. Question here, What is the province of music in the economy of the
world?" (Ward xiv).

When the civil war broke out, Sidney Lanier enlisted under the Confederate Army
at the age of nineteen. In 1864, he was captured and held prisoner for five months in
Point Lookout prison, an account of which he published in his first novel, Tiger Lilies.
Though he loved the freedom of life in the saddle and under the stars, the tyranny and
Christlessness of war oppressed him. In his novel, Lanier describes the war as "a strange,
enormous, terrible flower," the seeds of which, "if there be verily any [left after the war's
end], might perish in the germ, utterly out of sight and life and memory, and out of the
remote hope of resurrection, forever and ever, no matter in whose granary they are

When he finally reached his home on March 15, he was bedridden for six weeks
with a desperate illness, diagnosed as consumption, which he would fight for the rest of
his life. In December of 1867 he married Miss Mary Day, and for the many years
struggled with his exhausting sickness to hold odd jobs as a teacher or clerk in order to
make enough money to support the family. He moved from his beloved Georgia to Texas,
to Florida, to Pennsylvania, to North Carolina, hoping to gain strength in the easier
climates. During these five years, realizing that he did not have long to live, Lanier
became fully determined to devote the rest of his life to music and literature, and to fight
death as long as possible. He wrote to his father in 1873:
My dear father, think how, for twenty years, through poverty, through pain,
through weariness, through sickness, through the uncongenial atmosphere of a
farcical college and of a bare army and then of an exacting business life, through
all the discouragement of being wholly unacquainted with literary people and
literary ways - I say, think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances, and
of a thousand more which I could enumerate, these two figures of music and of
poetry have steadily kept in my heart so that I could not banish them. Does it not
seem to you as to me, that I begin to have the right to enroll myself among the
devotees of these two sublime arts, after having followed them so long and so
humbly, and through so much bitterness? (Ward xx-xxi).
His father and brother often helped him earn those necessities of life which would be
easy for a healthy man to win, but for which Lanier had to struggle; he worked between
hemorrhages, sometimes scarcely able to leave his bed. In 1879, he earned the post of
lecturer on English literature at John Hopkins University, affording him his first steady
income since his marriage. The last two years of his life were the most fruitful in verse
than any before, and he published several books on the art of poetry, including Science of
English Verse and Music and Poetry. He wrote his most famous poems, "Sunrise" and
"The Marshes of Glynn," on his deathbed.

Sidney Lanier died September 9, 1881. Had he lived longer, Lanier would
indubitably have gone on to become one of the most famous poets of the new South, and
his name just as well-known as Poe's or Longfellow's. Of his poetry, one volume is all
that he was able to accomplish in such short a time; yet his verse is some of the finest
born of that era, and unquestionably earns him a place in the American Literary canon.
"Let my name perish—the poetry is good poetry and the music is good music, and beauty
dieth not, and the heart that needs it will find it" (Ward xxiii).

Although Sidney Lanier grew up in the old South before the outbreak of the civil
war, through his most prolific period of writing (the later part of his life) he struggled to
survive during some of the most trying times the South had ever seen. "The conditions of
Reconstruction were inimical to the production of literature. The life of the South, always
sluggish, now became stagnant […] the intellectual stagnation of the South made
literature impossible except for those with an unquenchable longing for expression"
(Miles n.pag.). With the brutal and ruinous victory of the North, Southern culture seemed
for a time almost destroyed. The idyllic plantation life was no more, the beautiful cities
razed to the ground. Roads were unfit for travel and railroads torn up, rendering the South
appallingly isolated from the rest of the country. Newspapers were few and ill-informed,
schools and universities few and far between. Weapons were sold twice as often as
books, and five times more often than farming tools (Miles n.pag.).

Worse even than the destruction, poverty, and isolation was the hopelessness of
the outlook. Formerly well-off, even wealthy plantation families were now grateful for a
supper of cornmeal. The richest estates of North Carolina were sold for one to ten dollars
an acre. Four miles from Macon, Georgia, Lanier's birthplace, a hundred acres was
offered at fifty cents an acre. Sidney Lanier wrote to a friend in 1875: "Perhaps you know
that, with us of the younger generation in the South since the war, pretty much the whole
of life has been merely not dying." Any poet would find this situation oppressive, and it
is even more remarkable that Lanier accomplished as much as he did not only under these
conditions but under the pall of his horrible sickness. Were he not hindered by these
fetters, "[…] what position might he not have attained? With what full-throated ease then
would the South at the Reconstruction period have sung out its inmost heart!" (Miles

