Part 2 out of 5
look a man straight furard in the face. Hit don't make
much difference to me now whether we whips the Yanks or they whips us. . . .
We is kin to a deserter! . . . I cain't shoot ye hardly.
The same uns raised us and fed us. I cain't do it; an' I am sorry I cain't."
He then makes him swear a vow: "God A'mighty's a-lookin at you
out o' the stars yon, an' he's a-listenin' at you out o' the sand here,
and he won't git tired by mornin'."
* Part ii, chapter vi.
The coming of gunboats up the river scatters the party in all directions,
some to prison and others to the final scenes around Richmond,
with the burning of which the story closes, not, however,
before the palace in the mountains -- where John Sterling and his wife,
Felix and Ottilie, have spent the intervening time -- is set fire to
by Gorm Smallin. The story is scarcely significant enough
to follow all the threads.
"Tiger Lilies" has the same place in Lanier's life that "Hyperion" has
in Longfellow's. They are both failures as novels or romances,
but they are valuable as autobiographies. Instead of laying the scene
in Germany, which he had never seen and yet yearned for,
Lanier brings Germany to America. There are long disquisitions
on the place of music and science in the modern world, many crude fancies,
some striking descriptions of nature, some of which have already been quoted.
Above all, there is Lanier's idea of what a musician or a poet ought to be, --
a study, therefore, of himself.
Perhaps the best single passage on music is that describing
Phil's playing of the flute. "It is like walking in the woods,
amongst wild flowers, just before you go into some vast cathedral.
For the flute seems to me to be peculiarly the woods-instrument:
it speaks the gloss of green leaves or the pathos of bare branches;
it calls up the strange mosses that are under dead leaves;
it breathes of wild plants that hide and oak fragrances that vanish;
it expresses to me the natural magic of music. Have you ever
walked on long afternoons in warm, sunny spots of the woods,
and felt a sudden thrill strike you with the half fear
that a ghost would rise out of the sedge, or dart from behind the next tree,
and confront you?"*
* `Tiger Lilies', p. 28.
Two passages may be cited to show the author's tendency
to use personifications and his insight into the "burthen of the mystery
of all this unintelligible world": --
"A terrible melee of winged opposites is forever filling the world
with a battle din which only observant souls hear: Love contending
with Impurity; Passion springing mines under the calm entrenchment of Reason;
scowling Ignorance thrusting in the dark at holy-eyed Reverence;
Romance deathfully encountering Sentimentality on the one side
and Commonplace on the other; young Sensibility clanging swords
with gigantic maudlin Conventionalities. . . . I have seen no man
who did not suffer from the shock of these wars, unless he got help
from that One Man whom it is not unmanly to acknowledge our superior."*
* `Tiger Lilies', p. 41.
"Nature has no politics. She'll grow a rose as well for York as Lancaster,
and mayhap beat both down next minute with a storm!
"She has no heart; else she never had rained on Lear's head.
"She has no eyes; for, seeing, she could never have drowned
that dainty girl, Ophelia.
"She has no ears; or she would hear the wild Sabian hymns to Night
and prayers to Day that men are uttering evermore.
"O blind, deaf, no-hearted Beauty, we cannot woo thee,
for thou silently contemnest us; we cannot force thee,
for thou art stronger than we; we cannot compromise with thee,
for thou art treacherous as thy seas; what shall we do, we, unhappy,
that love thee, coquette Nature?"*
* `Tiger Lilies', p. 178.
When "Tiger Lilies" appeared it was very favorably received.
Lanier writes to his brother of the "continual heavy showers
of compliment and congratulation" that he has received in Macon;
that the Macon paper had an editorial on his novel, and that a book firm
in the town had already disposed of a large number of copies.
Writing to Northrup, March 8, 1868, he says: "My book has been
as well received as a young author could have expected on his first plunge,
and I have seen few criticisms upon it which are not on the whole favorable.
My publishers have just made me an offer to bring out a second edition
on very fair terms; from which I infer that the sale of the article
is progressing."* At twenty-five, then, he was recognized
as one of the promising writers of the South; a biographical article
referring to his recent success, the "Tiger Lilies", was written
by J. Wood Davidson for his "Living Writers of the South", which appeared
in 1869, and his name was sought by ambitious editors of mushroom magazines
that sprang up in abundance after the war.
* There was never a second edition, however.
Lanier was not destined, however, to begin his literary career as yet,
nor was the South to have such an easy way out of her disaster
as he had hoped. He had made only one reference to politics in his romance,
and that was his manly utterance in behalf of Jefferson Davis,
who was then confined in prison under rather disagreeable circumstances
at Fortress Monroe. He said, "If there was guilt in any,
there was guilt in nigh all of us, between Maryland and Mexico;
Mr. Davis, if he be termed the ringleader of the Rebellion,
was so, not by virtue of any instigating act of his,
but purely by the unanimous will and appointment of the Southern people;
and the hearts of the Southern people bleed to see how their own act
has resulted in the chaining of Mr. Davis, who was as innocent as they,
and in the pardon of those who were guilty as he."
The Davis incident was an indication that forces other than those
which one might have hoped to see were in the air. By the fall of 1867
the reaction against the magnanimous policy of Lincoln had come in the North.
Reconstruction governments were being inaugurated throughout the South.
This was due in part to the lack of wisdom displayed by Southern legislatures
under the Johnson governments, -- a "disposition on the part
of the Southern States to claim rights instead of submitting to conditions,"
and harsh laws of Southern legislatures concerning the freedmen.
It must be confessed that the extreme men of the South were in some localities
as rash, unreasonable, and impracticable as the radicals of the North.
The magnanimous spirit of Lincoln and the heroic, chivalric spirit of Lee
could not prevail in the two sections; hence followed a direful period
in American history. As E. L. Godkin said, "That the chapter which tells
the story of reconstruction should have followed in American history
the chapter which tells the story of the war and emancipation,
is something over which many a generation will blush."
Again it must be said, as was said of the effect of the war on the South,
that reconstruction was something more than excessive taxation,
grinding and unjust as that was, something more than
the fear of black domination, as unthinkable as that is.
There was the uncertainty of the situation, the sense of despair that rankled
in the hearts of men, with the knowledge that nothing the South could do
could have any influence in deciding its fate. It was the closing
of institutions of learning, or running them under such circumstances
that the better element of the South could have nothing to do with them.
Lanier, writing about a position in the University of Alabama which
he very much desired, said: "The trustees, who are appointees of the State,
are so hampered by the expected change of State government
that nothing can be certainly predicated as to their action."
Lanier felt the effect of reconstruction at every point, --
he was baptized with the baptism of the Southern people.
The weight of that sad time bore heavily upon him. As he had
during the war touched the experience of his people at every point,
so now he went down with them into the Valley of Humiliation.
Under these circumstances his friend Northrup wrote him,
inviting him to go to Germany with him. He replied:
"Indeed, indeed, y'r trip-to-Europe invitation finds me all THIRSTY
to go with you; but, alas, how little do you know of our wretched
poverties and distresses here, -- that you ask me such a thing. . . .
It spoils our dreams of Germany, ruthlessly. I've been presiding
over eighty-six scholars, in a large Academy at Prattville, Ala.,
having two assistants under me; 't is terrible work,
and the labor difficulties, with the recent poor price of cotton,
conspire to make the pay very slim. I think y'r people
can have no idea of the slow terrors with which this winter
has invested our life in the South. Some time I'm going to give you
a few simple details, which you must publish in your paper."
Prattville, where he spent the winter of 1867-68, was a small
manufacturing town, with all the crudeness of a new industrial order
and without any of the refinement to which Lanier had been accustomed
in Macon and elsewhere. Perhaps there was never a time when drudgery
so weighed upon him, although his usual playfulness is seen in the remark:
"There is but one man in my school who could lick me in a fair fight,
and he thinks me at once a Samson and a Solomon." He worked for people
who thought that he was defrauding them if he did not work
from "sun up to sun down", as one of his patrons expressed it.
It was here, too, that he suffered from his first hemorrhages.
His poetry written at this time was an expression of the despair
which prevailed throughout the South. He whom the Civil War had not
inspired to speech, and who had kept silent under the suffering of the days
after the war, now gave expression to his disgust and his indignation.
It is not great poetry, for Lanier was not adapted to that kind of poetry,
and consequently neither he nor his wife ever collected all the poems.
"Laughter in the Senate", published in the "Round Table",
is typical of a group, several of which he left in an old ledger: --
Comes now the Peace, so long delayed?
Is it the cheerful voice of aid?
Begins the time, his heart has prayed,
When men may reap and sow?
Ah, God! back to the cold earth's breast!
The sages chuckle o'er their jest!
Must they, to give a people rest,
Their dainty wit forego?
The tyrants sit in a stately hall;
They gibe at a wretched people's fall;
The tyrants forget how fresh is the pall
Over their dead and ours.
Look how the senators ape the clown,
And don the motley and hide the gown,
But yonder a fast rising frown
On the people's forehead lowers.
To the same effect he wrote in unpublished poems, "Steel in Soft Hands"
and "To Our Hills": --
We mourn your fall into daintier hands
Of senators, rosy fingered,
That wrote while you fought,
And afar from the battles lingered.
And again in "Raven Days" and "Tyranny": --
Oh, Raven days, dark Raven days of sorrow,
Will ever any warm light come again?
Will ever the lit mountains of To-morrow
Begin to gleam athwart the mournful plain?
Young Trade is dead,
And swart Work sullen sits in the hillside fern
And folds his arms that find no bread to earn,
And bows his head.
In a letter to his father, January 21, 1868, he wrote:
"There are strong indications here of much bad feeling
between the whites and blacks, especially those engaged
in the late row at this place; and I have fears, which are shared
by Mr. Pratt and many citizens here, that some indiscretion
of the more thoughtless among the whites may plunge us into bloodshed.
The whites have no organization at all, and the affair would be
a mere butchery. . . . The Canton imbroglio may precipitate matters."
Writing of laws passed by Congress, he said: "Who will find words to express
the sorrowful surprise at their total absence of philosophical insight
into the age which has resulted in those hundreds of laws
recently promulgated by the reigning body in the United States;
laws which, if from no other cause, at least from sheer multiplicity,
are wholly at variance with the genius of the time and of the people,
laws which have resulted in such a mass of crime and hatred and bitterness
as even the four terrible years of war have entirely failed to bring about."*
* `Retrospects and Prospects', p. 31.
He recognized the need of some great man.
A pilot, God, a pilot! for the helm is left awry.
Years later, when the end of the reconstruction period had come,
he described a type of man that was needed for this emergency:
whether he realized it or not, it was a wish that Abraham Lincoln
might have been spared to meet the situation. "I have been wondering
where we are going to get a GREAT MAN, that will be tall enough
to see over the whole country, and to direct that vast undoing of things
which has got to be accomplished in a few years. It is a situation
in which mere cleverness will not begin to work. The horizon of cleverness
is too limited; it does not embrace enough of the heart of man,
to enable a merely clever politician, such as those in which we abound,
to lead matters properly in this juncture. The vast generosities
which whirl a small revenge out of the way, as the winds whirl a leaf;
the awful integrities which will pay a debt twice rather than allow
the faintest flicker of suspicion about it; the splendid indignations
which are also tender compassions, and will in one moment
be hustling the money-changers out of the Temple, and in the next
be preaching Love to them from the steps of it, -- where are we to find these?
