Sidney Lanier image
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Born in February 3, 1842 / Died in September 7, 1881 / United States / English


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Sidney Clopton Lanier has been acknowledged as being one of the finest poets produced by the South in the nineteenth century. Though critics differ about his importance to twentieth-century poetry, it is generally accepted that he stands with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, the New England poets, and Herman Melville as a major contributor to the making of American poetry of the last century. Apart from this, he has a minor reputation for his controversial critical theory, which sought to unite poetry and music, and for his studies of Shakespeare, the "forerunners" of Shakespeare, and George Eliot. The considerable number of anthologies which include his poetry testify to his established place in the history of American romanticism. His criticism casts some interesting light on his development as a poet, and the poetry helps to explain his purpose in exploring his scholarly interests.

Few lives present outlines more mythic than that of Sidney Lanier. He was born 3 February 1842 in Macon, Georgia, to Robert Sampson Lanier, a lawyer, and Mary Jane Anderson Lanier. Nurtured in a family steeped in Southern traditions of music and literature, Lanier read widely in his parents' library before entering Oglethorpe College in 1857, and there he distinguished himself in debating societies like the Thalian Club, read avidly, and showed precocious talent with the flute. Deeply impressed with his philosophy professor, James Woodrow, he decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Heidelberg University, but the Civil War directed him instead to the Macon Volunteers, which he joined in 1860 with his brother Clifford. His life encompasses revered images of the ante-and post-bellum periods—moonlight rides from his bivouac to serenade a local beauty in her castle, gallant service on a blockade runner, national exposure as a major contributor to the 1876 Centennial, installation as a lecturer at Johns Hopkins, publisher of poetry of startling originality while fighting off prison-contracted tuberculosis—such images limn a virtually archetypal American writer not only rising from poverty to prominence, but seeking in his own life the natural symbols which incorporate a truth of the American experience.

Although Lanier was not a professional scholar, he strove to explain what seemed to him the musical foundations of poetry in his critical study, The Science of English Verse (1880). This book, which was in part an attempt to apply his theory to his own poetry, remains his main contribution to the history of criticism. His lectures, primarily undertaken to provide Lanier a university post he had dreamed of since prewar days, formed the basis of essays exploring the moral direction of English literature. He had very little to say about contemporary writers. However, his own attempt to discover his methods while involved in a serious program of moral reeducation of his age yields provoking evidence of his original abilities. His volumes on metrics and Shakespeare were directly related to his own explorations of the musicality of his verse, especially in the rhythms of his alternating long and short lines in his marsh poems.

The story of Lanier's interest in criticism and scholarship begins with his attempt to explain his own poetic interests when he began to write poetry shortly before the war. He was delighted to discover in writing his first poem that, as he told his father, he could write "Composite metre!" He proudly announced to a friend his realization that he could fashion subtle and covert meanings, for beyond his literal meaning is "another secondary idea." Such subtlety was not encouraged by his father, who urged him to write heroic couplets, an outmoded form. Nor did his admiring friends or his instructors at Oglethorpe College (dedicated to the "heart") stimulate his literary and critical abilities.

Yet Oglethorpe provided Lanier a place where he might debate leading issues of the day, and one such debate led him to argue that the conflict between North and South was the result of the North's "unharmonious education," which misled it to overvalue intellect at the expense of feeling. Declaring that "the initial step of every plan and every action is an emotion," primacy of feeling was the groundwork for his own poems and his criticism. As an amateur flutist he recognized that music and the music underlying poetry provoked emotions most successfully. His first works are instructive in that they show his attempt to clarify to himself the place of music, poetry, feeling, and moral action.

In his only work of fiction, Tiger-Lilies (1867), Lanier probed these interrelationships. After the hero, Philip Sterling, has performed on the flute, "the instrument of the future," his sister explains the meaning of his piece: "Music means harmony, harmony means love, and love means—God!" (Later Lanier would end a crucial poem, "The Symphony," with "Music is Love in search of a word.") Sterling's foil, John Cranston, plays upon a Satanic violin, so it is not surprising that he brings havoc upon the pleasant Sterling household and uses his position as a Yankee officer to perpetrate disorder during the Civil War. The link in Lanier's mind between music, feeling, and poetry was to lead him eventually to construe a "science" of English verse, an attempt to discover similarities between the laws of musical rhythm and harmony.

Quite early Lanier recognized that his aesthetic might well lead to problems in composition—either didacticism or diffuseness. Yet he admits that he often noticed a "tendency to the diffuse style" created by a "multitude of words to heighten the pat-ness of the image, and so making of it rather a conceit than a metaphor." Instead of controlling this tendency, however, Lanier learned to exploit it for the sake of his musicality of verse, which he believed would subtly educate the feelings of his audience.

