Sidney Lanier

Sidney Clopton Lanier[1] (February 3, 1842 – September 7, 1881) was an American musician, poet and author. He served in the Confederate States Army as a private,[2] worked on a blockade-running ship for which he was imprisoned (resulting in his catching tuberculosis), taught, worked at a hotel where he gave musical performances, was a church organist, and worked as a lawyer. As a poet he sometimes used dialects. Many of his poems are written in heightened, but often archaic, American English. He became a flautist and sold poems to publications. He eventually became a professor of literature at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and is known for his adaptation of musical meter to poetry. Many schools, other structures and two lakes are named for him, and he became hailed in the South as the "poet of the Confederacy".[3] A 1972 US postage stamp honored him as an "American poet".

Sidney Lanier
BornSidney Clopton Lanier
(1842-02-03)February 3, 1842
Macon, Georgia
DiedSeptember 7, 1881(1881-09-07) (aged 39)
Lynn, North Carolina
Resting placeGreen Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland


Sidney Clopton Lanier was born February 3, 1842, in Macon, Georgia,[4] to parents Robert Sampson Lanier and Mary Jane Anderson; he was mostly of English ancestry. His distant French Huguenot ancestors immigrated to England in the 16th century, fleeing religious persecution. He began playing the flute at an early age, and his love of that musical instrument continued throughout his life. He attended Oglethorpe University, which at the time was near Milledgeville, Georgia, and he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He graduated first in his class shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War.[5] He returned to Oglethorpe the next year, as a tutor, and befriended Milton Harlow Northrup, a New York native, who was a conductor at the school.[6]

During the war, he fought primarily in the tidewater region of Virginia, where he served in the Confederate signal corps. Later, he and his brother Clifford served as pilots aboard English blockade runners,[7] and Lanier's ship, the Lucy, was captured by the USS Santiago de Cuba, on November 3, 1864. Refusing to take the advice of the British officers on board to don one of their uniforms and pretend to be one of them, he was captured.[8] He was incarcerated in a military prison at Point Lookout in Maryland, where he contracted tuberculosis[9] (generally known as "consumption" at the time).[10] He suffered greatly from this disease, then incurable and usually fatal, for the rest of his life.

Sidney Lanier

Shortly after the war, he taught school briefly,[9] then moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he worked as a night clerk at the Exchange Hotel (a hotel partly owned by his grandfather; his brother Clifford also worked there and became a part owner after the war[11]), and also performed as a musician. He was the regular organist at the First Presbyterian Church in nearby Prattville. He wrote his only novel, Tiger Lilies (1867), while in Alabama.[12]

This novel was partly autobiographical, describing a stay in 1860 at his grandfather's Montvale Springs resort hotel near Knoxville, Tennessee.[13] In 1867, he moved to Prattville, at that time a small town just north of Montgomery, where he taught and served as principal of a school.

He married Mary Day of Macon in 1867[9] and moved back to his hometown, where he began working in his father's law office.

After passing the Georgia bar, Lanier practiced as a lawyer for several years.[9] During this period he wrote a number of lesser poems, using the "cracker" and "negro" dialects of his day, about poor white and black farmers in the Reconstruction South. He traveled extensively through southern and eastern portions of the United States in search of a cure for his tuberculosis.

While on one such journey in Texas, he rediscovered his native and untutored talent for the flute and decided to travel to the northeast in hopes of finding employment as a musician in an orchestra. Unable to find work in New York City, Philadelphia, or Boston, he signed on to play flute for the Peabody Orchestra in Baltimore, Maryland,[9] shortly after its organization. He taught himself musical notation and quickly rose to the position of first flautist. He was famous in his day for his performances of a personal composition for the flute called "Black Birds", which mimics the song of that species.

In an effort to support Mary and their three sons, he also wrote poetry for magazines. His most famous poems were "Corn" (1875), "The Symphony" (1875), "Centennial Meditation" (1876), "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877),[9] "The Marshes of Glynn", (1878)[9] and "A Sunrise Song" (1881). The latter two poems are generally considered his greatest works. They are part of an unfinished set of lyrical nature poems known as the "Hymns of the Marshes", which describe the vast, open salt marshes of Glynn County on the coast of Georgia. (The longest bridge in Georgia is in Glynn County and is named for Lanier.)

