Part 5 out of 5
This low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
The imperfect poems, the unfinished poems, the sheaves unharvested,
not like Coleridge's for lack of will, but for lack of time,
are suggestive of one of the finest aspects of romantic art.
"I would rather fail at some things I wot of than succeed at others,"
said Lanier. There are moods when the imperfection of Lanier
pleases more than the perfection of Poe -- even from the artistic standpoint.
What he aspired to be enters into one's whole thought
about his life and his art. The vista of his grave opens up
into the unseen world.
On earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round.
But the time comes when none of these considerations --
neither admiration for the man, nor speculations as to what he might have done
under different circumstances, nor thoughts as to what he may be doing
in larger, other worlds than ours -- should interfere
with a judicial estimate of what he really achieved. It would have been
the miracle of history if with all his obstacles he had not had limitations
as a writer; and yet many who have insisted most on his sufferings,
have resented any criticism passed upon his work. One has the authority
of Lanier's writings about other men and his letters about his own poems
for judging him only by the highest standards. Did he in aiming at a million
miss a unit? Was he blinded by the very excess of light? How will he fare
in that race with time of which a contemporary essayist has written?
"When the admiration of his friends no longer counts,
when his friends and admirers are themselves gathered
to the same silent throng," will there be enough inherent worth in his work
to keep his fame alive? These are questions that one has a right to ask.
And, first, as to Lanier's prose work. He has suffered from the fact
that so many of his unrevised works have been published;
these have their excuse for being in the light they throw on his life;
but otherwise some of them are disappointing. If, instead of
ten volumes of prose, there could be selected his best work
from all of them, there would still be a residue of writing
that would establish Lanier's place among the prose writers of America.
There is no better illustration of his development than that seen
in comparing his early prose -- the war letters and "Tiger Lilies",
for instance, or such essays as "Retrospects and Prospects" --
with that of his maturer years. I doubt if justice has been done
to Lanier's best style, its clearness, fluency, and eloquence.
It may be claimed without dispute that he was a rare good letter-writer;
perhaps only Lowell's letters are more interesting. The faults of his poetry
are not always seen in his best letters. In them there is a playfulness,
a richness of humor, an exuberance of spirits, animated talk
about himself and his work, and withal a distinct style, that ought
to keep them alive. There might be selected, too, a volume of essays,
including "From Bacon to Beethoven", "The Orchestra of To-Day",
"San Antonio de Bexar", "The Confederate Memorial Address",
"The New South", and others.
A volume of American Criticism, edited by Mr. William Morton Payne,
includes Lanier among the dozen best American critics,
giving a selection from the "English Novel" as a typical passage.
Has he a right to be in such a book? His work as a scholar has been discussed
in a previous chapter; his rank as a critic is a very different matter.
It goes without saying that Lanier was not a great critic.
He did not have the learning requisite for one. One might turn
the words of his criticism of Poe and say that he needed to know more.
He knew but little of the classics beyond what he studied in college;
while he read French and German literature to some extent,
he did not go into them as Lowell did. Homer, Dante, and Goethe
were but little more than names to him. Furthermore, his criticism
is often marked by a tendency to indulge in hasty generalizations,
due to the fact that he had not sufficient facts to draw upon.
An illustration is his preference of the Elizabethan sonnets
to the English sonnets written on the Italian model,
or his discussion of personality as found in the Greek drama.
His generalizations are often either patently obvious or far-fetched.
He was too eager to "bring together people and books
that never dreamed of being side by side." His tendency to fancy,
so marked in his poetry, is seen also in his criticism,
as for instance, his comparison of a sonnet to a little drama,
or his statement that every poem has a plot, a crisis, and a hero.
He had De Quincey's habit of digressing from the main theme, --
what he himself called in speaking of an Elizabethan poet,
the "constant temptation, to the vigorous and springy mind of the poet,
to bound off wherever his momentary fancy may lead him."
This is especially seen in his lectures on the English Novel,
where he is often carried far afield from the general theme.
In his lectures on "Shakspere and His Forerunners", he was so often troubled
with an embarrassment of riches that he did not endeavor to follow
a rigidly formed plan.
A more serious defect, however, was his lack of catholicity of judgment.
He had all of Carlyle's distaste for the eighteenth century;
his dislike of Pope was often expressed, and he went so far
as to wish that the novels of Fielding and Richardson might be
"blotted from the face of the earth." His characterization of Thackeray
as a "low-pitched artist" is wide of the mark. As Lanier
had his dislikes in literature and expressed them vigorously,
so he over-praised many men. When he says, for instance,
that Bartholomew Griffin "will yet obtain a high and immortal place
in English literature," or that William Drummond of Hawthornden
is one of "the chief glories of the English tongue," or that Gavin Douglas
is "one of the greatest poets of our language," one wonders to what extent
the "pleasant peril of enthusiasm" will carry a man.
One may be an admirer of George Eliot and yet feel that Lanier
has overstated her merits as compared with other English novelists,
and that his praise of "Daniel Deronda" is excessive.
