May 26, 2010

Serenity in spite of all contingencies

It was only after a short career that the Georgia-born poet/novelist Sidney Lanier struggled with tuberculosis. When he could, he traveled in search of health while still writing — when he could.

He wrote a letter to his friend, Gibson Peacock, on May 26, 1877. The letter reads, in part:

I long to be steadily writing again. I'm taken with a poem pretty nearly every day, and have to content myself with making a note of its train of thought on the back of whatever letter is in my coat-pocket. I don't write it out, because I find my poetry now wholly unsatisfactory in consequence of a certain haunting impatience which has its root in the straining uncertainty of my daily affairs; and I am trying with all my might to put off composition of all sorts... [until] next week's dinner shall remove this remnant of haste, and leave me that repose which ought to fill the artist's firmament while he is creating. Perhaps indeed with returning bodily health I shall acquire strength to attain this serenity in spite of all contingencies.

The same year he wrote this letter, 1877, his book Poems was published, a 94-page book of previously-published works. One of the poems was "Rose-Morals"; this is part I:

  Would that my songs might be
    What roses make by day and night —
Distillments of my clod of misery
      Into delight.

  Soul, could'st though bare thy breast
    As yon red rose, and dare the day,
All clean, and large, and calm with velvet rest?
      Say yea — say yea!

  Ah, dear my Rose, good-bye;
     The wind is up; so; drift away.
That songs from me as leaves from thee may fly,
      I strive, I pray.

The book did not sell particularly well and Lanier worried about taking care of his family. Soon after, he was offered a position as lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. He then became much more prolific than the above letter might suggest. He wrote several books over a short period of time — some of which had to be published posthumously. Lanier died in 1881 at the age of 39.

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