Though his life was cut short by tuberculosis (he once wrote that his entire adult life, from Confederate soldier to ill scholar, had been spent trying to avoid death), Sidney Lanier left behind a full catalog of poetry for the soul. His odes to nature, love, God, and the spirit of humanity should be better known among the American public, even among American scholars, but as with most Southern literary figures he is virtually forgotten. Such a politically incorrect man does not deserve the attention of enlightened academics. Much of his work was set to music and he believed poetry had to be read in rhythm. It was a form of art that should inspire beautific visions of the heavens. It should massage the soul. Music provided the soundtrack, but good poetry built from human experience would already create a tone, a sound, a harmony, an image in the mind. Lanier does this better than most.
Below are two of his more famous works. The first, “Hymns of the Marshes,” is a song dedicated to God and the agrarian South written near the end of Lanier’s life. The second is a poem written in honor of the river that dominated life near his home in Georgia, the Chattahoochee. One can find in both a reverence for the Old South, the last hedge against industrialization, consumerism, and the fanatic scheming reformers of the North, a section Lanier knew well after spending many years far from home. These are the things that define the Southern tradition, the small bits of sweet nectar that drip into our veins and quench our thirst for better places and better times. They remind man of home and of peace among the bounty of heaven. A piece he wrote for the flute, “Wind Song,” follows the poems.
HYMNS OF THE MARSHES.
IN my sleep I was fain of their fellowship, fain
Of the live-oak, the marsh, and the main.
The little green leaves would not let me alone in my sleep;
Up-breathed from the marshes, a message of range and of sweep,
Interwoven with waftures of wild sea-liberties, drifting,
Came through the lapped leaves sifting, sifting,
Came to the gates of sleep.
Then my thoughts, in the dark of the dungeon-keep
Of the Castle of Captives hid in the City of Sleep,
Upstarted, by twos and by threes assembling:
The gates of sleep fell a-trembling
Like as the lips of a lady that forth falter yes,
Shaken with happiness:
The gates of sleep stood wide.
I have waked, I have come, my beloved! I might not abide:
I have come ere the dawn, O beloved, my live-oaks, to hide
In your gospelling glooms, – to be
As a lover in heaven, the marsh my marsh and the sea my sea.
Tell me, sweet burly-bark’d, man-bodied Tree
That mine arms in the dark are embracing, dost know
From what fount are these tears at thy feet which flow?
They rise not from reason, but deeper inconsequent deeps.
Reason’s not one that weeps.
What logic of greeting lies
Betwixt dear over-beautiful trees and the rain of the eyes?
O cunning green leaves, little masters! like as ye gloss
All the dull-tissued dark with your luminous darks that emboss
The vague blackness of night into pattern and plan,
(But would I could know, but would I could know,)
With your question embroid’ring the dark of the question of man, –
So, with your silences purfling this silence of man
While his cry to the dead for some knowledge is under the ban,
Under the ban, –
So, ye have wrought me
Designs on the night of our knowledge, – yea, ye have taught me,
That haply we know somewhat more than we know.
Ye lispers, whisperers, singers in storms,
Ye consciences murmuring faiths under forms,
Ye ministers meet for each passion that grieves,
Friendly, sisterly, sweetheart leaves,
Oh, rain me down from your darks that contain me
Wisdoms ye winnow from winds that pain me, –
Sift down tremors of sweet-within-sweet
That advise me of more than they bring, – repeat
Me the woods-smell that swiftly but now brought breath
From the heaven-side bank of the river of death, –
Teach me the terms of silence, – preach me
The passion of patience, – sift me, – impeach me, –
And there, oh there
As ye hang with your myriad palms upturned in the air,
Pray me a myriad prayer.
My gossip, the owl, – is it thou
That out of the leaves of the low-hanging bough,
As I pass to the beach, art stirred?
Dumb woods, have ye uttered a bird?
Reverend Marsh, low-couched along the sea,
Old chemist, rapt in alchemy,
Distilling silence, – lo,
That which our father-age had died to know –
The menstruum that dissolves all matter – thou
Hast found it: for this silence, filling now
The globéd clarity of receiving space,
This solves us all: man, matter, doubt, disgrace,
Death, love, sin, sanity,
Must in yon silence’ clear solution lie.
