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

§ 23. The Peabody Orchestra

Inspired with this new faith, he again repaired to New York, this time determined to settle his future. He revelled in the musical associations which he quickly formed. By November he had been engaged by Asger Hamerik for the position of first flute in the new Peabody Orchestra forming in Baltimore. On 29 November he wrote his declaration of independence to his father:

  • Why should I, nay, how can I, settle myself down to be a third-rate struggling lawyer for the balance of my little life as long as there is a certainty almost absolute that I can do some other thing so much better. Several persons, from whose judgment there can be no appeal, have told me, for instance, that I am the greatest flute-player in the world; and several others, of equally authoritative judgment, have given me an almost equal encouragement to work with my pen.… 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, through all the discouragements of being wholly unacquainted with literary people and literary ways—I say, think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances, and of a thousand more which I could enumerate, those two figures of music and poetry have steadily kept in my heart so that I could not banish them. Does it not seem to you as to me, that I begin to have a right to enroll myself among the devotees of those two sublime arts, after having followed them so long and so humbly, and through so much bitterness.
  • Thus he entered upon the third and final period of his life, one of feverish activity. During the winter succeeding his great resolution he grew rapidly in the intellectual grasp of music. He had the soul of an artist, and gradually acquired the technical skill to bring the most out of his instrument. Still the strength of his renderings always resided in the emotion he imparted. His conductor testifies:

  • His conception of music was not reached by any analytical study of note by note, was intuitive, spontaneous; like a woman’s reason: he felt it so, because he felt it so, and his delicate perception required no more logical form of reasoning. His playing appealed to the musically learned and unlearned—for he would mesmerize the listener; but the artist felt in his performance the superiority of the momentary living inspiration to all the rules and shifts of mere technical scholarship.
  • The next year he still yearned for a musical career. He told Dr. Leopold Damrosch, then conductor of the Philharmonic Society of New York, that music “is not a matter of mere preference, it is a spiritual necessity. I must be a musician, I cannot help it.” But the conference with Damrosch impressed Lanier with the great handicap he suffered in lack of thorough technical training. Though he continued to gain intense joy from music, literature more and more occupied his thoughts and monopolized his time.

    In February, 1875, Corn, which he had conceived the preceding summer and had rewritten during the winter, appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine. It was one of the earliest Southern poems to receive publication in a Northern periodical. Notable, too, is the fact that the verses are not an effort to escape into some dreamland but the presentation of a widespread problem of Georgia agriculture.

    Corn attracted favourable attention, notably from Gibson Peacock, editor of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Within a month Lanier was at work on a second ambitious poem, The Symphony, which appeared in June, and which brought him the friendship of Bayard Taylor. The firm of Lippincott was able to fill Lanier’s time with hackwork. The whole summer was spent in preparing “a sort of spiritualized guide-book” to Florida. Yet he was happy. He wrote of himself as one

  • who, after many days and nights of tribulation and bloody sweat, has finally emerged from all doubt into the quiet and yet joyful activity of one who knows exactly what his Great Passion is and what his God desires him to do. As for me, life has resolved simply into a time during which I must get upon paper as many as possible of the poems with which my heart is stuffed like a schoolboy’s pocket.
  • When at the instance of Bayard Taylor he was appointed to write the cantata for the Centennial Exposition to be held in Philadelphia, he was jubilant. His patriotic fervour produced also The Psalm of the West. A place among American poets he challenged by bringing out a slender volume of poems late in the same year.