The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Lanier, Sidney
LANIER, Sidney, American poet: b. Macon, Ga., 3 Feb. 1842; d. Lynn, N. C., 7 Sept. 1881. His father, Robert Lanier, a lawyer of Macon, came from a family noted for a love of music and art. An ancestor, Jerome Lanier, a Huguenot refugee, was well known at the court of Queen Elizabeth as a musical composer; another forebear, Nicholas Lanier, was director of music at the court of James I and Charles I, and first marahal of the Society of Musicians incorporated at the Restoration. Sidney Lanier's mother, Mary Anderson, belonged to a prominent Virginia family also noted for decided talent for music and poetry. The poet's artistic temperament was therefore a direct inheritance. As a Child Lanier was passionately fond of music and without any instruction learned to play on the guitar, piano, flute and violin. A critic said of him in later years: “In his hands the flute was transformed into a voice that set heavenly harmonies into vibration.” This passion for music also showed itself in his keen sensitiveness to rhythmic effect. At 14 he entered the sophomore class of Oglethorpe College, Georgia, and after three years graduated with distinction. He was tutor in the college until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he joined the Confederate army as a private soldier. He fought in several important battles, was transferred to the signal service and finally became signal officer of a blockade runner. In the autumn of 1864 he was captured and confined in Point Look Prison. He had taken advantage of every leisure moment to pursue his studies in literature, modern languages and music, and during his long idle hours in prison he gained a complete mastery of the technique of the flute. He was released in February 1865 and made his way on foot to Macon, but the fatigue of the journey added to the previous hardships of camp and prison caused a severe illness which did irreparable damage to his lungs. The years that followed were years of hand-to-hand fight for a subsistence. For two years be was clerk in a hotel in Montgomery, and there wrote his novel ‘Tiger Lilies,’ a book of power and promise, but hastily written and poorly sustained; he taught at Prattville, Ala., and studied and practised law with his father for five years in Macon. In December 1867 he married Miss Mary Day of Macon, and her belief in his genius, her willingness to endure with him privation and hardship made possible the valiant struggle and the achievement of the next 14 years. In the autmnn of 1873, after an unsuccessful attempt to re-establish his health by a winter in Texas, he determined to move to Baltimore, where he could find greater opportunities for culture. He played the flute in the Peabody orchestra; in the intervals of hemorrhage he wrote articles for magazines; he gave lectures on literature in private schools; and thus, with the generous aid of his father, he supplied the necessities of his family. His study of languages, of Anglo-Saxon and early English texts, of English and of foreign literature, was incessant and systematic. In February 1879 he was appointed lecturer on English literature at the Johns Hopkins University, and this position he held until his death. His two principal courses of lectures at the university are embodied in his ‘Science of English Verse’ (1879), a thorough and suggestive treatise on English metre, declaring that English verse depends on stress, not accent, and that it is based on certain easily recognized musical rhythms, and ‘The English Novel,’ a masterly treatment of the development of the idea of personality and its place m the modern novel. Again and again Lanier was driven by illness to Texas, to Florida, to North Carolina, but he was never idle; he studied much, he thought largely on all vital subjects, on love, life, art, economics, religion, and now and then he gave to the world poems of exquisite truth and beauty. In the spring of 1881 it became evident that the unequal fight was nearing its end, and as a last resort he tried tent life in the mountains of North Carolina. The last illness came at Lynn, in Polk County, and on a morning of early September he passed away.
Lanier's most important prose works besides those already mentioned are ‘The Boy's Froissart’ (1878); ‘The Boy's King Arthur’ (1880); ‘The Boy's Mabinogion’ (1881); ‘The Boy's Percy’ (1882); 'Shakespeare and his Forerunners' (1902). His best-known poems are ‘Hymus of the Marshes’ ‘Clover’; ‘The Song of the Chattahoochee’; ‘The Crystal’; ‘Corn’; ‘The Symphony’ and ‘The Centennial Meditation.’ The distinctive characteristics of his poetry are a wholesome outlook upon life, a constant recognition of the highest in character and in thought and a varied fresh and melodious rhythm. His passion for good and love, his robustness, his high conception of the meaning and power of the love of man and woman, proclaim his close kinship to Browning. In questions of social economics Lanier was abreast of his time; he believed in the rights of the individual, he hated the iron hand of unjust trade, but he realized that these problems must be solved in the “patient modern way.” He knew that the great poet must be an artist in sound and color, as well as a thinker, and that no labor was too arduous for perfecting verse forms; to attain perfection in his art the poet must make the mechanical verse fulfil its vast possibilities, he must gain the mastery over inugination, so that imagination may become his servant. But for Lanier there was no art for art's sake; art was consecrated to man and to God. Like all true poets he lived near to nature, and he has described our Southern scenery with loving faithfulness warmed by vivid imagination. He has given new meaning to “our forests of live-oak beautifully braided and woven with intricate shades of the vine; to our broad fronded fern and keen-leaved canes.” The luxuriance of the Southern forests, the wealth of undergrowth, the warmth, the color, the singing birds live in his poetry, but there is no undue heat, no tropical languor. Whittier has not been more faithful to the rocky coasts, to the snowstorms of New England, than has Lanier to the South. His letters and complete poems were edited by his widow with a memoir by William Hayes Ward (New York 1881, 1884, 1906), with bibliography. Consult also ‘The Lanier Book’ (New York 1904), and Nims, ‘Sidney Lanier’ (Boston 1905). See ‘Song of the Marshes.’