Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn comes alive in music

The Meridian Chorale performing in Southern Folk Passion, with Brenda Bynum on April 14, 2019 (photo courtesy of Meridian Herald)

I owe my budding awareness of Sidney Lanier entirely to Meridian Herald’s Southern Folk Passion this past Palm Sunday at the Church at Ponce and Highland. But for stumbling upon Lanier on the group’s website before the concert, I might have always assumed that Lake Lanier and the other Lanier monikers around Atlanta were named for a great engineer or politician. Knowing that they are named after a poet laureate from Georgia, one who was commissioned as a southerner to write the words (along with Dudley Buck, a northerner, to write the music) for the cantata for the 100th anniversary of the United States in 1876, deepens my understanding of Georgia as a literary place. That makes a difference to me.

Meridian Herald’s artistic director Steven Darsey champions Lanier and is working to restore the 19th century Georgian poet musician to his place among contemporaries Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville. I spoke to him a couple of Saturdays ago. “Many people no longer know who Lanier is,” he commented. “But our grandparents, memorized his poems in school. You can still find a rare few who can recite The Marshes of Glynn.” Darsey pointed out that the placement of Lanier’s monument inside and directly across the oval from the main entrance to Piedmont Park was an indication of Lanier’s prominence in 1914, the year it was erected.

Sidney Lanier monument in Piedmont Park, Atlanta

Other monuments commemorating Lanier include a statue at Johns Hopkins University (erected in 1942), where Lanier taught English in the 1870s while also playing first flute for Baltimore’s Peabody Symphony; a limestone likeness near the doors of Duke University Chapel (carved in the 1930s); and a bust in Brooklyn’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans (inducted in 1945).

Lanier was born in 1842 in Macon, about an hour south of Atlanta, attended Oglethorpe University, and enlisted in the Confederate Army at the start of the war, but was imprisoned almost immediately in Maryland. He contracted tuberculosis in prison and struggled with the disease for the rest of his life until succumbing to it in 1888.  One work, the novel Tiger Lilies, describes war in unflattering terms. After the war Lanier moved to Baltimore and struggled to support a wife and three children with his performances, teaching, and poetry.

A Lanier composition thought to be in his own hand (photo courtesy of Steven Darsey)

Steven Darsey was introduced to Sidney Lanier by his friend the late US Congressman Jamie Mackey. Soon after reading “Song of the Chattahoochee,” Darsey set the poem for voice with guitar, and then as a choral work, which was premiered by the choir at Paideia School directed by Kate Murray in 2006. You can hear a clip of the choral version of the song in Lois Reitzes’s fascinating 15-minute interview  just before  a concert Darsey led commemorating the 175th anniversary of Lanier’s birth in 2016. The interview also addresses Lanier’s views on the connection between poetry and music, articulated in his book The Science of English Verse, including his interest in notating poetry or speech like music.

In addition to “Song of the Chattahoochee” (1877), Darsey has set Lanier’s poems “Life and Song” (1868), “A Song of the Future” (1877-78), and “The Marshes of Glynn” (1879), his most famous poem, to music. Why Lanier? Darsey explains that

Lanier sees meaning and transcendence in nature.  I too experience these, and Lanier’s insights enhance my experience. I call Lanier the Mozart of poetry, for he had prophetic insights and with his virtuosic command of the techniques of poetry and his disciplined craft, he was able to express these with a fluidity and grace that empower the words to sing. But his poems are not just about beauty, they convey virtue, morality, and truth.

He was particularly entranced by “The Marshes of Glynn” –“a wonderful poem, his masterpiece, and I somewhere got the idea to compose an oratorio on that. Then I went on a 15-year quest to search for Lanier.” He collected and read everything he could find about Lanier and traveled to the places where Lanier lived and traveled including the famous Lanier Oak, a live oak in Brunswick in Glynn County, Georgia, looking out onto salt marshes along the Atlantic Ocean.

Old postcard of The Lanier Oak, Brunswick, Georgia, Boston Public Library, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

The poem takes the reader out from the “glooms of the live-oaks” in the heat of the noon-day sun onto the “firm-packed sand” past noon from which the vista reveals “Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band/ Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.” As the day deepens to night, the poem calls attention not only to the breadth of shore but also to the height of sky and the depth of the sea, with the tide rushing in. The spatial movement from enclosure to expanse and the temporal movement from noon to night are depicted as religious awakening.  In addition to its religious or spiritual significance, the poem might also take on environmental meaning today, as the salt marshes of Glynn County are in danger of being lost  due to heat and drought.

The salt marshes of Glynn County (photo courtesy of Steven Darsey)

Darsey choose the oratorio format (an opera without staging or costumes) as the most appropriate musical setting for The Marshes of Glynn.  This production, which had a performance reading in 2008, is a major work, as he describes:

It’s set for full orchestra, a large chorus, 150-200 singers and four soloists. This scale of forces is needed because it’s a large-canvas poem, where Lanier expresses grand ideas with majestic breadth. It takes a full orchestra and large chorus to paint the variety and delicacy as well as the thundering, climactic truths comprised in Lanier’s poetry. For example, Ye spread and span like a catholic man who had mightily won / God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain / and sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

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Steven Darsey conducts in Atlanta Music Festival 2016 (courtesy of Meridan Herald)

You can hear some of these lines brought to life by Meridian Herald in the following sound clip (courtesy of Meridian Herald):

Following its climax, the poem depicts a quickening of water pouring in at high tide and a deepening sense of eternal mystery. In this sound clip, Steven Darsey reads the ending of the poem:

Bringing poetry to music is a way of extending the literary work for a wider audience, says. Darsey:  “The composer hears the poet’s insights and strives to cast them into rhetorically persuasive musical forms, and the performers sing them to the public, so that, via these prophetic media, the wisdom of nature goes out into all the world.  I set to music Lanier’s lyric verse, explored his meaning, and included insights and sounds I gained from the wildlife, wind, land, and sea of The Georgia coast.”

