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Another striking illustration of his breadth of view was his profound reverence for science. That he had this so early was due, as has been already seen, to the influence of Professor Woodrow at college. In "Tiger Lilies" he said, in commenting on Macaulay's idea of poetry declining as science grows: "How long a time intervened between Humboldt and Goethe; how long between Agassiz and Tennyson? One can scarcely tell whether Humboldt and Agassiz were not as good poets as Goethe and Tennyson were certainly good philosophers." "The astonishing effect of the stimulus which has been given to investigation into material nature by the rise of geology and the prosperity of chemistry" is seen in the literary development of the day. "To-day's science bears not only fruit, but flowers also! Poems, as well as steam engines, crown its growth in these times." The passage closes with these significant words: "Poetry will never fail, nor science, nor the poetry of science." This view remained with him till the end of his life. He hailed the scientific progress of the nineteenth century as one of its greatest achievements, and constantly related it to the rise of landscape painting, modern nature poetry, modern music, and the English novel. His attitude thereto is made all the more notable by the fact that throughout the country, and especially in the South, there prevailed the utmost distrust of scientific investigations and hypotheses. During the seventies the criticism of the invitation extended to Huxley to deliver the principal address at the opening of Johns Hopkins University, and the controversy arising out of President White's enunciation of the principles that would dominate the newly created Cornell University, all tended to make the controversy between science and religion especially acute. American poets, notably Poe and Lowell, had expressed their distrust of modern scientific methods and conclusions. But Lanier saw no danger either to religion or to poetry in science. He constantly referred to Tyndall, Huxley, and Darwin, in a way which suggested his familiarity with their writings. I have seen a copy of the "Origin of Species" owned by Lanier, -- the marks and annotations indicating the most careful and thoughtful reading thereof. In his lectures on the English Novel, in contrasting ancient science with modern science, he says: "In short, I find that early thought everywhere, whether dealing with physical fact or metaphysical problems, is lacking in what I may call the intellectual conscience, -- the conscience which makes Mr. Darwin spend long and patient years in investigating small facts before daring to reason upon them, and which makes him state the facts adverse to his theory with as much care as the facts which make for it." Again he refers to him as "our own grave and patient Charles Darwin."
He did not write about science at second-hand, either, -- he studied it. Mrs. Sophie Bledsoe Herrick, Lowell's Baltimore friend, tells of Lanier's interest in microscopic work: "Mrs. Lanier and family were not with him then, and he was busy writing some articles on the science of composition. Evening after evening he would bring the manuscript of these articles and read them, and talk them over.
"I was at that time intensely interested in microscopic work. It was curious and interesting to see how Mr. Lanier kindled to the subject, so foreign to his ordinary literary interests. I was too busy with editorial work to go on with my microscopic work then, and it was a great pleasure to leave my instrument and books on the subject with him for some months. He plunged in with all the ardor of a naturalist, not using the microscope as a mere toy, but doing good hard work with it. I think I can detect in his work after this time, -- as well as in his letters, -- many little touches which show the influence this study of nature had upon his mind."*
So he had little patience with "those timorous souls who believe that science, in explaining everything, -- as they singularly fancy, -- will destroy the possibility of poetry, of the novel, in short of all works of the imagination: the idea seeming to be that the imagination always requires the hall of life to be darkened before it displays its magic, like the modern spiritualistic seance-givers who can do nothing with the rope-tying and the guitars unless the lights are put out."* And again: "Here are thousands upon thousands of acute and patient men to-day who are devoutly gazing into the great mysteries of Nature and faithfully reporting what they see. These men have not destroyed the fairies: they have preserved them in more truthful and solid shape."
But while he estimated at its proper value the development of modern physical science, he saw it in its proper relation to music, poetry, and religion. "The scientific man," he says in his "Legend of St. Leonor", "is merely the minister of poetry. He is cutting down the Western Woods of Time; presently poetry will come there and make a city and gardens. This is always so. The man of affairs works for the behoof and the use of poetry. Scientific facts have never reached their proper function until they emerge into new poetic relations established between man and man, between man and God, or between man and nature."
Lanier's view of the theory of evolution is interesting. "I have been studying science, biology, chemistry, evolution, and all," he writes to J. F. Kirk, June 15, 1880. "It pieces on, perfectly, to those dreams which one has when one is a boy and wanders alone by a strong running river, on a day when the wind is high but the sky clear. These enormous modern generalizations fill me with such dreams again.
"But it is precisely at the beginning of that phenomenon which is the underlying subject of this poem, `Individuality', that the largest of such generalizations must begin, and the doctrine of evolution when pushed beyond this point appears to me, after the most careful examination of the evidence, to fail. It is pushed beyond this point in its current application to the genesis of species, and I think Mr. Huxley's last sweeping declaration is clearly parallel to that of an enthusiastic dissecter who, forgetting that his observations are upon dead bodies, should build a physiological conclusion upon purely anatomical facts.
"For whatever can be proved to have been evolved, evolution seems to me a noble and beautiful and true theory. But a careful search has not shown me a single instance in which such proof as would stand the first shot of a boy lawyer in a moot court, has been brought forward in support of an actual case of species differentiation.
"A cloud (see the poem) MAY be evolved; but not an artist; and I find, in looking over my poem, that it has made itself into a passionate reaffirmation of the artist's autonomy, threatened alike from the direction of the scientific fanatic and the pantheistic devotee."
With all of Lanier's development -- whether in science and scholarship, or in music and literature -- he retained a vital faith in the Christian religion. He reacted against the Calvinism of his youth to almost as great a degree as did some of the New England poets. He at times felt keenly the narrowness and bigotry of the church -- the warring of the sects over the unessential points.* In his thinking he found no place for the rigid and severe creed which dominated his youth. He gave up the forms, not the spirit, of worship. He lived the abundant life, and all of the roads which he traveled led to God. His faith was as broad as "the liberal marshes of Glynn". In the spirit of St. Francis he said: --
I am one with all the kinsmen things
Notwithstanding his vivid realization of the evil of dogma and of sect, he maintained throughout his life a reverent faith; he could distinguish, as Browning said Shelley could not, between churchdom and Christianity. Not only in the "Crystal" and "A Ballad of Trees and the Master", and in the spirit of nearly all of his poems, is this evident; but throughout his lectures, essays, and letters he never missed an opportunity to relate knowledge to faith. "He was the most Christlike man I ever knew," said one of his intimate friends, and those who have looked upon his bust at Johns Hopkins have involuntarily found the resemblance of physical form. Certainly there has been no tenderer poem written about the Master than the lines written during Lanier's last year: --
Into the woods my Master went,
Out of the woods my Master went,
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Sidney Lanier -by- Edwin MimsBottom Content goes here. Wikipedia content requires these links..... Wikipedia content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.