Sidney Lanier HTML version

Characteristics and Ideas
Perhaps the best single description of Lanier is that by his friend H. Clay Wysham: "His
eye, of bluish gray, was more spiritual than dreamy -- except when he was suddenly
aroused, and then it assumed a hawk-like fierceness. The transparent delicacy of his skin
and complexion pleased the eye, and his fine-textured hair, which was soft and almost
straight and of a light-brown color, was combed behind the ear in Southern style. His
long beard, which was wavy and pointed, had even at an early age begun to show signs of
turning gray. His nose was aquiline, his bearing was distinguished, and his manners were
stamped with a high breeding that befitted the `Cavalier' lineage. His hands were delicate
and white, by no means thin, and the fingers tapering. His gestures were not many, but
swift, graceful, and expressive; the tone of his voice was low; his figure was willowy and
lithe; and in stature he seemed tall, but in reality he was a little below six feet -- withal
there was a native knightly grace which marked his every movement."* If to this be
added the words of Dr. Gilman as to the impression he produced on people, the picture
may be complete: "The appearance of Lanier was striking. There was nothing eccentric
or odd about him, but his words, manners, ways of speech, were distinguished. I have
heard a lady say that if he took his place in a crowded horse-car, an exhilarating
atmosphere seemed to be introduced by his breezy ways."**
* `Independent', November 18, 1897.
** `South Atlantic Quarterly', April, 1905.
He was mindful of the conventionalities of life. He had nothing of the Bohemian in his
looks, his manners, or his temperament. Poor though he was, he was scrupulous with
regard to dress. He was a hard worker, but when his health permitted, he was thoroughly
mindful of duties that devolved upon him as a member of society. He wrote to Charlotte
Cushman: "For I am surely going to find you, at one place or t' other, -- provided heaven
shall send me so much fortune in the selling of a poem or two as will make the price of a
new dress coat. Alas, with what unspeakable tender care I would have brushed this
present garment of mine in days gone by, if I had dreamed that the time would come
when so great a thing as a visit to YOU might hang upon the little length of its nap!
Behold, it is not only in man's breast that pathos lies, and the very coat lapel that covers it
may be a tragedy." Professor Gildersleeve gives a characteristic incident: "I remember he
came to a dinner given in his honor, fresh from a lecture at the Peabody, in a morning suit
and with chalk on his fingers. Came thus, not because he was unmindful of
conventionalities. He was as mindful of them as Browning, -- came thus because he had
to come thus. There was no time to dress. The poor chalk-fingered poet was miserable the
whole evening, hardly roused himself when the talk fell on Blake, and when we took a
walk together the next day he made his moan to me about it. A seraph with chalk on his
fingers. Somehow, that little incident seems to me an epitome of his life, though I have
mentioned it only to show how busy he was."*