This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
A sick southern artist came to Texas on Nov. 27, 1873 to clear his lungs and his head.
Restored in body and soul after a long rest in San Antonio, Sidney Lanier went home to make the most of his talents.
Genius was in the Georgian’s genes. Generations of Laniers entertained the English monarchy as court composers and musicians before emigrating to America in the early 1700’s.
Almost a century and a half later, Sidney inherited the remarkable family flair for music. At the age of seven he mimicked song birds with a riverbank reed and easily mastered his first real instrument, a tiny flute.
Private schooling provided by his well-to-do parents prepared him for exclusive Oglethorpe University, where he graduated at the top of his class in 1857. He dreamed of devoting his life to music, but practicality decreed further study in Europe followed by a sensible career as a college professor.
Secession suddenly changed his plans, and like most idealistic young southerners Lanier was carried away by romantic visions of the coming conflict. He zealously embraced the popular belief that the Confederacy represented the birth of the finest society in human history.
Despite enlisting in the initial company of Peach State volunteers sent to the front, Lanier actually saw very little fighting. He did, however, spend four terrible months as a prisoner of war and during that ordeal contracted tuberculosis, the same disease that had cut short the lives of so many of his ancestors.
Released from a Maryland prison after Appomattox, Lanier walked all the way back to Georgia. More dead than alive after the exhausting hike, he was confined to bed for two months before concerned doctors permitted any activity.
His strength and spirit sapped by the tuberculosis and the devastation of defeated Dixie, Lanier went through the motions of living for the next eight years. Abandoning a wartime decision to concentrate on poetry rather than music, he pursued neither interest. Instead, he became an attorney to please his father, but his heart was never in it.
In 1873 Lanier was a 31 year old lawyer with a wife and four sons to support. Weakened by his incurable illness and haunted by unfulfilled ambitions, he traveled to San Antonio for his mental as well as physical health.
The Texas town proved to be the perfect tonic. To his amazement, Lanier felt stronger by the day, a miracle he credited to the wonderful climate. As he wrote his sister, “Today has been as lovely as any day can hope to be this side of the Millennium.”
The visitor soon realized that the Alamo City offered more than balmy weather. Captivated by what he called its “striking idiosyncrasies and bizarre contrasts,” he later extolled the virtues of San Antonio in an article for a southern magazine.
“Its inhabitants are so varied,” Lanier noted, “that the ‘go slow’ directions over its bridges are printed in three languages.” Impressed by the citizens’ exemplary tolerance, he pointed out that the city had no “Sunday laws” and the Sabbath “finds its bar-rooms and billiard-saloons as freely open and as fully attended as its churches.”
Having not touched his flute in months, Lanier was reluctant to accept a friendly invitation from a German band to join them on stage. But his virtuoso performance brought down the house and bolstered his confidence in his musical ability.
Lanier left San Antonio in the spring of 1874 with a rock-hard resolve to dedicate his precious few remaining years to his twin loves — poetry and music. In response to his father’s plea to stick with the legal profession, he replied, “How can I settle myself down to be a third-rate struggling lawyer as long as there is a certainty almost absolute than I can do some other thing so much better?”
There were, in fact, two fields in which Lanier quickly excelled. Hired by the Baltimore orchestra, he won renown as a first-class flutist. At the same time, he produced poems by the dozen including “Corn,” “The Symphony,” “Sunrise” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” considered his best.
A reputation as the South’s leading poet earned Lanier an appointment in 1879 as a lecturer in English literature at John Hopkins University. The well-paying position enabled him to provide for his family while continuing to write and to play the flute.
For once Lanier enjoyed the best of all his worlds. But the relentless disease that had stalked him for a decade and a half tragically intervened. While outlining a new series of poems, he collapsed and died in September 1881 five months shy of his fortieth birthday.
A sad story but it could have been worse. If Sidney Lanier had never visited San Antonio, he would have taken his poetry to the grave. Thanks to the healing power of the Lone Star haven, he shared his talent with the world.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.