Musical and Religious Influences on Sidney Lanier's Poetry
Arguably, a writer's works reflects many influences. After all, a writer is a product of his background, his times, and his geographical location, among other factors. Sidney Lanier was no exception. Like all other writers, he inevitably drew from his own experiences to create his works. An outstanding Southern poet, he wrote poetry widely recognized for its musical quality and religious feeling.
Sidney Lanier was an outstanding Southern poet. He achieved a great deal in such a short amount of time. He acquired latent tuberculosis while in the Confederate Army, a disease that eventually killed him. He has been cited as an example of a writer who could have achieved more had he lived longer (Magill 1927). At the time of his death at age 39, his career was just getting started. The last years of his life, approximately 1877 to 1881, were the fullest and most productive. Lanier was born on February 3, 1842, in Macon, Georgia (Magill 1923). He wrote 164 poems and several novels (1926). A few examples of his poetry includes; "The Marshes of Glynn," "The Symphony," and "Song of the Chattahoochee" ("Sidney Lanier"). An example
of his prose works is Science of English Verse. This is a study of the relationship between poetry and music ("Sidney Lanier"). His fascination with the writings of Byron, Tennyson , Scott, and other romance writers, led to the inspiration of his poetry ("Sidney Lanier: Poet of the Marshes"). His love of nature and music led to his success as a poet and novelist ("Sidney Lanier: Poet of the Marshes"). In the words of Stark Young, "He was an amazing poet, novelist, critic, and musician" (3).
During the nineteenth century, there were not many Southern writers. Thus, Lanier set an example for future Southern writers to follow. He was the first distinctive Southern poet to achieve a true national recognition and acceptance (Magill 1923-1924). This honor is usually given to Edgar Allan Poe who did much of his literary work in Britain and in the Northeast (1923). Lanier, however, spent his entire life in the South. He won for Southern poets and writers a degree of credibility and respect which was unprecedented in American literature and which is still present today (1923). Lanier also became regarded as a spokesman for America, rather than a spokesman from only the South (1923-1924). He became nationally known and with this recognition came national status (1923).
One of Lanier's great accomplishments was that he was one of the first
American poets to use dialect in his verse (Magill 1923). This was found most notably in the "Georgia cracker" speech exercised in "Thar's More in the Man Than Thar Is in the Land" (1924). In this he gave a practical solution to the economic problems of the postwar South (1924). Literary historians have said that Lanier had a minimal influence on other writers but, the influence most apparent was in his post-civil war regional dialects (1927).
He was also an early practitioner of "local-color" writing (Magill 1924). This style of writing flourished towards the end of the nineteenth century (1924). Lanier contained such a strong social conscience, that he was known for his poetic treatment of economic difficulties (1924). Lanier never really stayed with one style of writing. He experimented with different forms of poetry. He is recognized for his ambitious attempts at metrical innovation as well as his effort at heightened musical effects in his poetry (1924). He tried to formulate a science of prosody which is analogous to musical notation (1925).
Lanier infused a great deal of musical quality in his poetry. His artistic temperament first displayed itself in music (Webb and Coulson 6). He demonstrated an exceptional musical ability at a young age. He became an expert at the violin (his favorite), guitar, organ, and flute (Magill 1924). This
talent came from a long line of musically gifted ancestors (Webb and Coulson 6). Music was also an integral part of his formal education (Magill 1924). While he visited San Antonio, he was influenced by the Germans to pursue a career in music (1925). In 1873, he began his career as first flutist with the Peabody Orchestra of Baltimore. Because of his extraordinary talent, he was able to maintain this position for seven years (1926). Lanier was once told that to follow music took a great deal of work and he replied that it was "not a matter of mere preference, it was a spiritual necessity, I must be a musician, I could not help it (Webb and Coulson 9). Lanier's desire to become a professional musician often diverted his time and energies away from his career as a poet (1925). Magill once said that "Lanier's musical talent was unfortunate: the distinctive musicality of his verse too often overpower[ed] the meaning" (1925). This is shown in his poem the "Song of the Chattahoochee." In it, the effect of soothing musicality that Lanier was trying to create became monotonous and overdone (1930).
His poem "The Marshes of Glynn" was probably his most important poem. In it the audience is transmitted into a region of words, the full expression of his great musical gift, and his rich emotional and descriptive powers (Young 2). Lanier loved music so much more than as a pleasure (Webb and Coulson
9). He interpreted music as love (Mims 38). He once said that "music is love in search of a word" (Mims 39).
Sidney Lanier's poetry also has a strong religious feeling. His life has been said to be as one of purity and nobleness, although he broke with orthodox Christianity (Webb and Coulson 9). Still, he believed in God. He thought that human love and faith in the Lord were his only consolation (Parks 26). Also, after reading the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he adopted Emerson's ideas of religion (Magill 1930). This in addition to his lack of orthodox religious faith fostered significant changes in the techniques and themes of his poems (Magill 1931). He believed that true religion did not mean abandoning oneself to every passion of the faith (Parks 93). This also included not being a strong supporter of attending church because he felt that God revealed himself to man through music and poetry rather than through the church (Parks 31).
In his poem "The Symphony", he quoted Christ's words even though he had given up on his faith in the divinity of Christ (Parks 26). He wrote "A Ballad of Trees and the Master" in which he spoke of his "Master" and his desire to follow his "Master's" footsteps. The poem tied the forest and Christ together in saying that "from under the trees they drew Him [and] twas on a tree they
slew Him" (Morrison 572). Another poem by Lanier was "The Crystal Christ." This was a poem about the wisdom of God and how sovereign He is. This was a poem written as a tribute to Christ that reveals a deep, sincere devotion to "man's best Man" (Webb and Coulson 68).
Also, in Lanier's poetry, he used a lot of symbolism to project his points. This is shown in "Sunrise," when Lanier used three main symbols: the live oak, which brought God to man; the marsh, which represented that from which man has evolved; and the ocean, which illustrated immortality. A fourth symbol was later added--the sun, which illustrated Christ (26). Then in "The Marshes of Glynn," he began with the association of the forest to that of religious faith, and from this point on, the poem is devoted to spiritual matters (Magill 1931). In this poem, he frequently spoke of the "greatness of God" (Morrison 116-117). In this poem he stated:
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within...(Webb and Coulson 68).
His large, worshipful nature expresses itself in the deeply serious strain that
runs through this poem (68).
Sidney Lanier's poetry can also be depicted as being close to nature. This is shown in his poem, "The Marshes Of Glynn." In it, he presented two concerns: the traditional belief that nature is the great refresher of men's souls, and the view that one may find the true God in the natural world (Magill 1932). It was once said that Lanier had one of the truest and richest nature-notes in American poetry (Webb and Coulson 61). In his poems, nature serves as a companion for man, to soothe and encourage him (62). Lanier used many symbols in his poetry to represent his love and appreciation of nature. In his poem "Corn," he uses symbols to describe his own experiences while in Sunnyside, Georgia (Magill 1928). In it, he talks of the beauty of the corn and the cornfield as the "wind sweeps through it" (Mims 17). He also spoke of how the Southern farmers demanded crops from the earth without giving anything in return. Yet, when men learned to properly cultivate the soil, there would be "visions of golden treasuries of corn" (Webb and Coulson 63).
Sidney Lanier was a man of many talents and accomplishments. Had his life not been cut so short he may have accomplished much more. Throughout his poetry, there is a clear distinction of his infatuation with music, religion,
and nature. Though he experimented with many types of poetry these three themes always echoed through his works.