An Exhibit on Obscurity: Lanier as a Poet of Baltimore

In deciding on what to show for our upcoming exhibit, I stumbled into a display of Sidney Lanier as a poet of a different time and place altogether. He is a very Southern poet, a Baltimorean, and a man whose work is characterized by the Victorian, Romantic society in which he lived. These things have contributed to his fall into relative obscurity since his death.

The first thing I chose for my portion of the exhibit was my favorite poem by Lanier: “An Ode to the Johns Hopkins University”, as it was published in the JHU Circular for the fourth commemoration day. The second thing I chose was the Sidney Lanier memorial relief sculpture on the Homewood campus. Both of these things speak to Lanier’s Hopkins appeal and the specificity of his audience.

I chose two poems from the collection of Lanier’s works that his wife edited and published after his death. “An Frau Nanette Falk-Auerbach” and “A Ballad of Trees and the Master” are two poems that are very specific to the time period and place in which Lanier wrote. The first is a poem written in German and then written again in English. This speaks to Lanier’s education in German language and literature, as well as the high population of German immigrants in the United States at the time. The second poem makes reference to slavery and has overarching themes of religion. Neither of these are particularly popular topics anymore and the use of German culture and language does make some of Lanier’s work obscure to current audiences.

The final thing I chose was Lanier’s book Bob: the story of our mockingbird. It’s a lovely book written about the mocking bird Lanier and his wife kept as a pet who died while they lived in Baltimore. It is illustrated and the copy we have is extra-illustrated. A few weeks ago, there was a more specific blog post about the book, but I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of it. Writing a book that is specifically about his mockingbird could easily limit the audience that the book appeals to. This speaks to the specificity of his audience and style and how he fell out of the general canon of poetry in the last hundred years or so.

All of these will be part of our online exhibition coming very soon and I can’t wait to share Lanier and his work!


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