It is time for a man to arise who is a man."*
* Letter to Judge Logan E. Bleckley, Nov. 15, 1874.
This state of affairs here set forth in Lanier's words
caused many to leave the South in absolute despair of its future.
It drove Maurice Thompson from Georgia to Indiana, and the Le Conte brothers
from Columbia to California. It caused the middle-aged Lamar
to stand sorrowfully at his gate in the afternoons in Oxford, Mississippi,
gazing wistfully into the west, while young men like Henry Grady
-- naturally optimistic and buoyant -- wondered what could be
the future for them. There is no better evidence of the heroism of Lanier
than the way in which he met the situation that confronted him.
He found refuge in intellectual work. In a letter to his father
he urges him to send him the latest magazines and books. June 1, 1868,
he writes from Prattville: "I shall go to work on my essays,
and on a course of study in German and in the Latin works of Lucretius,
whom I have long desired to study." In another letter he said:
"I have been deeply engaged in working out some metaphysical ideas
for some time, -- an application which goes on all the time,
whether I sit at desk or walk the streets." The volume of essays
referred to was never published, but we have some of them
in the essays "Retrospects and Prospects", "Nature-Metaphors",
and some unpublished ones in an old ledger in which he wrote at this time,
such as "The Oversight of Modern Philosophy", "Cause and Effect",
"Time and Space", "The Solecisms of Mathematics", "Devil's Bombs",
and other essays, which reveal Lanier's tendency to speculative philosophy
and his exuberant fancy. In this same ledger he wrote down many quotations,
which show that at the time he was not only keeping up
with contemporary literature, but continuing his reading in German poetry.
In the meantime, December 21, 1867, Lanier had married Miss Mary Day.
"Not even the wide-mouthed, villainous-nosed, tallow-faced drudgeries
of my eighty-fold life," he wrote his father, "can squeeze the sentiment
out of me." From the worldly standpoint it was a serious mistake to marry,
with no prospect of position and in the general upheaval of society
about them. But to the two lovers no such considerations could appeal,
and with his marriage to this accomplished woman came
one of the greatest blessings of Lanier's life. It was "an idyllic marriage,
which the poet thought a rich compensation for all the other perfect gifts
which Providence denied him." She was a sufferer like himself,
but her accuracy and alertness of mind, her rare appreciation of music,
and her deep divining of his own powers, made her the ideal wife of the poet.
Those who know "My Springs" and the series of sonnets which he wrote to her
during their separation when he was spending the winters in Baltimore,
need not be told of the part that this love played in his life.
Perhaps there are no two single lines in American poetry which express better
the deeper meaning of love than these: --
I marvel that God made you mine,
For when He frowns 't is then ye shine.
In his later lectures at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore,
contrasting the heroines of epic poetry with the lyric woman of modern times,
-- the patient wife in the secure home, -- he said: "But the daily grandeurs
which every good wife, no matter how uneventful her lot, must achieve,
the secret endurances which not only have no poet to sing them,
but no human eye even to see them, the heroism which is
as fine and bright at two o'clock in the morning as it is at noonday,
all those prodigious fortitudes under sorrows which one
is scarcely willing to whisper even to God Almighty,
and of which probably every delicate-souled woman knows,
either by intuition or actual experience, -- this lyric heroism,
altogether great and beautiful as it is, does not appear,
save by one or two brief glimpses, in the early poetry of our ancestors."*
He could not have described better his own wife and all that she was to be
in the years to come. Her fame is linked with his as is Clara Schumann's
with that of the great German musician.
* `Shakspere and his Forerunners', i, 99.
Chapter V. Lawyer and Traveler
Unable to secure a position in a Southern college or to make a living
by literary work, Lanier decided at the end of 1868
to take up the profession of law. He was led to do so
by the earnest solicitation of his father. With his mind once made up
in that direction, he went to the work with characteristic zeal.
He displayed a business-like and methodical spirit which at once
attracted attention. On November 19, 1869, he wrote to his brother,
who was urging him to go into the cotton-mill business:
"I have a far more feasible project, which I have been long incubating:
let us go to Brunswick. We know something of the law,
and are rapidly knowing more; it is a business which is far better
than that of any salaried officer could possibly be. . . .
It is best that you and I make up our minds immediately to be lawyers,
NOTHING BUT LAWYERS, GOOD lawyers, and SUCCESSFUL lawyers;
and direct all our energies to this end. We are too far in life
to change our course now; it would be greatly disadvantageous
to both of us. Therefore, to the law, Boy. It is your vocation;
stick to it: It will presently reward you for your devotion."
The scheme did not materialize, however; he remained at Macon
in the office of Lanier and Anderson. He writes to Northrup,
who has again held out to him a plan for going to Germany: --
"As for my sweet old dreams of studying in Germany, EHEU!
here is come a wife, and by'r Lady, a boy, a most rare-lung'd, imperious,
world-grasping, blue-eyed, kingly Manikin;* and the same must have
his tiring-woman or nurse, mark you, and his laces and embroideries
and small carriage, being now half a year old: so that, what with
mine ancient Money-Cormorants, the Butcher and the Baker and the Tailor,
my substance is like to be so pecked up that I must stick fast in Georgia,
unless litigation and my reputation should take a simultaneous start
and both grow outrageously. For, you must know, these Southern colleges
are all so poor that they hold out absolutely no inducement
in the way of support to a professor: and so last January
I suddenly came to the conclusion that I wanted to make some money
for my wife and my baby, and incontinently betook me to studying Law:
wherein I am now well advanced, and, D.V., will be admitted to the Bar
in May next. My advantages are good, since my Father and uncle
(firm of Lanier and Anderson) are among the oldest lawyers in the city
and have a large practice, into which I shall be quickly inducted.
* Charles Day Lanier. See poem, "Baby Charley".
"I have not, however, ceased my devotion to letters,
which I love better than all things in my heart of hearts;
and have now in the hands of the Lit. Bureau in N.Y. a vol. of essays.
I'm (or rather have been) busy, too, on a long poem, yclept the `Jacquerie',
on which I had bestowed more REAL WORK than on any of the frothy things
which I have hitherto sent out; tho' this is now necessarily suspended
until the summer shall give me a little rest from the office business
with which I have to support myself while I am studying law."*
* `Lippincott's Magazine', March, 1905.
Lanier's work as a lawyer was that of the office, as he never practiced
in the courts. To the accuracy and fidelity of this work
the words of his successor, Chancellor Walter B. Hill
of the University of Georgia, bear testimony: --
"About 1874 or 1875 I became associated as partner with
the firm of Lanier and Anderson, in whose office Sidney Lanier practiced law
up to the time he left Macon [1869-1873] -- I do not know
whether he was a partner in the firm or whether he merely used
the same office. At any rate, it seems that the greater part of his work
consisted in the examination of titles. The firm of Lanier and Anderson
represented several building and loan associations and had a large business
in this line of work. To examine a title, as you know, requires a visit
to what Oliver Wendell Holmes calls `that cemetery of dead transactions',
the place for the official registry of deeds and other muniments of title,
called in Georgia the office of the Clerk of the Superior Court.
One cannot imagine work that is more dry-as-dust in its character
than going over these records for the purpose of tracing the successive links
in a chain of title. When I came into the firm I had occasion frequently
to examine the letter-press copybook in which Lanier's `abstracts'
or reports upon title had been copied. Not only were the books themselves
models of neatness, but all his work in the examination of titles
showed the utmost thoroughness, patience, and fidelity. The law of Georgia
in regard to the registration of titles was by no means perfect at that time;
so imperfect, indeed, that I have known prominent lawyers
to refuse to engage in the work on account of the risk of error involved.
I remained a member of the firm for some time afterwards,
but during the whole period of my residence in Macon I never heard
any question raised as to the correctness and thoroughness of Lanier's work
in this difficult and intricate department of practice.
In going over some of his work I have often keenly felt the contrast
between such toil and that for which Lanier's genius fitted him.
To find that the poet spent many laborious days in such uninspiring labor
was as great an anomaly as it would be to see a fountain
spring from a bed of sawdust and `shake its loosened silver in the sun'."*
* Letter to the author.
While engaged in the practice of law, Lanier now and then
made public addresses. The most important of these
was the Confederate Memorial Address, April 26, 1870.*
The spirit and the language of it are equally admirable.
He who had suffered all that any man could suffer during the Civil War
and during the reconstruction period shows that he has risen above
all bitterness and prejudice. There is no threshing over of dead issues.
The spirit of the address is more like that seen in the letters
of Robert E. Lee than any other thing written by Southerners
during this period. Lanier is not yet national in his point of view,
but he represents the best attitude of mind that could be held
by the most liberal of Southerners at that time. Standing in the cemetery
at Macon, -- one of the most beautiful in the Southern States, --
he begins: "In the unbroken silence of the dead soldierly forms
that lie beneath our feet; in the winding processions of these stately trees;
in the large tranquillity of this vast and benignant heaven
that overspreads us; in the quiet ripple of yonder patient river,
flowing down to his death in the sea; in the manifold melodies
drawn from these green leaves by wandering airs that go like Troubadours
singing in all the lands; in the many-voiced memories that flock
into this day, and fill it as swallows fill the summer, -- in all these,
there is to me so voluble an eloquence to-day that I cannot but shrink
from the harsher sounds of my own human voice." Taking these as a text,
he comments first on the necessity for silence in an age
when "trade is the most boisterous god of all the false gods under heaven."
The clatter of factories, the clank of mills, the groaning of forges,
the sputtering and laboring of his water power, are all lost sight of
in contemplating the august presence of the dead, who speak not.
He speaks next of the stateliness of the trees, which suggests to him
the stateliness of the two great heroes of the Confederacy,
Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, -- "bright, magnificent exemplars
of stateliness, -- those noble figures that arose and moved
in splendid procession across the theatre of our Confederate war!"
The patience of the river suggests the soldiers who walked
their life of battle, "patient through heat and cold,
through rain and drought, through bullets and diseases,
through hunger and nakedness, through rigor of discipline
and laxity of morals, ay, through the very shards and pits of hell,
down to the almost inevitable death that awaited them."
* `Retrospects and Prospects', p. 94.
The most significant passage, however, is his appeal to the men and women
of the South to rise to the plane of tranquillity and magnanimity: --
"I spoke next of the tranquillity of the over-spanning heavens.
This, too, is a noble quality which your Association tends to keep alive.
Who in all the world needs tranquillity more than we?
I know not a deeper question in our Southern life at this present time,
than how we shall bear our load of wrong and injury
with the calmness and tranquil dignity that become men and women
who would be great in misfortune; and believe me, I know not where
we will draw deeper inspirations of calm strength for this great emergency
than in this place where we now stand, in the midst of departed heroes
who fought against these things to death. Why, yonder lies my brave,
brilliant friend, Lamar; and yonder, genial Robert Smith; and yonder,
generous Tracy, -- gallant men, all, good knights and stainless gentlemen.
How calmly they sleep in the midst of it! Unto this calmness
shall we come, at last. If so, why should we disquiet our souls
for the petty stings of our conquerors? There comes a time
when conqueror and conquered shall alike descend into the grave.