Such defects as are here suggested should not, however, blind the reader
to some of Lanier's better work. The history of criticism,
especially of romantic criticism, is full of just such unbalanced judgments.
It is often true in criticism that a man "should like
what he does like; and his likings are facts in criticism for him."
Without very great learning and with strong prejudices in some directions,
Lanier yet had remarkable insight into literature. Lowell's saying
that he was "a man of genius with a rare gift for the happy word"
is especially true of some of his critical writing. Examples are
his well-known characterizations of great men in "The Crystal": --
Buddha, beautiful! I pardon thee
That all the All thou hadst for needy man
Was Nothing, and thy Best of being was
But not to be.
. . . . .
Langley, that with but a touch
Of art had sung Piers Plowman to the top
Of English song, whereof 't is dearest, now
And most adorable.
. . . . .
Most wise, that yet, in finding Wisdom, lost
Thy Self, sometimes.
. . . . .
Tennyson, largest voice
Since Milton, yet some register of wit
There are scattered throughout his prose works criticisms of writers
that are at once penetrating and subtle. The one on Browning
has already been quoted. The best known of these criticisms
is that on Walt Whitman, but it is too long for insertion here.
There is a sentence in one of his letters to Bayard Taylor, however,
that hits the mark better than the longer criticism, perhaps:
"Upon a sober comparison, I think Walt Whitman's `Leaves of Grass'
worth at least a million of `Among my Books' and `Atalanta in Calydon'.
In the two latter I could not find anything which has not been
much better said before; but `Leaves of Grass' was real refreshing to me
-- like rude salt spray in your face -- in spite of its
enormous fundamental error that a thing is good because it is natural,
and in spite of the world-wide difference between my own conceptions of art
and the author's." Another good one is that on Shelley: "In truth,
Shelley appears always to have labored under an essential immaturity:
it is very possible that if he had lived a hundred years
he would never have become a man; he was penetrated with modern ideas,
but penetrated as a boy would be, crudely, overmuch,
and with a constant tendency to the extravagant and illogical;
so that I call him the modern boy."
Lanier writes of the songs of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
as "short and unstudied little songs, as many of them are, songs which
come upon us out of that obscure period like brief little bird-calls
from a thick-leaved wood." He speaks of Chaucer's works
as "full of cunning hints and twinkle-eyed suggestions
which peep between the lines like the comely faces of country children
between the fence bars as one rides by." He draws a fine comparison
between William Morris and Chaucer: "How does the spire of hope
spring and upbound into the infinite in Chaucer; while, on the other hand,
how blank, world-bound, and wearying is the stone facade of hopelessness
which rears itself uncompromisingly behind the gayest pictures
of William Morris! . . . Again, how openly joyful is Chaucer,
how secretly melancholy is Morris! Both, it is true, are full of sunshine;
but Chaucer's is spring sunshine, Morris's is autumn. . . .
Chaucer rejoices as only those can who know the bound of good red blood
through unobstructed veins, and the thrilling tingle of nerve and sinew
at amity; and who can transport this healthy animalism into
their unburdened minds, and spiritualize it so that the mere drawing of breath
is at once a keen delight and an inwardly felt practical act of praise
to the God of a strong and beautiful world. Morris too
has his sensuous element, but it is utterly unlike Chaucer's;
it is dilettante, it is amateur sensualism; it is not strong,
though sometimes excessive, and it is nervously afraid of that satiety
which is at once its chief temptation and its most awful doom.
"Again, Chaucer lives, Morris dreams. . . . `The Canterbury Tales'
is simply a drama with somewhat more of stage direction than is common;
but the `Earthly Paradise' is a reverie, which would hate nothing so much
as to be broken by any collision with that rude actual life
which Chaucer portrays.
"And, finally, note the faith that shines in Chaucer and the doubt
that darkens in Morris. Has there been any man since St. John
so lovable as the `Persoune'? or any sermon since that on the Mount
so keenly analytical, . . . as `The Persoune's Tale'? . . .
A true Hindu life-weariness (to use one of Novalis' marvelous phrases)
is really the atmosphere which produces the exquisite haze
of Morris's pictures. . . . Can any poet shoot his soul's arrow
to its best height, when at once bow and string and muscle and nerve
are slackened in this vaporous and relaxing air, that comes up
out of the old dreams of fate that were false and of passions
that were not pure?"*
* `Music and Poetry', p. 198.
Lanier's enthusiasm for Chaucer is typical of much of his critical writing.
He was a generous praiser of the best literature, and generally
his praise was right. "Lyrics of criticism" would be a good title
for many of his passages. There was nothing of indifferentism in him.
