Having checked out his collected poems from my public library, I got a chance to read a short biography of this remarkable poet, the value of which biography is that it was written in 1929 by a man who knew Lanier and his wife. Sydney Lanier had one of those short and heartbreaking artistic lives. He was descended from an illustrious line founded by artists and courtiers; his family had been present in America since the early 1700’s. His father was a lawyer who somewhat discouraged Sydney from his first passion, which was music.
As we join the story, we find a young prodigy struggling with what he finds in himself. Violin music has a habit of knocking the future poet nearly insensible with an agony of delight, so his father enjoins the flute on him instead, in fear for his health. He later becomes what sober musical judges consider the greatest living flute player – a flautist who somehow manages to make the flute sound like a violin.
His father wants him to do something practical and make money. His music is to be merely a hobby. Lanier is torn; and then the Civil War settles everything. Lanier and his younger brother join up together (they are from Georgia) and for several years their service experience is not too terrible. They manage to stick together in the same appointments for a long time, and everywhere he goes Sydney takes his flute. Despite the relative ease – and at times, luxury – of his initial experience, Sydney is oppressed by “the tyranny and Christlessness of war.” He is a Presbyterian who, as his life goes on, will prove unable to be really be confined to the Presbyterian creed; a Protestant who cannot imagine being other than such, but who imagines a Protestantism other than it really is: divided, harsh, and unimaginative.
Then things turn bad; Sydney contracts consumption. It’s a death sentence, and he will only last another 15 years or so after the war.
Sydney spends several months in a northern POW camp, having managed to smuggle in but one possession – his flute, which he hid in his sleeve. After the war, he goes to work but his illness drives him around the country, seeking a better climate which is the only hope for extending his life. His biographer opines that his flute, since it exercised his lungs, probably extended his life a great deal. Thanks, Dad.
He becomes a schoolmaster for a short time, and marries a local girl, Mary Day. The appointment which provides him his wife doesn’t last long, however, due to his illness.
He soon goes north and finds that the sea air along the coast does wonders for him. Baltimore, Maryland, becomes his adoptive city. Here at last he gives up his fitful and unsuccessful attempt to have the sort of life his father imagines for him. He joins the orchestra and becomes the first flute, a musician of temporary renown. He first begins to meet other people who care about art and beauty as he does, and he is confirmed in thinking of himself as “a genius” according to the concepts of the day. These concepts distinguish between mere talent and something apart – a divine inspiration or birthright which drives a few great souls to choose between madness and unfulfillment on the one hand, or following the path laid out for them by their native abilities and profound ideas, on the other. Perhaps this sort of idea is necessary in a time when fathers are so apt to insist on gainful employment, and publishers so unapt to provide it.
“The philosophy of my disappointment is, that there is so much cleverness standing betwixt me and the public… Richard Wagner is sixty years old and over, and one-half of the most cultivated artists of the most cultivated art-land, quoad music, still think him an absurdity. Says Schumann in one of his letters: ‘The publishers will not listen to me for a moment;’ and dost thou not remember Schubert, and Richter, and John Keats, and a sweet host more?” – (from a letter to his wife)
(C. S. Lewis, always striving with the conscience of a later day to subdue the thought of his own genius to the requirements of Christian humility, makes a similar complaint against “The Clevers” in The Pilgrim’s Regress, but later, in the added notes of a subsequent edition, apologizes for it as uncharitable.)
Lanier begins to study Old English, and becomes a master of the language and its literature in a few years. He also reads widely – not only in poetry, for this (despite music’s being his first love) is his chosen path – but also in every other subject of interest, including theology and science. He believes that genuine knowledge – the deeper, the better – is the true prerequisite for the art of invention one employs in good poetry.
(This view accords with the later reasoning of C. S. Lewis, who in the short essay “Image and Imagination,” argues originally for the idea, hardly itself original, that true invention does not arise ex nihilo, but is always a recombination of the ideas of real things. No poet can think of something utterly new; it is impossible.)
To Lanier, who greatly admires his contemporary E. A. Poe, the great dark poet’s real flaw is the shallowness of his knowledge, which fails to provide him a deep enough well of invention for his admittedly brilliant inventive facility.
A digression, because I might as well: Poe’s own sympathetic short biographer (Baudelaire, no less,) might have disagreed; he says that Poe was an academic prodigy who distinguished himself by “an intelligence quasi-miraculous” – but unfortunately, also by “a sinister abundance of passions” which prevented him from actually doing well in his very excellent school, and afterward at West Point. Poe, he says, “manifested the most remarkable aptitude for the physical and mathematical sciences. Later on he made a frequent use of these in his strange stories, drawing from them resources altogether unexpected.” After school, Poe went east – I mean East – to help the Greeks fight for their freedom from their Muslim occupiers, and ended up in Russia. Little was known, when Baudelaire wrote, about what happened to him there (and I don’t know if anything has been found out since, because my primary interest in reading such short biographies is to trace the history of thought about art) but at least one cannot say that his life was insular. Baudelaire further comments that as soon as Poe entered on a public literary career, his “thorough and broad education now stood him in good stead.”