In that time, O my countrymen, in that time the conqueror shall be
ashamed of his lash, and the conquered shall be proud of his calm endurance;
in that time the conqueror shall hide his face, and the conquered
shall lift his head with an exultation in his tranquil fortitude
which God shall surely pardon!
"For the contemplation of this tranquillity, my friends of this Association,
in the name of a land stung half to madness, I thank you.
. . . . .
"To-day we are here for love and not for hate. To-day we are here
for harmony and not for discord. To-day we are risen
immeasurably above all vengeance. To-day, standing upon
the serene heights of forgiveness, our souls choir together
the enchanting music of harmonious Christian civilization.
To-day we will not disturb the peaceful slumbers of these sleepers
with music less sweet than the serenade of loving remembrances,
breathing upon our hearts as the winds of heaven breathe upon
these swaying leaves above us."
Lanier did not abandon altogether his ideal of doing literary work.
He was much encouraged at this time by a sympathetic correspondence
with Paul Hamilton Hayne, who, after the Civil War, had settled
in a little cottage near Augusta. His beautiful home in Charleston
had been burned to the ground and his large, handsome library utterly lost.
With heroic spirit at a time when, as Lanier said of him,
"the war of secession had left the South in a condition which appeared
to render an exclusively literary life a hopeless impossibility,
he immured himself in the woods of Georgia and gave himself wholly
to his pen." When Simms visited him here in 1866, the poet had for supplies
"a box of hard tack, two sides of bacon, and fourscore, more or less,
of smoked herring, a frying-pan and a grid-iron." He and his wife
lived as simply as the Hawthornes did in the Old Manse. His writing desk
was a carpenter's work-bench. He wrote continually for the magazines,
corresponded with the poets of England and New England,
received visitors, with whom he talked about the old days in Charleston
when he and Timrod and Simms had projected "Russell's Magazine",
and held out to young Southern writers the encouragement of an older brother.
It was this man who, at a critical time in Lanier's life,
inspired him to believe that he might succeed in a literary career.
"I have had constantly in mind the kindly help and encouragement
which your cheering words used to bring me when I was even more obscure
than I am now," wrote the younger poet at a later time.
He did not have time, however, to act on this encouragement.
He wrote now and then a dialect poem which was printed
in the Georgia dailies and attracted attention by its humor and its insight
into contemporary life, and occasionally an exquisite lyric like "Nirvana".
In the main he had to say: --
"I have not put pen to paper in a literary way in a long time.
How I thirst to do so, -- how I long to sing a thousand various songs
that oppress me, unsung, -- is inexpressible. Yet the mere work
that brings me bread gives me no time. I know not, after all, if this is
a sorrowful thing. Nobody likes my poems except two or three friends, --
who are themselves poets, and can supply themselves!" And yet he writes,
"It gives me great encouragement that you think I might succeed
in the literary life; for I take it that you are in earnest in saying so,
believing that you love Art with too genuine affection to trifle with her
by bringing to her service, through mere politeness, an unworthy worker."*
* `Letters', passim.
Hayne was impressed with Lanier's intimate knowledge of Elizabethan
and older English literature, as displayed in his letters of this period.
He says: --
"He had steeped his imagination from boyhood in the writings of the earlier
English annalists and poets, -- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory,
Gower, Chaucer, and the whole bead-roll of such ancient English worthies.
I was of course a little surprised during our earlier epistolary communion
to perceive, not only his unusually thorough knowledge of Chaucer,
for example, whose couplets flowed as trippingly from his pen
as if `The Canterbury Tales' and `The Romaunt of the Rose'
were his daily mental food, but to find him quoting as naturally and easily
from `Piers Plowman' and scores of the half-obsolete ballads
of the English and Scottish borders.
"He gloried in antiquarian lore and antiquarian literature.
Hardly `Old Monkbarns' himself could have pored over a black-letter volume
with greater enthusiasm. Especially he loved the tales of chivalry,
and thus, when the opportunity came, was fully equipped
as an interpreter of Froissart and `King Arthur' for the benefit of
our younger generation of students. With the great Elizabethans
Lanier was equally familiar. Instead of skimming Shakespeare,
he went down into his depths. Few have written so subtly
of Shakespeare's mysterious sonnets. Through all Lanier's productions
we trace the influence of his early literary loves; but nowhere do
the pithy quaintnesses of the old bards and chroniclers display themselves
more effectively -- not only in the illustrations, but through
the innermost warp and woof of the texture of his ideas and his style --
than in some of his familiar epistles."*
* `Letters', p. 220.
That Lanier kept in touch, too, with contemporary literature
is shown by an acute criticism of Browning's "The Ring and the Book",
then recently published: "Have you seen Browning's `The Ring and the Book'?
I am confident that, at the birth of this man, among all the good fairies
who showered him with magnificent endowments, one bad one
-- as in the old tale -- crept in by stealth and gave him
a constitutional twist i' the neck, whereby his windpipe became,
and has ever since remained, a marvelous tortuous passage.
Out of this glottis-labyrinth his words won't, and can't, come straight.
A hitch and a sharp crook in every sentence bring you up with a shock.
But what a shock it is! Did you ever see a picture of a lasso,
in the act of being flung? In a thousand coils and turns,
inextricably crooked and involved and whirled, yet, if you mark the noose
at the end, you see that it is directly in front of the bison's head, there,
and is bound to catch him! That is the way Robert Browning catches you.
The first sixty or seventy pages of `The Ring and the Book'
are altogether the most doleful reading, in point either of idea or of music,
in the English language; and yet the monologue of Giuseppe Caponsacchi,
that of Pompilia Comparini, and the two of Guido Franceschini,
are unapproachable, in their kind, by any living or dead poet, `me judice'.
Here Browning's jerkiness comes in with inevitable effect.
You get lightning glimpses -- and, as one naturally expects from lightning,
zigzag glimpses -- into the intense night of the passion of these souls.
It is entirely wonderful and without precedent. The fitful play
of Guido's lust, and scorn, and hate, and cowardice, closes with
a master stroke: --
"Christ! Maria! God! . . .
POMPILIA, WILL YOU LET THEM MURDER ME?
"Pompilia, mark you, is dead, by Guido's own hand; deliberately stabbed,
because he hated her purity, which all along he has reviled and mocked
with the Devil's own malignant ingenuity of sarcasm."*
* `Letters', p. 206; letter to Hayne, April 13, 1870.
On account of ill health Lanier frequently had to leave Macon and go to places
better suited to his physical temperament. At Brunswick, Georgia,
-- the scene of the Marsh poems, -- at Alleghany Springs in Virginia,
and at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, he spent successive summers.
In all of these places he reveled in the beauty and grandeur of the scenery.
His letters written to his wife and his father during his absences from Macon
are evidence that he was at this time developing steadily
in that subtle appreciation of nature which was afterwards to play
such an important part in his poetry. In fact, the letters themselves,
when published, as they will be some time, show artistic growth
when compared with the writings already noted. He was all his life
a prolific letter-writer -- and a great one. Writing from Alleghany Springs,
July 12, 1872, he says to his wife: --
"How necessary is it that one should occasionally place oneself
in the midst of those more striking forms of nature in which God has indulged
His fantasy! It is very true that the flat land, the bare hillside,
the muddy stream comes also directly from the creative hand:
but these do not bring one into the sweetness of the heartier moods of God;
in the midst of them it is as if one were transacting the business of life
with God: whereas, when one has but to lift one's eyes in order to receive
the exquisite shocks of thrilling form and color and motion
that leap invisibly from mountain and groves and stream,
then one feels as if one had surprised the Father in his tender, sportive,
and loving moments.
"To the soul then, weak with the long flesh fight and filled with
a sluggish languor by those wearisome disappointments
which arise from the constant contemplation of men's weaknesses,
and from the constant back-thrusting of one's consciousness of impotence
to strengthen them -- thou, with thy nimble fancy, canst imagine
what ethereal and yet indestructible essences of new dignity, of new strength,
of new patience, of new serenity, of new hope, new faith, and new love,
do continually flash out of the gorges, the mountains, and the streams,
into the heart, and charge it, as the lightnings charge the earth,
with subtle and heavenly fires.
"A bewildering sorcery seems to spread itself over even those things which
are commonplace. The songs and cries of birds acquire a strange sound to me:
I cannot understand the little spontaneous tongues, the quivering throats,
the open beaks, the small bright eyes that gleam with unknown emotion,
the nimble capricious heads that twist this way and that
with such bizarre unreasonableness.
"Nor do I fathom this long unceasing monotone of the little shallow river
that sings yonder over the rocks in its bosom as a mother crooning
over her children; it is but one word the stream utters:
but as when we speak a well-known word over and over again until it comes
to have a frightful mystery in it, so this familiar stream-sound fills me
with indescribable wonder.
"Nor do I comprehend the eloquence of the mountains which comes
in a strange `patois' of two tongues; for the mountains speak at once
the languages of repose and of convulsion, two languages which
have naught in common.
"Wondering therefore, from day to night, with a good wonder
which directs attention not to one's ignorance but to God's wisdom,
stricken, but not exhausted, by continual tranquil surprises;
surrounded by a world of enchantments which, so far from being elusive,
are the most substantial of realties, -- thou knowest that nature
is kind to me."
He went to New York in 1869, 1870, and 1871, now on business
and now to consult medical experts. In May, 1869, we find him
trying to make the sale of some property on which iron was supposed to be.
He writes his father that he has been down on Wall Street all day.
There is -- now as compared with his 1867 visit -- a certain fascination
for him in the intense spirit of hurry which displays itself on every side.
He finds himself in competition with many Southerners who were
at that time projecting similar enterprises. He is also visiting
the clients of Lanier and Anderson, and is anxious to extend the firm's name.
He is given much social attention, -- "teas, dinners, calls,
visits, business" consume his time. He visits the superb villa of his cousin
on the Hudson near Poughkeepsie. He writes, on May 15,
that he is beginning "to feel entirely unflurried in the crowd
and to go about business deliberately." He is in New York again in 1871,
when the Tweed ring is being exposed, and he cannot but compare
the situation there with the reconstruction government that prevails
in his own State. "Somehow this isn't a good day for thieves," he says.
"Wouldn't it be a curious and refreshing phenomenon if Tweed, Hall,
Bullock,* and that ilk should all continue in the service of the State --
only changing the scene of their labors from the office to the penitentiary?"
* Governor of Georgia during reconstruction days.
Most of all, however, Lanier was interested in the music which he heard
on these trips to the metropolis. He had kept up his flute-playing
while busy with his law work, frequently playing at charity concerts
in Macon and other cities of Georgia. In New York he reveled
in the singing of Nilsson, in religious music at St. Paul's Church,
but above all in Theodore Thomas's orchestra, then just beginning
its triumphant career. He writes, August 15, 1870:
"Ah, how they have belied Wagner! I heard Theodore Thomas's orchestra
play his overture to `Tannhaeuser'. The `Music of the Future' is surely
thy music and my music. Each harmony was a chorus of pure aspirations.
The sequences flowed along, one after another, as if all the great and noble
deeds of time had formed a procession and marched in review
before one's EARS instead of one's EYES. These `great and noble deeds'
were not deeds of war and statesmanship, but majestic victories
of inner struggles of a man. This unbroken march of beautiful-bodied Triumphs
irresistibly invites the soul of a man to create other processions like it.
