Two Poems and a Funeral

The invention of the internet has made public domain poetry and prose free and available. While this is in many ways a boon for fans of literature, we must ask ourselves if the transformation of poetry from page to bare text comes without cost. Does the absence of physical page leave something to be desired when it comes to the poetic experience?

To explore this question we examine two examples of Sidney Lanier’s “A Ballad of Trees and the Master.” A beautiful metaphor for the crucifixion of Christ, Lanier’s piece paints a picture of the life and death of Jesus through a walk in and out of the forest. The online presentation of the text is available here. The presentation somewhat barren, featuring dark blue words set against a white website background, underneath a simple site heading.

We compare this version to a print version. In print the poem appears printed on a memorial pamphlet below an invitation to a public ceremony to commemorate the life of Lanier. Presented by the Sidney Lanier Memorial Committee of Macon, Georgia on green cardstock, the context of the memorial gives the poem new life. Just as the Master must walk out of the woods towards death, so must we all. The celebration of the life of Christ is not unlike the celebration of Lanier, whose work was much beloved in his own time.

MS7 4.3, folder 1, “A Ballad of Trees and the Master,” Sidney Lanier Memorial Committee. Image courtesy of The Sidney Lanier Papers 1838-1972, Special Collections, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

In addition to the contextual meaning added to the poem as part of a pamphlet, the physical text itself adds to the experience. The small hanging images of bellflowers below the title add a sense of solemnity. The small dash between the poem and the author line brings a sense of finality to the pamphlet. The last thing we see is Lanier’s name, reminding us what the inclusion of the poem is meant to honor- Lanier himself. These subtle cues are lost in the blandness of the bare internet text.

Although the text preserved in its entirety online may be accurate down to the letter, it cannot offer the unique textures that print can. Whether in a book, magazine or pamphlet, the mood of the medium offers a new way to perceive a piece. Through different lenses we see different things. The internet is not a lens to see through, but rather a naked eye. While it provides us with the frame of the work and allows accessibility, it cannot offer the context we need to see new things in old places.

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