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Sidney Lanier


On February 3, 1842, Sidney Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia. 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.

His proclivity for music was an early sign of his budding genius. By age fourteen, Lanier was 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 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. In 1867, he took the head position in a country academy in Prattville, Alabama. By December of the same year, he was married to Miss Mary Day, of Macon, and 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 his 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 brought him to Baltimore, Maryland, and in 1879, Lanier was appointed lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.

Having grown quite feeble by late 1880, he 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.

By This Poet


The Song Of The Chattahoochee

Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover's pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.

All down the hills of Habersham,
All through the valleys of Hall,
The rushes cried 'Abide, abide,'
The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said 'Stay,'
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed 'Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.'

High o'er the hills of Habersham,
Veiling the valleys of Hall,
The hickory told me manifold
Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall
Wrought me her shadowy self to hold,
The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine,
Overleaning, with flickering meaning and sign,
Said, 'Pass not, so cold, these manifold
Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
These glades in the valleys of Hall.'

And oft in the hills of Habersham,
And oft in the valleys of Hall,
The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
-- Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet and amethyst --
Made lures with the lights of streaming stone
In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
In the beds of the valleys of Hall.

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

The Marshes of Glynn

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven 
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven 
  Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,-- 
                        Emerald twilights,-- 
                        Virginal shy lights, 
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows, 
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades 
Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods, 
  Of the heavenly woods and glades, 
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within 
        The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;-- 
Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noon-day fire,-- 
Wildwood privacies, closets of lone desire, 
Chamber from chamber parted with wavering arras of leaves,-- 
Cells for the passionate pleasure of prayer to the soul that grieves, 
Pure with a sense of the passing of saints through the wood, 
Cool for the dutiful weighing of ill with good;-- 
O braided dusks of the oak and woven shades of the vine, 
While the riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long did shine 
Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine; 
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. 
  Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band 
  Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land. 
Inward and outward to northward and southward the beach-lines linger and curl 
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows 
    the firm sweet limbs of a girl. 
Vanishing, swerving, evermore curving again into sight, 
Softly the sand-beach wavers away to a dim gray looping of light. 
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. 
Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free 
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea! 
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun, 
Ye spread and span like 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. 
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 marvellous marshes of Glynn.

[I am but a small-winged bird]

     I am but a small-winged bird:
But I will conquer the big world
     As the bee-martin beats the crow,
By attacking it always from Above.