I would I might lead a so magnificent file of glories into heaven!"*
* `Letters', p. 68.
And again, in 1871: "And to-night I come out of what might
have been heaven. . . .
"'T was opening night of Theodore Thomas's orchestra, at Central Park Garden,
and I could not resist the temptation to go and bathe
in the sweet amber seas of the music of this fine orchestra, and so I went,
and tugged me through a vast crowd, and, after standing some while,
found a seat, and the baton tapped and waved, and I plunged into the sea,
and lay and floated. Ah! the dear flutes and oboes and horns
drifted me hither and thither, and the great violins and small violins
swayed me upon waves, and overflowed me with strong lavations,
and sprinkled glistening foam in my face, and in among the clarinetti,
as among waving water-lilies with flexile stems, I pushed my easy way,
and so, even lying in the music-waters, I floated and flowed,
my soul utterly bent and prostrate."*
* `Letters', p. 70.
In November, 1872, Lanier went to San Antonio in quest of health.
In letters to his father giving an account of his trip
from New Orleans to Galveston and thence to Austin, he shows keen insight
into the life of that State. He sketches many types of character and scenes
-- sketches that show at once his knowledge of human nature and his ability
as a reporter. It may be said here that Lanier always took an interest
in the passing show, -- he was not a detached dreamer.
He arrived at San Antonio in November. On account of his ill health
he could write but few letters, although he is "fairly reeking
with all manner of quips and quiddities which I yearn to spread
for the delectation of such a partial set of people as a home set always is."
He writes to his sister: "To-day has been as lovely as any day can hope to be
this side of Millennium; and I have been out strolling morning and afternoon,
far and wide, ever tempted onward by the delicious buoyant balm in the air
and pleasantly surprised in finding what a distance I could accomplish
without over fatigue." He rode horseback a great deal -- a form of exercise
he was especially fond of all his life.
In a letter to his father he refers to some work he is doing
in the library: "I have also managed to advance very largely
my conceptions of the Jacquerie through a history which I secured from
the Library of the Alamo Literary Society, -- a flourishing institution here
which is now building a hall to cost some thirteen thousand dollars,
and of which I have become a literary member." He has been reading
Michelet's "History of France" which "gives him the essence of an old book
which he had despaired of ever seeing, but which is the only authority extant,
-- save Froissart and a few others equally unreliable;
it is the chronicle of the `Continuator of Guillaume de Nangis'."
With Olmsted's book of travels as a model, he planned a series of articles
for a New York paper.
The only result, however, from these plans was a picturesque sketch
of San Antonio,* afterwards published in the "Southern Magazine".
This sketch is at once a history of San Antonio and a description
of the scenery and the people of that quaint city. "Over all
the round of aspects in which a thoughtful mind may view a city,"
he says in a typical passage, "it bristles with striking idiosyncrasies
and bizarre contrasts. Its history, population, climate, location,
architecture, soil, water, customs, costumes, horses, cattle,
all attract the stranger's attention, either by force of intrinsic singularity
or of odd juxtapositions. It was a puling infant for a century and a quarter,
yet has grown to a pretty vigorous youth in a quarter of a century;
its inhabitants are so varied that the `go slow' directions over its bridges
are printed in three languages, and the religious services in its churches
held in four; the thermometer, the barometer, the vane,
the hygrometer, oscillate so rapidly, so frequently, so lawlessly,
and through so wide a meteorological range, that the climate
is simply indescribable, yet it is a growing resort for consumptives;
it stands with all its gay prosperity just in the edge of a lonesome,
untilled belt of land one hundred and fifty miles wide,
like Mardi Gras on the austere brink of Lent; it has no Sunday laws,
and that day finds its bar-rooms and billiard-saloons
as freely open and as fully attended as its churches;
its buildings, ranging from the Mexican `jacal' to the San Fernando Cathedral,
represent all the progressive stages of man's architectural progress
in edifices of mud, of wood, of stone, of iron, and of sundry combinations
of those materials; its soil is in wet weather an inky-black cement,
but in dry a floury-white powder; it is built along both banks
of two limpid streams, yet it drinks rain water collected in cisterns;
its horses and mules are from Lilliput, while its oxen are from Brobdingnag."
In the same vivid style he sketches the various characteristics of the city
and its people. His account of a Texas "norther", his descriptions
of the San Fernando Cathedral and of the Mission San Jose de Aquayo
are especially good.
* `Retrospects and Prospects', p. 34.
It was on this visit to San Antonio that Lanier resolved finally
to devote himself to an artist's career. He came in contact with
some of the German musicians of the city and played before the Maennerchor,
which received his flute-playing with enthusiastic applause.
San Antonio, Tex., January 30, 1873.
Last night at eight o'clock came Mr. Scheidemantel,
a genuine lover of music and a fine pianist, to take me to the Maennerchor,
which meets every Wednesday night for practice. Quickly we came to a hall,
one end of which was occupied by a minute stage with appurtenances,
and a piano; and in the middle thereof a long table, at which
each singer sat down as he came in. Presently, seventeen Germans
were seated at the singing-table, long-necked bottles of Rhine-wine
were opened and tasted, great pipes and cigars were all afire; the leader,
Herr Thielepape, -- an old man with long, white beard and mustache,
formerly mayor of the city, -- rapped his tuning-fork vigorously,
gave the chords by rapid arpeggios of his voice (a wonderful, wild,
high tenor, such as thou wouldst dream that the old Welsh harpers had,
wherewith to sing songs that would cut against the fierce sea-blasts),
and off they all swung into such a noble, noble old German full-voiced `lied',
that imperious tears rushed into my eyes, and I could scarce restrain myself
from running and kissing each one in turn and from howling dolefully
the while. And so . . . I all the time worshiping . . . with these
great chords . . . we drove through the evening until twelve o'clock,
absorbing enormous quantities of Rhine-wine and beer, whereof I imbibed
my full share. After the second song I was called on to play,
and lifted my poor old flute in air with tumultuous, beating heart;
for I had no confidence in that or in myself. But, `du Himmel!'
Thou shouldst have heard mine old love warble herself forth.
To my utter astonishment, I was perfect master of the instrument.
Is not this most strange? Thou knowest I had never learned it;
and thou rememberest what a poor muddle I made at Marietta
in playing difficult passages; and I certainly have not practiced;
and yet there I commanded and the blessed notes obeyed me,
and when I had finished, amid a storm of applause, Herr Thielepape arose
and ran to me and grasped my hand, and declared that he hat never heert
de flude accompany itself pefore! I played once more during the evening,
and ended with even more rapturous bravos than before,
Mr. Scheidemantel grasping my hand this time, and thanking me very earnestly.
My heart, which was hurt greatly when I went into the music-room,
came forth from the holy bath of concords greatly refreshed,
strengthened, and quieted, and so remaineth to-day. I also feel better
than in a long time before.*
* `Letters', p. 71.
Again he played for "an elegant-looking company of ladies and gentlemen"
in a private home. "I had not played three seconds," he says,
"before a profound silence reigned among the people, seeing which,
and dreaming wildly, and feeling somehow in an eerie and elfish,
and half-uncanny mood, I flew off into all manner of trills, and laments,
and cadenza-monstrosities for a long time, but finally floated down
into `La Melancolie', which melted itself forth with such eloquent lamenting
that it almost brought my tears -- and, to make a long story short,
when I allowed the last note to die, a simultaneous cry of pleasure
broke forth from men and women that almost amounted to a shout."*
Two weeks later he wrote: "I have writ the most beautiful piece,
`Field-larks and Blackbirds', wherein I have mirrored
Mr. Field-lark's pretty eloquence so that I doubt he would know the difference
betwixt the flute and his own voice."**
* `Letters', p. 73.
** `Letters', p. 47.
Inspired by the sympathy of people in whose judgment he had confidence,
and impelled by his own genius asserting itself, and realizing that
his hold upon life was but slight, he went from San Antonio in April, 1873,
with the fixed purpose to give the remainder of his life to music and poetry.
The resolution is all the more significant when it is remembered
that the year 1873 was one of financial distress, especially in the South.
"It was then," says Joel Chandler Harris, "that the effects of war and waste
were fully felt, and then that the stoutest heart was tried,
labor was restless and hard to control, the planter was out of funds
and interest was high, . . . the farmers were almost
at the point of desperation."
The formation of this resolution to devote himself to artistic work
marks an epoch in Lanier's life so important as to call for further comment.
For twelve years he had been deflected out of his true orbit.
For seven years he had given his time and talent to pursuits
which he did not cherish -- writing only now and then with his left hand.
Everything had been against him. To preserve unspotted the ideal of his youth
-- through all the changes and struggles of these years --
and now to give himself to it meant heroism of a rare type.
It meant that he must seem disobedient to a father with whom his relation
had been peculiarly intimate, that he would go in the face of the opinion
of friends and relatives, and that he must for a while at least
leave behind his family, whom he loved with an unparalleled affection.
He was to enter upon a career the future of which was not certain.
In spite of all these obstacles, he deliberately made up his mind
to give the remainder of his life to the work that he loved.
Once again, after he had settled down in Baltimore, his father made
a determined effort to induce him to change his mind, but to no avail.
Lanier's answer to his father's letter, written November 29, 1873,
is really his declaration of independence -- the vow of consecration: --
"I have given your last letter the fullest and most careful consideration.
After doing so I feel sure that Macon is not the place for me.
If you could taste the delicious crystalline air, and the champagne breeze
that I've just been rushing about in, I am equally sure
that in point of climate you would agree with me that my chance for life
is ten times as great here as in Macon. Then, as to business, why should I,
nay, how CAN I, settle myself down to be a third-rate struggling lawyer
for the balance of my little life, as long as there is a certainty
almost absolute that I can do some other thing so much better?
Several persons, from whose judgment in such matters there can be no appeal,
have told me, for instance, that I am the greatest flute-player in the world;
and several others, of equally authoritative judgment,
have given me an almost equal encouragement to work with my pen.
(Of course I protest against the necessity which makes me write such things
about myself. I only do so because I so appreciate the love and tenderness
which prompt you to desire me with you that I will make
the fullest explanation possible of my course, out of reciprocal
honor and respect for the motives which lead you to think
differently from me.) My dear father, think how, for twenty years,
through poverty, through pain, through weariness, through sickness,
through the uncongenial atmosphere of a farcical college and of a bare army
and then of an exacting business life, through all the discouragement
of being wholly unacquainted with literary people and literary ways, --
I say, think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances,
and of a thousand more which I could enumerate, these two figures
of music and of poetry have steadily kept in my heart
so that I could not banish them. Does it not seem to you as to me,
that I begin to have the right to enroll myself among the devotees
of these two sublime arts, after having followed them so long and so humbly,
and through so much bitterness?"*
* Quoted by William Hayes Ward in his Introduction to Lanier's `Poems'.
The letter just quoted needs to be read with caution. It sets
in too sharp antagonism his life up to this point and that of his later years.
Previous chapters of this book have been written in vain if they have not
revealed the fact that Lanier was a much more highly developed man
when he left Georgia than the letter would indicate. He wrote it
in the first flush of enthusiasm at finding himself among artists.
