The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

IV. The New South: Lanier

§ 17. Wilson

Less sectional, more completely national in spirit, was Robert Burns Wilson (1850–1916). He was endowed with a double gift—the gifts of painting and poetry, each of them genuine. It must be conceded that he did not have to break the shackles of sectionalism. Born in Pennsylvania and moving early to Virginia, he looked back, not on memories of conflict, but on scenes of quiet peace. He early studied art. At barely twenty he received further impetus while on a canoe trip with John W. Alexander. Much of his later success may be attributed to Alexander’s influence and assistance. In painting he sought “to catch the passing and elusive things in nature, which do not sit for their pictures.” It is just the mood and feeling of these evanescent aspects of nature which form the substance of his poetry. Visions of Kentucky woods and fields float by on the wings of music, but there is usually some melancholy cadence or echo in the strain. The most famous, and probably the best of his poems, When Evening Cometh On, is characteristic of his method of presenting pictures suffused with emotion in order to create a dominant mood. In spite of the variety of measures which he employs, there is a weakness in his repetition of similar themes in successive volumes.

During the Spanish-American War Wilson made clear how truly the South had become national. His Remember the Maine not only occupied the front page of the New York Herald but was reprinted all over the country. His Such is the Death the Soldier Dies, which appeared originally in The Atlantic Monthly, was at once welcomed for the gentle pathos of its picture and its sentiment. Many stirring and martial poems by other Southerners attest the genuineness of the national spirit which had followed the dark and bitter days of Reconstruction. Not by any surcease of sorrow but by the genuine fire of a new vision did Southern poetry bud forth into a patriotic cry. The days of McKinley and his South Carolina—1876 had given way to the new conception of a united country and eager, confident prospects for the future.

The most salient figure in this change, in fact the most distinguished man of letters of the New South, is Sidney Lanier, who, like Wilson, was endowed with a double gift—music and poetry. He was born in Macon, Georgia, 3 February, 1846. His father was a lawyer of undistinguished abilities but of cultured and literary tastes. His mother was devotedly religious, and reared her family in the strict Presbyterian faith. His grandfather’s hotel, the Lanier House, was the centre of a cordial, hospitable social life. The city of Macon, a prosperous commercial centre, counted among its citizens many wealthy plantation owners but few who aspired to higher education or intellectual achievement. Even his father’s literary interests seem to have been confined to Shakespeare and Addison and Sir Walter Scott—to the items of that self-sufficient culture which reigned everywhere in the South before the Civil War.