Selections from Sidney Lanier by Sidney Lanier PDF

My rating and review for this book applies only to the poetry; I didn't read the short prose selections, which are included without any notes about their provenance or context, because it was Lanier as a poet that interested me.This was one of the books I read when we were homeschooling our girls, as background for teaching American literature. At the time I took, and kept, two pages of notes on the individual poems, which serve to supplement my recollection from some 17 years ago.

Lanier (1842-1881) died before he was 40 of the persistent tuberculosis he contracted during the Civil War, when he was imprisoned four months as a POW in a Union military prison.In his short life, however, he produced a considerable literary output, mostly of poetry.From what I've read of his work and that of other late 19th century American poets who began writing after the Civil War, I would class him in the first rank.Being tone deaf, I'm not qualified to assess his theory of poetry, which posits a very close relationship between poetry and music (he was a highly proficient musician who played the flute professionally and taught at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music, as well as teaching English literature at Johns Hopkins Univ.); but it says something about his seriousness as a poet that he actually developed a literary theory of the subject. His style is recognizably a continuation of the Romantic tradition; his major themes are a vital Christian faith, a love of nature, and a fervently democratic and equalitarian social thought.

This particular volume, edited by the poet's son Henry, collects 23 of his poems.Both of his best known poems, which celebrate the natural world of his native Georgia, "The Marshes of Glynn"and "Song of the Chattahoochee," are included.The former poem is particularly memorable in the way he uses nature itself as a central metaphor for, and pointer to, spiritual realities.My own favorite, though, is "The Power of Prayer, or, The First Steamboat Up the Alabama."This is a dramatic monologue (a form often associated with Robert Browning; Lanier uses it as adeptly, IMO), in which the speaker is Jim, an aged, blind black man come to the riverside with young Dinah (presumably his granddaughter), perhaps to fish.Like most blacks and whites of the backwoods South in that day, Jim doesn't possess much knowledge of the outside world; but he does possess an abiding trust in his Lord.The sudden approach of what we know (from the title) to be a steamboat —which Jim can't see, to recognize as man-made technology— terrifies Dinah, and Jim interprets it the only way he can, as a physical manifestation of Satan materializing to attack them.Modern critics would probably view this as racist ridicule of a black person, and the more so because Jim speaks in the black dialect of that day, which includes using the term "nigger" at times to refer to himself.(Blacks actually did use the word the way he does, and in their mouths it wasn't a racial slur —obviously, they weren't slurring themselves, DUH!— but simply a colloquialism.)An obvious reply to this would be that Jim has to speak the poem in the first person for it to have the effect it does, and it would be absurd for him to speak in the language of an urban college professor.(The point could be made that being ashamed of black dialect, as if it actually IS something to be ashamed of, is not somehow a pro-black stance; it's actually a smug, patronizing reflection of the white liberals' belief that the way they speak is the norm that everybody else who speaks English should follow, but that it's commendably gracious to pretend that others speak that way even if they lamentably don't. :-()More importantly and basically, though, the clearly intended message of the poem ISN"T "Tee-hee, look at the ignorant black man," but rather, "Wow, look at what unselfish guts and simple trust this humble black man, confronted by something terrifying and wholly outside his experience, can display through his faith in God."It's obvious where Lanier's admiration is aimed; and the modern critical reaction only serves to demonstrate that there's more than one way to be tone deaf.

"The Revenge of Hamish" is another of the more powerfully memorable poems of the collection, and probably stayed with me so intensely because I respond best to poems that tell stories, which this one, very much in the ballad tradition, certainly does —but it's an exceedingly dark and grim story that it tells.Some of the other more noteworthy poems here are: "A Song of the Future," which uses Noah's experience on the Ark, in just two short stanzas, as a metaphor for all of life's new beginnings; "The Symphony," one of the clearest expressions of Lanier's passion for social justice; and "A Ballad of Trees and the Master."

Henry W. Lanier's 24-page Introduction, basically a mini-biography of his father, with a short critical appreciation of the poems, enhances the book, and provides a good basic (though obviously not unbiased) introduction to the man and his work.
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