In a letter to Gibson Peacock he wrote of a certain type of criticism which,
it may be said, has been widely prevalent in recent years:
"In the very short time that I have been in the hands of the critics,
nothing has amazed me more than the timid solicitudes with which
they rarefy in one line any enthusiasm they may have condensed
in another -- a process curiously analogous to those irregular
condensations and rarefactions of air which physicists have shown to be
the conditions of producing an indeterminate sound. Many of my critics
have seemed -- if I may change the figure -- to be forever conciliating
the yet-unrisen ghosts of possible mistakes." Enough quotations
have already been given from his lectures in Baltimore to show his enthusiasm
for many of the periods and many of the authors of English literature.
It is a distinction for him as a critic that he has set forth
in so many passages his conception of the mission of poetry, --
passages that are in the line of succession of defenses of poetry
by Sidney, Hazlitt, and Shelley.
There is enough good criticism in the Shakespeare lectures and in
the "English Novel", in the prefaces of the boy's books and in his letters,
to make a volume of interest and importance. Suppose we cease
to think of the first two as formal treatises on the subjects they discuss,
and rather select from them such passages as the discussion of personality,
the relation of music, science, and the novel, the criticism of Whitman's
theory of art, the discussion of the relation of morals to art,
the best passages on Anglo-Saxon poetry and the Elizabethan sonneteers,
and the finer passages on Shakespeare's growth as a man and as a dramatist.
Such a volume would, I believe, confirm one in the opinion
that Lanier belongs by right among the best American critics.
Certainly, the "Science of English Verse" entitles him to that distinction.
About 1875 Lanier became interested in the formal side of poetry
and projected a work on a scientific basis. It was natural
that one who had so much reverence for science and who had studied
the "physics of music", should apply the scientific method
to the study of poetry. He knew that the science of versification
was not the most important phase of poetry: in the preface,
as in the epilogue, to the "Science of English Verse",
he makes clear that "for the artist in verse there is no law:
the perception and love of beauty constitute the whole outfit."
In many other passages in his writings may be seen his view
of the moral significance of poetry. He desired, however,
to formulate for himself and for students certain metrical laws.
What differentiates poetry from prose? How does a writer produce
certain effects with certain rhythms and vowel and consonant arrangements?
The student wishes to know why the forms are fair and hear how the tale
is told. By the study of rhythm, tune, and color, Lanier believed
that one might receive "a whole new world of possible delight."
He believed with Sylvester that "versification has a technical side
quite as well capable of being reduced to rules as that of painting
or any other fine art." His book was intended to furnish students
with such an outfit of facts and principles as would serve for pursuing
The time was ripe for such a study. Lanier wrote to Mr. Stedman
that "in all directions the poetic art was suffering from
the shameful circumstance that criticism was without a scientific basis."
The book at once received commendation from competent critics.
Edward Rowland Sill wrote Dr. Gilman that it was "the only thing
extant on that subject that is of any earthly value.
I wonder that so few seem to have discovered its great merit," --
an opinion afterwards repeated by him in the "Atlantic Monthly".
The late Richard Hovey, in a series of articles in the "Independent"
on the technic of poetry, said that Lanier had begun such a scientific study
with "great soundness and common sense;" the book is
"accurate, scientific, suggestive." The editor of the "Dial" referred to it
as "the most striking and thoughtful exposition yet published
on the technics of English poetry." Within the past ten years
books on English verse have multiplied fast. In Germany, in England,
and in America, the discussion of metrics has gone on.
While dissenting from some of Lanier's conclusions, few of the writers
have failed to recognize his work as of great importance.*
One man rarely sees all round any great subject like this, --
each man sees some one special point and states it in an individual way,
and finally, in the course of time, the truth is evolved.
* See, for instance, Winchester's `Principles of Literary Criticism',
Alden's `English Verse', Paul Elmer More's `Shelburne Essays',
and Omond's `English Metrists'.
There is little objection to Parts II and III of the
"Science of English Verse". They are generally recognized
as strikingly suggestive and helpful. It is with the main thesis
of the first part that many disagree -- the author's insistence
that the laws of music and of verse are identical. According to Lanier,
verse is in all respects a phenomenon of sound. From time immemorial
the relation of music and of poetry has been spoken of in figurative terms,
as in Carlyle's discussion of the subject in the essay
on the "Hero as Poet". Lanier, however, was the first to work the idea out
in a thorough-going fashion. He was especially qualified to do so
because of his knowledge of the two arts. His general conclusion
was the same as that reached by Professor Gummere in his searching discussion
of "Rhythm as the Essential Fact of Poetry".* Both of them saw
that the origin of poetry was in the dance and the march, and later the song.
In modern times the two arts had become distinct. Lanier believed that,
in accordance with its origin and the practice of the best poets,
the basis of rhythm is time and not accent. Every line
is made up of bars of equal time value. "If this equality of time
were taken away, no possibility of rhythm would remain."
"The accent serves only to mark for the ear these equal intervals of time,
which are the units of poetic measurement." Lanier's theory of quantity,
however, is different from the rigid laws of classic quantity,
for he allows for variations from the regular type of verse that may prevail
in a certain poem or line, thus providing for "an escape out of
the rigidities of the type into the infinite field of those subtle rhythms
which pervade familiar utterance." He separates himself therefore
from such writers as Abbott and Guest, who applied the rule of thumb
to English verse. To such men "Shakspere's verse has often seemed
a mass of `license', of `irregularity', and of lawless anomaly
to commentators; while, approached from the direction of
that great rhythmic sense of humanity displayed in music,
in all manner of folk-songs, and in common talk, it is perfect music."