However, given that Poe was expelled from every school he attended after a certain age, one wonders exactly how much of that education he really absorbed. Perhaps Lanier was right; if Poe’s education was the foundation of his success, perhaps a deeper learning might have made him more undisputably the master of letters which his extreme talent forced him to act as, ready or not.
At any rate, I suspect on the other hand that Poe was more successful than Lanier in transforming his knowledge and ideas into imaginational artifacts (the reason, no doubt, why the French Symbolists, to include Baudelaire, adored him so) where Lanier is more lucid and often propositional. Lanier, like his antecessor Robert Frost, uses metaphor but never, so far as I can tell, symbol. I do not fault him for that; it is an example of one of those virtues whose opposite is another virtue; a poet may have to choose between metaphor and symbol, but that does not mean that one is good and the other evil. They may simply be incompatible goods, in a physical world where every choice implies the denial of some other option, good or bad.
Lanier, to pick up the story’s thread again, thinks for himself, and not in dependence on others, and develops his own unique and even idiosyncratic ideas about art, beauty, and poetry. Not unnaturally, he re-imagines poetic meter as a musical thing. English meter, he determines, is only nominally related to the Greek and Latin meters from which our dactyls and iambs take their name. In reality, all English verse has an underlying 3/8 time – each foot is made up of three implicit 8th notes, and which of these beats are stressed (or indeed, occupied) creates the rhythm.
He also believes precisely what I believe – that moral beauty is not fundamentally a thing apart from other kinds of beauty. Aesthetics is not an amoral thing. Amoral and immoral art will be inherently flawed, as art. This belief is based upon an assumption which our predominant artistic establishment has long abandoned – a belief shared by Poe, at least, and probably others, but certainly not universally accepted in his own time (as illustrated by Baudelaire, Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, and many other leading lights of the time) – which belief is that the aim of art and the regard of artists is first, beauty.
“Can not one say with authority to the young artist, whether working in stone, in color, in tones, or in character-forms of the novel: So far from dreading that your moral purpose will interfere with your beautiful creation, go forward in the clear conviction that unless you are suffused – soul and body, one might say – with that moral purpose which finds its largest expression in love; that is, unless you are suffused with this love, do not dare to meddle with beauty; unless you are suffused with beauty, do not dare to meddle with love; unless you are suffused with truth, do not dare to meddle with goodness; in a word, unless you are suffused with truth, wisdom, goodness, and love, abandon the hope that the ages will accept you as an artist.”
He develops these ideas in self-conscious but unbitter despite of all the prevailing and fashionable theories of the time.
“My experience in the varying judgments given about poetry… has all converged upon one solitary principle, and the experience of the artist in all ages is reported by history to be of precisely the same direction. That principle is, that the artist shall put forth, humbly and lovingly, and without bitterness against opposition, the very best and highest that is within him, utterly regardless of contemporary criticism. What possible claim can contemporary criticism set up to respect – that criticism which crucified Jesus Christ, stoned Stephen, hooted Paul for a madman, tried Luther for a criminal, tortured Galileo, bound Columbus in chains, drove Dante into a hell of exile, made Shakespeare write the sonnet, ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,’ gave Milton five pounds for ‘Paradise Lost,’ kept Samuel Johnson cooling his heels on Lord Chesterfield’s doorstep, reviled Shelley as an unclean dog, killed Keats, cracked jokes on Gluck, Schubert, Beethoven, Berlioz, and Wagner, and committed so many other impious follies and stupidities that a thousand letters like this could not suffice even to catalogue them?”
The story about Keats is not actually held to be true in our own day; and he may have inadvertently exaggerated to some extent in other places. Nevertheless, his point is made. It is not the public that routinely flouts newly-arrived genius, original thought, and surprising art. It is invariably the “clever” artistic establishment, trying to pass judgment on a phenomenon it does not understand from the inside.
Not unnaturally, however, Lanier leaves behind a criticism of his own, not published but in his private notes – written in a lively, personal, and qualitative measure reminiscent somewhat of that wit for which Dryden is still famous.
On the critically-adored Whitman, this felicitous and utterly true assessment:
“Whitman is poetry’s butcher. Huge raw collops slashed from the rump of poetry, and never mind gristle – is what Whitman feeds our souls with.”
“As near as I can make it out, Whitman’s argument seems to be, that, because a prairie is wide, therefore debauchery is admirable, and because the Mississippi is long, therefore every American is God.”
Oh, well said, sir.
“He invited me to eat; the service was silver and gold, but no food therein save pepper and salt.”
I know the feeling.
Here’s William Morris:
“He caught a crystal cupful of the yellow light of sunset, and persuading himself to dream it wine, he drank it with a sort of smile.”
One can’t help smiling oneself. Elsewhere he complains that Morris’ crowd can only write about a certain kind of death and a certain kind of eros… a diminished and somewhat degrading palette.
His own imaginative well is deeper and more varied but hardly prudish; he tells his wife that he is inundated every day by “wind after wind of heavenly melody” – to include the
“very inner spirit and essence of all wind-songs, bird-songs, passion-songs, folk-songs, country-songs, sex-songs, soul-songs, and body-songs… each wave is at once a vision and a melody.”