Too clear! That crystal nothing who’ll peruse?
The blackest night could bring us brighter news.
Yet precious qualities of silence haunt
Round these vast margins, ministrant.
Oh, if thy soul’s at latter gasp for space,
With trying to breathe no bigger than thy race
Just to be fellow’d, when that thou hast found
No man with room, or grace enough of bound
To entertain that New thou tell’st, thou art, –
‘Tis here, ’tis here thou canst unhand thy heart
And breathe it free, and breathe it free,
By rangy marsh, in lone sea-liberty.
The tide’s at full: the marsh with flooded streams
Glimmers, a limpid labyrinth of dreams.
Each winding creek in grave entrancement lies
A rhapsody of morning-stars. The skies
Shine scant with one forked galaxy, –
The marsh brags ten: looped on his breast they lie.
Oh, what if a sound should be made!
Oh, what if a bound should be laid
To this bow-and-string tension of beauty and silence a-spring, –
To the bend of beauty the bow, or the hold of silence the string!
I fear me, I fear me yon dome of diaphanous gleam
Will break as a bubble o’er-blown in a dream, –
Yon dome of too-tenuous tissues of space and of night,
Over-weighted with stars, over-freighted with light,
Over-sated with beauty and silence, will seem
But a bubble that broke in a dream,
If a bound of degree to this grace be laid,
Or a sound or a motion made.
But no: it is made: list! somewhere, – mystery, where?
In the leaves? in the air?
In my heart? is a motion made:
‘Tis a motion of dawn, like a flicker of shade on shade.
In the leaves ’tis palpable: low multitudinous stirring
Upwinds through the woods; the little ones, softly conferring,
Have settled my lord’s to be looked for; so; they are still;
But the air and my heart and the earth are a-thrill, –
And look where the wild duck sails round the bend of the river, –
And look where a passionate shiver
Expectant is bending the blades
Of the marsh-grass in serial shimmers and shades, –
And invisible wings, fast fleeting, fast fleeting,
The dark overhead as my heart beats, – and steady and free
Is the ebb-tide flowing from marsh to sea –
(Run home, little streams,
With your lapfulls of stars and dreams), –
And a sailor unseen is hoisting a-peak,
For list, down the inshore curve of the creek
How merrily flutters the sail, –
And lo, in the East! Will the East unveil?
The East is unveiled, the East hath confessed
A flush: ’tis dead; ’tis alive: ’tis dead, ere the West
Was aware of it: nay, ’tis abiding, ’tis unwithdrawn:
Have a care, sweet Heaven! ‘Tis Dawn.
Now a dream of a flame through that dream of a flush is up rolled:
To the zenith ascending, a dome of undazzling gold
Is builded, in shape as a bee-hive, from out of the sea:
The hive is of gold undazzling, but oh, the Bee,
The star-fed Bee, the build-fire Bee,
Of dazzling gold is the great Sun-Bee
That shall flash from the hive-hole over the sea.
Yet now the dew-drop, now the morning gray,
Shall live their little lucid sober day
Ere with the sun their souls exhale away.
Now in each pettiest personal sphere of dew
The summ’d morn shines complete as in the blue
Big dew-drop of all heaven: with these lit shrines
O’er-silvered to the farthest sea-confines,
The sacramental marsh one pious plain
Of worship lies. Peace to the ante-reign
Of Mary Morning, blissful mother mild,
Minded of nought but peace, and of a child.
Not slower than Majesty moves, for a mean and a measure
Of motion, – not faster than dateless Olympian leisure
Might pace with unblown ample garments from pleasure to pleasure, –
The wave-serrate sea-rim sinks unjarring, unreeling,
Forever revealing, revealing, revealing,
Edgewise, bladewise, halfwise, wholewise, – ’tis done!
Good-morrow, lord Sun!
With several voice, with ascription one,
The woods and the marsh and the sea and my soul
Unto thee, whence the glittering stream of all morrows doth roll,
Cry good and past-good and most heavenly morrow, lord Sun.