* `The Beginnings of Poetry', chapter 2.
Lanier's theory is a good one in so far as it applies to the ideal rhythm,
for the melody of verse does approximate that of music. If one considers
actual rhythm, however, he is forced to come to the conclusion that
no such mathematical relation exists between the syllables of a foot of verse
as that existing between the notes of a musical bar. In poetry
another element enters in to interfere with the ideal rhythm of music,
and that is what Mr. More has called "the normal unrhythmical
enunciation of the language." The result is a compromise
shifting toward one extreme or another. Lanier's theory would apply
to the earliest folk-songs. He illustrated his point
by referring to the negro melodies, which, says Joel Chandler Harris,
"depend for their melody and rhythm upon the musical quality of the time,
and not upon long or short, accented or unaccented syllables."
His citation of Japanese poetry was also a case in point.
Unquestionably, the lyrics and choruses of the Greek drama were
thoroughly musical; Sophocles and Aeschylus were both teachers of the chorus.
Many of the lyrics of the Elizabethan age were written especially for music,
and more than one collector of these lyrics has bemoaned the fact
that in later times there has been such a divorce between the two arts.
Who will say that Coleridge's "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan"
are not disembodied music? Lamb said that Coleridge repeated the latter poem
"so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers
into any parlor when he says or sings it to me." Mr. Arthur Symons
has recently said: "`Christabel' is composed like music;
you might set at the side of each section, especially of the opening,
`largo vivacissimo', and as the general expressive signature, `tempo rubato'."
Tennyson realized the musical effect of "Paradise Lost"
when he spoke of Milton as "England's God-gifted organ-voice";
and he himself in such lyrics as those in the "Princess"
and the eighty-sixth canto of "In Memoriam" wrought musical effects
with verse. Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton says of Poe's "Ulalume" that,
if properly intoned, "it would produce something like the same effect
upon a listener knowing no word of English that it produces upon us."
It needs to be said, in parenthesis, that in all these cases,
while there is the musical effect from the standpoint of time and tone-color,
there is still the perfection of speech. The theory will not hold, however,
in much dramatic verse, or in meditative blank verse, as used by Wordsworth.
Much of the poetry of Byron, Browning, Keats, and Shakespeare,
while supremely great from the standpoint of color, or dramatic power,
or picturesqueness, or thought, is not musical. To bring some poems
within the limit of musical notation would be impossible.
While then one must modify Lanier's theory, the book emphasizes a point that
needs constantly to be emphasized, both by poets and by students of poetry.
Followed too closely by minor poets, it will tend to develop
artisans rather than artists. Followed by the greater poets,
-- consciously or unconsciously, -- it may prove to be
one of the surest signs of poetry. This phase of poetical work
needed to be emphasized in America, where poetry, with the exception of Poe's,
has been deficient in this very element. Whatever else one may say
of Emerson, Bryant, Whittier, or Longfellow, he must find that their poetry
as a whole is singularly lacking in melody. Moreover, the poet who was
the most dominant figure in American literature at the time
when Lanier was writing, prided himself on violating every law of form,
using rhythm, if at all, in a certain elementary or oriental sense.
"I tried to read a beautifully printed and scholarly volume
on the theory of poetry received by mail this morning from England,"
said Whitman, "but gave it up at last as a bad job." One may be
thoroughly just to Whitman and grant the worth of his work
in American literature, and yet see the value of Lanier's contention
that the study of the formal element in poetry will lead
to a much finer poetry than we have yet had in this country.
Other books will supplant the "Science of English Verse" as text-books,
and few may ever read it understandingly; but the author's name will
always be thought of in any discussion of the relations of music and poetry.
It is not only a scientific monograph, but a philosophical treatise
on a subject that will be discussed with increasing interest.
While Lanier thus stated his conception of the formal element in poetry,
he has, in many other places, given his ideas of the poet's character
and his work in the world. If on the one hand he criticised Whitman
for lack of form, on the other he blamed Swinburne for lack of substance.
Seemingly a follower of Poe, he yet would have incurred
the displeasure of that poet for adopting the "heresy of the didactic".
He had an exalted sense of what poetry means in the redemption of mankind.
He had little patience with the cry, "Art for art's sake," or with
the justification so often made for the immorality of the artist's life.
Milton himself did not believe more ardently that a poet's life
ought to be a true poem. In the poems "Individuality", "Clover",
"Life and Song", and the "Psalm of the West", Lanier expresses
his view of the responsibility of the artist. In the first he says: --
Awful is Art because 't is free;
The artist trembles o'er his plan
Where men his Self must see.
