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Commentary on the Sidney Lanier Poem "Song of the Chattahoochee" and its Musical Setting

by Steven Darsey

Sidney Lanier (1842–1881) is one of the greatest poets Georgia has produced, and his "Song of the Chattahoochee" is among Georgia's most beloved poems. Born in Macon, Georgia, Lanier died all too early from disease contracted during the civil war. A reluctant attorney, he was also a professional flute player who dreamed of being a poet and professor of literature - dreams he was just realizing when he was taken by an early death. In his masterpiece poem "Song of the Chattahoochee," Lanier reveals his genius for seeing truths in nature and articulating these for human benefit.

The individual, personified in the river, moves through the vicissitudes of life, charmed, tempted, challenged, and informed by the wonders encountered along the way, yet ever staying the course of sacred duty toward her or his highest fulfillment and union with eternity, with God.

While moving from youthful playfulness to mature commitment, the poem from the outset portrays a pervasive devotion to honor—an honor that will not be denied—"With a lover's pain to attain the plain."

Lanier articulated a unique theory in his The Science of English Verse (New York: Scribners, 1916. p. 103ff.), that poets wrote consciously or not, according to rhythmic laws of music, and their verses can therefore be notated according to the principles of music. While his theories have won critics and supporters, it is clear that Lanier honored this tenet in his own mature poetry, as nobly manifested in his "Song of the Chattahoochee."

His command of prosody is evident in his deft manipulation of meter to affect mood and meaning. As a basic meter, he utilized what he called the "true classic dactyl"—a quadruple meter with a strong long beat followed by two weaker beats. [Science of English Verse, Lanier, pps.225-226.] This meter, Lanier believed to carry a majestic gravity appropriate to the river's noble march to the sea. With a professional musician's acumen, he wove differing poetic meters around and through this basic meter, instilling fluidity and dramatic nuance.

The stanzas consist of 10 lines, all columned (flanked) by beginning and ending refrain couplets. Each line carries four dactylic, or other, metric feet, excepting the second line of the opening and closing couplets, which carry three. Lanier varied the number of syllables within the feet and often began lines with a final weak beat from a previous foot—"anacrusis" in music—but all in the service of beauty and meaning.

The rhyme scheme, used consistently throughout the five stanzas, is A B C B C DD C A B. This tightly formal scheme, through the ear, draws the mind from the opening couplet into the stanza, through to the next rhyme, accelerating with the DD rhyme to the climax in subsequent line eight, before returning to the final couplet. This underlying form affords a classic structural potency that, through Lanier's facile art, enables strength and subtle grace. His fluency with words, coupled with his rhythmic genius, allowed him to use a rich palate of poetic devices and rhythmic nuance to expressive effect.

The musical setting originated with a melody that, moving to the rhythms of the words, modulates through the changing landscape and ranges high to support the eighth-line poetic climax. It sings the unalloyed nobility embedded in the poem.

In stanza one, Lanier sets forth the origin and object of the poem, the river and humanity. Coming from the Georgia mountains—or anyone's home place—we proceed through the course of life, which brings diverting challenges to overcome. Fealty to this journey means we accept poverty or prosperity, without surrendering to temptation, for we are drawn to duty with the passion of a lover.

The music for this first stanza is a straightforward solo setting with flowing accompaniment, using some imitation—limited so as not to detract from the soloist and the listener's apprehension of the melody.

In stanza two, now on our youthful way, we are tethered by mother-like and seduced by lover-like sirens—calling, clinging, alluring—impelled to hold us back, and with some success, for "The laving laurel turned my tide."

The music carries the melody in the men's voices, giving the women whispering siren-like repetitive figures inspired from the text. The accompaniment has dissonant, off beat chords to enhance the drawing allure, but sparingly placed so as not to obscure the voices.

Stanza three brings us through the stately realm of trees and their numinous shades, so rich with "meaning and sign." We are given fatherly command to attend to education and wisdom therein. But we may not remain in the safe vale of learning, and must journey on.

The music of this stanza is given to the women to depict the height of the trees and the subtle, intricate, prescient beauty of the shadows. The high, regularly placed, dissonant chords in the accompaniment evoke the faithful strength of the trees and the ineffable wisdom of the shade.

In stanza four we come to the spiritual world represented in luminous stones. With the exception of the brook stone offering "friendly brawl," harking back to the youthful first stanza's combative rocks, these stones beckon us away from the day to day world, toward the mystical beauty of spiritual contemplation.

The falling chromatic chords in the accompaniment portray the mystic glow of luminous stones. These figures are accelerated rhythmically into rollicking figures accompanying "friendly brawl." The music then slows, with high "clock ticking" accompaniment whose quiet regularity suggests rather a suspension of time, and whose augmented dissonances evoke the stones' siren call toward other worlds. The voices move slowly through streaming repetition, as in spiritual abandon.

No, this will not do either, as stanza five brings us back to our earthbound, committed course to the sea. "Downward" repeated, binds us to our duty in this world, to meet the needs of those around us. And yes, this is not only the practical—keeping the wheels of business turning—but also the aesthetic—defending beauty, as in "myriad flowers." We cannot deny the call to honor.

For the final stanza, the music brings us back to the opening key of the work, B flat. The key scheme, B flat, G, E flat, B, B flat manifests a downward journey by thirds, as the river runs down from the mountains. At final stanza five the music returns to the basic idea of stanza one, but now, for the first time, with all four vocal parts present, and with dynamics and accompaniment at their strongest point in the work. The voices are cast homophonically to increase the sonic strength and the unanimity of expression. Thus, the full magnitude of the music supports this climactic stanza of the poem, enabling the performers to utter these truths with heartfelt abandon.

Epilogue: Lanier's Meaning

Though with a serious moral, Lanier has given us a poem of optimism, for the challenges met along the way are either intended to or result in benefit for the traveler. The rocks in stanza one afford cavorting sport, the fondling fauna delay through love, and the commanding shades demand not arrest but respect. The smooth brook stone amiably wrestles and the numinous gems prefigure the spiritual afterlife. For Lanier, through the course of honor, all things converge for the good of the pilgrim.

Through a well-lived life, one will truly encounter sensuality, learning and mysticism. These, however, are not to be received as ends in themselves, but as part of one's passage to a greater end. One must not become trapped in them – lose one's identity therein, for they are but means to enable the honorable journey of duty and ultimate self-fulfillment with eternity, "the lordly main."

Song of the Chattahoochee
Sidney Lanier 1842–1881

Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover's pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.

All down the hills of Habersham,
All through the valleys of Hall,
The rushes cried Abide, abide,
The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said Stay,
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.

High o'er the hills of Habersham,
Veiling the valleys of Hall,
The hickory told me manifold
Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall
Wrought me her shadowy self to hold,
The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine,
Overleaning with flickering meaning and sign,
Said, Pass not, so cold, these manifold
Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
These glades in the valleys of Hall.

And oft in the hills of Habersham,
And oft in the valleys of Hall,
The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
—Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet, and amethyst—
Made lures with the lights of streaming stone
In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
In the beds of the valleys of Hall.

But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call—
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
Calls o'er the hills of Habersham,
Calls through the valleys of Hall.

 

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