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