Sidney Lanier (February 3, 1842 – September 7, 1881) was a unique American poet. Lanier was considered a minor poet in his own times, and although his fame has steadily risen in recent years he remains obscure in comparison to the giants of his time such as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Nonetheless, Lanier is a notable poet in the American canon because his style of writing poetry is so utterly distinct from almost every other English-language author of his era. Greatly influenced by the Anglo-Saxon poets of the Old English period, Lanier gradually developed a style of poetry written in a loose imitation of Anglo-Saxon meter that utilized extremely creative and musical alliteration and sound effects to create poetry unlike anything else written in America. It is of curious note that Lanier's style is frequently compared to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Both were inspired by Anglo-Saxon and Celtic forms, and both developed a new style of writing English verse that relied on loose, "sprung" rhythms and rhymes; however, there is no evidence that either was aware of the other, and that their innovations to American and English verse respectively were discovered independently. Like Hopkins, Lanier has become more popular in modern times than he ever was during his own life; his poetry, which escapes the confinement of standard rhyme-and-meter while remaining powerfully musical, has become of increasing interest to writers and scholars alike. Although a relatively minor poet during his own life, Lanier is increasingly becoming a popular role-model and inspiration for writers of the present-day.
Sidney Clopton Lanier was born February 3, 1842, in Macon, Georgia to parents Robert Sampson Lanier and Mary Jane Anderson; he was mostly of English and American ancestry, with his distant French ancestors having immigrated to England in the sixteenth century. He began playing the flute at an early age, and his love of that musical instrument continued throughout his life. He attended Oglethorpe University near Milledgeville, Georgia, graduating first in his class shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War.
He fought in the Civil War, primarily in the tidewater region of Virginia, where he served in the Confederate signal corps. Later, he and his brother Clifford served as pilots aboard English blockade runners. On one of these voyages, his ship was boarded. Refusing to take the advice of the British officers on board to don one of their uniforms and pretend to be one of them, he was captured. He was incarcerated in a military prison in Maryland, where he contracted tuberculosis. He suffered greatly from this affliction for the rest of his life.
Shortly after the war, he finished writing his only novel, Tiger Lilies (1867), and married Mary Day. The couple took up residence in Lanier's hometown of Macon, and he began working in his father's law office. After taking and passing the Georgia bar, he practiced law for several years. During this period he wrote a number of poems in the "cracker" and "negro" dialects of his day about poor white and black farmers in the Reconstruction South. He traveled extensively through southern and eastern portions of the United States in search of a cure for his tuberculosis.
While on one such journey in Texas, he rediscovered his native and untutored talent for the flute and decided to travel to the northeast in hopes of finding employment as a musician in an orchestra. Unable to find work in New York, Philadelphia or Boston, he signed on to play flute for the Peabody Orchestra in Baltimore. He taught himself musical notation and quickly rose to the position of first flutist.
In an effort to support Mary and their three sons, he also wrote poetry for magazines. His most famous poems were "Corn" (1875), "The Symphony" (1875), "Centennial Meditation" (1876), "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877), "The Marshes of Glynn" (1878), and "Sunrise" (1881). The latter two poems are generally considered his greatest works. They are part of an unfinished set of lyrical nature poems known as the "Hymns of the Marshes," which describe the vast, open salt marshes of Glynn County on the coast of Georgia. There is a historical marker in Brunswick, Georgia commemorating the writing of his poem The Marshes of Glynn.
Late in his life, he became a student, lecturer and, finally, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, specializing in the works of the English novelists, Shakespeare, the Elizabethan sonneteers, Chaucer and the Anglo-Saxon poets. He published a series of lectures entitled The English Novel (1883) and a book entitled The Science of English Verse (1880), in which he developed a novel theory exploring the connections between musical notation and meter in poetry.
Putting these theories into practice, he developed a unique style of poetry written in logaoedic dactyls, which was strongly influenced by the works of his beloved Anglo-Saxon poets. He wrote several of his greatest poems in this meter, including “Revenge of Hamish" (1878), "The Marshes of Glynn" and "Sunrise." In Lanier's hands, the logaoedic dactylic meter led to a free-form, almost prose-like style of poetry that was greatly admired by Longfellow, Bayard Taylor, Charlotte Cushman and other leading poets and critics of the day. A similar poetical meter was independently developed by Gerard Manley Hopkins at about the same time, but there is no evidence that they knew each other or that either of them had read any of the other's works. It is extremely difficult to describe or analyze Lanier's peculiar style of poetry without providing a sample of this unusual style. The following quotation is the first three stanzas of Lanier's beautiful "Sunrise":
Lanier also published essays on other literary and musical topics and a notable series of four redactions of literary works about knightly combat and chivalry in modernized language more appealing to the boys of his day.
Lanier finally succumbed to complications caused by his tuberculosis on September 7, 1881, while convalescing with his family near Tryon, North Carolina. He was only 39 years old. He is buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.
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