September 7, 2013

Death of Lanier: The day being done

Sidney Lanier contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him while in a military prison during the Civil War. Even so, he spent the next several years enjoying his life: he became an educator and a musician, then he passed the bar and became a lawyer, married, and published poems and even a novel. He traveled to or lived in Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, hoping to find a cure for his illness. He never did, and Lanier died in North Carolina on September 7, 1881; he was 39 years old.

Lanier's grave in Baltimore, MD
In his last year, Lanier had taken a job at Johns Hopkins University (his friends and colleagues there hosted a memorial about a month after his death). Notes for his lectures were dictated in strained whispers to his wife. Allegedly, students worried that their lecturer would die mid-lecture. In this same period, he also completed his final poem, "Sunrise," which one critic called "his masterpiece, radiant with beauty, and strong with the spiritual strength which outbraves death." As his wife noted, the poem was written "while his sun of life seemed fairly at the setting, and the and which first pencilled its lines had not strength to carry nourishment to the lips."

"Sunrise" is a fairly lengthy poem written in a conversational yet bouncing meter akin to Walt Whitman. In it, Lanier celebrates his connection to natural world around him. He particularly calls out the trees and their leaves at night:

    Teach me the terms of silence, — preach me
    The passion of patience, — sift me, — impeach me, —
            And there, oh there
As ye hang with your myriad palms upturned in the air,
            Pray me a myriad prayer.

The poem continues in a passionate, almost frenzied, series of observations, questions, and exasperated pleas for answers. The sun is slowly rising throughout, and Lanier combines his poetic sentiments with his sincere belief in the connection between verse and musicality. "I am lit with the Sun," he says, and those words now mark his grave in Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery. The poem picks up pace, almost feeling like a symphony as it draws to its conclusion, with the all-powerful, almost godlike sun:

Oh, never the mast-high run of the seas
        Of traffic shall hide thee,
Never the hell-colored smoke of the factories
                        Hide thee,
Never the reek of the time's fen-politics
                        Hide thee,
And ever my heart through the night shall with knowledge abide thee,
And ever by day shall my spirit, as one that hath tried thee,
        Labor, at leisure, in art,— till yonder beside thee
           My soul shall float, friend Sun,—
              The day being done.

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