Evolution of a Poem

When I stumbled upon an old printed version of Sidney Lanier’s “Ode to the Johns Hopkins University” (shown below) in class this week, I knew instantly that this poem was going to be the subject of my blog post. The poem, printed January 31, 1922 in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter, is displayed across one page of the newsletter in three columns, noting at the top that it was “read by the author at the fourth commemoration day exercises.” Viewing this was an interesting experience for me as a student attending Hopkins almost one hundred years after the printing. So when I later found The Sidney Lanier Paper 1838-1972 that included Lanier’s first draft of the poem along with a corrected proof, I was excited to have seemingly an entire evolution of the poem from Lanier’s first writing of it in messy blue ink to a typed proof with more blue ink edits by the author himself and finally the newsletter printed version of the poem.

Sidney Lanier “Sidney Lanier’s Ode to Johns Hopkins.” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Newsletter, 1922. Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

It’s fascinating to see the original writings of a poem by an author and the poem’s evolution until a final printing. It makes you wonder what goes through an author’s mind when he writes. What makes him change an entire line or even just one word? Why does Lanier change the ending from, “See how this Pallas blessed her Baltimore,” in his first draft to “The world has bloomed again, at Baltimore” as it reads in the newsletter? Also interesting is to see how a line evolves across all three stages. Lanier changes the word faithful in the original line, “Such grace, such stature and such faithful fame!” to fruitful in his second proof. The changes don’t end there though; in the newsletter, the final line reads “This grace, this stature, and the fruitful  fame” and the exclamation is removed from the line altogether. These changes place less emphasis on the line- it doesn’t stand out as much. By reading the earlier drafts, the readers can conclude that Lanier originally intended this line to be much stronger than in the final draft. Even though the “why” of the changes may not be revealed, the reader still gains an important insight. Manuscripts give the reader a glimpse into the mind of an author and allow him/her to feel a connection to the author not necessarily found in just a printed version. In viewing Sidney Lanier’s original handwritten draft of his poem and then a printed version with more edits (as seen in the picture below), you’re given access to a side of writing not normally open to readers.

Sidney Lanier, “The Sidney Lanier Papers 1838-1972.” Special Collections, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Left: First draft, page 1. Right: Corrected proof, page 1. Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Both the newsletter printing of Lanier’s “Ode to the Johns Hopkins University” and his original draft provide invaluable experiences for a reader. Reading the poem in a 1922 version of the Hopkins newsletter gives a unique sentimental experience that wouldn’t be had if it were just out of book. On the other hand, with the original draft and proofs, you get to hold in your hands a piece of the writing process that readers often wonder so much about.

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