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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Number 76: Sidney Lanier "The Mocking-Bird"

The Mocking-Bird

Superb and sole, upon a plumed spray
That o'er the general leafage boldly grew,
He summ'd the woods in song; or typic drew
The watch of hungry hawks, the lone dismay
Of languid doves when long their lovers stray,
And all birds' passion-plays that sprinkle dew
At morn in brake or bosky avenue.
Whate'er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say.
Then down he shot, bounced airily along
The sward, twitched in a grasshopper, made song
Midflight, perched, prinked, and to his art again.
Sweet Science, this large riddle read me plain:
How may the death of that dull insect be
The life of yon trim Shakespeare on the tree?

-- Sidney Lanier

Hap Notes: I promise this is the last "bird" poem for a while. This one is so irresistable, though. Just the line "Whate'er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say" is just so perfect, almost as remarkable as the work of the author Lanier (1842-1881) claims the bird to be like.

Sidney Lanier often uses multiple rhythms and unusual words in his poetry which has the faint tones of Gerard Manly Hopkins (they were contemporaries in two different countries who never met- it's just an artistic coincidence.) A little help for some of the words: bosky means lots of shrubbery and/or trees, prinking is to groom a bit showily, a sward is an area of grass, twitched means the bird pulled or moved suddenly.

Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia and the state is so proud of him they named a lake and a bridge after him. He even got a commemorative stamp in 1972. That "Smith Brothers" beard he sported was the fashion of the day, especially in the south, (The Smith Brothers used to be on a cough drop package for those of you who don't know- two somber looking bearded men who looked like they could scare the cough out of you. Since the last Smith Brothers cough drop was made in 1972, it dawns on me this is an obscure reference.)

Lanier was something of a musical prodigy. He learned to play the flute and later the violin, guitar, banjo and the piano without lessons. He taught himself musical notation and wrote an interesting book on the connections of musical notations and poetry. While he was a lawyer, he also, at one time was the first chair flautist for an orchestra in Maryland. He fought for the Confederates during the Civil War, he was captured and incarcerated in a military prison where he contracted tuberculosis. He suffered from TB for the rest of his fairly short life. He also taught English Literature at Johns Hopkins University.

Lanier strikes me as one of those people who was madly talented in the arts yet felt it could not be a respectable full-time career. He was drawn to music and poetry like a magnet to steel.

His reputation was more vital in the south. He wrote some dialect poems that can make one wince now, but some of his work is brilliant and sharply observed, like our poem today.

Here's a Lanier quote: "Music is love in search of a word."

and here's a telling excerpt from a letter he wrote to his dad: "My dear father, think how, for twenty years, through poverty, through pain, through weariness, through sickness, through the uncongenial atmosphere of a farcical college and of a bare army and then of an exacting business life...think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances...these two figures of music and of poetry have steadily kept in my heart so that I could not banish them."

You can find more Lanier here:

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