Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Come and brood upon the marsh with me - notes on Sidney Lanier

Much of my writing here is note-taking.  Notes for what, who knows.  The less familiar the writer, the more sketchy the notes.  Today’s notes are about the poet Sidney Lanier, a rarity in three ways: 1) a 19th century poet from the Deep South, from Georgia, worth reading, 2)an American poet who was not a visionary iconoclast like Whitman, Dickinson, et. al, but rather wrote in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson – there must have been thousands such American poets, so again what is rare is that he is so good, 3) a poet who was a professional-level musician, and as a result had a number of music-based theories of poetry that I do not understand.

What is not rare is his early death from tuberculosis, caught in a Union prisoner of war camp, at age 39.  His widow edited a collected Poems that has been reprinted many times.  I read the 1999 University of Georgia edition, which tacks on a little appreciation by John Hollander, who seems to think the musical business is of interest.  The book includes a long section of “Unrevised Early Poems” that can be skipped, some dialect poems ditto, and too many occasional poems.  Someone might be able to make a good poem out of “Ode to the Johns Hopkins University,” (“the labyrinthine cave / of research”)  but not anyone who takes that title sincerely.

That leaves maybe 150 pages that are quite good and eight or ten poems better than that, mostly nature poems, burnished by their exotic (to the reader of Whitman and Whittier) setting, the marshes and rivers of Georgia and Florida.  Nature poeticized not for its own sake, but for its emotional meaning.  Lanier was a Romantic poet is what I am saying.

Awful is Art because ‘tis free.
The artist trembles o’er his plan
    Where men his Self must see,
Who made a song or picture, he
Did it, and not another, God nor man.  (from “Individuality,” 1878-9)

As direct a statement of art as I noticed, even if, in the poem, it is addressed to a cloud.

Sail on, sail on, fair cousin Cloud:
Oh loiter hither from the sea.
    Still-eyed and shadow-brow’d,
Steal off from yon far-drifting crowd,
And come and brood upon the marsh with me.

Many of Lanier’s best poems are a kind of brooding upon the marsh.

How still the plains of the water be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
                              And it is night.  {“The Marshes of Glynn,” 1878)

That poem may be Lanier’s best.  It does have just a bit of a visionary quality – “Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain  to face / The vast sweet visage of space” – but “Song of the Chattahoochie” (1877), another of the best, is more typical, a calm, meditative poem about a journey down or along a river which the poet loves but will eventually have to leave:

    But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
    And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call –
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
    Calls o’er the hills of Habersham
    Calls through the valleys of Hall.

These ordinary Georgian places are given a mythic tone.  A reservoir on the Chattahoochie was named after Lanier, which was meant as an honor.


  1. Nice timing with this post- Lanier is referenced in the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman.

  2. In the new Harper Lee, good, excellent. I hope many readers pursue Lanier and that some write blog posts, better than this one, about him.

  3. Swinburne is also mentioned, on about the fifth page of the novel.

  4. No wonder so many readers are unhappy with that book. Swinburne! You can't just spring Swinburne on people anymore.

    1. The "Atticus is a racist" furor is clearly just a dodge to avoid talking about Swinburne.

  5. As Charlie himself pointed out once to good ole Walt, our freedom came

    Out of the sun beyond sunset,
    From the evening whence morning shall be,
    With the rollers in measureless onset,
    With the van of the storming sea,
    With the world-wide wind, with the breath
    That breaks ships driven upon death,
    With the passion of all things free,

    Within love, within hatred it is,
    And its seed in the stripe as the kiss,
    And in slaves is the germ, and in kings.

  6. It has been curious to observe these poets of such different styles and temperaments meet each other on their favorite shores.

  7. My dad, knowing I was into literature at an early age, recommended Lanier. It was, after all, Lanier's name that graced the high school he graduated from before he enlisted for WW II. And I'm sure one he had to read. Because of that I've always had a soft spot for Lanier. It is the occasional passage that I enjoy most, though, as compared to an entire poem.