March 24, 2011

Lanier: Love hears the poor-folks' crying

"About four days ago," wrote Sidney Lanier, "a certain poem which I had vaguely ruminated for a week before took hold of me... I call it 'The Symphony.'" The letter, dated March 24, 1875, was addressed to Lanier's friend Gibson Peacock. "I personify each instrument in the orchestra," he continued, "and make them discuss various deep social questions of the times, in the progress of the music."

The long poem became one of Lanier's most-remembered works, in part for its final line: "Music is Love in search of a word." Its critique of society, however, is more visible in its first lines:

"O Trade! O Trade! would thou wert dead!
The Time needs heart—‘tis tired of head:
We’re all for love," the violins said.
"Of what avail the rigorous tale
Of bill for coin and box for bale?"

Lanier elsewhere lamented that trade, commerce, and the economy dictated the direction of society, including the arts. Businessmen the country in a stranglehold, he worries poetically, and the almighty dollar oppresses common people and, worse, prevents creativity from flourishing:

“Yea, what avail the endless tale
Of gain by cunning and plus by sale?
Look up the land, look down the land
The poor, the poor, the poor, they stand
Wedged by the pressing of Trade’s hand
Against an inward-opening door
That pressure tightens evermore:
They sigh a monstrous foul-air sigh
For the outside leagues of liberty,
Where Art, sweet lark, translates the sky
Into a heavenly melody."

But, Lanier reminds readers, an appreciation for love and beauty as seen in music could overturn all this:

        Sweet friends,
        Man's love ascends
To finer and diviner ends
Than man's mere thought e'er comprehends
        For I, e'en I,
        As here I lie,
A petal on a harmony,
Demand of Science whence and why
Man's tender pain, man's inward cry,
When he doth gaze on earth and sky?
I am not overbold:
        I hold
Full powers from Nature manifold...

And ever Love hears the poor-folks’ crying,
And ever Love hears the women’s sighing,
And ever sweet knighthood’s death-defying,
And ever wise childhood’s deep implying,
But never a trader’s glozing and lying.

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