Monumentally Speaking . . .
Christopher T. George

Sidney Lanier--Baltimore's Southern Poet-Musician

O ne of our city's most unusual and attractive monuments is the statue on North Charles Street, on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, honoring Georgia-born poet-musician Sidney Lanier. The statue by sculptor Hans Schuler was completed in 1941 and unveiled on February 3, 1942, on the centenary of Lanier's birth. The memorial is unusual in that it combines a three-dimensional statue of Lanier seated on a boulder with pad and pencil with a backgroung bas-relief showing a rising sun and the muses of poetry and music. Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia, of English and French descent. He entered Oglethorpe University, Georgia, as a sophomore in 1857, graduating joint top of his class in July 1860. While at university, Lanier proved a voracious reader and an accomplished player of the flute. No sooner had the poet-musician graduated than the Civil War convulsed this nation. On January 16, 1861, the Georgia convention voted to secede from the Union. After completing a year's work as a tutor at Oglethorpe University, Lanier enlisted in the army of the Confederacy in the Macon Volunteers. He later served as a scout in Virginia. In August 1864, he became a signal officer on board the Confederate blockade-runners operating out of Wilmington, North Carolina. On November 2, a stormy night, Lanier was a signal officer aboard the blockade-runner Lucy, which was captured fourteen hours out of Wilmington by the Federal cruiser Santiago-de-Cuba.

     Lanier spent a miserable time as a prisoner of war in Camp Point Lookout in St. Mary's County, southern Maryland. While in the prison camp, he contracted tuberculosis, and he suffered from consumption for the rest of his life. In his novel Tiger Lilies, he described the prison and the life led by prisoners. Lanier secured his release from prison through some gold which a friend smuggled into the prison in his mouth. He came out "emaciated to a skeleton, down-hearted for want of news from home, down-headed for weariness." After the war, he got work as a clerk in the Exchange Hotel, in Montgomery, Alabama, the property of his grandfather and his uncles. While the South went through the pains of Reconstruction, Lanier honed his craft as a writer. The year 1867 was to prove eventful for the young writer. His poems were published in the literary journal Round Table, the novel Tiger Lilies was published in October, and on, December 21, he married Mary Day. Lanier tried unsuccessfully to secure a position as a teacher at a southern university. However, in 1873, while on his way to New York, he stopped in Baltimore. On the advice of a friend, he auditioned as a flute player for Asger Hamerik of the Peabody Institute, who was in the process of establishing an orchestra at the newly established music conservatory. Impressed by the southerner's playing, Hamerik invited him to become first flute in the orchestra. Lanier wrote to his wife Mary that they could "dwell in [this] beautiful city, among the great libraries, and [in the] midst of the music, the religion, and the art that we love--and I could write my books and be the man I wish to be." Lanier settled in Baltimore in December, and began to receive good notices in the Baltimore Sun for his flute playing. Although he described himself as a "raw provincial, without practice and guiltless of instruction," he held his own with the European-trained musicians.

     His new found steady work enabled him to light a fire under his literary career. He wrote a guidebook to Florida, including hints for consumptives like himself. Among the poems he wrote during his residence in our city were "The Marshes of Glyn" and "The Song of the Chattahoochee." Although he resided in Baltimore, in many ways, his heart still lay in the South, as his poetry demonstrated. Yet, shortly, he would have an opportunity to prove that he had real affection for the nation as a whole. His growing literary renown led to his appointment by the Centennial Commission to write the words for a cantata to be sung at the opening of the nation's Centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Recalling the occasion in a magazine article of 1905 former Johns Hopkins University president Daniel Coit Gilman wrote, "Words and music, voices and instruments, produced an impression as remarkable as the rendering of the Hallelujah Chorus in the nave of Westminster Abbey. . . . It was an opportunity of a lifetime to test upon a grand scale his theory of verse. He came off victorious." Although he was a Southerner and had been a combatant for the Confederacy, Lanier captured the spirit of the reunified nation. The Centennial cantata was followed by a Centennial Poem written for Lippincott's Magazine, for which he received $300, and President Gilman invited him to lecture on literature at Hopkins. By January 1878, Lanier and his family were living in a cottage at 33 Denmead Street, and they later lived on St. Paul Street. A letter written that month gives an idea of his activities: "[I] have discharged my daily duties as first flute of the Peabody Orchestra, have written a couple of poems and part of an essay on Beethoven and Bismarck, [and] have accomplished at least a hundred thousand miscellaneous necessary nothings. . . ." One Baltimorean recalled, "He was a frequent visitor to our house, and would often play for us on his beautiful silver flute. The image of him standing in his rapt passion, while he poured forth the entrancing sound I remember most distinctly."

     Among his greatest supporters were the Turnbulls, and Lanier often entertained members of the family in the music room at the family mansion in Beethoven Terrace on Park Avenue by McMechen Street. In a letter of July 5, 1881, he wrote to the Turnbulls from Camp Robin near Asheville, North Carolina. He sent them "the whole valley full of green-leaf wishes and summer longings" and wished they could be with him on "this great mountain that lifts us into the air, 2,000 feet higher than the corner of McMechen Street and Park Avenue." Tragically, before the end of the year, Lanier was dead from the consumption that had dogged him since his internment in Camp Point Lookout. He was only 39 years of age. He is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, in the Turnbull lot. His grave marker is a boulder with a bronze plaque showing the rays of the sun, in honor of one of his most famous poems, "Sunrise." The rising sun may also be seen on the bas-relief behind Schuler's statue of Lanier.

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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