- Manifest Prosody
Like many nineteenth-century American writers, Sidney Lanier—poet, critic, professional flutist, Confederate soldier, and professor of English at Johns Hopkins—looked eastward toward Great Britain while commenting on and contributing to the American literary scene. Lanier's identification with English tradition embraces the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, and specifically the popular nineteenth-century fantasy described by Reginald Horsman whereby white Americans imagined their supposed Anglo-Saxon origins as proof of being "a chosen people with an impeccable ancestry."1 Writing from Baltimore, Maryland, in 1879, Lanier thus explores "the remarkable ease with which our English idioms run into the mould of the sonnet."2 In an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly, Lanier exhorts the "strong, bright, picture-making tongue we had in the beginning of the sixteenth century when the powerful old Anglo-Saxon had fairly conquered all the foreign elements into its own idiom" (CE, 4:293; italics mine). Identifying here with that Anglo-Saxon tongue, a tongue that in the creation of its own distinct sounds and cadences had pushed out the foreign—and, later in the same paragraph, the alien—Lanier positions both himself and his American readers as English linguistic subjects, the inheritors of an Anglo-Saxon Cultural and literary heritage.
In what follows, I argue that Lanier's move to elide the American with the early English, a move consistent throughout his prosodic and poetic writings, was an especially significant gesture in post-Civil War America. Much in the way that, as Foucault has shown, European nations throughout modern history have endeavored to trace their origins to the fall of Troy, thereby "guarantee[ing] a link of genealogical kinship with ancient Rome" and its "great unity … great strength … [and] great legitimacy,"3 so Lanier constructs an American cultural genealogy firm in its English roots. Somewhat counterintuitively, Lanier suggests that the United States might best fortify itself against the foreign and alien through an exclusionary literary tradition whose origins ought be traced back to England. In both his prose criticism and his poetry, then, Lanier transports English metrical traditions to American soil, casting a backward glance toward the Old World as he sings his own imagined future for the West. [End Page 253]
My arguments here build on and slightly redirect those of John D. Kerkering, whose recent study of The Poetics of National and Racial Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature emphasizes the sonic elements of Lanier's prosody. Kerkering reads Lanier's 1876 "Centennial Meditation of Columbia," a poem on the hundredth anniversary of the United States' founding, as an effort to produce a singular "musical medium for one United States."4 This American identity, as Kerkering shows, surreptitiously returns to a specifically Anglo-Saxon formalism, such that his poem becomes "less a centennial celebration of the nation than a millennial celebration of what [Lanier] calls 'our race'" (p. 123). Lanier thus participates in what Kerkering identifies, in the title to his chapter on Lanier, Whitman, Dvořák, and Du Bois, as "the music of racial identity"; the "Centennial Meditation" idealizes a postbellum America united through the sounds of white, Anglo-Saxon tradition (much as, across the Atlantic, conservative poet William Edmondstoune Aytoun believed the ballad form might unify a British public that, in the wake of Chartism, seemed otherwise at loggerheads).5 Yopie Prins' recent contribution to a PMLA forum on "The New Lyrical Studies" pushes Kerkering further, suggesting that Lanier "is less interested in individual poetic thinking than in poetry as collective thought: prosody as recognition rather than prosody as cognition."6 As Prins suggests, Lanier ought to be understood as writing at a historically specific moment, when the pressures for national unity may have privileged the collective (prosody as recognition, a medium for common feeling) over the individual (prosody as cognition, a space for personal reflection).
Both Kerkering and Prins identify Lanier's attentiveness to music—sound and rhythm—as the source of his prosodic contribution. It seems to me, however, that metrical form needs to be reintroduced to the conversation about Lanier and the political work we might imagine developing from prosodic structures. Not only was Lanier...