Steven Darsey holds a doctorate from the Yale School of Music in choral conducting. He recently retired from Glenn Memorial UMC in August to devote himself full time to Meridian Herald, so we can expect more compositions and performances. He has a particular interest in literary works. In addition to Lanier’s poems, he has set multiple poems by Robert Frost to music and is currently working on an opera on Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The group frequently incorporates music from the Sacred Harp, the famous tunebook comprising Southern folk hymns published in Georgia in 1844. The group also performs with the annual Atlanta Music Festival featuring African American concert music the first weekend of November in collaboration with Emory Professor of Music Dwight Andrews. Darsey founded Meridian Herald with supporters in 1997. He explained its name: “Meridian is the vertical circumference of a sphere. It’s also the highest point on the sphere, and in Latin dictionaries you’ll find “southern,” so we strive to herald truth from the South.

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The marshes of Glynn with Sidney Lanier Bridge over the Brunswick River in the background (photo courtesy of Steven Darsey)

Not like one of the family

Seeing and hearing black nannies

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Robert Frank, “Charleston, South Carolina,” from Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ exhibit Framing Shadows features 22 photos of African American nannies of white children from the 1840s to the 1920s, a family photo type found during these years in the eastern United States. It also displays novels that feature the mammy-child relationship such as Gone with the Wind, which Dr. Wallace-Sanders has written about in Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. The juxtaposition shows a progression in Dr. Wallace-Sanders scholarship from the fictive mammy character in narratives, images, and artifacts to the real African American taking care of white children in historical photos and biographical accounts. The exhibit previews her upcoming book on this work Nannies, Mammies, and Love Slaves: Portraits of Black Women Taking Care of White Children 1850-1950. Continue reading Not like one of the family

In and around the oak

In honor of Earth Day

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“Hank Aaron” white oak in Connally Nature Park, East Point

What are the significant trees in your world?

Last month I stumbled upon a memorial to “Big Al,” a massive willow oak on the Georgia Tech campus that spontaneously split and fell last autumn, shocking the community. Fall of a Champion was a student-produced exhibit on the more than 100-year-old tree that included benches, bookmarks, hinged wooden book covers, and coasters made out of Big Al, a poster that juxtaposed important events in the history of the university against dates of the rings in Big Al’s trunk, and paper meditations on trees. After that event I got to thinking about how trees inspire communication. Continue reading In and around the oak

Majestying in Buckhead

Out to dinner at King + Duke

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Restaurant at the corner of Peachtree Road NE and West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Huckleberry Finn? It might be “floating down the Mississippi River on a raft,” or “friendship with Jim the runaway slave,” or maybe “smoking, cussing, fibbing… with a heart of gold,” or even “escaping ‘sivilization.’” Chances are you’re not going to say “food.” Continue reading Majestying in Buckhead

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Romeo and Juliet at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern

As Valentine’s Day looms, the thoughts of those so inclined naturally turn to one love classic above all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this romantic tragedy, young lovers – Juliet is not even 14 years old! –  from feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – unite but fail to bring their families together; they die from hate, misunderstanding, and bad timing.

Like many Americans I first encountered Romeo and Juliet in high school, and imagined myself to be on the balcony where “stony limits cannot hold love out.” The thrill was enhanced with exposure to the Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic film adaptation with Olivia Hussey. But amid government shut-downs, and from the vantage point of the national capital of the civil rights movement, I confess that these days my thoughts turn more to the feuding Montagues and the Capulets than to the lovers Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Till it reaches the city of the sun


Reading Ovid in winter

There’s something very wonderful about the coming of winter, cold, and darkness. It allows a person to burrow in, curl up with the dog or cat, bask in the warmth of the hearth, and read things like Ovid. Culturally it’s the Season of Light. Falling close to the winter solstice, the Season of Light marks the darkest part of the year. Winter celebrations involving light date from the Stone Age if not before. The Romans had two winter celebrations:  Saturnalia, sometimes depicted as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, and Sol Invictus, the festival of the sun God. Saturna, another pagan festival during the eight days up to the solstice, is depicted in the Jewish Talmud. The feast o Yule was celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples. Some of the old pagan rituals are similar to those in Christmas traditions. The Season of Winter, therefore, transcends any one religion or creed.  So does most mythology, which is so distant in time and place from our world today. In reading it, you simply disconnect from the present time and watch the struggle of larger-than-life characters play out in your mind’s stage. You bring the stories back to our world.

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House in December, Druid Hills, Atlanta

Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) rewrote Greek myths for a Roman audience. For example he retells the myth of Persephone as the myth of Proserpine (Book V), and it is a myth that explains winter. Continue reading Till it reaches the city of the sun

Back in the Wren’s Nest

Joel Chandler Harris turns 170

My mother used to read to us, but she never read us Uncle Remus. We weren’t from the South and also she hated dialect. I can understand. With dialect, a reader doesn’t just listen to the writer’s words but enact them in weird voices. Not everyone is up for that.

In anticipation of the anniversary of the 170th birthday of Joel Chandler Harris at the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta this December 9, I sat down with his Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (compiled by Richard Chase, 1983 [1955], 808 pages!) and went through the first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, from Chapter 1 “Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy” to Chapter 32 “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox.” Trying to read the regular silent way, the dialect was torturous. I sounded out phrases I couldn’t understand and figured some of them out – e.g., that “bimeby” means “by and by.” Eventually I gave up on silent reading. I started hearing an oral tale spoken by me.

Continue reading Back in the Wren’s Nest