His first attempt to apply his aesthetic to his poetry, in "The Jacquerie" (1868-1874), suffered from didacticism, though the chivalric situation and language at least restrained Lanier's diffuseness of imagery. "Corn" (1874), the most effective of Lanier's vocative poems, developed from the dialect poems of the early 1870s and sought to arouse the reader's awareness to the plight of the Southern farmer. Lanier controlled the vocative voice by blending suggestive symbolism of the "corn-captain" to diffuse nature imagery, underscored by rhythmic effects. In this persona of "corn-captain" Lanier employed the prototype of his "catholic man" who would speak for transcendental wholeness in the marsh poems a few years later. The writing of the poem coincided with Lanier's pronouncement that his artistic ability was "purely musical," his verse "a mere tangent."

Lanier had written dozens of pieces for flute (one of which a critic likened in style to Berlioz), and his virtuosity was acclaimed by such serious musicians as Leopold Damrosh, a friend of Richard Wagner. Such praise helped him secure positions with the Peabody Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Lanier's theory of poetry assumed that the most musical was also the most emotionally powerful, and since he wished to reeducate the emotions of his audience, his poetry should exploit its music. His poem "The Symphony" gave speaking parts to the instruments of the orchestra, deriving ingenious musical effects through his manipulations of alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and meter.

The poem provides each of his "instruments" with a special tone color created by rhythm and sound devices. In the violin segment, for example, he uses tetrameter triplets with frequent anapestic substitution and little end-stopping, but within the "surging strings" is a counter-element composed of couplets and internal rhymes. He provides a "string sonority" by employing sounds derived from phonetic relations of liquids (r and l) and the "d-t" groups of sounds derived from the "N" family. Such sounds are also employed coliteration, and acrostic and concealed alliteration. For example, he links words together which contain sounds related to his key word, Trade. The violins want Trade dead, for "The Time needs heart—'tis tired of head." He changes his musical devices to fit the special voices of the flute, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon. The last voice, that of the bassoon, utters Lanier's most famous line, implicit in every line in the poem, "Music is Love in search of a word."

Subsequently, Lanier needed to curb his overzealous attempt to subordinate everything to music; otherwise this effort would create a mannerism from what had been a brilliant inspiration. "The Symphony," therefore, inevitably developed from Lanier's slowly formulating conception of his poetry. He had also commented on the rhythm and meter of his fellow poets John Bannister Tabb, Henry Timrod, Paul Hamilton Hayne, and Bayard Taylor, writing that Timrod never had time to learn "the mere craft of the poet—the technique of verse" and praising Hayne's sense of rhythm as an unbroken perfect "flower of melody." Hayne rejected Lanier's view of Timrod. Additionally, Taylor thought Lanier misapplied the "laws of Music" to poetry in suggesting that Taylor recast a poem so that it ended "on a tonic." Yet Lanier pursued his conviction that music and poetry were inextricably linked.

"The Symphony" drew the attention of Bayard Taylor, who arranged for the Philadelphia Centennial Commission to offer Lanier the chance to write the cantata for the Centennial's opening ceremonies. Taking Taylor's advice, Lanier recorded the "general" and not "individual ideas of the nation," forcing his poetry into greater diffuseness. In doing so he lost his linkage of musicality to imagery. When the poem was inadvertently published before its performance with Dudley Buck's music, it raised such a furor that Lanier and Taylor each wrote a lengthy defense of it. Unfortunately, performance with the music proved the cantata difficult to sing. Lanier, fashioner of an original musical poetry, found it almost impossible to write poetry to musical accompaniment. It is also ironic that Taylor pronounced Lanier "the representative of the South in American song" at exactly the time that Lanier sought to cut regional ties to the "tobacco-sodden bosh" of Southern literary editors.

The "Cantata" won him the commission to write "The Psalm of the West," which repeats many of the effects of "The Symphony," though with less pertinent match between the conventional subject matter (such as the voyage of Columbus) and the music. To Lanier, such poetry as "The Psalm of the West" was the start of a new poetry of freedom, more like music, "etherealized" by loosening its binding limits. This idea—first encountered at Oglethorpe—became a guiding thought for him in his critical writing as well as in his later poetry. Such etherealization again takes place in Lanier's "The Song of the Chattahoochee," for the musicality of the poem, which represents the river, removes the river from its natural bonds and enables us to feel its allegorical significance. In nature Lanier had returned to his true subject, and in exploring the marshes of Glynn County he wrote his greatest work, Hymns of the Marshes (1907).

