Speakin’ from a Southern Heart

As a native son of Macon, Georgia and a member of the Confederate Signal Corps, Sidney Lanier was connected to the values and traditions of antebellum times.  Lanier wrote several poems criticizing the evils of reconstruction.   Though composed in north between 1870-1871 and never published by the poet during his lifetime, the piece “Them Ku Klux”  exemplifies Lanier’s strong Southern sympathies and antagonism towards the Republican party for meddling with Georgian life.  This work, as one of the few dialect poems Lanier scribed,  relies heavily on  southern jargon to set the stage for the poem and convey the mood.

Front page of manuscript. Sidney Lanier, “Them Klux Klux.” From the Sidney Lanier Papers, 1838-1972. Courtesy of the Sheridan Library, Johns Hopkins University.

In a manuscript draft, Lanier entitled the piece “Where them Ku Klux.” Throughout  the version, he crossed out extraneous words to capture not only the slang but the rhythm of the Southern speech with which he was quite familiar.  He experimented with different spellings in order to achieve this voice. In the manuscript version the poets wrote “sure” as “chore” while from the copy that is printed in the 1945 Centennial Edition of Sidney Lanier Poems and Poem Outlines, it is evident that Lanier tweaked the spelling to “shore.” Perhaps, Lanier wanted to retain the soft elongated sound of the word while simultaneously making the pronunciation accessible to a broader audience.  He makes a similar change in the second stanza where he changes “cull” to “cool” most likely to make  the poem easier to understand and prevent the piece from becoming a trite caricature of the South. These modifications illustrated Lanier’s attention to balance. Lanier also wanted to  establish a certain tempo. As a flautist, Lanier was very atuned tot he musucality of verse which can be achieved through the rhythm of accents. Originally, the line in the third stanza was “a-noddin'” but in the printed version he altered the line to “A-readin’ and a-noddin.'” Another example is his description of “Jeems Munro.” Lanier added honest after “fust-rate” : “A fust-rate honest neighbor.” These changes clearly show that Lanier edited his works and strove to achieve a particular tone to sound like the South even though this accented language would have been second nature to him.

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