We don’t read or teach much about poet Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) today, but he ranks with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville for the poets who contributed significantly to the making of 19th century American poetry. A native of Georgia, he fought for the South in the Civil War, and landed in a Union prison camp as a result – where he contracted the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him.
He’s known for a number of poems, including “The Symphony,” in which he wrote a part for each instrument. He loved music; it had been a major part of his childhood and music was a major influence on his poems. The year before he died, he published a study entitled The Science of English Verse, which “explored the connections between musical notation and meter in poetry.”
In his last days, he was a lecturer and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught the English novelists, Shakespeare, the Elizabethan sonnets, Chaucer, and the Anglo-Saxon poets. A series of lectures entitled The English Novel was published posthumously. He died at age 39, and was buried in Baltimore.
This poem, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” was published after his death. It is the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, alone, about to be betrayed, about to be forsaken. It seems especially appropriate for Holy Week.
A Ballad of Trees and the Master
Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent.
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to Him,
The little gray leaves were kind to Him:
The thorn-tree had a mind to Him
When into the woods He came.
Out of the woods my Master went,
And He was well content.
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When Death and Shame would woo Him last,
From under the trees they drew Him last:
'Twas on a tree they slew Him -- last
When out of the woods He came.
The Poetry Foundation has a critical essay about Lanier, and Poetry Reincarnations has published an animated version of this poem: