Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Flute-playing poet, composer, and lecturer Sidney Lanier dead of tuberculosis at 39

 Poor Sidney Lanier, for whom a middle school in Houston has been named since 1926, recently suffered the indignity of having his name removed from the school, owing to his participation in the Civil War on the Confederate side.  The sad irony, of course, is that Lanier is hardly known for his military service and was honored, not for that, but for his later achievements as a poet, musician, and faculty member of Johns Hopkins University.

Born in Macon, Georgia, on February 3, 1842, to descendants of French Huguenots, Lanier studied the flute as a child and then attended Oglethorpe University, graduating at age seventeen as class valedictorian. When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered and served mostly as a pilot and signal officer aboard British blockade-runners, smuggling supplies past Union ships.  He was captured by Union forces and imprisoned for five months at Point Lookout in Maryland, where he became infected with tuberculosis, which plagued him for the rest of his brief life. At war's end, he had to walk all the way home to Macon, arriving desperately ill.

He taught school in Macon and then went to work as a desk clerk at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama.   Adept at not only the flute, but also the banjo, violin, guitar, piano, and organ, he entertained hotel guests with his music, and served as organist at the First Presbyterian church. He also wrote his only novel, Tiger-Lilies, an anti-war autobiographical work published in 1867.  The same year he moved to Prattville, Alabama, became a school principal, and married a friend from Macon, Mary Day, with whom he had four sons.

Returning to Macon, he took up the practice of law, as his health worsened from constant attacks of tuberculosis. He began to publish poetry, much of which sold well and established him as a literary figure. Most notable of his verses were "Corn" (1875), "The Symphony" (1875), "Centennial Meditation" (1876), "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877), "The Marshes of Glynn" (1878), and "Sunrise" (1881).

Seeking a better climate for his lungs, he left his family and went to Texas, where he spent time in Houston, Galveston, Austin, and San Antonio, working as a freelance musician. He left Texas in 1873 and sought permanent work in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, winding up as a member of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in Baltimore, where he soon rose to first flautist.  Lanier composed several notable works for orchestra, including “Black Birds,” a work that mimics the bird’s song on the flute.   

Lanier's family rejoined him in Baltimore, and he supported them with his work as a musician and as a poet. In the late 1870s he began to lecture on literature at Johns Hopkins University, where he was named a permanent faculty member, specializing in Shakespeare, Chaucer, English novelists, and Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Lanier maintained a lifelong Christian belief, reflected in much of his poetry, which stemmed from his college days, when he was under the influence of James Woodrow, a professor of science, who regarded science as a gift of God.  Woodrow taught the theory of evolution, for which he was condemned by the Southern Presbyterian Church, but held to his Christian faith—as did his pupil, Sidney Lanier.  In later life Lanier was unaffiliated with any denomination, but remained a devout Christian and independent thinker.

Continually suffering from tuberculosis, Lanier sought relief in North Carolina. Convalescing with his family in the small town of Lynn, he suffered complications and died on September 7, 1881. He was thirty-nine. Lanier is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

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