After marshaling his reactions to the "salt-sea spray" of Whitman's poetry, Lanier, in "The Marshes of Glynn" and subsequent poems, such as "Sunrise," took a deeper plunge into the musicality of verse. With an extraordinary assemblage of suggestive details and rich connotation, he blended a sonorous verse unmatched in anything else he ever wrote, distributing a rich variety of sounds fused to dominant sonorities and sweeping lines which imitated the flow of the streams in the marshes. This long preparation made possible the writing of his first formal criticism, The Science of English Verse. During 1878 Lanier offered his ideas on the musicality of poetry as a lecture series at Peabody Institute. His love of his subject led him to extravagant claims. For example, in selecting the word science, Lanier led readers to believe he wished to formulate ultimate laws of poetic construction. Actually, he demonstrates only how some poetry had achieved its effects. Probably he meant versification for "verse" as well, for he offers no comment on many aspects of verse unrelated to versification. To him "verse" meant the relations of sounds in poetry; all that distinguishes music from poetry, for Lanier, is the tone color of vowels and consonants compared to that of flutes and strings.

Lanier boldly insists that the laws governing poetry and music are the same and analyzes each according to rhythm, tune, and tone color and advances the bold idea that music and speech share these elements. Even variations are shared. For example, if music shifts the accent away from the basic music rhythm, it creates special interest by such variation from the pattern. Poetry can do the same by using the stress of a word to counter the rhythm of a line. Lanier thought such variation would "free" poetic verse from bondage to established meters; he seemed to suggest that cadenced prose might represent the verse of the future, though he rejected the idea that "prose poetry" would be created because the regularity of rhythm would not permit this.

The Science of English Verse has won the admiration of poets and critics alike. Karl Shapiro has defended it as "the most famous and influential in the field of temporal prosody ... in no sense dated" and "one of the best expositions of its theory in the literature of metrics." In Time and Stress in English Verse, With Special Reference to Lanier's Theory of Rhythm, Joseph Hendren has found that Lanier's reluctance to expel devices of traditional scansion from his scheme forms his only fault. Since he wanted to demonstrate how rhythm in poetry depends on the temporal relation of accents, a different stress notion should have been used, one employing musical notation. The clustering of sounds in monosyllables forces some to longer duration of expression than others ("it is" versus "was grouped"). With such variation in quantitative difference Lanier would mislead if he said these words had the same foot length. Modern laboratory studies in linguistics have shown that identifications of duration are subjective; still, musical notation would more closely indicate rhythm that the stress-system.

Lanier lists several rhythms of English verse according to the ear's intuitive grouping of sounds. Primary rhythm is the ticking of a clock without imposed pattern. Secondary rhythm is the pattern of clock ticks. If the second sound of a syllable is twice, thrice, or four times the previous one, then duple, triple, or quadruple time is constructed, just as it is in music. Lanier's other kinds of rhythms are not as useful, and he fails in this work to explore alliteration or assonance. Nevertheless, his demonstration that poetry can be scanned differently helped to make the musical study of verse a permanent part of English prosody.

Paul Fussell, Jr., has directed attention to a basic problem in Lanier's approach: the addition of musical notation implies too much identity of music and poetry. Yet disputes among Lanier critics about the "meter" of "The Marshes of Glynn" would clearly be reduced by recourse to Lanier's notation. Hendren addresses this aspect of Lanier's theory in frankly seeking to "rescue" The Science of English Verse from "discredit and neglect." He underlines the importance of Lanier's description of the duration of sounds by showing that two dactylic lines may take different times to speak, one in duple, another in triple time. He corrects Lanier's mistake of thinking a foot is a "definable entity" and notes the contradiction of Lanier's method of constructing a musical theory within the traditional use of the barred foot which his theory itself opposed. However, Hendren emphatically concludes that "the consensus of modern poetry" is solidly behind Lanier's assertion that rhythm depends on measured time and that the very lines are divisible into sensibly equal time periods which are subdivided into beats by syllable configuration. Hendren has nothing to say of Lanier's moral view of the relation of rhythm to feeling, but Lanier found this concept integral to his plan to educate the feelings. In a peroration he proclaims, "The father of metre is rhythm, and the father of rhythm is God."