Later life

Later in his short 39-year life, he became a student, lecturer, and, finally, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, specializing in the works of the English novelists,[9] Shakespeare, the Elizabethan sonneteers, Chaucer, and the Old English poets. He published a series of lectures entitled The English Novel (published posthumously in 1883) and a book entitled The Science of English Verse (1880), in which he developed a novel theory exploring the connections between musical notation and meter in poetry.

The house in which Lanier died.
Memorial stone for Lanier.

Lanier finally succumbed to complications caused by his tuberculosis[9] on September 7, 1881, while convalescing with his family near Lynn, North Carolina. He was 39. He is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Writing style and literary theory

With his theory connecting musical notation with poetic meter, and also being described as a deft metrical technical,[14] in his own words 'daring with his poem 'Special Pleading' to give myself such freedom as I desired, in my own style'[15] and also by developing a unique style of poetry written in logaoedic dactyls, which was strongly influenced by the works of his beloved Anglo-Saxon poets. He wrote several of his greatest poems in this meter, including "Revenge of Hamish" (1878), "The Marshes of Glynn" and "Sunrise". In Lanier's hands, the logaoedic dactylic meter led to a free-form, almost prose-like style of poetry that was greatly admired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Bayard Taylor, Charlotte Cushman, and other leading poets and critics of the day. The "sprung verse" metric developed by Gerard Manley Hopkins at about the same time superficially resembles Lanier's practice but shows no influence (and there is no evidence that they knew each other or that either of them had read any of the other's works).

Lanier also published essays on other literary and musical topics and a notable series of four redactions of literary works about knightly combat and chivalry in modernized language more appealing to the boys of his day:

He also wrote two travelogues that were widely read at the time, entitled Florida: Its Scenery, Climate and History (1875) and Sketches of India (1876) (although he never visited India).

Legacy and honors

1972 U.S. postage stamp, Sidney Lanier – American Poet

The Sidney Lanier Cottage in Macon, Georgia, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The square stone Four Southern Poets Monument, located between 7th and 8th Stresets in Augusta, lists Lanier as one of Georgia's four great poets, all of whom were in the Confederate military.[16] The southeastern side bears this inscription: "To Sidney Lanier 1842–1880. 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." The other poets on the monument are James Ryder Randall, Fr. Abram Ryan, and Paul Hayne.

Baltimore honored Lanier with a large and elaborate bronze and granite sculptural monument, created by Hans K. Schuler and located on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University. In addition to the monument at Johns Hopkins, Lanier was also later memorialized on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Upon the construction of the iconic Duke Chapel between 1930 and 1935 on the university's West Campus, a statue of Lanier was included alongside two fellow prominent Southerners, Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee.[17] This statue, which appears to show a Lanier older than the 39 years he actually lived, is situated on the right side of the portico leading into the chapel narthex. It is prominently featured on the cover of the 2010 autobiographical memoir Hannah's Child, by Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist theologian teaching at Duke Divinity School.[18]

The United Daughters of the Confederacy worked successfully to enhance Lanier's legacy.[19]

Lanier's poem "The Marshes of Glynn" is the inspiration for a cantata by the same name that was created by the modern English composer Andrew Downes to celebrate the Royal Opening of the Adrian Boult Hall in Birmingham, England, in 1986.

Piers Anthony used Lanier, his life, and his poetry in his science-fiction novel Macroscope (1969). He quotes from "The Marshes of Glynn" and other references appear throughout the novel.

In 1980, Yugoslav rock band Lutajuća Srca recorded the song "Večernja pesma", featuring lyrics from Lanier's "An Evening Poem" in Serbo-Croatian, the song becoming a minor hit for the band.[20]

Several entities have been named for Sidney Lanier. Among them are:

Inhabited places

  • Lanier Street Residential street, Decatur, Alabama
  • Sidney Lanier Ave residual street, Athens, GA.
  • Lanier Heights Neighborhood, Washington, D.C.
  • Lanier County, Georgia
    • Indirectly, USS Lanier, which was named for the county.
  • Lanier Avenue, Fayetteville, GA.

