Sidney Lanier by Edwin Watts Chubb

Next to Poe, Sidney Lanier ranks as the foremost of the poets of the South. In character Lanier is one of the rarest and purest of souls. His life was so chaste, his ideals so high, his devotion to his art so unselfish that he has been called "the Sir Galahad among American poets." Dr. Gilman, who in his capacity as president of Johns Hopkins University had frequent opportunities to observe Lanier, who was an instructor in this institution, has made the following comment,—"The appearance of Lanier was striking. There was nothing eccentric or odd about him, but his words, manners, ways of speech, were distinguished. I have heard a lady say that if he took his place in a crowded horse-car, an exhilarating atmosphere seemed to be introduced by his breezy ways."

He was born in Georgia in 1842. After graduation from a small college in his native state and then serving as tutor for a short time, he entered the Confederate army. During his war experiences, whether in the field or in prison, he studied poetry and played the flute. These two arts were his passions for life. While yet in his college days he had acquired a fine reputation as a flute-player. At eighteen he was said to be the best flute-player in Georgia. One of his college friends at the time made record of his admiration in writing,—"Tutor Lanier is the finest flute-player you or I ever saw. It is perfectly splendid—his playing. He is far-famed for it. His flute cost fifty dollars, and he runs the notes as easily as any one on the piano."

The passionate love of his sensitive soul is revealed in this poetic description of a visit to the opera:

"I have just come in from the Tempest at the Grand Opera House ... and my heart is so full.... In one interlude between the scenes we had a violin solo, adagio, with soft accompaniment by orchestra. As the fair tender notes came, they opened like flower-buds expanding into flowers under the sweet rain of the accompaniment. Kind heavens! My head fell on the seat in front, I was weighed down with great loves and great ideas and divine inflowings and devout outflowings, and as each note grew and budded, and became a bud again and died into a fresh birth in the next bud tone, I also lived these flower-tone lives, and grew and expanded, and folded back and died and was born again, and partook of the unfathomable mysteries of flowers and tones." And at another time he writes in the same vein,—"'Twas opening night of Theodore Thomas' orchestra at Central Park Garden, and I could not resist the temptation to go and bathe in the sweet amber seas of this fine orchestra, and so I went, and tugged me through a vast crowd, and, after standing some while, found a seat, and the baton waved, and I plunged into the sea, and lay and floated. Ah! the dear flutes and oboes and horns drifted me hither and thither, and the great violins and small violins swayed me upon waves, and overflowed me with strong lavations, and sprinkled glistening foam in my face, and in among the clarinetti, as among waving water-lilies with plexile stems, pushed my easy way, and so, even lying in the music waters, I floated and flowed, my soul utterly bent and prostrate." Who has ever written more expressively of that ecstasy that lays hold of the sensuous soul of the lover of fine music?

Lanier is one of the heroic souls of song. Like Stevenson he was cheery enough to jest about his poverty. His contest with the demon of Want seems to have been fiercer even than was the warfare waged by the gay romancer. Lanier wishes to meet Charlotte Cushman, but he is not sure that he can; he must sell a poem or two to get the price of a suitable new dress coat. "Alas," he writes to the lady herself, in that gay spirit of humor which is the strong defense of some sensitive souls, "with what unspeakable care I would have brushed this present garment of mine in days gone by, if I had dreamed that the time would come when so great a thing as a visit to you might hang upon the little length of its nap! Behold, it is not only in man's breast that pathos lies, and the very coat lapel that covers it may be a tragedy."

The poetic temperament is commonly supposed to be at variance with domestic tranquillity. The domestic life of Lanier is a contradiction to that popular belief. He ends one of his letters to his wife with this petition,—"Let us lead them (the children) to love everything in the world, above the world, and under the world adequately; that is the sum and substance of a perfect life. And so God's divine rest be upon every head under the roof that covers thine this night, prayeth thy husband."

In his letter to Gibson Peacock, January 6, 1878, we have a charming picture of the delight of a man who has at last found a place to nest his family, after some years of forlorn wanderings and uncertainties:

"...I have also moved my family into our new home, have had a Christmas tree for the youngsters, have looked up a cheap school for Harry and Sidney, have discharged my daily duties as first flute of the Peabody Orchestra, have written a couple of poems and part of an essay on Beethoven and Bismarck, have accomplished at least a hundred thousand miscellaneous nothings.... We are in a state of supreme content with our new home; it really seems to me as incredible that myriads of people have been living in their own homes heretofore; as to the young couple with a first baby it seems impossible that a great many other couples have had similar prodigies. Good heavens! how I wish that the whole world had a home.

"I confess that I am a little nervous about the gas bills, which must come in, in the course of time; and there are the water rates, and several sorts of imposts and taxes; but then the dignity of being liable to such things is a very supporting consideration. No man is a Bohemian who has to pay a water tax and a street tax. Every day when I sit down in my dining-room—my dining-room! I find the wish growing stronger that each poor soul in Baltimore, whether saint or sinner, could come and dine with me. How I would carve out the merry-thoughts for the old hags! How I would stuff the big wan-eyed rascals till their rags ripped again! There was a knight of old times who built the dining-hall of his castle across the highway, so that every wayfarer must perforce pass through; there the traveler, rich or poor, found always a trencher and wherewithal to fill it. Three times a day in my own chair at my own table, do I envy that knight and wish that I might do as he did."