With all the advancements for equality and fraternity in the past century paving
the way for the new mode of life and thought, it is no surprise that the American literary
canon itself should face redefining. "As different voices have begun to tell hitherto untold
stories, and what used to be universal experience has been challenged by a multiplicity of
different but equal experiences, the idea of a decidedly white male set of texts
constituting the canon of the American literature has come under violent attack" (Canon
Debate n.pag). The idea of a predominantly white male canon was challenged, leading to
its expansion to include works of ethnic Americans, as well as postcolonial writers. New
and separate canons were created, such as the African American canon, the Native
American canon, or other such ethnic canons. Houston Baker, Jr. and Henry Louis Gates,
Jr. are both leading figures in the redefining of the canon. "Both of these critics have
made important contributions in the decentering of the humanities by seeking to revise
and expand the narrow canon of white male American literature and make it
representative of a multicultural society" (Canon Debate n.pag).

In this re-examining of the canon, the criteria defining truly great work came into
question. Scholars and professors around the country begun developing such criteria.
Many agreed that great literature was original, of lasting significance, socially and
morally insightful, thought-stimulating, well-written, rich in cultural roots, and
inculcating in the reader a greater appreciation and understanding of life and of human
beings. Sidney Lanier's work best meets the criteria in being extremely well-written,
deeply insightful, and rich in cultural roots and background.

Even though Sidney Lanier's life was troubled by innumerable obstacles and
impediments, he still was able to leave behind a notable body of work which established
his own unique and artistic genius. His first novel, Tiger Lilies, published in 1867, gave
him little renown but did show the rich promise of a talented poet. Later, during his
travels in Florida, he was commissioned to write a documentary of its scenery, climate,
and history to be distributed by a railroad company, which he published as Florida in
1876. From the years of 1874 to 1876, several of his poems were published in
Lippincott's Magazine, and in 1877 he published his first collection of poems, a slim
volume which made him known to many admirers. Over the years of 1878 to 1882, he
published a series of novels for boys, namely The Boy's Froissart (1878), The Boy's King
Arthur (1880), The Boy's Mabinogion (1881), and The Boy's Percy (1882), in which he
recounted the old European chivalric tales of romance and honor which he himself so
loved as a boy.

Lanier's most notable contribution to the canon is his entire collected poetry,
published as Poems of Sidney Lanier by his wife Mary Day Lanier in 1884, two years
after his death. This book is the largest and most complete collection of his poetry
available today, and includes his most famous poems, "Sunrise," "The Marshes of
Glynn," "Hymns of the Marshes," "Corn," "The Symphony," and "The Song of the

His most valuable critical work consists of two novels on the technical art of
creating poetry: The Science of the English Verse (1880) and Music and Poetry (1898).
William Hayes Ward, a contemporary critic, describes the first book as "[…] chiefly
taken up with a discussion of rhythm and tone-color in verse; and it is well within the
truth to say that it is the most complete and thorough original investigation of the formal
element in poetry in existence" (Ward xxxiii). Another critic, Dudley Miles, Ph.D.,
expounds upon its merits: "The most valuable critical work of Lanier is undoubtedly his
Science of English Verse. For the consideration of the structure of English verse he was
peculiarly well prepared […] The result was pioneer work which appealed to many as the
most sensible treatment of the subject which had then appeared" (Miles n.pag.). In these
books Lanier explores his own theory of poetry, which went deeper than the obvious
patterns of rhythm, rhyme, and metre to investigate the wholly musical aspect of poetry,
and how it was affected by the finer particulars of speech. This included the accents given
by dominant vowels as well as consonants, and the easy flow of liquids and fricatives. In
his second book, Music and Poetry, Lanier compares the art of music to poetry, and how
the rhythm of poetry in general follows the same basic rules as does music.

Some critics hold that Sidney Lanier's work was not of the caliber of those found
in the American literary canon, and that he did not rightfully own a place there. The main
basis of their evidence for his exclusion from the canon is the idea that his verse was
inadequate due to his incorrect theories on the relations of music and poetry, that his
thought was "commonplace and prosaic" due to a didacticism and moralism, and that his
prose was highly artificial, strained and fanciful in its voluminous and unnatural

Lanier's theory of poetry included the idea that musical rules of rhythm could be
successfully applied to poetry, and that prosody was determined by length of interval. In
his book on the technicalities of poetry, Music and Poetry, Lanier insists that "the laws of
music and verse are identical, [and] that every foot represents a mathematically equal
time interval. Length of interval, not accent, is therefore the determining element in
prosody" (Miles n.pag.). Critics claim that his insistence on following such nonexistent
mathematical laws made it impossible for his poetry to be considered the superior work
of a master, thus striking his name from the list of those included in the canon. But, other
scholars of Lanier's work consider this a minor fault. His books on the science of verse
did not only focus on this interrelation of poetry and music. In fact, what set his poetical
theory above others of its kind was its stress of the fundamental importance of rhythm in
poetry. "Lanier wrote long before the psychological investigation of rhythm had begun"
(Miles n.pag.), and he was merely using his own unique and skillfully developed sense of
rhythm to mold his poetry. His only mistake is the fact that he took it for universal law,
instead of realizing that no two poets would exactly coincide in their sense of rhythm, and
this is no reason for exclusion from the canon.