O Artisan born in the purple, – Workman Heat, –
Patter of passionate atoms that travail to meet
And be mixed in the death-cold oneness, – innermost Guest
At the marriage of elements, – fellow of publicans, – blest
King in the blouse of flame, that loiterest o’er
The idle skies yet laborest fast evermore, –
Thou, in the fine forge-thunder, thou, in the beat
Of the heart of a man, thou Motive, – Laborer Heat:
Yea, Artist, thou, of whose art yon sea’s all news,
With his inshore greens and manifold mid-sea blues,
Pearl-glint, shell-tint, ancientest perfectest hues
Ever shaming the maidens, – lily and rose
Confess thee, and each mild flame that glows
In the clarified virginal bosoms of stones that shine,
It is thine, it is thine:
Thou chemist of storms, whether driving the winds a-swirl
Or a-flicker the subtiler essences polar that whirl
In the magnet earth, – yea, thou with a storm for a heart,
Rent with debate, many-spotted with question, part
From part oft sundered, yet ever a globéd light,
Yet ever the artist, ever more large and bright
Than the eye of a man may avail of: – manifold One,
I must pass from thy face, I must pass from the face of the Sun:
Old Want is awake and agog, every wrinkle a-frown;
The worker must pass to his work in the terrible town:
But I fear not, nay, and I fear not the thing to be done;
I am strong with the strength of my lord the Sun:
How dark, how dark soever the race that must needs be run,
I am lit with the sun.
Oh, never the mast-high run of the seas
Of traffic shall hide thee,
Never the heil-colored smoke of the factories
Never the reek of the time’s fen-politics
And ever my heart through the night shall with knowledge abide thee,
And ever by day shall my spirit, as one that hath tried thee,
Labor, at leisure, in art, – till yonder beside thee
My soul shall float, friend Sun,
The day being done.
SAIL on, sail on, fair cousin Cloud:
Oh loiter hither from the sea.
Still-eyed and shadow-brow’d,
Steal off from yon far-drifting crowd,
And come and brood upon the marsh with me.
Yon laboring low horizon-smoke,
Yon stringent sail, toil not for thee
Nor me; did heaven’s stroke
The whole deep with drown’d commerce choke,
No pitiless tease of risk or bottomry
Would to thy rainy office close
Thy will, or lock mine eyes from tears,
Part wept for traders’-woes,
Part for that ventures mean as those
In issue bind such sovereign hopes and fears.
– Lo, Cloud, thy downward countenance stares
Blank on the blank-faced marsh, and thou
Mindest of dark affairs;
Thy substance seems a warp of cares;
Like late wounds run the wrinkles on thy brow.
Well may’st thou pause, and gloom, and stare,
A visible conscience: I arraign
Thee, criminal Cloud, of rare
Contempts on Mercy, Right, and Prayer, –
Of murders, arsons, thefts, – of nameless stain
(Yet though life’s logic grow as gray
As thou, my soul’s not in eclipse.)
Cold Cloud, but yesterday
Thy lightning slew a child at play,
And then a priest with prayers upon his lips
For his enemies, and then a bright
Lady that did but ope the door
Upon the storming night
To let a beggar in, – strange spite,
And then thy sulky rain refused to pour
Till thy quick torch a barn had burned
Where twelve months’ store of victual lay,
A widow’s sons had earned;
Which done, thy floods with winds returned, –
The river raped their little herd away.
What myriad righteous errands high
Thy flames might run on! In that hour
Thou slewest the child, oh why
Not rather slay Calamity,
Breeder of Pain and Doubt, infernal Power?
Or why not plunge thy blades about
Some maggot politician throng
Swarming to parcel out
The body of a land, and rout
The maw-conventicle, and ungorge Wrong?
What the cloud doeth
The Lord knoweth,
The cloud knoweth not.
What the artist doeth,
The Lord knoweth;
Knoweth the artist not?
Well-answered! – O dear artists, ye
– Whether in forms of curve or hue
Or tone your gospels be –
Say wrong This work is not of me,
But God: it is not true, it is not true.
Awful is Art because ’tis free.
The artist trembles o’er his plan
Where men his Self must see.
Who made a song or picture, he
Did it, and not another, God nor man.
My Lord is large, my Lord is strong:
Giving, He gave: my me is mine.
How poor, how strange, how wrong,
To dream He wrote the little song
I made to Him with love’s unforced design!