In the "English Novel" he says: "For, indeed, we may say
that he who has not yet perceived how artistic beauty and moral beauty
are convergent lines which run back into a common ideal origin,
and who is therefore not afire with moral beauty just as with artistic beauty;
that he, in short, who has not come to that stage of quiet and eternal frenzy
in which the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty mean one thing,
burn as one fire, shine as one light within him, he is not yet
the great artist."
Lanier believed that he was, or would be, a great poet. While for a time he
considered music as his special field of work and "poetry as a mere tangent,"
after 1875 his aspiration took the direction of poetry.
Criticism of his work only strengthened his conviction
that it was of a high order. Letters to his father and to his wife
indicate his positive conviction that he was meeting with the misunderstanding
that every great artist has met since the world began:
"Let my name perish, -- the poetry is good poetry and the music is good music,
and beauty dieth not, and the heart that needs it will find it."
"I KNOW, through the fiercest tests of life, that I am in soul,
and shall be in life and utterance, a great poet," he said again.
Accordingly he hoped that he would accomplish something different
from the popular poetry of the period. Time and again he spoke
of "the feeble magazine lyrics" of his time. "This is the kind of poetry
that is technically called culture poetry, yet it is in reality
the product of a WANT of culture. If these gentlemen and ladies would read
the old English poetry . . . they could never be content to put forth
these little diffuse prettinesses and dandy kickshaws of verse." And again:
"In looking around at the publications of the younger American poets,
I am struck with the circumstance that none of them even ATTEMPT
anything great. . . . Hence the endless multiplications of those
little feeble magazine lyrics which we all know: consisting of
one minute idea each, which is put in the last line of the fourth verse,
the other three verses and three lines being mere surplusage."
His characterizations of contemporary poetry are strikingly like
those of Walt Whitman. Different as they were in nearly every respect,
the two poets were yet alike in their idea that there should be a reaction
against the conventional and artificial poetry of their time,
-- the difference being, that Whitman's reaction took
the direction of formlessness, while Lanier's was concerned about
the extension and revival of poetic forms. In both poets
there is a range and sweep, both of conception and of utterance,
that sharply differentiates them from all other poets since the Civil War.
The question then is, whether Lanier, with his lofty conception
of the poet's work, and with his faith in himself, succeeded in writing
poetry that will stand the test of time. He undoubtedly had
some of the necessary qualities of a poet. He had, first of all,
a sense of melody that found vent primarily in music and then in words
which moved with a certain rhythmic cadence. "A holy tune was in my soul
when I fell asleep; it was going when I awoke. This melody is always
moving along in the background of my spirit. If I wish to compose,
I abstract my attention from the things which occupy the front of the stage,
the `dramatis personae' of the moment, and fix myself upon
the deeper scene in the rear." "All day my soul hath been
cutting swiftly into the great space of the subtle, unspeakable deep,
driven by wind after wind of heavenly melody," he writes
at another time. His best poems move to the cadence of a tune.
He probably heard them as did Milton the lines of "Paradise Lost".
Sometimes there was a lilt like the singing of a bird,
and sometimes the lyric cry, and yet again the music of the orchestra.
"He has an ear for the distribution of instruments, and this gives him
a desire for the antiphonal, for introducing an answer, or an echo,
or a compensating note," says Mr. Higginson. Sometimes, as in
the "Marshes of Glynn" and in the best parts of "Sunrise", there is
a cosmic rhythm that is like unto the rhythmic beating of the heart of God,
of which Poe and Lanier have written eloquently.
Besides this melody that was temperamental, Lanier had ideas.
He was alive to the problems of his age and to the beauties of nature.
One has only to think of the names of his poems to realize how many themes
occupied his attention. He wrote of religion, social questions, science,
philosophy, nature, love. "My head and my heart are both [so] full of poems,"
he says. "So many great ideas for art are born to me each day,
I am swept into the land of All-delight by their strenuous sweet whirlwind."
"Every leaf that I brush against breeds a poem." "A thousand vital elements
rill through my soul." So he is in no sense a "jingle man".
There is a note of healthy mysticism in his poetry that makes him akin
to Wordsworth and Emerson. A series of poems might be selected
that would entitle him to the praise of being "the friend and aider of those
who would live in the spirit."
With the spiritual endowment of a poet and an unusual sense of melody,
where was he lacking in what makes a great poet? In power of expression.
He never attained, except in a few poems, that union of sound and sense
which is characteristic of the best poetry. The touch of finality is not
in his words; the subtle charm of verse outside of the melody and the meaning
is not his -- he failed to get the last "touches of vitalizing force."
He did not, as Lowell said of Keats, "rediscover the delight and wonder
that lay enchanted in the dictionary." He did not attain
to "the perfection and the precision of the instantaneous line."
Take his poem "Remonstrance", for instance. It is a strong utterance
against tyranny and intolerance and bigotry, hot from his soul;
but the expression is not worthy of his feeling. A few lines
of Lowell's "Fable for Critics" about freedom are better.