But it is misleading. For instance, he speaks of the "farcical college";
yet in his last days, when he saw his life in its proper perspective,
he said that he owed to Dr. Woodrow the strongest and most valuable stimulus
of his early life. He was not a raw provincial; he had traveled extensively,
had been associated with people of culture, if not of letters,
and he had read widely and wisely. His inheritance from Southern people,
-- their temperament and their civilization, -- and his indebtedness
to Southern scenery will be the more apparent in later chapters of this book.
All the while his genius had been steadily growing. When the time came
he was a prepared man -- ready to seize with avidity every opportunity
that presented itself.
Furthermore, the very struggle he had to maintain his ideal,
and it will not do to minimize this struggle, had strengthened
and enlarged his soul. One may as well lament Milton's absorption
in the conflicts of his country as Lanier's participation
in the war and in the stirring events of reconstruction.
After the fortitude and endurance manifested in this period of his life,
his later sufferings were the more easily borne. One of his favorite theories
was that antagonism or opposition either in art or morals is to be welcomed,
for out of it comes a finer art and a larger manhood. He developed
somewhat at length this theory in his admirable study of Shakespeare's growth.
In a passage evidently autobiographical he traces Shakespeare's progress
in the three periods of his life, the Dream Period, the Real or Hamlet Period,
and the Ideal Period. Lanier, too, passed through his Dream Period, --
the college days and the early years of the war. He passed through
his Hamlet Period -- the years from 1865 to 1873 -- years in which he felt
the shock of the real, the twist and cross of life. There had been
suffering from poverty, drudgery, and disease; there had been also
something of the storm and stress of religious and philosophic doubt.
With the beginning of his artistic life he passes into his Ideal Period,
when by reason of the terrific shock of the real he was able to realize
"a new and immortally fine reconstruction of his youth." He was to know
what suffering meant in the future; but the serenity and joy of his life
from this point are apparent to all who may study it.
Of fret, of dark, of thorn, of chill,
Complain no more; for these, O heart,
Direct the random of the will
As rhymes direct the rage of art.
Chapter VI. A Musician in Baltimore
With his purpose firmly fixed in his mind he started for New York,
which was then fast becoming the musical and literary centre of the country.
For three months and more he gave himself unstintedly to the work
of perfecting himself in playing the flute, and attended regularly
the great concerts then being given by Theodore Thomas.
It was an opportune time. The day of the Italian opera,
for which Lanier did not care, was past, and orchestral music
was beginning its triumphant career in this country. These were months, then,
of education in the very music for which Lanier had yearned.
He at once attracted musical critics and made a stir
in some of the churches and concert-rooms of the city.
He had brought along with him two of his own compositions,
"Swamp Robin" and "Blackbirds"; and there were some who did not hesitate
to prophesy a brilliant career for him as "the greatest flute-player
in the world." Lanier did not rely on inspiration, however,
nor was he satisfied with the applause of popular audiences;
he knew that his course must be one of "straightforward behavior
and hard work and steady improvement." He would be satisfied
only with the judgment of Thomas or Dr. Leopold Damrosch,
then conductor of the Philharmonic Society.
On his way to New York he had stopped at Baltimore, and on the advice
of his friend Henry Wysham had played for Asger Hamerik,
who was at that time making efforts to have the Peabody Institute
establish an orchestra. Hamerik was so attracted by Lanier's playing,
both of masterpieces and of his own compositions, that he invited him
to become first flute in the prospective orchestra. With even
this promise in view, Lanier had written to his wife: "It is therefore
a POSSIBILITY . . . that I may be first flute in the Peabody Orchestra,
on a salary of $120 a month, which, with five flute scholars,
would grow to $200 a month, and so . . . we might dwell in the beautiful city,
among the great libraries, and midst of the music, the religion,
and the art that we love -- and I could write my books and be the man
I wish to be."* Hamerik did succeed in getting the orchestra established
and Lanier accepted the position -- for far less money, however.
Lanier settled in Baltimore, in December, and at once attracted the attention
of the patrons of the orchestra. In the Baltimore "Sun" of December 8, 1873,
his playing was mentioned as one of the features of the opening
symphony concert. In the same paper of January 25 occurs this note:
"Lanier and Stubbs could not have acquitted themselves better,
nor done more justice to their very difficult parts."
And so throughout the winter there is contemporary evidence
that this "raw provincial, without practice and guiltless of instruction,"
was holding his own with the finely trained Germans and Danes
of Hamerik's Orchestra.
* `Letters', p. 75.
The fact is, Lanier was a musical genius. In playing the flute
he combined deftness of hand and quick intuitiveness of soul.
The director of the Peabody Orchestra, who had been a pupil of Von Buelow,
and was a composer of distinction, has left the most authoritative account
of Lanier as a performer: --
"To him as a child in his cradle Music was given, the heavenly gift
to feel and to express himself in tones. His human nature
was like an enchanted instrument, a magic flute, or the lyre of Apollo,
needing but a breath or a touch to send its beauty out into the world.
It was indeed irresistible that he should turn with those poetical feelings
which transcend language to the penetrating gentleness of the flute,
or the infinite passion of the violin; for there was an agreement,
a spiritual correspondence between his nature and theirs,
so that they mutually absorbed and expressed each other.
In his hands the flute no longer remained a mere material instrument,
but was transformed into a voice that set heavenly harmonies into vibration.
Its tones developed colors, warmth, and a low sweetness of unspeakable poetry;
they were not only true and pure, but poetic, allegoric as it were,
suggestive of the depths and heights of being and of the delights
which the earthly ear never hears and the earthly eye never sees. No doubt
his firm faith in these lofty idealities gave him the power to present them
to our imaginations, and thus by the aid of the higher language of Music
to inspire others with that sense of beauty in which he constantly dwelt.
His conception of music was not reached by an analytic study of note by note,
but was intuitive and spontaneous; like a woman's reason:
he felt it so, because he felt it so, and his delicate perception
required no more logical form of reasoning. His playing appealed alike
to the musically learned and to the unlearned -- for he would
magnetize the listener; but the artist felt in his performance
the superiority of the momentary living inspiration
to all the rules and shifts of mere technical scholarship.
His art was not only the art of art, but an art above art.
I will never forget the impression he made on me when he played
the flute concerta of Emil Hartmann at a Peabody symphony concert, in 1878, --
his tall, handsome, manly presence, his flute breathing noble sorrows,
noble joys, the orchestra softly responding. The audience was spellbound.
Such distinction, such refinement! He stood, the master, the genius!"*
* Quoted in Ward's Introduction to `Poems'.
He made the same impression on every other artist he ever played for.
Badger called his flute-playing "astonishing"; Wehner, the first flute
in Thomas's Orchestra, sought every opportunity to play with him.
Theodore Thomas planned to have him in his orchestra at the time
when Lanier's health failed in 1876; Dr. Damrosch said he played "Wind-Song"
like an artist, -- that "he was greatly astonished and pleased
with the poetry of the piece and the enthusiasm of its rendering."
His own compositions, too, appealed to men. At times the "fury of creation"
was upon him. During the first winter in Baltimore he wrote a midge dance,
the origin of which he thus gives in a letter to his wife:
"I am copying off -- in order to try the publishers therewith --
a `Danse des Moucherons' (midge dance), which I have written
for flute and piano, and which I think enough of to let go forward as Op. 1.
Dost thou remember one morning last summer, Charley and I were walking
in the upper part of the yard, before breakfast, and saw a swarm of gnats,
of whose strange evolutions we did relate to thee a marvelous tale?
I have put the grave oaks, the quiet shade, the sudden sunlight,
the fantastic, contrariwise, and ever-shifting midge movements,
the sweet hills afar off, . . . all in the piece, and thus -I- like it;
but I know not if others will, I have not played it for anybody."*
* `Letters', p. 98.
During this winter and the succeeding one Lanier gave
almost his entire time to music. He practiced assiduously,
took every opportunity to play with the best musicians,
-- both those of his own orchestra and of Theodore Thomas's, -- and often
spent evenings with three or four of the choicest spirits he could command.
Hamerik was of special inspiration to him, bringing to him as he did
much of the spirit of music that prevailed in German cities.
Lanier studied the technique of the flute, mastering his new silver Boehm,
which "begins to feel me," he writes. "How much I have learned
in the last two months!" he exclaims. "I am not yet an artist, though,
on the flute. The technique of the instrument has many depths
which I had not thought of before, and I would not call myself a virtuoso
within a year." He suffers agony because he does not attain
a point in harmony which the audience did not notice. Writing of
the temptation of flute soloists, he once said: "They have rarely been able
to resist the fatal facility of the instrument, and have usually
addressed themselves to winning the applause of concert audiences
by the execution of those brilliant but utterly trifling and inane variations
which constitute the great body of existing solos for the flute."*
He fretted because "the flute had been the black beast in the orchestra."
With his mastery of its technique and his own marvelous ability
to bring new results from it, he looked forward to the time
when it would have a far more important place therein.
* `Music and Poetry', p. 38.
Lanier played not only for the Peabody Orchestra, but for
the Germania Maennerchor Orchestra, -- one of the many companies of Germans
who did so much to develop music in different parts of the country, --
the Concordia Theatre, charity concerts, churches, and in private homes.
He was very popular in Baltimore. Most of the musicians were Germans,
but Lanier was an American and a Southerner, who had graces of manner
and goodness of soul. He was a close friend of the Baltimore musicians,
such as Madame Falk-Auerbach, a pupil of Rossini's and a teacher
in the Conservatory of Music, "a woman who plays Beethoven
with the large conception of a man, and yet nurses her children all day
with a noble simplicity of devotion such as I have rarely seen,"
said Lanier. Outside of musical circles he had access
to the homes of the most prominent people of Baltimore,
in which he frequently played the flute or piano, while members of the family
accompanied him. "Memory pictures," says one of his admirers,
"that frail, slender figure at the piano, touching with white, shapely hands
the chords of Chopin's `Nocturne'." "He was a frequent visitor to our house,"
says another, "and would often play for us on his beautiful silver flute.
The image of him standing in his rapt passion, while he poured forth
the entrancing sound, I remember most distinctly."
And while he grew in his mastery of the flute he grew, too, in discriminating
study of the orchestra. His first interpretations of orchestral music
are rather impulsive -- he goes off into raptures without restraint,
even when the occasion is not really of the highest sort.
It is altogether unfair to him to confuse his earlier with his later letters.
As in every other respect, Lanier was growing in intellectual power.
"I am beginning," he writes, "in the midst of the stormy glories
of the orchestra, to feel my heart sure, and my soul discriminating.
Not less do I thrill to ride upon the great surges; but I am growing
calm enough to see the star that should light the musician, and presently
my hand will be firm enough to hold the helm and guide the ship that way.
NOW I am very quiet; I am waiting."* And again, after he has heard
Thomas's Orchestra; "I can preserve my internal dignity in great measure,
free from the dreadful distractions of solicitude, and thus my soul revels
in the midst of the heaven of these great symphonic works
with almost unobstructed freedom."**
* `Letters', p. 91.
** `Letters', p. 110.
One of the plans proposed by Lanier for helping people to understand better
the meaning of orchestral music should be mentioned in this connection.
He was always anxious to take every one with him into his kingdom of beauty.
