Sidney Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia on February 3, 1842. His father, Robert Lanier, was a lawyer, and his mother, Mary Anderson, was linked through her Virginian ancestry to members of Virginia’s original House of Burgesses. In the poet’s youth in central Georgia, it was music that first captured his interest. He learned to play the violin, flute, piano, banjo and guitar.
Lanier’s proclivity for music was an early sign of his budding genius. By age fourteen, he enrolled as a sophomore at Oglethorpe College, where he graduated at the top of his class. At eighteen, he was offered a tutorship at the college, a position that he held until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, Lanier was summoned to enlist in the Confederate Army. Serving alongside his brother, his battalion endured numerous battles, ending in his capture and imprisonment near Richmond, Virginia. Five months later, in February, 1865, he was released and permitted the long journey home. However, the unfavorable conditions of prison led Lanier to contract tuberculosis, which troubled him for the rest of his life.
Upon returning from the war, Lanier completed and soon published his first book: a novel detailing the gruesome hardships of war, titled Tiger Lilies (Hurd & Houghton), published in 1867. In the same year, he took the head position in a country academy in Prattville, Alabama. By December, he was married to Miss Mary Day, of Macon. A month later, he suffered his first hemorrhage in the lungs. In addition to treatments and growing exhaustion, Lanier’s artistic temperament was split by his love for both music and literature. After practicing law with his father for several years, he was urged to consider that profession, to which Lanier responded in a letter:
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...think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances...these two figures of music and of poetry have steadily kept in my heart so that I could not banish them.
In 1874, Lanier published his poem “Corn,” which earned him many admirers, one of whom, Bayard Taylor, commissioned the poet to write the cantata for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The next few years were poetically Lanier’s most productive. He wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” “A Song of Love,” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” his most celebrated poem. An offer to teach English literature took him to Baltimore and, in 1879, Lanier was appointed lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.
Having grown quite feeble by late 1880, Lanier penned his last poem, “Sunrise,” and months later, on September 7, 1881, the poet died in Lynn, North Carolina, with his wife and family at his side, at the age of thirty-nine.
By his wife’s efforts following his death, Sidney Lanier’s poems were collected and published in a single volume, from which his readership grew. A fondness for the poet seems to exist most deeply in the South, where he is commemorated by Lake Lanier as well as the Sidney Lanier Bridge, the state’s largest cable-stayed bridge, which opened in 2003 in Brunswick, Georgia.