Some critics consider Lanier's thoughts and ideas "commonplace and prosaic"
due to his supposed moralizing and didacticism. In all actuality, Lanier expressed in his
poetry those truths which he found inherent in life and in himself. If they seemed familiar
or commonplace to the reader because he had seen them often in the bible or been taught
them in his own home, this was no fault of Lanier's. "This quality is partly due to a
didacticism which issued from an unswerving devotion to the ideal. From his youth he
cherished a longing for the very highest" (Miles n.pag.). It was moral purpose which led
him to employ poetry to protect love, purity, holiness, nature, and beauty from the
corruption, intolerance, and brutality which threatens every age and era. Sidney Lanier
strove for purity and goodness because that was his nature, his soul. It is execrable to find
fault in Lanier's poetry for something that was merely a part of the man himself.

In Lanier's writing style, critics are quick to find fault, calling it "highly artificial,
fanciful in its imagery, strained and rhetorical in its phrasing, bookish and precious in its
diction […] he was rarely able to be simple and direct" (Miles n.pag.). Sidney Lanier's
mellifluous writing, so unpleasant to those who might be unused to it, is again merely the
manifestations of his literary genius and goodness of soul. Lanier's work is noted as
luminous and articulate, employing "long-winded" phrases, "inflated" imagery, and
"absurd and fanciful" metaphors. His unique and charismatic writing style is the result of
his incredibly knowledgeable and educated nature, and is reminiscent of the complicated
and winding phrasical beauty of the older writers of our tongue, particularly Shakespeare.
Some critics claim his lofty, exalted thought is merely "inflated;" but in all actuality this
is a reflection of the glorious and enlightened Transcendental Romantics, including
Emerson and Thoreau. Some critics claim that Lanier's "exuberant fancy betrayed him
into conceits as far-fetched as ever disfigured Donne or Crawshaw or Tabb. An Ox in the
field becomes 'the course of things,' and the rising sun is 'the Build-fire Bee' " (Miles
n.pag.). If a poet if to be struck from the list of canon authors for his grotesque and
disturbing conceits, then let Emerson be dropped also, for his famous "walking eyeball"
illustration. In short, Lanier's elegant and mellifluous style is merely a manifestation of
his literary genius and erudition, and no reason for a exclusion from the American literary

Lanier's studied and scholarly nature set high standards for itself and demanded
he become wholly a master of the technical aspect of poetry before freely giving himself
up to expressing his thoughts. All of Lanier's abounding ideas and feelings which he
fervently wished to share with his fellow men, all of his inspiration, would have to wait
until he had reached a level of technical proficiency in his poetry that satisfied him. "I'm
taken with a poem pretty nearly every day, and have to content myself with making a
note of its train of thought on the back of whatever letter is in my pocket. I don't write it
out, because I find my poetry now wholly unsatisfactory" (Miles n.pag.). But after much
arduous and pain-staking study, he finally reached that level of mastery which satisfied
him. "In this little song ['Special Pleading'] I have begun to dare to give myself some
freedom in my own peculiar style, and have allowed myself to treat words, similes, and
metres with such freedom as I desired. The result convinces me that I can do so now
safely" (Ward xxxi). Lanier set high standards for himself, and worked ardently until his
poetry met and surpassed those standards. Lanier's theory of poetry did not merely
include a sense of rhythm, rhyme, and metre, but reached deeper into the fine and often
unnoticed but unconsciously felt marshaling of consonants and vowels, so as to add a
"[…] suppler and subtler reinforcement to the steady infantry tramp of rhythm" (Ward
xxxv). He shows himself to be a master poet, not only balancing outwardly obvious
poetical constructions, but dealing in the delicate and musical art of the fine tuning of
words, concerned with dominant accented vowels as well as consonants, the easy flow of
liquids and fricatives, and the progressive opening or closing of the articulative organs.
Lanier's poetry is not only superior in the ideas he deals with, but in the way he expresses
those ideas. His poetry is easily some of the most technically advanced of its time.