He proposed that, for people living in cities of from three
to twenty thousand inhabitants, there should be organized "a Nonette Club,
consisting of himself for flute, oboe, clarionet, bassoon, and French horn,
and a string quartette. This club would travel through the smaller cities,
performing original compositions as well as excerpts from
the greatest symphonic orchestral works, and thus educating the masses
to an understanding of orchestral tonal color, and the relations,
in an analytical form, which the wood wind instruments
bore to the stringed family. . . . It was his purpose,
after each movement of a composition, to lecture on the same,
with special reference to the function performed by each instrument,
and in the formation of harmonious tonal color."*
* Letter from Mr. F. H. Gottlieb to the author.
While Lanier was giving his time to the perfection of his flute-playing and to
the study of the orchestra, he became interested in the science of music.
Helmholtz's recent discoveries in acoustics inspired him to make research
in that direction. He ransacked the Peabody Library for books on the subject,
many of them yet not unpacked.
While few people ever appreciated more the art of music and its spiritual
message to men, he realized that there was a science of music as well,
"embodying a great number of classified facts, and presenting a great number
of scientific laws which are as thoroughly recognized among musicians
as are the laws of any other sciences among their professors.
There is a science of harmony, a science of composition,
a science of orchestration, a science of performance
upon stringed instruments, a science of performance upon wind instruments,
a science of vocalization; not a branch of the art of music
but has its own analogous body of classified facts and general laws.
Music is so much a science that a man may be a thorough musician
who has never written a tune and who cannot play upon any instrument."*
Some of these investigations he afterwards used to good effect
in his "Science of English Verse".
* `Music and Poetry', p. 50.
Furthermore, Lanier became interested in the history of music.
In his valuable monograph on "Music in Shakespeare's Time"*
he shows a minute knowledge of Elizabethan music, -- madrigals, dances,
catches, and other forms of instrumental and vocal music.
He took great delight in following out through Shakespeare's plays
the dramatist's knowledge and appreciation of the art of music.
Indeed, all the people of that time were "enthusiastic lovers of the art.
There were professorships of music in the universities,
and multitudes of teachers of it among the people. The monarch, the lord,
the gentleman, the merchant, the artisan, the rustic clown,
all ranks and conditions of society, from highest to lowest,
cultivated the practice of singing or of playing upon
some of the numerous instruments of the time." For the class
to which he was then lecturing in the Peabody Institute
he was able to point out and illustrate various forms of music
and to give biographical sketches of the English musicians
of Shakespeare's age.
* `Shakspere and His Forerunners', vol. ii, p. 1.
Lanier was most of all interested, however, in the development
of modern music, and especially in orchestral music. He underrated
some of the classical composers, notably Mozart. He was familiar
with the biographies of Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, and Wagner.
He left behind a translation of Wagner's "Rheingold".
His poems on Beethoven and Wagner indicate his appreciation of their music,
while his essays "From Bacon to Beethoven" and "The Modern Orchestra"
show minute knowledge of their work and of the significance of the orchestra
in modern life. A better description of Theodore Thomas
as the leader of an orchestra has not been written than Lanier's: --
"To see Thomas lead . . . is music itself! His baton is alive,
full of grace, of symmetry; he maketh no gestures, he readeth his score
almost without looking at it, he seeth everybody, heareth everything,
warneth every man, encourageth every instrument, quietly, firmly, marvelously.
Not the slightest shade of nonsense, not the faintest spark of affectation,
not the minutest grain of EFFECT is in him. He taketh the orchestra
in his hand as if it were a pen, -- and writeth with it."*
* `Letters', p. 92.
If Lanier had been only a successful virtuoso with the flute,
the tradition of his playing would have lingered in the minds
of at least two generations. Through the reminiscences of college mates,
of soldiers and of frequenters of the Peabody concerts,
the memory of this genius with the flute would have remained
like that of some troubadour of the Middle Ages. It is unfortunate
that he left no compositions to indicate a musical power
sufficient to give him a place in the history of American music.
It cannot be controverted, however, that he is the one man of letters
in America who has had an adequate appreciation of the value of music
in the culture of the modern world. To him music was a culture study
as much as the study of literature. It was an education to him
to hear the adequate representation of modern orchestral works.
Hamerik's plan of giving separate nights to the music of various nationalities
was calculated to emphasize this phase of musical culture.
To Lanier, who had never traveled abroad and who did not have time
to read the literatures of foreign nations, such musical programmes
had the effect of enabling him to divine the places and the life
from which the music had come. "I am just come from Venice," he says,
"and have strolled home through the moonlight, singing serenades. . . .
I have been playing `Stradella' and I am full of gondellieds, of serenades,
of balconies with white arms leaning over the balustrades thereof,
of gleaming waters, of lithe figures in black velvet,
of stinging sweet coquetries, of diamonds, daggers, and desperadoes. . . .
I cannot tell the intense delight which these lovely conceptions of Flotow
gave me. The man has put Venice, lovely, romantic, wicked-sweet Venice,
into music, and the melodies breathe out an eloquence that is at once
sentimental and powerful, at once languid and thrilling."*
* `Letters', p. 98.
A description of the "Hunt of Henry IV" shows how Lanier
associated nature, music, and poetry with each other. He was
an ardent advocate of "programme-music". He saw music as he heard poetry.
He felt the musical effects in poetry and the poetical effects in music:
"Then, the `Hunt of Henry IV'! . . . It openeth with
a grave and courteous invitation, as of a cavalier riding by some dainty lady,
through the green aisles of the deep woods, to the hunt, --
a lovely, romantic melody, the first violins discoursing the man's words,
the first flute replying for the lady. Presently a fanfare; a sweet horn
replies out of the far woods; then the meeting of the gay cavaliers;
then the start, the dogs are unleashed, one hound gives tongue,
another joins, the stag is seen -- hey, gentlemen! away they all fly
through the sweet leaves, by the great oaks and beeches,
all a-dash among the brambles, till presently, bang! goeth a pistol
(it was my veritable old revolver loaded with blank cartridge
for the occasion, the revolver that hath lain so many nights under my head),
fired by `Tympani' (as we call him, the same being a nervous little Frenchman
who playeth our drums), and then the stag dieth in a celestial concord
of flutes, oboes, and violins. Oh, how far off my soul was
in this thrilling moment! It was in a rare, sweet glen in Tennessee;
the sun was rising over a wilderness of mountains, I was standing
(how well I remember the spot!) alone in the dewy grass,
wild with rapture and with expectation. Yonder came, gracefully walking,
a lovely fawn. I looked into its liquid eyes, hesitated, prayed,
gulped a sigh, then overcame with the savage hunter's instinct, fired;
the fawn leaped convulsively a few yards, I ran to it, found it lying
on its side, and received into my agonized and remorseful heart
the reproaches of its most tender, dying gaze. But luckily
I had not the right to linger over this sad scene; the conductor's baton
shook away the dying pause; on all sides shouts and fanfares and gallopings
`to the death', to which the first flute had to reply in time,
recalled me to my work, and I came through brilliantly."*
* `Letters', p. 85.
Because of its culture value, Lanier believed that music should have its place
in every college and university. As far back as 1867 -- in "Tiger Lilies" --
he had advocated the appointment of professors of music in American colleges
of equal dignity with other specialists. He himself hoped that he might
be appointed to such a chair, first in the College of Music in New York
and later in Johns Hopkins University. It is easy to conceive
that he might have become an expert teacher in the science of music,
but it is more probable that if he had held a chair in an academic institution
he would have forwarded the work that has now become
a distinct feature of all the larger universities. He would have made
an excellent "literary" teacher of music, interesting men
in the biographies of great musicians, and interpreting for them
the mysteries of orchestra and opera. He conceived of music
as one of the humanities, and would have agreed with President Eliot
that "music is a culture study, if there is one in the world."
In his life it took the place that travel and many literatures held
in the lives of Longfellow and Lowell. He believed with Theodore Thomas
that Beethoven's music is "something more than mere pleasure;
it is education, thought, emotion, love, and hope."
Furthermore, Lanier believed in the religious value of music;
it was a "gospel whereof the people are in great need, --
a later revelation of all gospels in one." "Music," he says,
"is to be the Church of the future, wherein all creeds will unite
like the tones in a chord." He was one of "those fervent souls
who fare easily by this road to the Lord." Haydn's inscription, "Laus Deo",
was in Lanier's mind whenever he listened to great music;
for it tended to "help the emotions of man across the immensity of the known
into the boundaries of the Unknown." He would have composers
to be ministers of religion. He could not understand
the indifference of some leaders of orchestras, who could be satisfied
with appealing to the aesthetic emotions of an audience,
while they might "set the hearts of fifteen hundred people afire."
The final meaning of music to him was that it created within man
"a great, pure, unanalyzable yearning after God."
Holding this exalted view of music, he believed that its future was immense
and that in America its triumphs were to be greater than
they had been elsewhere. At a time when musical culture was rare
in this country, he looked forward with hope and expectation to the time
when America would become a patron of the best music. "When Americans,"
he said, "shall have learned the supreme value and glory of the orchestra,
. . . then I look to see America the home of the orchestra,
and to hear everywhere the profound messages of Beethoven and Bach to men."
And again: "All the signs of the times seem to point to this country as
the scene of the future development of music. . . . It only needs direction,
artistic atmosphere, and technique in order to fill the land
with such orchestras as the world has never heard. When our so-called
conservatories and music schools, instead of straining every nerve
to outdo each other in turning out hosts of bad piano-players,
shall address themselves earnestly to the education of performers
upon all the orchestral instruments; when our people
shall have become aware of the height and glory of the orchestra,
as the only instrument for the deepest adorations in man; . . .
when our young women shall ask themselves for any serious reason
why they should all, with one accord, devote themselves to the piano
instead of to the flute, the violin, the hautboy, the harp, the viola,
the violoncello, the horn instruments which pertain to women
fully as much as to men, and some of which actually belong by nature
to those supple, tactile, delicate, firm, passionate, and tender fingers
with which the woman is endowed; when our young men shall have discovered
that the orchestral player can so exercise his office
as to make it of far more dignity and worth than any political place
in the gift of the people, and that the business of making orchestral music
may one day become far higher in nobility than the ignoble
sentinelship over one's pocket to which most lawyers are reduced,
or the melancholy slaveries of the shop and the counting-room
and the like `business' which is now paramount in esteem;
when -- I will not say when we have a new music to perform,
but when we shall have played Beethoven's symphonies as they should be played,
and shall have revealed to us all the might, all the faith, all the religion,
the tenderness, the heavenly invitation, the subtle excursions
down into the heart of man, the brotherhood, the freedom, the exaltation,
the whisperings of sorrow unto sorrow, the messages of God
which these immortal and yet unmeasured compositions embody,"*
then will America give to music the place it deserves.
Music will be one of the redeemers of the people from crass commercialism.
* An uncollected essay by Lanier, "Mazzini on Music", `The Independent',
June 27, 1878.
While Lanier held before the American people the vision
of what they might accomplish in music, he held up to musicians
the high ideal of what they should be. In the essay just quoted,
he indorses the saying of Mazzini's that "musicians may become
a priesthood and ministry of moral regeneration. . . . Why rest contented
with stringing notes together -- mere trouveres of a day --
when it remains with you to consecrate yourselves, even on earth,
to a mission such as in the popular belief only God's angels know?"