Lanier addressed The Science of English Verse to his fellow poets, and it surely appealed to them far more than his Shakespeare lectures. The Shakespeare lectures were public ones and thus gave Lanier a forum for his personal feelings about literature and morality. Included in a lecture series on the development of English literature at the Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins University, the lectures on fiction were published posthumously under the title The English Novel And the Principle of Its Development (1883). The Shakespeare essays were later collected with essays on Tudor and Elizabethan literature as Shakespeare and His Forerunners, Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and Its Development from Early English (1902). (Lanier's adoption of the Stratford spelling rather than "Shakespeare" of the London documents may show he preferred the man to the playwright.) Essays elsewhere discuss the development of the sonnet. Lanier uses a moral approach: literature is intended to stimulate the reader to feel rightly, think rightly, and finally act rightly.

In his criticism of Shakespeare Lanier notes paradoxes in the sonnets. His view of Shakespeare's work as divided into "Bright," "Dark," and "Heavenly" periods is a commonplace observation (though Arthur Eastman calls it "graceful"), but his perception—that each period is characterized by a different sort of poetry—required care in recognizing the specific qualities of the poetry. Like The Science of English Verse, these lectures were written to explore an area of technical and moral interest. Shakespeare, to Lanier, was the synthesis of artistic originality and moral growth, the logical outcome of the history of English literature. Lanier supports this insight with illustrations from the sonnets and the plays. The essays establishing Shakespeare in the tradition of Beowulf (which reveals the ancient savagery of nature that has since etherealized in Shakespeare) and Chaucer (whose humane bawdiness found a richer expression in the lovers in some of Shakespeare's comedies) show the careful work of a passionate amateur. His care in translating Old English poetry, like his attention to detail in the neglected work of Thomas Wyatt, John Lyly, and others, reveals the devotion of a serious scholar. About 1875, when Lanier conceived his Shakespeare lectures, he gained the enthusiastic support of Horace Howard Furness, who had just begun his Shakespeare New Variorum series.

Developing the theories of Frederick Fleay and Edward Dowden, Lanier embellishes their arguments. Thus Fleay (following Frederick James Furnivall) supplies a statistical method which shows that Shakespeare's development can be seen in "the Rime test, the Run-on and Endstopped line test, the Weak-ending test, and Double-ending test and the Rhythmic Accent test." Lanier construes this to mean that Shakespeare's life was "morally musical." In every case Shakespeare moved toward greater freedom, so the tests prove him to have developed along Lanier's own lines. The "scientific" aspect of such study appealed to Lanier as much as the formulation of a "science" of English verse. From Dowden he derives the idea that Shakespeare's plays developed from innocent relations of man to nature (A Midsummer Night's Dream), to dark relations of man to man (Hamlet), to the heavenly relation of man to God (The Tempest). As a consequence, Lanier, like his fellow commentators, prefers not to analyze the plays beyond assigning labels to those which chart Shakespeare's progress: Hamlet represents man's superstitious attitude toward heaven and hell; Cymbeline, the importance of forgiveness. Lanier's criticism, of course, follows the sentimental spirit of his time of Southern chivalry, particularly in its treatment of Shakespeare's heroines. While establishing this theory, Lanier suggests that Shakespeare also presented a philosophy of man's relation to nature: the early plays reveal that man is subject to chance in nature (for example the character Bottom); the middle plays show man's inquiry into nature (Hamlet); and the last "Ideal" dramas present man's mastery over nature (Prospero).

There is also his curious assertion that George Eliot is superior to Shakespeare, which he made in his lectures on the English novel given in 1881 and published posthumously in 1897 in the revised edition of The English Novel, subtitled "A Study in the Development of Personality." In these Peabody Institute lectures Lanier, as usual, had a very ambitious plan founded on his insight that literature since the Greeks reflected increased concern with personality, or what "the evolutionist" might call "Spontaneous Variation peculiar to the human species." (Lanier's scientific term reflected his recent purchase of On the Origin of Species.) This evolution of the human spirit resulted in growth of personality "toward the Unknown, toward fellowman, and toward nature," unified by "the conception of Love as the organic idea of moral order."

Lanier advocates a new understanding of the form of the novel, for it blends science and poetry as well as an etherealization of language, since prose (as he said in the Shakespeare lectures) is a freer form than poetry. (He notes once again that Whitman's art is wrong because it mistakenly declares that freedom from forms represents the modern direction.) Development from drama to novel was the inevitable result of "the more complex relations between modern personalities." If the drama was a "powerful sermon," the very inception of the novel originated in didacticism and ascended, despite Zola's Naturalism, to the purified morality of George Eliot. Eliot's superiority to Shakespeare resulted from the modern habit of "looking all phenomena in the face," including what Carlyle called "the mystery of I" explored by Eliot in "the mystery of love."