Also in Lanier's poetry there is the element of his goodness of soul, his exalted,
lofty-thinking nature, and his depth of understanding both morally and socially. His
poetry is eloquent and beautiful, musical and artistic, deep and insightful. Of Lanier's
work, his friend and associate Dr. Wm. Browne explained that, "[…] one thread of
purpose runs through it all. This thread is found in his fervid love for his fellow-men, and
his never ceasing endeavors to kindle an enthusiasm for beauty, purity, nobility of life,
which he held it the poet's first duty to teach and to exemplify" (Ward xxxvii). His work
is characterized by a conscientious feeling of beauty of thought, deed, and word, holiness
and purity of morale, and love for one's fellow man. In one of his poem outlines, he
writes, "I made me a song of serenade, \ And I stole in the Night, in the Night, \ To the
window of the world where man slept light, \ And I sang: \ O my Love, my Love, my
Fellow Man, \ My Love" (Poem Outlines n.pag.). The two profound and deepest interests
of Sidney Lanier's life were love and nature, and these two ideas he often combined,
equating nature with love, love with nature, and the beauty of both to be the same beauty
one finds in holiness. One of his favorite phrases was "the holiness of beauty," which he
reversed just as often as not to "the beauty of holiness" (Ward xxi). One night, after a
religions argument, Lanier writes:
I fled in tears from the men's ungodly quarrel about God: I fled in tears to the
woods, and laid me down on the earth; then somewhat like the beating of many
hearts came up to me out of the ground, and I looked and my cheek lay close by a
violet; then my heart took courage and I said:
I know that thou art the word of my God, dear Violet:
And Oh the ladder is not long that to my heaven leads.
Measure what space a violet stands above the ground,
Tis no farther climbing that my soul and angels have to do than that
(Poem Outlines n.pag.).
Lanier's deeply-ingrained love for nature was not a cheap passion of the flesh but a
timeless and beautiful emotion. "It is a kneeling adoration, an ideal emotion, the only
love which one of his purity of life would avow. He has well been called the Sir Galahad
of American literature" (Miles n.pag.).

A important element of Lanier's poetry is its deeply cultural ideas, painting with
words the sprawling swampland beauty, the dark and shady liveoaks, the quiet and
voluminous tide. In his poetry Lanier often championed the holiness of the beauty of
nature, vehemently and righteously defending his beloved Southern wilderness against
the encroaching industrialism of the North. In one of his most famous poems "Sunrise,"
Lanier writes of his beloved nature (which is symbolized in this poem by the sun):
"Oh, never the mast-high run of the seas \ Of traffic shall hide thee, \ Never the
heil-colored smoke of the factories \ Hide thee, \ Never the reek of the time's fen-
politics \ Hide thee, \ And ever my heart through the night shall with knowledge
abide thee, \ And ever by day shall my spirit, as one that hath tried thee, \ Labor,
at leisure, in art, - till yonder beside thee \ My soul shall float, friend Sun, \ The
day being done" (Lanier Poems 11).
But Lanier did not merely observe the beauty of his homeland. He was ardently involved
in the interests of the South and participated in a revival of Southern literature, helping to
bring the South to share in that expanding influence. "The breadth of his own soul and
the exalted purpose of his life responded quickly to the new outlook before the nation. He
leapt far ahead of his section in grasping and appropriating what he might of the new
quickening spirit […]" (Miles n.pag.). Lanier also championed the Southern cause with
the popularity of his poetry in the North, hastening the growth and spread of Southern
literature. This subsequently gave hope to the vanquished, impoverished South of once
more, if not reviving the literary and cultural greatness of the pre-civil war era, at least
attaining a sense of normalcy. In short, Lanier's poetic genius helped the South to come
through the Reconstruction.

In Lanier's poetry there is such a graceful mastery of the language which, coupled
with a brilliant, insightful mind and a tone of high-thinking eloquence, indubitably shows
Lanier to be a genius, and one of the most skilled and prominent poets of his generation.
His work is deeply Southern in character, showing the rich tapestry of its lost culture, the
quiet beauty of its sweeping terrain, and its people's valiant struggle against the influx of
Northern economy and industrialism. It is these qualities which indisputably earn Sidney
Clopton Lanier a place in the American literary canon, and a rank alongside some of the
finest poets this country has ever acknowledged. For the entirety of his adult life, Sidney
Lanier fought the battle against consumption which could have but one end, while trying
to earn a living for his family, survive in the ravaged and impoverished South after the
civil war, and fulfill his heart's yearning for expression in music, literature, and poetry.
What Lanier might have said to the world had he lived longer no one may know;
nonetheless, the magnificent and bountiful work which he did accomplish in his lifetime
reveals the pure, exalted, and beautiful soul he possessed. His works are little-known to
the world, as many of his books are out of print and hard to find; but his quiet, loving,
and utterly unique genius in the realm of verse will always be reminiscent of his beloved
Southern homeland, and the beauty of his poetry a window into a world that is forever
lost but never forgotten.

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