Sidney Lanier HTML version
The Achievement in Criticism and in Poetry
Speculations as to what Lanier might have done with fewer limitations and with a longer
span of years inevitably arise in the mind of any one who studies his life. If, like the late
Theodore Thomas, he had at an early age been able to develop his talent for music in the
musical circles of New York; if, like Longfellow, he had gone from a small college to a
German university, or, like Mr. Howells, from the provinces to Cambridge, where he
would have come in contact with a group of men of letters; if, after the Civil War, he had,
like Hayne, retired to a cabin and there devoted himself entirely to literary work; if, like
Lowell, he could have given attention to literary subjects and lectured in a university
without teaching classes of immature students or without resorting to "pot-boilers",
"nothings that do mar the artist's hand;" if, like Poe, he could have struck some one vein
and worked it for all it was worth, -- if, in a word, the varied activity of his life could
have given way to a certain definiteness of purpose and concentration of effort, what
might have been the difference! Music and poetry strove for the mastery of his soul.
Swinburne, speaking of those who attempt success in two realms of art, says, "On neither
course can the runner of a double race attain the goal, but must needs in both races alike
be caught up and resign his torch to a runner with a single aim." And yet one feels that if
Lanier had had time and health to work out all these diverse interests and all his varied
experiences into a unity, if scholarship and music and poetry could have been developed
simultaneously over a long stretch of time, there would have resulted, perhaps, a more
many-sided man and a finer poetry than we have yet had in America.
So at last the speculation reduces itself to one of time. Lycidas was dead ere his prime.
From 1876 till the fatal illness took hold of him he made great strides in poetry. Up to the
very last he was making plans for the future. His letters to friends outlining the volumes
that he hoped to publish, -- work demanding decades instead of years, -- the memoranda
jotted down on bits of paper or backs of envelopes as the rough drafts of essays or poems,
would be pathetic, if one did not believe with Lanier that death is a mere incident in an
eternal life, or with Browning, that what a man would do exalts him. The lines of Robert
Browning's poems in which he sets forth the glory of the life of aspiration -- aspiration
independent of any achievement -- ring in one's ears, as he reads the story of Lanier's life.
This low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
The imperfect poems, the unfinished poems, the sheaves unharvested, not like
Coleridge's for lack of will, but for lack of time, are suggestive of one of the finest
aspects of romantic art. "I would rather fail at some things I wot of than succeed at
others," said Lanier. There are moods when the imperfection of Lanier pleases more than
the perfection of Poe -- even from the artistic standpoint. What he aspired to be enters
into one's whole thought about his life and his art. The vista of his grave opens up into the