- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

There is often to be found a particular poignancy in the works of war poets, especially those who witnessed the horrors of battlefields at first hand.

Melville and Whitman were Northern poets, and Henry Timrod (1828-1867) became known as the “laureate of the Confederacy.” Serving briefly with the 13th and 20th Carolina regiments, he was discharged in December 1862, suffering from tuberculosis. He left behind “Charleston” (“Calm as that second summer which precedes / The first fall of the snow, / In the broad sunlight of heroic deeds, / The city bides the foe.”). “Ode at Magnolia Cemetery” was another of his evocative poems: “There is no holier spot of ground / Than where defeated valor lies … .”

Tuberculosis, then known as “consumption,” also cruelly cut short the life of the poet and author Sidney Lanier, who was a capable flutist and a minor composer. How high he would have risen if he had not lost his battle with a remorseless disease can only be a matter of speculation.

Of Huguenot descent on his father’s side, the son of a lawyer, Sidney Lanier was born at Macon, Ga., on Feb. 2, 1842, and educated at Oglethorpe College near Midway, Ga. It was a Presbyterian institution that would founder during the Civil War. After his graduation in 1860, he accepted a tutorial post at Oglethorpe, but in April 1861, he joined the Macon Volunteers, 2nd Georgia Battalion.

Lanier must have been thrilled as he watched, with many other spectators, the duel between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (known to many today by its previous name, the USS Merrimack) in March 1862.

He was involved in the defense of Drewry’s Bluff against attacks by Union vessels on May 15, 1862, and in the hard fighting at Seven Pines and Malvern Hill. Initially a private, he transferred to the Signal Corps and joined the staff of Maj. Gen. Samuel Gibbs French. By this time, the early symptoms of his wasting condition must have become apparent.

His fighting days ended abruptly and somewhat ingloriously. He had been given command of a blockade runner, but his vessel was captured in 1863, and he was sent to Point Lookout, Md. His incarceration there would inspire his novel “Tiger Lillies,” published in 1867.

Lanier’s contribution to war literature was comparatively small, but it includes “The Dying Words of Stonewall Jackson,” written in September 1865. It does not contain the envenomed anger found in other pieces of his war-related verse. It was inspired by a visit he made in May 1863 to the battlefield of Chancellorsville, where one of the South’s greatest generals was shot by his own men in a tragic misunderstanding.

In September 1867, he was given charge of a “country academy” at Prattville, Ala., and three months later he married Mary Day, who proved a loyal wife and devoted mother. Five years on, he made brief attempt to stay his worsening health by moving to Texas and other states. Accepting the inevitable, he soon settled in Baltimore. There he played the first flute for the Peabody Symphonic Concerts.

From 1879 to 1881, Lanier held the post of lecturer in English language at Johns Hopkins University, but he died on Sept. 7, 1881. Three years later, Charles Scribner’s Sons published “Poems of Sidney Lanier,” edited by his wife, which remained long in print.

Lanier felt the defeat of the Confederacy acutely and loathed Reconstruction. His resentment at the unhappy position of the South found expression in “Laughter in the Senate” (1868), which includes the lines, “The tyrants sit in a stately hall; / They jibe at a wretched people’s fall; / The tyrants forget how fresh is the pall / Over their dead and ours.”

“The Raven Days” (1868) is a dirge for the conquered South: “Our hearths are gone cold and our hearts are broken, / And but the ghosts of our homes to us remain.” It was written in Prattville.

Much of Lanier’s work may well fade from memory with the passage of time. Even his esteemed “The Marshes of Glynn” from his uncompleted “Hymns of the Marshes” (1879) may be forgotten, but one poem, quite unlike anything else he wrote, must surely survive. “The Song of the Chattahoochee” (1877), published in Scott’s Magazine, sweeps the reader along like the river it salutes: “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, / I split at the rock and together again.” So it goes on, irresistibly detailed and compelling.

It is, indeed, a lovely word portrait of a great river as it flows southwest through the Georgia counties of Habersham and Hall on its journey to Atlanta and beyond. Here is Lanier at his best: joyous, lilting and free of the bitterness and reproach found in “Laughter in the Senate” and “The Raven Days.” This is how Lanier should be remembered, for anger cools but beauty endures.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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