April 4, 2012

Lanier: dear Land of all my love

"By the grace of God," wrote Sidney Lanier to his friend and colleague Bayard Taylor on April 4, 1876, "my centennial Ode is finished." Taylor had been asked to present an original poem for the country's 100th birthday celebration in Philadelphia and, in order to better represent both North and South, had invited Lanier to write a cantata for the event as well. "I now only know how divine has been the agony of the last three weeks," Lanier wrote to Taylor, "during which I have been rapt away to heights where all my own purposes as to a revisal of artistic forms lay clear before me, and where the sole travail was of choice out of multitude."

Like much of his writing, Lanier considered the words like a piece of music. This poem was written with the idea of a symphony in his mind, though the music was written by someone else (Dudley Buck of New York). Its full title was "The Centennial Meditation of Columbia, 1776—1876: A Cantata":

From this hundred-terraced height,
Sight more large with nobler light
Ranges down yon towering years.
Humbler smiles and lordlier tears
Shine and fall, shine and fall,
While old voices rise and call
Yonder where the to-and-fro
Weltering of my Long-Ago
Moves about the moveless base
Far below my resting-place.

Mayflower, Mayflower, slowly hither flying,
Trembling westward o'er yon balking sea,
Hearts within Farewell dear England sighing,
Winds without But dear in vain replying,
Gray-lipp'd waves about thee shouted, crying
         "No! It shall not be!"

Jamestown, out of thee—
Plymouth, thee—thee, Albany—
Winter cries, Ye freeze: away!
Fever cries, Ye burn: away!
Hunger cries, Ye starve: away!
Vengeance cries, Your graves shall stay!

Then old Shapes and Masks of Things,
Framed like Faiths or clothed like Kings
Ghosts of Goods once fleshed and fair,
Grown foul Bads in alien air—
War, and his most noisy lords,
Tongued with lithe and poisoned swords—
Error, Terror, Rage and Crime,
All in a windy night of time
Cried to me from land and sea,
         No! Thou shalt not be!

Lanier continues by describing the nation's perseverance through its short history. But, the narrative voice asks, how long will we last?

"Long as thine Art shall love true love,
Long as thy Science truth shall know,
Long as thine Eagle harms no Dove,
Long as thy Law by law shall grow,
Long as thy God is God above,
Thy brother every man below,
So long, dear Land of all my love,
Thy name shall shine, thy fame shall glow!'

The cantata was also published in Lippincott's Magazine, earning Lanier an impressive $300. Though he had published several works before this, the cantata launched the most successful period of his short career.

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