Sidney Lanier HTML version

The author of the introduction to the first complete edition of Sidney Lanier's poems --
published three years after the poet's death -- predicted with confidence that Lanier would
"take his final rank with the first princes of American song." Anticipating the appearance
of this volume, one of the best of recent lyric poets, who had been Lanier's fellow
prisoner during the Civil War, prophesied that "his name to the ends of the earth would
go." Indeed, there was a sense of surprise to those who had read only the 1877 edition of
Lanier's poems, when his poems were collected in an adequate and worthy edition. Since
that time the space devoted to him in histories of American literature has increased from
ten or twelve lines to as many pages -- an indication at once of popular interest and of an
increasing number of scholars and critics who have recognized the value of his work. His
growing fame found a notable expression when his picture appeared in the frontispiece of
the standard American Anthology, along with those of Poe, Walt Whitman, and the five
recognized New England poets.
It cannot be said, however, that Lanier's rank as a poet -- even in American, to say
nothing of English literature -- is yet fixed. He is a very uneven writer, and his defects are
glaring. Some of the best American critics -- men who have a right to speak with
authority -- shake their heads in disapproval at what they call the Lanier cult. Abroad he
has had no vogue, as have Emerson and Poe and Walt Whitman. The enthusiastic praise
of the "Spectator" has been more than balanced by the indifference of some English
critics and the sarcasm of others. Mme. Blanc's article in the "Revue des Deux Mondes",
setting forth the charm of his personality and the excellence of his poetry, met with little
response in France. In view of this divergence of opinion among critics, it may be
doubted if the time has yet come for anything approaching a final valuation of Lanier's
work. In the later pages of this book an attempt will be made to give a reasonably
balanced and critical study of his actual achievement in poetry and criticism.
Certainly those who have at heart the interest of American poetry cannot but wage a feud
with death for taking away one who had just begun his career. The words of the great
English threnodies over the premature death of men of genius come involuntarily to one
who realizes what the death of Lanier meant. It is true that he lived fourteen years longer
than Keats and ten years longer than Shelley, and that he was as old as Poe when he died;
but it must be remembered that, so far as his artistic work was concerned, the period from
1861 to 1873 was largely one of arrested development. He is one of the inheritors of
unfulfilled renown, not simply because he died young, but because what he had done and
what he had planned to do gave promise of a much better and more enduring work. Such
men as he and Keats must be judged, to be sure, by their actual achievement; but there
will always attach to their names the glory of the unfulfilled life, a fame out of all
proportion to the work accomplished. Poe had completed his work: limited in its range, it
is all but perfect. Lanier, with his reverence for science, his appreciation of scholarship,
his fine feeling for music, and withal his love of nature and of man, had laid broad the
foundation for a great poet's career. The man who, at so early an age and in the face of
such great obstacles, wrote the "Marshes of Glynn" and the "Science of English Verse",