The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Sidney Lanier
Sidney Lanier pic
Master of the Logaoedic Dactyl
To walk familiar citizen of the town, —
Bring Tolerance, that can kiss and disagree, —
Bring Virtue, Honor, Truth, and Loyalty, —
Bring Faith that sees with undissembling eyes, —
Bring all large Loves and heavenly Charities, —
Till man seem less a riddle unto man
And fair Utopia less Utopian,
And many peoples call from shore to shore,
'The world has bloomed again, at Baltimore!'
-from "Ode to the Johns Hopkins University"

Born in Macon, Georgia in 1842, Sidney Lanier discovered early his talent for music, soon becoming an accomplished flute player and learning to play the violin, piano, banjo, and guitar as well. He entered Oglethorpe College at age 14 and started teaching at the college at age 18. A year or so later, in 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Army. Captured aboard a blockade runner, he served five months in a prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. The conditions there led to his becoming ill and developing tuberculosis after his release; he suffered from tuberculosis for the remainder of his life.

After the war, he taught school and studied and practiced law in his father's office, wrote a novel about the Civil War (Tiger Lilies), and married another native Georgian, Mary Day. At the same time, he began to write poetry-and to travel extensively looking for better treatments for his illness.

Lanier decided to seek a job as a musician and finally found one with the Peabody Orchestra in Baltimore. During his stint with the newly organized orchestra, he composed and often performed a piece called "Black Bird." For a few years, he spent the orchestra season in Baltimore and then returned to Georgia to be with his family. However, playing in the orchestra did not provide sufficient income for Lanier and his family. (Lanier's wife gave birth to four sons between 1868 and 1880). He began to write poems and submit them to journals for extra money (now there's a get rich quick scheme!) and moved his family to Baltimore in 1877. He also returned to teaching, becoming a lecturer in English literature at Johns Hopkins University. His specialty areas were Shakespeare and the Anglo-Saxon poets, and his own poetry, experts say, was influenced by the latter. He used a meter based on the style of the Anglo-Saxon poets, logaoedic dactyls, a rhythm which approximates everyday speech, and wrote several works in it. Longfellow and other poets greatly admired his work. He also wrote a book on poetic theory, drawing a relationship between poetry rhythm and musical notation.

Later he edited popularizations of tales of chivalry for young boys and wrote two books on travel. Sidney Lanier died from tuberculosis in 1881 while resting at the home of relatives in North Carolina. After his death, Mary Lanier made sure that her husband's poems were published as a book. His most famous and well-read poem is probably "Marshes of the Glen":

"Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noonday fire,-
Wildwood privacies, closets of lone desire,
Chamber from chamber parted with wavering arras of leaves,-
Cells for the passionate pleasure of prayer to the soul that grieves,
Pure with a sense of the passing of saints through the wood,
Cool for the dutiful weighing of ill with good";-

After his death, Mary Lanier made sure that her husband's poems were published as a book. He remains popular to this day in the South, particularly in Georgia. The state named its largest cable-stayed bridge, which opened in 2003, Sidney Lanier Bridge. Lanier is buried in Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery.

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