Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Kindness of the Trees in the Garden

This is an updated and revised version of the article that originally was published at The Master’s Artist.

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 the Lenten season and the upcoming 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 ananimated version of this poem.

Photograph: Scene from the movie “The Passion.”


Doug Spurling said...

My Lord...precious Lord.

Thanks for sharing this Glynn

Unknown said...

I had never heard of Mr. Lanier until your post. I found the poem very fitting for Holy Week. I felt it allows us to reflect on how alone Jesus must have felt in the hour before the events that led to his crucifixion began to transpire. Thank you for sharing and have a blessed day.

Rick Dawson said...

I first learned of Sidney Lanier's work from a sci-fi author (Piers Anthony), who made a number of Lanier's poems central to the story in the book "Macroscope". One of the quotes I love is "Music is love in search of a word."

Good stuff!

Martha Jane Orlando said...

Ashamed to be a Georgian, and to not know more about Sidney Lanier. You have opened my eyes!
Also, this poem could have easily been read at my father's memorial and fit perfectly with the scriptures he chose. (Yes, my dad planned his whole service and wrote his obituary while he was still cognizant enough before Alzheimer's took its toll. A lifelong botanist, his love of all things flora, especially trees, defined his study. It's no coincidence, I believe, that as I sat in that service, hearing about the importance of trees in scripture, I thought of the rugged cross - our Lord dying on a "tree," and the eternal life such a death opened to all who believe.
This poem was, indeed, a salve and balm to me at this time.
Blessings, Glynn!

Anonymous said...

i suppose one would need
to read
it slow
as not to get too bouncy

...liking the pause between Him and last.

Such interesting information in this post,
as well as in some comments.