The same may be said of his attack on agnosticism in "Acknowledgment".
"Corn", while representing an extremely poetical situation,
leaves one with the feeling of incompleteness: the ideas
are not adequately or felicitously expressed. There is melody
in the "Marsh Song at Sunset", but the poem is not clear.
Or take what many consider his masterpiece, "Sunrise".
There is one of the most imaginative situations a poet could have, --
the ecstasy of the poet's soul as he rises from his bed to go to the forest,
the silence of the night, the mystery of the deep green woods,
the coming of "my lord, the Sun." There is nothing in American poetry that
goes beyond the sweep and range of this conception. But look at the words;
with the exception of the first stanza and those that describe the dawn,
there is a nervousness of style, a strain of expression. If one compare
even the best parts with the "Evening of Extraordinary Splendor and Beauty"
by Wordsworth, he sees the difference in the art of expression.
There is in Wordsworth's poem the romantic mood, -- the same uplift of soul
in the presence of the greater phenomena of nature, -- but there is
a classic restraint of form; it is "emotion recollected in tranquillity."
What, then, is the explanation of this defect in Lanier?
Undoubtedly lack of time to revise his work is one cause.
Speaking of one of his poems, he said, "Being cool next day, I find some flaws
in my poem." And again, "On seeing the poem in print, I find it faulty;
there's too much matter in it." Sickness, poverty, and hard work
prevented him from having that repose which is the proper mood of the artist.
He had to write as long a poem as "The Symphony" in four days,
the "Psalm of the West" in a few weeks. "Sunrise" was dictated
on his death-bed. The revision of "Corn" and of all other poems
which I have been able to compare with the first drafts shows conclusively
that he had the power of improving his work. With more time
he might have achieved with all of his poems some of the results attained
by such careful workmen as Tennyson and Poe.
But lack of time for revision will not explain all.
There were certain temperamental defects in Lanier as poet.
There was a lack of spontaneous utterance. Writing once of Swinburne,
he used words that characterize well one phase of his own work:
"It is always the Fourth of July with Mr. Swinburne. It is impossible
in reading this strained laborious matter not to remember
that the case of poetry is precisely that where he who conquers,
conquers without strain. There was a certain damsel who once came
to King Arthur's court, `gert' (as sweet Sir Thomas Malory hath it)
`with a sword for to find a man of such virtue to draw it
out of the scabbard.' King Arthur, to set example to his knights,
first essayed, and pulled at it eagerly, but the sword would not out.
`Sir,' said the damsel, `ye need not to pull half so hard,
for he that shall pull it out shall do it with little might.'"
This is not to say that Lanier simulated poetic expression,
but his words are not inevitable enough. He often lacked simplicity.
Furthermore, he suffered from a tendency to indulge in fancies,
"sucking sweet similes out of the most diverse objects."
He was inoculated with the "conceit virus" of the seventeenth century.
In a letter already quoted, he pointed out this defect to his father,
and he never overcame it. He did not restrain his luxuriant imagination.
The poem "Clover" is almost spoiled by the conceit of the ox
representing the "Course-of-things" and trampling upon
the souls (the clover-blossoms) of the poets. "Sunrise" is marred
by the figure of the bee-hive from which the "star-fed Bee,
the build-fire Bee, . . . the great Sun-Bee," emerges in the morning.
Such examples might be easily multiplied.
Lanier was undoubtedly hampered, too, by his theory of verse. The very poem
"Special Pleading", in which he said that he began to work out his theory,
is a failure. Alliteration, assonance, compound words, personifications,
are greatly overused. Some of the rhymes are as grotesque as Browning's.
Instead of the perfect union of sound and sense, there is often
a mere chanting of words.
It is futile to deny these tendencies in Lanier. They vitiate
more than half his poems, and are defects even in some of the best.
Sometimes, in his very highest flight, he seems to have been winged
by one of these arrows. But it is equally futile to deny
that he frequently rises above all these limitations and does work that is
absolutely unique, and original, and enduring. Distinction must be made,
as in the case of every other man who has marked qualities of style,
between his good work and his bad work. He has done enough good work
to entitle him to a place among the genuine poets of America.
No American anthology would be complete that did not contain
some dozen or more of his poems, and no study of American poetry
would be complete that did not take into consideration twice this number.
It is too soon yet to fix upon such poems, but surely
they may be found among the following: such lyrics as
"An Evening Song", "My Springs", "A Ballad of Trees and the Master",
"Betrayal", "Night and Day", "The Stirrup-Cup", and "Nirvana";
such sonnets as "The Mocking-Bird" and "The Harlequin of Dreams";
such nature poems as "The Song of the Chattahoochee",
"The Waving of the Corn", and "From the Flats"; such poems of high seriousness
as "Individuality", "Opposition", "How Love looked for Hell",
and "A Florida Sunday"; such a stirring ballad as "The Revenge of Hamish";
the opening lines and the Columbus sonnets of the "Psalm of the West";
and the longer poems, "The Symphony", "Sunrise", and "The Marshes of Glynn".
