Genius, and other essays/Sidney Lanier



CERTAINLY all who care for whatsoever things are pure, lovely, and of good report, must be deeply concerned in the record and ending of Lanier's earthly pilgrimage; concerned no less, if ever they chanced to meet him, in the mingled softness and strength of his nature, the loyalty with which he sang his song, pursued his researches, and took the failures and successes of his consecrated life. For, if there ever was a pilgrim who bore a vow, or a life consecrate to an ideal, such a votary was this poet-artist, and so manifestly ordered was his too-brief life.

You will speak to one another of his brave spirit, of the illness and trials that handicapped him, and of the cheerful industry with which he went through daily tasks, and yet so often escaped to the region of poetry and art. That he had the graceful and practical talent that can adapt itself to use, and give pleasure to the simplest minds, was proved by his admirable books for the young, and the professional labors fresh in your recollection. But in the mould of Lanier, as in that of every real poet, the imaginative qualities and the sense of beauty governed and gave tone to all other senses and motive powers. He was first of all a poet and artist, and of a refined and novel order.

No man, in fact, displayed more clearly the poetic and artistic temperaments in their extreme conjunction. It may be said that they impeded, rather than hastened, his power of adequate expression. He strove to create a new language for their utterance, and a method of his own. To reach the effects toward which his subtle instincts guided him, he required a prolonged lifetime of experiment and discovery; and to him how short a life was given—and that how full of impediment! He had scarcely sounded the key-note of his overture when the bow fell from his hand; and beyond all this he meant to compose, not an air or a tune, but a symphony—one involving all harmonic resources, and combinations before unknown.

I find that I am involuntarily using the diction of music to express the purpose of his verse, and this fact alone has a bearing upon what he did, and what he did not do, as an American poet. What seemed affectation in him was his veritable nature, which differed from, and went beyond, or outside, that of other men. He gave us now and then some lyric, wandering or regular, that was marked by sufficient beauty, pathos, weirdness, to show what he might have accomplished, had he been content to sing spontaneously—as very great poets have sung—without analyzing his processes till the song was done. But Lanier was a musician, and still heard in his soul "the music of wondrous melodies." He had, too, the constructive mind of the artist who comprehends the laws of form and tone. How logical was his exposition of the mathematics of beauty is seen in that unique work, The Science of English Verse.

Now it is a question whether, Art being so long, and Time so fleeting, a poet should consider too anxiously the rationale of his song. Again, he strove to demonstrate in his verse the absolute co-relations of music and poetry—and seemed at times to forget that rhythm is but one component of poetry, albeit one most essential. While music is one of the poet's servitors, and must ever be compelled to his use, there still remains that boundary of Lessing's between the liberties of the two arts, though herein less sharply defined than between those of poetry and painting. The rhythm alone of Lanier's verse often had a meaning to himself that others found it hard to understand. Of this he was conscious. In a letter to me, he said that one reason for his writing The Science of English Verse was, that he had some poems which he hoped soon to print, but which "he could not hope to get understood, generally, without educating their audience." To this he added that the task was "inexpressibly irksome" to him, and that he "never could have found courage to endure it save for the fact that in all directions the poetic art was suffering from the shameful circumstance that criticism was without a scientific basis for even the most elementary of its judgments."

If, in dwelling upon the science of his art, he hampered the exercise of it, he was none the less a man of imagination, of ideality; none the less, at first sight, in bearing, features, conversation, a poet and lover of the beautiful. His name is added to the names of those whose haunting strain

Ends incomplete, while through the starry night,
The ear still waits for what it did not tell.

Yet the sense of incompleteness and of regret for his broken life is tempered by the remembrance that the most suggestive careers of poets have not always been those which were fully rounded, but often of those whose voices reach us from early stages of the march which it was not given them long to continue.

  1. A letter to President Gilman, of Johns Hopkins University, read at the Memorial Gathering to Sidney Lanier. The Critic, November 5, 1881.