Sidney Lanier by Edwin Mims - HTML preview

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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", and who in addition thereto gave evidence of constant growth and of self-criticism, would undoubtedly have achieved much worthier things in the future.

Of one thing there can be no doubt, that his personality is one of the rarest and finest we have yet had in America, and that his life was one of the most heroic recorded in the annals of men. The time has passed for emphasizing unduly the pathos of Lanier's life. He was not a sorrowful man, nor was his life a sad one. His untimely and all but tragic death following a life of suffering and poverty, the appeals made by admirers in behalf of the poet's family, a few letters written to friends explaining his seeming negligence, and a fragment or two found in his papers after death, have been sometimes treated without their proper perspective. A complete reading of his letters -- published and unpublished -- and of his writings, combined with the reminiscences of his friends in Baltimore, Macon, and elsewhere, will convince any one of the essential vigor and buoyancy of his nature. He would have resented the expression "poor Lanier", with as much emphasis as did Lamb the condescending epithet used by Coleridge. He was ever a fighter, and he won many triumphs. He had the power of meeting all oppositions and managing them, emerging into "a large blue heaven of moral width and delight."

He was a sufferer from disease, but even in the midst of its grip upon him he maintained his composure, cheerfulness, and unfailing good humor. He had remarkable powers of recuperation. Writing to his father from San Antonio in 1872, he said: "I feel to-day as if I had been a dry leathery carcass of a man into whom some one had pumped strong currents of fresh blood, of abounding life, and of vigorous strength. I cannot remember when I have felt so crisp, so springy, and so gloriously unconscious of lungs." During these intervals of good health he was mentally alert, -- a prodigious worker, feeling "an immortal and unconquerable toughness of fibre" in the strings of his heart. There was something more than the cheerfulness that attends the disease to which he was subject. There was an ardor, an exuberance that comes only from "a lordly, large compass of soul." As to his poverty, it must be said that few poets were ever so girt about with sympathetic relatives and friends, and few men ever knew how to meet poverty so bravely. He fretted at times over the irresponsiveness of the public to his work, but not so much as did his friends, to whom he was constantly speaking or writing words of encouragement and hope. Criticism taught him "to lift his heart absolutely above all expectation save that which finds its fulfillment in the large consciousness of faithful devotion to the highest ideals in art." "This enables me," he said, "to work in tranquillity." He knew that he was fighting the battle which every artist of his type had had to fight since time began. In his intellectual life he passed through a period of storm and stress, when he felt "the twist and cross of life", but he emerged into a state where belief overmasters doubt and he knew that he knew. He was cheerful in the presence of death, which he held off for eight years by sheer force of will; at last, when he had wrested from time enough to show what manner of man he was, he drank down the stirrup-cup "right smilingly".

Looked at from every possible standpoint, it may be seen that none of these obstacles could subdue his hopeful and buoyant spirit. "He was the most cheerful man I ever knew," said Richard Malcolm Johnston. Ex-President Gilman expressed the feeling of those who knew the poet intimately when he said, "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. . . . He always preserved his sweetness of disposition, his cheerfulness, his courtesy, his industry, his hope, his ambition. . . . Like a true knight errant, never disheartened by difficulty, never despondent in the face of dangers, always brave, full of resources, confident of ultimate triumph." The student at Johns Hopkins University who knew him best said: "No strain of physical wear or suffering, no pressure of worldly fret, no amount of dealing with what are called `the hard facts of experience', could stiffen or dampen or deaden the inborn exuberance of his nature, which escaped incessantly into a realm of beauty, of wonder, of joy, and of hope." Certainly the great bulk of his published lectures and his poems bear out this impression. His brother, Mr. Clifford Lanier, says that he would not publish some of his early poems because they were not hale and hearty, "breathing of sanity, hope, betterment, aspiration." "Those are the best poets," said Lanier himself, "who keep down these cloudy sorrow songs and wait until some light comes to gild them with comfort." And this he did.

Lanier, whose career has been here briefly suggested, makes his appeal to various types of men and women. Enjoying the use of the Peabody Library and living in the atmosphere of a newly created university, he gave evidence of the modern scholar's zest for original research; and in addition thereto displayed a spiritual attitude to literature that is rare. The professional musician sees in him one of the advance guard of native-born Americans who have achieved success in some one field of musical endeavor, while a constantly increasing public, intent upon musical culture, finds in his letters and essays an expression of the deeper meaning of music and penetrative interpretations of the modern orchestra. Lanier influenced to some extent the minor poets of his era: who knows but that in some era of creative art -- which let us hope is not far off -- his subtle investigations and experiments in the domain where music and verse converge may prove the starting point of some greater poet's work? To the South, with which he was identified by birth and temperament, and in whose tremendous upheaval he bore a heroic part, the cosmopolitanism and modernness of his mind should be a constant protest against those things that have hindered her in the past and an incentive in that brilliant future to which she now so steadfastly and surely moves. To all men everywhere who care for whatsoever things are excellent and lovely and of good report his life is a priceless heritage.