Oh, not as clouds dim laws have plann’d
To strike down Good and fight for Ill, –
Oh, not as harps that stand
In the wind and sound the wind’s command:
Each artist – gift of terror! – owns his will.
For thee, Cloud, – if thou spend thine all
Upon the South’s o’er-brimming sea
That needs thee not; or crawl
To the dry provinces, and fall
Till every convert clod shall give to thee
Green worship; if thou grow or fade,
Bring on delight or misery,
Fly east or west, be made
Snow, hail, rain, wind, grass, rose, light, shade;
What matters it to thee? There is no thee.
Pass, kinsman Cloud, now fair and mild:
Discharge the will that’s not thine own.
I work in freedom wild,
But work, as plays a little child,
Sure of the Father, Self, and Love, alone.
MARSH SONG – AT SUNSET.
OVER the monstrous shambling sea,
Over the Caliban sea,
Bright Ariel-cloud, thou lingerest:
Oh wait, oh wait, in the warm red West, –
Thy Prospero I’ll be.
Over the humped and fishy sea,
Over the Caliban sea
O cloud in the West, like a thought in the heart
Of pardon, loose thy wing, and start,
And do a grace for me.
Over the huge and huddling sea,
Over the Caliban sea,
Bring hither my brother Antonio, – Man, –
My injurer: night breaks the ban:
Brother, I pardon thee.
THE MARSHES OF GLYNN.
GLOOMS of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs, –
Emerald twilights, –
Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
The wide sea-marshes of Glynn; –
Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noon-day 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; –
O braided dusks of the oak and woven shades of the vine,
While the riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long did shine
Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine;
But now when the noon is no more, and riot is rest,
And the sun is a-wait at the ponderous gate of the West,
And the slant yellow beam down the wood-aisle doth seem
Like a lane into heaven that leads from a dream, –
Ay, now, when my soul all day hath drunken the soul of the oak,
And my heart is at ease from men, and the wearisome sound of the stroke
Of the scythe of time and the trowel of trade is low,
And belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know,
And my spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within,
That the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn
Will work me no fear like the fear they have wrought me of yore
When length was fatigue, and when breadth was but bitterness sore,
And when terror and shrinking and dreary unnamable pain
Drew over me out of the merciless miles of the plain, –
Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face
The vast sweet visage of space.
To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn,
Where the gray beach glimmering runs, as a belt of the dawn,
For a mete and a mark
To the forest-dark: –
Affable live-oak, leaning low, –
Thus – with your favor – soft, with a reverent hand,
(Not lightly touching your person, Lord of the land!)
Bending your beauty aside, with a step I stand
On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.
Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band
Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.
Inward and outward to northward and southward the beachlines linger and curl
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows the firm sweet limbs of a girl.
Vanishing, swerving, evermore curving again into sight,
Softly the sand-beach wavers away to a dim gray looping of light.
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.
Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.
Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
Ye spread and span like 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.
As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space ‘twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.
And the sea lends large, as the marsh: lo, out of his plenty the sea
Pours fast: full soon the time of the flood-tide must be:
Look how the grace of the sea doth go
About and about through the intricate channels that flow
Here and there,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
Farewell, my lord Sun!
The creeks overflow: a thousand rivulets run
‘Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of the marsh-grass stir;
Passeth a hurrying sound of wings that westward whirr;
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease to run;
And the sea and the marsh are one.
How still the plains of the waters be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
And it is night.
And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep
Roll in on the souls of men,
But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn.
SONG OF THE CHATTAHOOCHEE.
OUT of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover’s pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.
All down the hills of Habersham,
All through the valleys of Hall,
The rushes cried Abide, abide,
The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said Stay,
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.
High o’er the hills of Habersham,
Veiling the valleys of Hall,
The hickory told me manifold
Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall
Wrought me her shadowy self to hold,
The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine,
Overleaning, with flickering meaning and sign,
Said, Pass not, so cold, these manifold
Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
These glades in the valleys of Hall.
And oft in the hills of Habersham,
And oft in the valleys of Hall,
The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
– Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet and amethyst –
Made lures with the lights of streaming stone
In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
In the beds of the valleys of Hall.
But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call –
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
Calls o’er the hills of Habersham,
Calls through the valleys of Hall.