Bodies of water



Sidney Lanier sat under this oak tree and was inspired to write the poem "The Marshes of Glynn".
  • Sidney Lanier Cottage, the birthplace of Lanier, in Macon, Georgia
  • Sidney Lanier Bridge over the South Brunswick River in Brunswick, Georgia
  • Sidney Lanier Monument, a monument in Piedmont Park in Atlanta
  • Lanier's Oak in Brunswick, Georgia
  • The Lanier Library, Tryon, North Carolina. Lanier's widow, Mary, donated two of his volumes of poetry to begin the collection when the library was established in 1890.
  • Sidney Lanier Camp, Eliot, Maine.
  • Sidney Lanier Boulevard in Duluth, GA
  • The Sidney Lanier Suite at The Harwood Cottage at Historic Macon, GA
  • The World War II Liberty Ship SS Sidney Lanier was named in his honor.
  • A 1972 US eight-cent postage stamp: "Sidney Lanier - American poet"
  • Sidney Lanier Memorial Scholarship at the University of California, Los Angeles[26]
  • Lanier Island, in the Mackay River in Glynn County, Georgia.


  1. "Sidney Clopton Lanier". Netstate. September 24, 2009. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  2. Lomax, John (January 14, 2016). "Should Houston's Lanier Middle School Lose Its Name Because Of Confederate Ties?". TexasMonthly.
  3. Noble, Don (May 5, 2014). "Review of Brother Sid: A Novel of Sidney Lanier". NPR. Retrieved August 23, 2018.
  4. Anderson, Charles Robert. Sidney Lanier: Poems and Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969: 90.
  5. Starke 33
  6. Starke 38
  7. Compiled service records of Confederate Soldiers who served in organizations raised directly by the Confederate Government. Series: Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Confederate Organizations , 1903 - 1927. National Archives. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  8. Starke 65
  9. "Sidney Lanier/Prattville Male and Female Academy Site". Historical Marker Database. Retrieved September 24, 2015.
  10. George, Christopher T. "Sidney Lanier—Baltimore's Southern Poet-Musician".
  11. Blue, Matthew Powers; Neeley, Mary Ann (2010). The Works of Matthew Blue: Montgomery's First Historian. NewSouth Books. p. 64. ISBN 9781588380319.
  12. Blount, Serena (June 26, 2013). "Sidney Lanier". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  13. Martin, C. Brenden (2007). Tourism in the Mountain South: A Double-edged Sword. Univ. of Tennessee Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-57233-575-2. Retrieved December 22, 2013.
  14. C. K. Williams, article in Poets on Poets Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1997 ISBN 9781857543391
  15. Letter by the poet in The Poems of Sidney Lanier (ed Mary D Lanier). kindle ebook ASIN B004UJ86TE
  16. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on March 6, 2012. Retrieved April 30, 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. "The Stonesetters". Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. Retrieved April 29, 2010.
  18. "Frankies Confederate Monuments and Memorials of the South".
  19. Noble, Don (May 5, 2014). "Brother Sid: A Novel of Sidney Lanier". Retrieved March 22, 2019.
  20. Janjatović, Petar (2007). EX YU ROCK enciklopedija 1960–2006. Belgrade: self-released. p. 138.
  21. Sidney Lanier School Archived February 28, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  22. Lanier Elementary School website
  23. Lanier Viking High School Website
  24. Lanier Middle School in Fairfax website
  25. City of Fairfax Schools press release
  26. "Sidney Lanier Memorial Scholarship". University of California Los Angeles-Scholarships. Retrieved May 10, 2021.

Further reading

  • De Bellis, Jack. Sidney Lanier, Poet of the Marshes, in Southern Literature Series. Atlanta, Ga.: Georgia Humanities Council, 1988. ISBN 0-8203-1319-X (assigned to the University of Georgia Press).
  • Fish, Tallu. Sidney Lanier, America's Sweet Singer of Songs. Cynthiana, Ky.: Privately Printed ... [for distribution by] Betty Fish Smith, 1988. Without ISBN
  • Fishburne, Charles C., junior. Sidney Lanier, Poet of the Marshes, Visits Cedar Keys [in] 1875. Cedar Key, Flor.: Sea Hawk Publications, 1986. Without ISBN
  • Gabin, Jane S. A Living Minstrelsy: The Poetry and Music of Sidney Lanier. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985. ISBN 0-86554-155-8
  • Lamar, May. Brother Sid. Montgomery, AL.: The Donnell Group, 2012. ISBN 0988416506.
  • Starke, Aubrey Harrison. Sidney Lanier: A Biographical and Critical Study. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1933.
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