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

§ 34. Music and Metrics

Some of the dissatisfaction with the form of his verse is due to his theory that the principles of music and of metrics are identical. His sense of rhythm did not allow sufficient emphasis for accent as marking the equal intervals of time. But he was, naturally, enamoured of his own theory and felt happier when he put it into practice. Of Special Pleading, composed in 1875, he wrote: “I have allowed myself to treat words, similes, and metres with such freedom as I desired. The result convinces me I can do so safely.” Thereafter he developed his own peculiar style more courageously, sometimes with beautiful effect, but often with the resulting impression of a straining for form. In Sunrise, for example, there is a passage descriptive of approaching dawn, beginning,

  • Oh, what if a sound should be made!
  • which is unsurpassed in American poetry for its rendering of the ecstasy in the poet’s heart. Yet only a few lines above this marvellous description is a section beginning,
  • Ye lispers, whisperers, singers in storms
  • which illustrates how far his attention wandered from the thought in his elaboration of form, how he forgot that words are primarily symbolic, and that beauty of verse depends on poetic and beautiful thoughts.