September 28, 2010

Lanier: Love in search of a word

In a letter dated September 28, 1871, Sidney Lanier wrote to his wife that he had just returned from a performance at St. Paul's Church, where he heard compositions for trombone and organ. Though he enjoyed it, he noted he would have enjoyed it more if his wife had been with him:

Hadst thou been with me to hear these horn-tones, so pure, so noble, so full of confident repose, striking forth the melody in midst of the thousandfold modulations... like a calm manhood asserting itself through a multitude of distractions and discouragements and miseries of life, — hadst thou been there, then, how fair and how happy had been my day.

Lanier, in New York at the time, had a hard time having fun without his wife. He wrote, "For I mostly have great pain when music, or any beauty, comes past my way, and thou art not by."

The Georgia-born Lanier had a unique career embracing both poetry and music. For a time, he played with a symphony in Maryland. His musical interest is reflected in one of his greatest poems, "The Symphony" (1875), which also notes that music (or beauty) is worthless without love. From its final stanza:

And yet shall Love himself be heard,
Though long deferred, though long deferred:
O'er the modern waste a dove hath whirred:
Music is Love in search of a word.

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