Sept. 7, 1881
Sydney Clopton Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1842, and that state has perhaps as much claim to him as Alabama. During the Civil War, he served as a Confederate signal officer and on blockade runners before being captured and placed in a Union prison in Maryland, where he contracted tuberculosis – a disease that plagued him the rest of his life. After the war he became a teacher in Macon before moving in 1865 to Montgomery, where he worked as a clerk in the Exchange Hotel and played organ at the First Presbyterian Church in Prattville. In 1867, he moved to Prattville where he taught and served as principal at Prattville Male and Female Academy. That year, he published his only novel, the experimental anti-war “Tiger-Lilies.” He also studied law and passed the Alabama bar. By 1869, he had moved back to Macon with his wife. They eventually had four children. Lanier practiced law in Macon and later moved to Baltimore, where he got a paid position in an orchestra as a self-taught flutist. It was during his time back in Macon and in Maryland when he focused on crafting poetry, publishing a number of pieces, including his most famous, “The Marshes of Glynn” in 1878. For a time, he was a lecturer and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in writers of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Other works published during his lifetime and posthumously include lectures, a book titled “The Science of English Verse,” travelogues and stories for boys about knightly conquests. He died from tuberculosis at age 39 on this day in 1881 while with his family in North Carolina, where he had traveled for his health. Experts put the multi-talented Lanier among the more important American poets of the 19th century, although he is far less known than 19th century giants Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. In Alabama he is probably most associated with Montgomery’s Lanier High School, which was named for him when it was established in 1910. The school’s nickname is also a tribute to Lanier: the Poets.
For more on Alabama’s Bicentennial, visit Alabama 200.