And of course, Lanier is writing a new kind of poetry this whole time, and he’s beginning to have a public. The rest of his life is an intense struggle against time and the disease to leave behind some measure of his “genius.”
Here’s a poem written in Baltimore, in 1880.
At midnight, death’s and truth’s unlocking time,
When far within the spirit’s hearing rolls
The great soft rumble of the course of things —
A bulk of silence in a mask of sound, —
When darkness clears our vision that by day
Is sun-blind, and the soul’s a ravening owl
For truth and flitteth here and there about
Low-lying woody tracts of time and oft
Is minded for to sit upon a bough,
Dry-dead and sharp, of some long-stricken tree
And muse in that gaunt place, — ’twas then my heart,
Deep in the meditative dark, cried out:
“Ye companies of governor-spirits grave,
Bards, and old bringers-down of flaming news
From steep-wall’d heavens, holy malcontents,
Sweet seers, and stellar visionaries, all
That brood about the skies of poesy,
Full bright ye shine, insuperable stars;
Yet, if a man look hard upon you, none
With total lustre blazeth, no, not one
But hath some heinous freckle of the flesh
Upon his shining cheek, not one but winks
His ray, opaqued with intermittent mist
Of defect; yea, you masters all must ask
Some sweet forgiveness, which we leap to give,
We lovers of you, heavenly-glad to meet
Your largesse so with love, and interplight
Your geniuses with our mortalities.
Thus unto thee, O sweetest Shakespeare sole,
A hundred hurts a day I do forgive
(‘Tis little, but, enchantment! ’tis for thee):
Small curious quibble; Juliet’s prurient pun
In the poor, pale face of Romeo’s fancied death;
Cold rant of Richard; Henry’s fustian roar
Which frights away that sleep he invocates;
Wronged Valentine’s unnatural haste to yield;
Too-silly shifts of maids that mask as men
In faint disguises that could ne’er disguise —
Viola, Julia, Portia, Rosalind;
Fatigues most drear, and needless overtax
Of speech obscure that had as lief be plain;
Last I forgive (with more delight, because
‘Tis more to do) the labored-lewd discourse
That e’en thy young invention’s youngest heir
Besmirched the world with.
Father Homer, thee,
Thee also I forgive thy sandy wastes
Of prose and catalogue, thy drear harangues
That tease the patience of the centuries,
Thy sleazy scrap of story, — but a rogue’s
Rape of a light-o’-love, — too soiled a patch
To broider with the gods.
Thou dear and very strong one, I forgive
Thy year-worn cloak, thine iron stringencies
That were but dandy upside-down, thy words
Of truth that, mildlier spoke, had mainlier wrought.
So, Buddha, beautiful! I pardon thee
That all the All thou hadst for needy man
Was Nothing, and thy Best of being was
But not to be.
Worn Dante, I forgive
The implacable hates that in thy horrid hells
Or burn or freeze thy fellows, never loosed
By death, nor time, nor love.
And I forgive
Thee, Milton, those thy comic-dreadful wars
Where, armed with gross and inconclusive steel,
Immortals smite immortals mortalwise
And fill all heaven with folly.
Brave Aeschylus, thee I forgive, for that
Thine eye, by bare bright justice basilisked,
Turned not, nor ever learned to look where Love
So, unto thee, Lucretius mine
(For oh, what heart hath loved thee like to this
That’s now complaining?), freely I forgive
Thy logic poor, thine error rich, thine earth
Whose graves eat souls and all.
Yea, all you hearts
Of beauty, and sweet righteous lovers large:
Aurelius fine, oft superfine; mild Saint
A Kempis, overmild; Epictetus,
Whiles low in thought, still with old slavery tinct;
Rapt Behmen, rapt too far; high Swedenborg,
O’ertoppling; Langley, that with but a touch
Of art hadst sung Piers Plowman to the top
Of English songs, whereof ’tis dearest, now,
And most adorable; Caedmon, in the morn
A-calling angels with the cow-herd’s call
That late brought up the cattle; Emerson,
Most wise, that yet, in finding Wisdom, lost
Thy Self, sometimes; tense Keats, with angels’ nerves
Where men’s were better; Tennyson, largest voice
Since Milton, yet some register of wit
Wanting; — all, all, I pardon, ere ’tis asked,
Your more or less, your little mole that marks
You brother and your kinship seals to man.
But Thee, but Thee, O sovereign Seer of time,
But Thee, O poets’ Poet, Wisdom’s Tongue,
But Thee, O man’s best Man, O love’s best Love,
O perfect life in perfect labor writ,
O all men’s Comrade, Servant, King, or Priest, —
What if or yet, what mole, what flaw, what lapse,
What least defect or shadow of defect,
What rumor, tattled by an enemy,
Of inference loose, what lack of grace
Even in torture’s grasp, or sleep’s, or death’s, —
Oh, what amiss may I forgive in Thee,
Jesus, good Paragon, thou Crystal Christ?”