All human history, Lanier asserts, reveals mankind's progress "to secure perfect freedom" in which love can develop. More closely linked to Jesus than Shakespeare, Eliot continuously concentrates on forgiveness. And since the novelist can claim "holy" omniscience and a dramatist cannot, Lanier argues, Eliot in a sense can become God. This raises the novel "to the very highest and holiest plane of creative effort." More, the novelist "proposes ... to bring about the revelations of Judgment Day long before the trumpet has sounded." Apparently Eliot had dimly divined "the overflowing charitable instincts of society" in establishing her work. (Lanier had come a long way since he detected the failure of charity in "The Symphony" to be the leitmotiv of his age.) Finally, Lanier concludes, "moral beauty" must triumph over artistic beauty since time's judgments are "inexorably moral."

In this highly ambitious course of lectures from Aeschylus to Eliot, Lanier frequently digresses to Chaucer and Shakespeare when discussing Eliot in order to examine her greatness and the direction of history. History, Lanier urges, has moved toward increasing depth in "personality," but "personality" to Lanier in fact means "morality." His systematic study of Eliot's work to 1880 asks his audience to respond to the moral power of the novelist and the moral purpose of history. For Lanier, history has etherealized since the Renaissance—upward toward music while lifting science and nature; and the nineteenth century has developed the exploration of personality through the art of the novel. But Lanier carefully distinguishes the "draggled, muddy, miserable" feeling of the eighteenth-century novelists (which he "would blot ... from the face of the earth") from the moral purpose of Dickens and Eliot. He further distinguishes between the satiric approach of Dickens, which tends to emphasize man's vice, and the approach of Eliot, whose subject is love and repentance. Unlike the naturalists, Lanier argues, Eliot creates lovable characters "with all the advantages of completeness derivable from microscopic analysis, scientific precision and moral intent." Lanier argues that, while the naturalistic novel of Zola is unscientific, a physical impossibility, and "artistic absurdity," Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1874-1876) gives characters who are "embodiements in flesh and blood of the scientific relations between all her facts."

Lanier's method in each lecture relies upon the power of his generalizations. He never directly analyzes the novels; instead, he pairs passages from Eliot with passages from Shakespeare and others—crossing genres to compare her novels with drama and poetry—in order to elucidate themes. Consequently, he never approaches the works from the point of view of their artistry as novels (though he affirms that they are works of art), nor does he give a comprehensive view of the elements of each of her works. Instead he selects lengthy passages as illustrations or touchstones which reveal her adherence to his generalizations about the development of western culture and literature. Daniel Deronda is thus "the most uplifting of modern books" for its solid characters, subtle yet analytical art, and perfect treatment of local color. But most importantly, she surpasses even Shakespeare in this novel in her treatment of the theme of repentance—a theme so powerful in its "direct presentation of goodness" that everyone is uncomfortable in reading it. But time will declare the novel a masterpiece since "the judgments of time are inexorably moral." Finally he supplies a brief biography of Eliot which brings him to compare her favorably to Christ, for she kept His two commandments perfectly.

Curiously, no Eliot specialists have noted even the existence of Lanier's provoking thoughts. Early reviews of his book, however, observed his similarity to the French critic Hippolyte Adolphe Taine in his philosophical insight into fiction, and Harper's Monthly called it the best recent fiction criticism for its illustration of the simultaneous and synthetic development of music, science, personality, and the novel (though other critics wished that Lanier had had time to revise and support his ideas more solidly). Three decades ago Floyd Stovall considered The English Novel to represent "The twilight of transcendental thought in criticism." Yet even these unfinished lectures show the need for a corrective to isolating textual analysis which seems to dissect the literary work only to murder it by leaving it self-contained and outside the historical and social forces that brought it into being.

Since Lanier's criticism continuously reflects his personal assessment of his own work, he undoubtedly refracted his own hope for literary immortality in his comments on the science of English verse and the genius of Shakespeare and George Eliot. Lanier's intensely moral criticism urges the reader to respond from the same standpoint that he had advocated as a student in 1859, that right feeling can lead to right moral action. His criticism concludes that the course of evolution in human affairs is better directed by fiction than by poetry. The reader may wonder if he might have returned to the novel had he lived longer. Clearly, his literary criticism must be understood as a Siamese twin to his creative development. Lanier's criticism may strike us today as subjective, impressionistic, and insufficiently documented in analytical argument. But no one could fault him for moral earnestness. He died 7 September 1881, age thirty-nine, of the tuberculosis he had contracted in a Union prison camp.