Sidney Lanier HTML version

The Last Year
One of the pieces of advice that Lanier gave to consumptives who went to Florida for
their health was, "Set out to get well, with the thorough assurance that consumption is
curable." He had literally followed his own advice, and had fought death off for seven
years. By the spring of 1880 he had won his fight over every obstacle that had been in his
way. He had a position which, supplemented by literary work, could sustain him and his
family. By prodigious work he had overcome, to a large extent, his lack of training in
both music and scholarship. The years 1878 and 1879 were his most productive. By the
"Science of English Verse" and the "Marshes of Glynn" he had won the admiration of
many who had at first been doubtful about his ability. From an obscure man of the
provinces out of touch with artists or musicians, he had become the idol of a large circle
of friends and admirers.
During all these years he had had to fight the disease which he inherited from both sides
of his family and which was accentuated by hardships during the war and the habits of a
bent student. His flute-playing had helped to mitigate the disease. Finally, however, in the
summer of 1880, he entered upon the last fight with his old enemy. Lanier had laughed in
the face of death, and each new acquisition in the realms of music and poetry had been a
challenge to the enemy. In 1876 he almost succumbed, but in the mean time three years
of hard work had intervened. What he had suffered from disease, even when he was at his
best, may be divined by one of imagination. He once referred to consumptives as
"beyond all measure the keenest sufferers of all the stricken of this world," and he knew
what he was talking about. He wrote to Hayne, November 19, 1880: "For six months past
a ghastly fever has been taking possession of me each day at about twelve M., and
holding my head under the surface of indescribable distress for the next twenty hours,
subsiding only enough each morning to let me get on my working-harness, but never
intermitting. A number of tests show it not to be the `hectic' so well known in
consumption; and to this day it has baffled all the skill I could find in New York, in
Philadelphia, and here. I have myself been disposed to think it arose purely from the
bitterness of having to spend my time in making academic lectures and boy's books --
pot-boilers all -- when a thousand songs are singing in my heart that will certainly kill me
if I do not utter them soon. But I don't think this diagnosis has found favor with any
practical physician; and meantime I work day after day in such suffering as is piteous to
see."* With his fever at 104 degrees he wrote "Sunrise", which, though considered by
many his best poem, shows an unmistakable weakness when compared with the "Marshes
of Glynn". There is a letting down of the robust imagination. He delivered his lectures on
the English Novel under circumstances too harrowing to describe. His audience did not
know whether he could finish any one of them.