The first may be quoted as an illustration of Lanier's lyric quality.
Those who have heard it sung to the music of Mr. Dudley Buck
can realize to some extent Lanier's idea of the union of music and poetry: --
Look off, dear Love, across the shallow sands,
And mark yon meeting of the sun and sea,
How long they kiss in sight of all the lands.
Ah! longer, longer, we.
Now in the sea's red vintage melts the sun,
As Egypt's pearl dissolved in rosy wine,
And Cleopatra night drinks all. 'T is done,
Love, lay thine hand in mine.
Come forth, sweet stars, and comfort heaven's heart;
Glimmer, ye waves, round else unlighted sands.
O night! divorce our sun and sky apart,
Never our lips, our hands.
Throughout his poems -- some of them imperfect enough as wholes --
there are lines that come from the innermost soul of poetry: --
But the air and my heart and the earth are a-thrill.
The little green leaves would not let me alone in my sleep.
Beyond the bend of roads.
I lie as lies yon placid Brandywine,
Holding the hills and heavens in my heart
Sweet visages of all the souls of time
Whose loving service to the world has been
In the artist's way expressed.
A perfect life in perfect labor wrought.
The artist's market is the heart of man;
The artist's price, some little good of man.
He summ'd the words in song.
The whole sweet round
Of littles that large life compound!
My brain is beating like the heart of Haste.
Where an artist plays, the sky is low.
Thou 'rt only a gray and sober dove,
But thine eye is faith and thy wing is love.
Oh, sweet, my pretty sum of history,
I leapt the breadth of Time in loving thee!
Music is love in search of a word.
His song was only living aloud,
His work, a singing with his hand!
And Science be known as the sense making love to the All,
And Art be known as the soul making love to the All,
And Love be known as the marriage of man with the All.
Indeed, if one had to rely upon one poem to keep alive the fame of Lanier,
he could single out "The Marshes of Glynn" with assurance
that there is something so individual and original about it,
and that, at the same time, there is such a roll and range of verse in it,
that it will surely live not only in American poetry but in English.
Here the imagination has taken the place of fancy, the effort
to do great things ends in victory, and the melody of the poem corresponds
to the exalted thought. It has all the strong points of "Sunrise",
with but few of its limitations. There is something of
Whitman's virile imagination and Emerson's high spirituality
combined with the haunting melody of Poe's best work. Written in 1878,
when Lanier was in the full exercise of all his powers,
it is the best expression of his genius and one of the few
great American poems.
The background of the poem -- as of "Sunrise" -- is the forest,
the coast and the marshes near Brunswick, Georgia. Early in life
Lanier had been thrilled by this wonderful natural scenery,
and later visits had the more powerfully impressed his imagination.
He is the poet of the marshes as surely as Bryant is of the forests,
or Wordsworth of the mountains.
The poet represents himself as having spent the day in the forest
and coming at sunset into full view of the length and the breadth
and the sweep of the marshes. The glooms of the live-oaks
and the emerald twilights of the "dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,"
have been as a refuge from the riotous noon-day sun. More than that,
in the wildwood privacies and closets of lone desire he has known
the passionate pleasure of prayer and the joy of elevated thought.
His spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within, -- he is ready
for what Wordsworth calls a "god-like hour": --
But now when the noon is no more, and riot is rest,
And the sun is a-wait at the ponderous gate of the West,
And the slant yellow beam down the wood-aisle doth seem
Like a lane into heaven that leads from a dream, --
Ay, now, when my soul all day hath drunken the soul of the oak
And my heart is at ease from men, and the wearisome sound of the stroke
Of the scythe of time and the trowel of trade is low,
And belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know,
And my spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within,
That the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn
Will work me no fear like the fear they have wrought me of yore
When length was fatigue, and when breadth was but bitterness sore,
And when terror and shrinking and dreary unnamable pain
Drew over me out of the merciless miles of the plain, --
Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face
The vast sweet visage of space.
To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn,
Where the gray beach glimmering runs, as a belt of the dawn,
For a mete and a mark
To the forest-dark: --
Affable live-oak, leaning low, --
Thus -- with your favor -- soft, with a reverent hand
(Not lightly touching your person, Lord of the land!)
Bending your beauty aside, with a step I stand
On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.
. . . . .
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.
Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.
. . . . .
As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.
And the sea lends large, as the marsh: lo, out of his plenty the sea
Pours fast: full soon the time of the flood-tide must be:
Look how the grace of the sea doth go
About and about through the intricate channels that flow
Here and there,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
Farewell, my lord Sun!
The creeks overflow: a thousand rivulets run
'Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of the marsh-grass stir;
Passeth a hurrying sound of wings that westward whirr;
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease to run;
And the sea and the marsh are one.
How still the plains of the waters be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
And it is night.
And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep
Roll in on the souls of men,
But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvelous marshes of Glynn.
