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Sidney Clopton Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia, on February 3, 1842, to Robert Sampson Lanier, a lawyer, and Mary Jane Anderson Lanier. He showed an aptitude for music early in life, and was especially adept with the flute. He entered Oglethorpe College in 1857, and graduated at the top of his class in 1860.
Lanier planned on pursuing a Ph.D. at Heidelberg University, but the Civil War intervened and he ended up joining the Macon Volunteers instead. His batallion participated in numerous battles throughout the war, which for Lanier ended with his capture in 1864. He endured five months of imprisonment at Point Lookout, Maryland, during which he contracted the tuberculosis that plagued him the rest of his life.
After the war, Lanier taught school briefly before moving to Montgomery, Alabama, where he worked as a hotel desk clerk, as well as the organist at The First Presbyterian Church in nearby Prattville. He took the head position in a country academy in Prattville in 1867, and married Mary Day later that same year. It was during this period that he wrote his only novel, Tiger Lilies (1867), which was inspired by his Civil War experiences. After the Prattville academy closed in 1868, Lanier returned to Macon and began working in his father's law office. Although he passed the Georgia bar, it appears that he spent more time working as a law clerk than a lawyer. He gave up law altogether in 1873, when he moved to Baltimore and became first flutist for the Peabody Orchestra.
In an effort to better support his wife and four sons, Lanier also began writing poetry for magazines. His first critical success was "Corn" (1875), in which he contrasted the abundance of Southern agriculture with what he considered the false, sterile values of Northern commerce. In "Symphony" (also 1875), he experimented with the use of musical concepts, such as tone and rhythm, and attempted to imitate the sounds of various instruments of an orchestra. The next few years were poetically his most productive, with "Centennial Meditation" (1876), "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877), "The Marshes of Glynn" (1878), and "Sunrise" (1881) being his important works. The latter two poems are part of an unfinished set of lyrical nature poems known as the "Hymns of the Marshes," which describe the vast, open salt marshes of Glynn County on the coast of Georgia.
In addition to poetry, Lanier also wrote three texts of literary criticism, two of which were published posthumously -- The Science of English Verse (1880), The English Novel and the Principle of Its Development (1883), and Shakspere and His Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and Its Development from Early English (two volumes, 1902). All three texts grew out of his work as a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, beginning in 1879.
Lanier's fifteen-year battle with tuberculosis ended with his death on September 7, 1881, in Lynn, North Carolina, where he had traveled in the hope that the climate might cure him.
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