Sidney Lanier’s “Corn”

Although Sidney Lanier has fallen out of the Western canon, his collection at the Sheridan Libraries has proved invaluable because of the insight it gives us into the writing process. By comparing different versions of a poem, in varying stages of development, we can track the evolution of the poem. “Corn” makes for a particularly fascinating example of this.

The Special Collections Library has several drafts of “Corn,” the first fair copy of which was dated to July of 1874. The manuscript we are concerned with, however, was written several years later and is identical to the 1874 fair copy. What makes this manuscript (hereafter referred to as the Brooklyn manuscript due to the address – 195 Dean St., Brooklyn N.Y. – inscribed on the upper left-hand corner) so interesting is the edits that were made to it sometime later. In the second stanza, the stanza right above the break, he changes “interlaces” to “interlace.” Furthermore, Lanier has crossed out “And” and replaced it with “So close.”

"The Sidney Lanier Papers, 1838-1972," Special Collections, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Lanier, like many writers, went through several revisions of his manuscripts, but what makes him unique is what he does with poems that have already been published. In his book of poems, entitled simply Poems, he continued to rewrite and revise poems that had already been published. Like the Brooklyn manuscript, Poems contains evidence of Lanier’s editing process. Many of the edits in this published volume are changes in punctuation; the poet replaces many of the end-stopped commas with semicolons, and he changes several words as well. In the line that originally reads “With wondrous-varying food,” Lanier crossed out “wondrous-varying” and inserted “universal” instead. This revision completely changes the meaning of the line, which now instills a sense of homogeneity to the food rather than the variety of the original line.

Sidney Lanier, Poems (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1877). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

The last few lines of “Corn” are also missing; the poem that follows “Corn,” entitled “The Symphony, has been completely cut out. Thus, the lines that follow “That manfully shall take thy part” (that is, “And tend thee/ And defend thee/ With antique sinew and with modern art”) are missing.

Sidney Lanier, Poems (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1877). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

What is most fascinating about this book of poems is the way Lanier treats it, not as a final copy of his work, but rather a work in progress, despite its publication.  “Corn” goes through many revisions, from the first fair copy, to the Brooklyn manuscript, to Poems. Thus from July 1874 to Poems’s publication date in 1877, “Corn” never stops going through revisions. Because the manuscripts and the book of poetry came from Lanier’s own personal library, which was gifted to Johns Hopkins University by his son Charles D. Lanier, we know that it was indeed Lanier who made the changes to his work, and that he viewed even published copies of his poetry as rough drafts.

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