Catcalls of The Cantata

His Cantata was wildly successful with some critics…
While others lightheartedly poked fun at his work.
Regardless of its critical reception, it was published with fanfare in Baltimore.

Sidney Lanier would be able to tell you first hand that you can’t please everyone. Although the poet earned plenty of success and good reviews throughout his career, his commissioned work, The Centennial Meditation of Columbia, A  Cantata , received a hailstorm of mixed reviews. Some of the more scathing critics even went so far as to blatantly make fun of the author and his work with embarrassing satire, proving that perhaps the current day trend of viscous celebrity blogging isn’t necessarily a new cultural development, but a harsh phenomena of human nature that can be seen as far back as 1876.

In fact, a brief look at the “The Sidney Lanier Papers, 1838-1972, Special Collections, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University” indicates that even the New York Times was not above poking fun at lauded poets. In an 1876 article published after a highly publicized performance of the Cantata, the Times sarcastically reported on Lanier’s work by asserting that he was an up and coming humorist. They directly compared his Cantata to Louis Carroll’s Jabberwocky and jokes that the Cantata was about an Alice and Wonderland type of journey. ( Of course, this is not true.)

Another satirical piece that made its way to print was the very humorous, and altogether unflattering letter written to the Editor of The World. This letter accuses Lanier of plagiarizing the Cantata. The writer satirically accuses Lanier of stealing his own version of the Cantata, but comforts the reader by saying that he is altogether used to being stolen from, as he had also written Hamlet, Barnaby Rudge, and Faust among others. He chides Lanier not only for supposedly stealing his work, but also for misquoting the original. The author provides an “original” copy of the work that Lanier stole from, and it becomes apparent that this mock “original” is actually about going to a bar and drinking too much. The poem relates a tale of loose women, beer kegs, and general debauchery, which is obviously very humorous and far from the truth.

Although these two articles were directly making fun of the Cantata, they were more good spirited than some of the other very negative press that it received. All in all, the reviews of the poem seemed to hold that Lanier perhaps tried to hard, and used overly descriptive language. Not all reviews were bad, however, and some publications, like the Baltimore Bulletin published the poem in its entirety, along with praising reviews. The Bulletin points out that this commission was written with the intent to put it to music, and that the marriage of verse and thousands of voices and instruments is not always an easy one. They claim that Mr. Lanier was the perfect individual for the job, given his background as a musician, being himself a credited flautist


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