With his high ideal of what a musician should be, he could not but be
disgusted at times with the Bohemianism of the men who played with him,
and with the loose moral life of many more eminent musicians.
"Ah, these heathenish Germans!" he exclaims, as he sees some of the orchestra
at a church service making fun of the communion service: "Double-bass was
a big fellow, with a black mustache, to whom life was all a joke,
which he expressed by a comical smile, and Viola was a young Hercules,
so full of beer that he dreamed himself in heaven, and Oboe was a young sprig,
just out from Munich, with a complexion of milk and roses, like a girl's,
and miraculously bright spectacles on his pale blue eyes,
and there they sat -- Oboe and Viola and Double-bass -- and ogled each other,
and raised their brows, and snickered behind the columns,
without a suspicion of interest either in the music or the service.
Dash these fellows, they are utterly given over to heathenism, prejudice,
* `Letters', p. 88.
The best expression of his ideal of what a great composer should be,
is in a letter written to his wife just after he had read
the life of Robert Schumann: --
New York, Sunday, October 18, 1874.
I have been in my room all day; and have just concluded
a half-dozen delicious hours, during which I have been devouring,
with a hungry ferocity of rapture which I know not how to express,
"The Life of Robert Schumann", by his pupil, von Wasielewski.
This pupil, I am sure, did not fully comprehend his great master.
I think the key to Schumann's whole character, with all
its labyrinthine and often disappointing peculiarities, is this: That he had
no mode of self-expression, or, I should rather say, of self-expansion,
besides the musical mode. This may seem a strange remark to make of him
who was the founder and prolific editor of a great musical journal,
and who perhaps exceeded any musician of his time in general culture.
But I do not mean that he was confined to music for self-expression,
though indeed, the sort of critical writing which Schumann did so much of
is not at all like poetry in its tranquillizing effects upon
the soul of the writer. What I do mean is that his sympathies
were not BIG enough, he did not go through the awful struggle of genius,
and lash and storm and beat about until his soul was grown large enough
to embrace the whole of life and the All of things, that is,
large enough to appreciate (if even without understanding)
the magnificent designs of God, and tall enough to stand in the trough
of the awful cross-waves of circumstance and look over their heights
along the whole sea of God's manifold acts, and deep enough to admit the peace
that passeth understanding. This is, indeed, the fault of all German culture,
and the weakness of all German genius. A great artist should have
the sensibility and expressive genius of Schumann, the calm grandeur of Lee,
and the human breadth of Shakespeare, all in one.
Now in this particular, of being open, unprejudiced, and unenvious,
Schumann soars far above his brother Germans; he valiantly defended
our dear Chopin, and other young musicians who were struggling to make head
against the abominable pettiness of German prejudice. But, withal,
I cannot find that his life was great, as a whole; I cannot see him
caring for his land, for the poor, for religion, for humanity;
he was always a restless soul; and the ceaseless wear of incompleteness
finally killed, as a maniac, him whom a broader Love might have kept alive
as a glorious artist to this day.
The truth is, the world does not require enough at the hands of genius.
Under the special plea of greater sensibilities, and of consequent
greater temptations, it excuses its gifted ones, and even sometimes makes
"a law of their weakness". But this is wrong: the sensibility of genius
is just as much greater to high emotions as to low ones;
and whilst it subjects to stronger temptations, it at the same time interposes
-- if it WILL -- stronger considerations for resistance.
These are scarcely fair things to be saying APROPOS of Robert Schumann;
for I do not think he was ever guilty of any excesses of genius --
as they are called: I only mean them to apply to the UNREST of his life.
And yet, for all I have said, how his music does burn in my soul!
It stretches me upon the very rack of delight; I know no musician
that fills me so full of heavenly anguish, and if I had to give up
all the writers of music save one, my one should be Robert Schumann.
-- Some of his experiences cover some of my own as aptly
as one half of an oyster shell does the other half.*
* `Letters', p. 103.
Chapter VII. The Beginning of a Literary Career
During the winter of 1873-74, the first winter in Baltimore,
Lanier had, as has been seen, given his entire time to music.
The only poetry he had written had been inspired by love for his absent wife,
-- poems breathing of the deepest and tenderest affection.
Scarcely less poetical were the letters written to her giving expression
to his joy in the large new world into which he was entering,
and at the same time to his sense of loneliness and pain at their separation.
To her and his boys he went as soon as his engagement
with the Peabody Orchestra was ended. In one of his letters
he had spoken of himself as "an exile from his dear Land,
which is always the land where my loved ones are." He found delight
during this summer, as in the following ones, in the renewal of home ties,
and in the enjoyment of the natural scenery of Macon and Brunswick,
to whose beauty he never ceased to be sensitive.
It was in August, 1874, that he received a fresh impulse towards poetry,
or, at least, towards the writing of more important poems
than those he had heretofore written. While visiting at Sunnyside, Georgia,
some sixty miles from Macon, he was struck at once with
the beauty of cornfields and the pathos of deserted farms.
Hence arose his first poem that attracted attention throughout the country.
He took it to New York with him in the fall. Writing to his friend,
Judge Logan E. Bleckley, now Chief Justice of Georgia, who during this summer
spoke encouraging words to him about the faith he had in his literary future,
he inclosed his recently finished poem with these words: --
195 Dean St., Brooklyn, N.Y.
October 9, 1874.
My dear Sir, -- I could never tell you how sincerely grateful I am to you,
and shall always be, for a few words you spoke to me recently.
Such encouragement would have been pleasant at any time,
but this happened to come just at a critical moment when,
although I had succeeded in making up my mind finally and decisively
as to my own career, I was yet faint from a desperate struggle
with certain untoward circumstances which it would not become me to detail.
Did you ever lie for a whole day after being wounded, and then have water
brought you? If so, you will know how your words came to me.
I inclose the manuscript of a poem in which I have endeavored to carry some
very prosaic matters up to a loftier plane. I have been struck with alarm
in seeing the number of old, deserted homesteads and gullied hills
in the older counties of Georgia; and though they are dreadfully commonplace,
I have thought they are surely mournful enough to be poetic.
Please give me your judgment on my effort, WITHOUT RESERVE;
for if you should say you do not like it, the only effect on me will be
to make me write one that you do like.
Believe me always your friend,
The answer to this letter, giving a detailed criticism of the poem,
was very helpful to Lanier. Judge Bleckley is a man of much cultivation,
and is widely known throughout Georgia as at once one of
the leading lawyers of the State and a man who can in his leisure moments
engage in literary work which, though not published,
gives evidence of imagination and taste. Lanier was wise enough
to accept most of his criticism: the revised form of the poem
compared with the first form shows a great many changes,
and is striking evidence of Lanier's power to improve his work.
Judge Bleckley's characterization of "Corn" so accurately describes it
that his words may be quoted here: "It presents four pictures;
three of them landscapes and one a portrait. You paint the woods,
a cornfield, and a worn-out hill. These are your landscapes.
And your portrait is the likeness of an anxious, unthrifty cotton-planter,
who always spends his crop before he has made it, borrows on heavy interest
to carry himself over from year to year, wears out his land,
meets at last with utter ruin, and migrates to the West.
Your second landscape is turned into a vegetable person
[the cornstalk is Lanier's symbol of the poet], and you give its poetry
with many touches of marvel and mystery in vegetable life.
Your third landscape takes for an instant the form and tragic state
of King Lear; you thus make it seize on our sympathies
as if it were a real person, and you then restore it to the inanimate,
and contemplate its possible beneficence in the distant future."*
* Quoted in Callaway's `Select Poems of Lanier', p. 61.
The poem was published in "Lippincott's Magazine", February, 1875, and at once
attracted the attention of some discriminating readers of magazines,
notably Mr. Gibson Peacock, the editor of the Philadelphia "Evening Bulletin",
who reviewed it in a most sympathetic manner, and became
one of the poet's best friends during the remainder of his life.
It is noteworthy that the scenery of the poem should be
so distinctively and realistically Southern. There is in the first part
all of Lanier's love of the Southern forest: the shimmering forms
in the woods, the leaves, the subtlety of mighty tenderness
in the embracing boughs, the long muscadines, the mosses, ferns, and flowers,
are all delicately felt and described -- with a suggestion of Keats.
As he wanders from this forest to the zigzag-cornered fence,
his fieldward-faring eyes take in the beauty of the cornfield,
"the heaven of blue inwoven with a heaven of green." One tall corn captain
becomes to his mind the symbol of the poet-soul sublime, who takes from all
that he may give to all. The picture of the thriftless and negligent
Southern farmer, "a gamester's cat'spaw and a banker's slave,"
shows Lanier's keen insight into Southern conditions, which he had,
while living in Macon, studied with much care and which he now lifted
into the realm of poetry. The red hills of Georgia, deserted and barren,
are presented with true pathos. Nevertheless, like a genuine prophet,
the poet looks forward to a better day: --
Yet shall the great God turn thy fate,
And bring thee back into thy monarch state
And majesty immaculate.
Lo, through hot waverings of the August morn,
Thou givest from thy vasty sides forlorn
Visions of golden treasuries of corn --
Ripe largesse lingering for some bolder heart
That manfully shall take thy part,
And tend thee,
And defend thee,
With antique sinew and with modern art.
This vision of the South's restored agriculture was one
that remained with Lanier to the end. He did not properly appreciate
the development of manufacturing in the South, but he believed
that the redemption of the country would come through
the development of agriculture -- not the restoration of the large plantations
of the old regime, but the large number of small farms
with diversified products. On a later visit to the South
he exclaimed to his brother, "My countrymen, why plant ye not
the vineyards of the Lord?" and later he wrote in his essay on the "New South"
of the actual fulfillment of his prophecy in "Corn".
Encouraged by the success of "Corn", Lanier, while giving
a large part of his time to music during the winter of 1874-75,
looked more and more in the direction of poetry. He writes again
to Judge Bleckley, November 15, 1874: "Your encouraging words give me at once
strength and pleasure. I hope hard and work hard to do something
worthy of them some day. My head and my heart are both so full of poems
which the dreadful struggle for bread does not give me time
to put on paper, that I am often driven to headache and heartache
purely for want of an hour or two to hold a pen." He then proceeds
to outline what is to be his first `magnum opus', "a long poem,
founded on that strange uprising in the middle of the fourteenth century
in France, called `The Jacquerie'. It was the first time
that the big hungers of THE PEOPLE appear in our modern civilization;
and it is full of significance. The peasants learned
from the merchant potentates of Flanders that a man who could not be
a lord by birth, might be one by wealth; and so Trade arose,
and overthrew Chivalry. Trade has now had possession of the civilized world
for four hundred years: it controls all things, it interprets the Bible,
it guides our national and almost all our individual life with its maxims;
and its oppressions upon the moral existence of man have come to be
ten thousand times more grievous than the worst tyrannies of the Feudal System
ever were. Thus in the reversals of time, it is NOW the GENTLEMAN
who must rise and overthrow Trade. That chivalry which every man has,
in some degree, in his heart; which does not depend upon birth,
but which is a revelation from God of justice, of fair dealing,
of scorn of mean advantages; which contemns the selling of stock
which one KNOWS is going to fall, to a man who BELIEVES
it is going to rise, as much as it would contemn any other form
of rascality or of injustice or of meanness -- it is this
which must in these latter days organize its insurrections and burn up
every one of the cunning moral castles from which Trade sends out its forays
upon the conscience of modern society. -- This is about the plan
which is to run through my book: though I conceal it under
the form of a pure novel."*
* Quoted in part in Callaway's `Select Poems of Lanier', p. 65.