In the light of such a poem Lanier's poetry and his life
take on a new significance. The struggles through which he passed
and the victory he achieved are summed up in a passage which may well be
the last word of this biography. For Sidney Lanier was
The catholic man who hath mightily won
God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.
[End of original text.]
Notes to the text:
The illustrations cannot be included in this ASCII edition.
This list of illustrations originally followed the table of contents:
List of Illustrations
Sidney Lanier in 1870. (Photogravure.) Frontispiece
Sidney Lanier at the age of fifteen, in 1857
Sidney Lanier in 1866, from a "carte de visite" photograph
in possession of Mr. Milton H. Northrup, of Syracuse, N.Y.
Mary Day Lanier in 1873
Facsimile of one of Lanier's earliest existing musical scores,
written at the age of 19
Facsimile of letter to Charlotte Cushman
Bronze bust of Sidney Lanier by Ephraim Keyser
The index, being unnecessary, has been omitted.
The following changes were made to the text:
Throughout the text, contractions including "n't", as in "isn't", "wasn't",
"wouldn't", etc., were in the original text given in an older form,
e.g. "is n't", "was n't", "would n't", etc. These occurrences
have been modernised.
"his thin hands tightly clinched,"
"his thin hands tightly clenched,"
"In another letter (June 29, 1866) he encloses a photograph* and comments on"
(accompanied by the footnote: "* See p. 54.", referring to
a "carte de visite" photograph facing that page, which cannot be included
in this ASCII text)
"In another letter (June 29, 1866) he encloses a photograph and comments on"
"English annalists and poets, -- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Mallory,"
"English annalists and poets, -- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory,"
(the latter spelling is given in every other instance in the book).
"This is the sixth letter I've written since nine o'clock to night,"
"This is the sixth letter I've written since nine o'clock to-night,"
"The Song of the Chattahooche" changed to: ". . . Chattahoochee".
The poem by Mrs. Lawrence Turnbull had only the ending quotation mark
in the original text. An opening quotation mark was added.
"Where men his Self must see,"
"Where men his Self must see."
`"Corn" while representing'
`"Corn", while representing'
`"An Evening Song", "My Springs", "A Ballad of the Trees and the Master",'
`"An Evening Song", "My Springs", "A Ballad of Trees and the Master",'
The numerous references to "Shakspere" were NOT standardized to "Shakespeare",
although both spellings occur in the text. This is primarily due
to the references to Lanier's book, "Shakspere and His Forerunners".
Please note that other titles relating to Lanier are also now online.
Accents cannot be displayed correctly in ASCII. The following lines
are given to show where accents occurred in the original:
notably the Moncures, the Maurys, the Latane/s, and the Flournoys,
characteristic of the old re/gime.
(and other occurrences of "regime")
They fe^ted me to death, nearly. . . . Indeed, they were all
"His dialogue reads too often like a catalogue `raisonne/' of his library."
A party of hunters -- including Philip Sterling and Paul Ru"betsahl,
(and other occurrences of "Ruebetsahl")
"A terrible me^le/e of winged opposites is forever filling the world
into contemporary life, and occasionally an exquisite lyric like "Nirva^na".
(and other occurrences of "Nirvana")
play his overture to `Tannha"user'. The `Music of the Future' is surely
found a seat, and the ba^ton tapped and waved, and I plunged into the sea,
(and other occurrences of "baton")
of the San Fernando Cathedral and of the Mission San Jose/ de Aquayo
into `La Me/lancolie', which melted itself forth with such eloquent lamenting
The director of the Peabody Orchestra, who had been a pupil of Von Bu"low,
(and other occurrences of "Buelow")
the Germania Ma"nnerchor Orchestra, -- one of the many companies of Germans
with appealing to the (ae)sthetic emotions of an audience,
(and other occurrences of "aesthetic" and "aesthetical")
with stringing notes together -- mere trouve\res of a day --
She was the daughter of the Marquis de la Figanie\re,
when this now-hatching brood of my Ephemer(ae) shall take flight
without enjoying the poet's nai"ve enthusiasm and his clear insight
by followers of Arnold and Brunetie\re, after many class-room
that the English poetry written between the time of Aldhelm and C(ae)dmon
(and other occurrences of "Caedmon")
with deeds of manhood before Zu"tphen and touch their hearts
and had coo"perated with him in the series of lectures
how to coo"perate with other men in the prosecution of inquiry."
These lectures, suggested by those given at the Colle/ge de France,
Gayarre/'s histories, the "War between the States", by Alexander H. Stephens,
(and other occurrences of "Gayarre")
open-minded not prejudiced, modern and not medi(ae)val. His characteristics
of the e/lite of all ages encircles a mountain which is dominated
before it displays its magic, like the modern spiritualistic se/ance-givers
how blank, world-bound, and wearying is the stone fac,ade of hopelessness
thoroughly musical; Sophocles and (Ae)schylus were both teachers of the chorus.
to King Arthur's court, `ge/rt' (as sweet Sir Thomas Malory hath it)
End of this Etext of "Sidney Lanier", by Edwin Mims
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