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Portrait of Sidney Lanier

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study. By Aubrey Harrison Starke. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $5.00.

MR. STARKE sees Sidney Lanier as a national figure of “greater social significance than is usually recognized.” He sees him as a great-souled man, if hardly great as poet, as musician, as scholar, or as critic. And yet, by means of what other closely measurable activities than music and poetry did Lanier the citizen really discover himself? And if, when we apply our tests, we find that Lanier seems always an experimenting amateur, is it not the intention and impetus of his experimentation rather than its failure in this or that direction that must determine our estimate? Despite his persistent reading, his critical researches, his efforts to formulate a prosody that would take account of the temporal pulsing common to both music and poetry, Lanier’s own verse does frequently fail in craftsmanship. His chief and characteristic faults as a poet seem to be the too frequent use of fanciful rather than imaginative figures and a sometimes questionable audacity of comparison; awkward handling of the repetend; a hoarding of phrases; an insufficient reserve; and a self-confessed pleasure in “conceits” — in euphuistic epithets and in forced compounds. Mr. Starke would add sentimentalism, didacticism, and want of spontaneity. Lanier’s “outlines” and occasional revisions trouble Mr. Starke and lead him to write of Lanier’s “failure to achieve the unfailing spontaneity of utterance which distinguishes good poetry from bad.”

The distinction can hardly be made so neatly or so simply, and Mr. Starke seems to be confounding spontaneity with abandon. He finds Lanier, on the whole, a too Victorian poet. It is true that Lanier’s work usually wears a Victorian dress, but its spirit, although appreciably influenced by Tennyson, the Brownings, Rossetti, Emerson, Ruskin, George Eliot, and Carlyle, is nevertheless itself. There is a Lanier tone; there is even something of a Lanier tradition. The wear and tear of life, poverty, war, and disease were hard on Lanier, and he had little leisure for finished work in any department of his writing. Add to all this his romantically sanguine hopes of settled employment and income, so often disappointed, and we can see how circumstance prevented him from reaping his right harvest. When Browning writes that it is possible to fail in art “only to succeed in highest art” he seems to mean that technical artifice, however important, is not first in art, but second. At his best (and both Lanier and Emerson thought that men are entitled to be judged by their best moments), Lanier produced some memorable poems. On the credit side of the account, we must recognize in him a real originality, a sensitive imagination, a large tolerance, an artist’s delight in the symbolisms and kinships of words and tones, and a high and beautiful sincerity. Indeed, he is one of the few American poets in whose finest work thought, music, imagination, invention, and feeling appear in approximate equilibrium. Although Emerson exceeds him in depth of thought, and Poe rivals him in music and passes him at times in atmospheric magic, yet Lanier is strong in music and passion where Emerson’s low-toned chantings are relatively weak; and strong in thought, where Poe seems largely messageless and too devicefully hypnotic. If there is too much of his work that does not satisfactorily support these statements, yet how much there is that does!—”The Symphony,” “My Springs” (based, I think, in both form and motif on Bryant’s “O Fairest of the Rural Maids”), “The Marshes of Glynn,” “Remonstrance,” “The Crystal,” “The Ballad of Trees and the Master,” “The Ship of Earth,” “The Revenge of Hamish,” “Sunrise.”

In addition to the influences mentioned, Lanier as poet was inspired by Langland, Chaucer, Shakespeare and other Elizabethans; by Milton, Keats, and Shelley; and by the German Romantics. His own influence (a real test of his quality) appears in Tabb and Hovey, as Mr. Starke points out, but more markedly, perhaps, in William Vaughn Moody (whose “Gloucester Moors” seems closely related to “The Ship of Earth”); in the Englishman, Francis Thompson; and in the Canadian, Archibald Lampman, whose life and work provide a curious parallel to Lanier’s.

Mr. Starke has written a good book. It is a detailed portrait, suitably framed, of the real man. Perhaps it is too sympathetic towards Lanier the artist to be altogether just; and when it essays to be strictly just it tends to become severe. Because the author has not sought to reach a purely critical conclusion, its final estimate quarrels with some of its earlier estimates; but it is a manly appraisal of Lanier the human being, well documented and capably organized, marred only by the zigzaggings of its critical course, by a few inaccuracies or over-statements, and by a few lapses in diction. For his devotion to his task, the patience and intelligence with which he has discharged it, and the grace and ease of his style, Mr. Starke deserves our thanks. His book is likely long to remain the book on Lanier.


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