Lanier never finished this poem, but he was soon hard at work on another
which was based on the same idea, "The Symphony". Writing to
his newly acquired friend, Mr. Peacock, March 24, 1875, he says:
"About four days ago, a certain poem which I had vaguely ruminated
for a week before took hold of me like a real James River ague,
and I have been in a mortal shake with the same, day and night, ever since.
I call it `The Symphony': I personify each instrument in the orchestra,
and make them discuss various deep social questions of the times,
in the progress of the music. It is now nearly finished; and I shall be
rejoiced thereat, for it verily racks all the bones of my spirit."
The poem was published in "Lippincott's Magazine", June, 1875;
and besides confirming the good opinion of Mr. Peacock,
won the praise of Bayard Taylor, George H. Calvert, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps,
and Charlotte Cushman, and was copied in full in Dwight's "Journal of Music".
As in his first poem Lanier had pointed out a defect in Southern life,
so in his second long poem he struck at one of the evils of national life.
In the South he felt that there was not enough of the spirit of industry;
looking at the nation as a whole, however, he exclaims: --
"O Trade! O Trade! would thou wert dead!
The time needs heart -- 't is tired of head:
We are all for love," the violins said.
The germ of this poem is found perhaps in a letter written from Wheeling,
West Virginia, where he went with some of his fellow musicians
to give a concert, April 16, 1874. It is a realistic picture of a city
completely dominated by factory life. What he afterwards called
"the hell-colored smoke of the factories" created within him
a feeling of righteous indignation akin to that of Ruskin,
although it must be said in justice to Lanier that, in combating the evils
of industrial life, he never went to the extreme of eccentric passion
displayed by the English writer. Nor, on the other hand,
could he say with Walt Whitman: "I hail with joy the oceanic, variegated,
intense practical energy, the demand for facts, even the business materialism,
of the current age. . . . I perceive clearly that the extreme business energy
and this almost maniacal appetite for wealth prevalent in the United States
are parts of a melioration and progress, indispensably needed to prepare
the very results I demand."
Lanier's poem is more applicable to the conditions that prevail to-day
than to those of his own time. He shows himself a prophet,
the truth of whose words is realized by many of the finer minds
of the country. He lets the various instruments of the orchestra
utter their protest against the evils of modern trade. The violin,
speaking for the poor who stand wedged by the pressing of trade's hand
and "weave in the mills and heave in the kilns," protests against
the spirit of competition that says even when human life is involved,
"Trade is only war grown miserly."
Alas, for the poor to have some part
In yon sweet living lands of art.
Then the flute -- Lanier's own flute, summing up the voices of nature,
"all fair forms, and sounds, and lights" -- echoes the words of the Master,
"All men are neighbors." Trade, the king of the modern days,
will not allow the poor a glimpse of "the outside hills of liberty".
The clarionet is the voice of a lady who speaks of the merchandise of love
and yearns for the old days of chivalry before trade had withered up
love's sinewy prime: --
If men loved larger, larger were our lives;
And wooed they nobler, won they nobler wives.
To her the bold, straightforward horn answers, "like any knight
in knighthood's morn." He would bring back the age of chivalry,
when there would be "contempts of mean-got gain and hates of inward stain."
He voices, too, the idea long ago expressed by Milton that men should be
as pure as women: --
Shall woman scorch for a single sin,
That her betrayer may revel in,
And she be burnt, and he but grin
When that the flames begin,
Shall ne'er prevail the woman's plea,
`We maids would far, far whiter be
If that our eyes might sometimes see
Men maids in purity.'
Then the hautboy sings, "like any large-eyed child," calling for
simplicity and naturalness in this modern life. And all join at the last
in a triumphant chant of the power of love to heal all the ills of life: --
And ever Love hears the poor-folks' crying,
And ever Love hears the women's sighing,
And ever sweet knighthood's death-defying,
And ever wise childhood's deep implying,
But never a trader's glozing and lying.
And yet shall Love himself be heard,
Though long deferred, though long deferred:
O'er the modern waste a dove hath whirred:
Music is Love in search of a word.
By this time Lanier was hard at work for the publishers.
Although he never lost his love for music -- he could not -- he began to see
that his must be a literary career. In a letter of March 20, 1876,
he says to Judge Bleckley that he has had a year of frightful overwork.
"I have been working at such a rate as, if I could keep it up,
would soon make me the proverb of fecundity that Lope de Vega now is."
He refers to the India papers written for "Lippincott's".
"The collection of the multitudinous particulars involved in them
cost me such a world of labor among the libraries of Boston, New York,
Philadelphia, and Baltimore as would take a long time to describe. . . .
In addition to these I have written a number of papers not yet published,
and a dozen small poems which have appeared here and there.
"Now, I don't work for bread; in truth, I suppose that any man who,
after many days and nights of tribulation and bloody sweat,
has finally emerged from all doubt into the quiet and yet joyful activity
of one who KNOWS exactly what his Great Passion is and what his God
desires him to do, will straightway lose all anxiety as to what
he is working FOR, in the simple glory of doing that which lies
immediately before him. As for me, life has resolved simply into a time
during which I must get upon paper as many as possible of the poems
with which my heart is stuffed like a schoolboy's pocket."
He quotes from "that simple and powerful sonnet of dear old William Drummond
of Hawthornden": --
Know what I list, this all cannot me move,
But that, O me! -- I both must write and love.
He had to give much of his time, however, to hack work.
During the summer of 1875 he was engaged in writing a book on Florida
for the Lippincotts. It is, as he wrote to Paul Hamilton Hayne,
"a sort of spiritualized guide-book" to a section which was then drawing
a large number of visitors. "The thing immediately began
to ramify and expand, until I quickly found I was in for
a long and very difficult job: so long, and so difficult,
that, after working day and night for the last three months
on the materials I had previously collected, I have just finished the book,
and am now up to my ears in proof-sheets and wood-cuts
which the publishers are rushing through in order to publish
at the earliest possible moment, the book having several features
designed to meet the wants of winter visitors to Florida." It is filled
with facts in regard to climate and scenery, practical hints for travelers,
and other things characteristic of a guide-book; but it is more than that.
Like everything else that Lanier ever did, -- even the dreariest hack work, --
he threw himself into it with great zest. It has suggestions to consumptives
born out of his own experience. There are allusions to music,
literature, and philosophy. There are descriptions and historical anecdotes
of the cities of South Carolina and Georgia; above all,
there are descriptions of the Florida country which only a poet could write.
Two passages are characteristic: --
"And now it is bed-time. Let me tell you how to sleep
on an Ocklawaha steamer in May. With a small bribe persuade Jim, the steward,
to take the mattress out of your berth and lay it slanting
just along the railing that incloses the lower part of the deck
in front and to the left of the pilot-house. Lie flat on your back
down on the mattress, draw your blanket over you, put your cap on your head,
on account of the night air, fold your arms, say some little prayer or other,
and fall asleep with a star looking right down on your eye.
When you wake in the morning you will feel as new as Adam."
"Presently we abandoned the broad highway of the St. Johns,
and turned off to the right into the narrow lane of the Ocklawaha.
This is the sweetest water-lane in the world, a lane which runs
for more than one hundred and fifty miles of pure delight betwixt
hedge-rows of oaks and cypresses and palms and magnolias and mosses and vines;
a lane clean to travel, for there is never a speck of dust in it save
the blue dust and gold dust which the wind blows out of the flags and lilies."
In the discussion of "The Symphony", emphasis was laid upon
Lanier's national point of view. The opportunity soon came to him
of giving expression to his love of the Union. At Bayard Taylor's suggestion
he was appointed by the Centennial Commission to write the words for a cantata
to be sung at the opening exercises of the exposition in Philadelphia.
Taylor, in announcing the fact, on December 28, 1875, said:
"I have just had a visit from Theodore Thomas and Mr. Buck,
and we talked the whole matter over. Thomas remembers you well,
and Mr. Buck says it will be especially agreeable to him to compose for
the words of a Southern poet. I have taken the liberty of speaking for you,
both to them and to General Hawley, and you must not fail me. . . .
"Now, my dear Lanier, I am sure you CAN do this worthily.
It's a great occasion, -- not especially for poetry as an art,
but for Poetry to assert herself as a power."* To this letter Lanier replied:
"If it were a cantata upon your goodness, . . . I am willing to wager
I could write a stirring one and a grateful withal.
* `Letters', p. 136.
"Of course I will accept -- when 't is offered. I only write a hasty line now
to say how deeply I am touched by the friendly forethought of your letter."*
* `Letters', p. 137.
He announces the fact to his wife in a jubilant letter of January 8, 1876:
"Moreover, I have a charming piece of news which -- although thou art not yet
to communicate it to any one except Clifford -- I cannot keep from thee.
The opening ceremonies of the Centennial Exhibition will be very grand;
and among other things there are to be sung by a full chorus
(and played by the orchestra, under Thomas's direction) a hymn and a cantata.
General Hawley, President of the Centennial Commission, has written
inviting me to write the latter (I mean the POEM; Dudley Buck, of New York,
is to write the music). Bayard Taylor is to write the hymn.* This is
very pleasing to me; for I am chosen as representative of our dear South;
and the matter puts my name by the side of very delightful and honorable ones,
besides bringing me in contact with many people I would desire to know.
* Whittier wrote this hymn and Bayard Taylor wrote the Ode
for the Fourth of July celebration.
"Mr. Buck has written me that he wants the poem by January 15,
which as I have not yet had the least time for it, gives me just seven days
to write it in. I would much rather have had seven months; but God is great.
Remember, thou and Cliff, that this is not yet to be spoken of at all."*
* Quoted in Baskervill's `Southern Writers', p. 200.
With enthusiasm the poet entered upon the task assigned him.
The progress of the Cantata from the time when it first
presented itself to his mind to the time when he completed it,
may be traced in the letters to Bayard Taylor and Gibson Peacock,
which have already been published.* Writing to Mr. Dudley Buck,
January 15, 1876, he said: --
* See `Letters', passim.
Dear Mr. Buck, -- I send you herewith the complete text for the Cantata.
I have tried to make it a genuine Song, at once full of fire
and of large and artless simplicity befitting a young but already
I have made out a working copy for you, with marginal notes
which give an analysis of each movement (or rather MOTIVE,
for I take it the whole will be a continuous progression;
and I only use the word "movement" as indicating the entire contrast
which I have secured between each two adjacent MOTIVES), and which will,
I hope, facilitate your labor by presenting an outline of the tones
characterizing each change of idea. One movement is placed on each page.
Mr. Thomas was kind enough to express himself very cordially
as to the ideas of the piece; and I devoutly trust that they will meet
your views. I found that the projection which I had made in my own mind
embraced all the substantial features of the Scheme which had occurred to you,
and therefore, although greatly differing in details, I have not hesitated
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