The Song of the Chattahoochee
By 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.
About the Poet
The Montgomery County Board of Education voted last Tuesday night to change the names of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Sidney Lanier High Schools — each named after men who were members of the Confederacy. I agree that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee High Schools needed to be changed, but I’m not so sure it is appropriate to change the name of Sidney Lanier High School. Established in 1910 on the southern outskirts of downtown Montgomery, Alabama, the school was named for a Southern poet, Sidney Lanier, who lived in Montgomery during 1866–67. The school has one of its focuses on the arts, and Lanier (February 3, 1842 – September 7, 1881) was far more famous for being a poet and a musician than being a private in the Confederate army, where he spent most of his time as a prisoner of war. While being held in prison, Lanier contracted tuberculosis. The disease eventually killed him at age 39. Lanier was mostly forgotten for decades after his death until, in the 1920s the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) worked to enhance Lanier’s posthumous reputation and succeeded in making him a symbol of the Lost Cause. The UDC called him the “Poet of the Confederacy.”
The connection with Lanier and the Lost Cause is a sad epilogue to his career. Lanier was a young man of 19 when the war broke out, and he was a southerner and a product of his time. I don’t think his legacy should be tarnished because of that. During his lifetime, Lanier published an anti-war novel about his war experiences, Tiger Lilies (1867), as well as a collection of poems, a series of adventure stories for children, and a work of criticism. His Poems (1877) brought him renown and led to his appointment as lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in 1879. He died just two years later. Lanier was considered a minor poet in his own times, and although his fame has steadily risen in recent years, he remains obscure in comparison to the giants of the 19th century such as Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Nonetheless, Lanier is a notable poet in the American canon because his style of writing poetry is so utterly distinct from almost every other English-language author of his era. Greatly influenced by the Anglo-Saxon poets of the Old English period, Lanier gradually developed a style of poetry written in a loose imitation of Anglo-Saxon meter that utilized extremely creative and musical alliteration and sound effects to create poetry unlike anything else written in America.
About the Poem
Lanier composed “Song of the Chattahoochee” in November 1877 for a small paper in West Point, Georgia. At the time he considered it the best poem he had ever written, and critics have generally agreed that it is one of his finer efforts. Originally from Macon, Georgia, Lanier travelled much in Georgia, Maryland, Florida, and North Carolina for employment and for his health. Lanier was able to see much of the South’s natural beauty, and he found much religious and spiritual significance in it. “Song of the Chattahoochee” is primarily a musical poem whose words flow very much like the river that is its speaker. The river’s aim is to do its duty, answering the call of God.
“Song of the Chattahoochee” describes the Chattahoochee River which begins in Georgia, has a significant portion which divides Alabama and Georgia, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle. The poem describes for readers the river’s journey, from its headspring in Habersham county to its end in Georgia’s East Gulf coastal plains, where, in Lanier’s time, it fed into another river that led to the Gulf of Mexico. Lanier’s style in this poem copies the rushing, shifting, gurgling motion of a true river, giving readers a little bit of the experience of following the water on its journey. He gives the river a human personality, ascribing to it human motivation. This helps to make this natural phenomenon more understandable to people who are not familiar with it and to make readers who are familiar with rivers experience the feeling of them anew.
The river is introduced as being on a mission, to water the dry fields of Georgia and to turn the water wheels that power the grain mills. Similarly, the other natural objects that the Chattahoochee passes seem to have a human motivation. They all want the river to stop, or “abide.” Most of the natural objects in the poem are presented as calling for the river to stop its motion. The waterweeds hold the river, the trees command “pass not,” the gemstones try to lure it to stay with them, etc. Nature, in general, is presented as favoring passive behavior over action. The river is presented here as an exception to nature, as being almost unnatural in its rush to keep on moving. This idea is supported by the fact that the river’s “Duty” (which is capitalized in the poem, to show its connection to God’s will) is not to aid nature, but to aid humanity in the commercial enterprises of farming and milling. The river, though natural, rushes like a human in order to fulfill its human responsibilities.