American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

A Mental Photograph of Sidney Lanier

with 5 comments

Frontispiece to Letters of Sidney Lanier (1902)

Sidney Lanier, 1857

I found the centennial edition of Lanier’s works for a ridiculously low price and so I bought it. I’ve only dipped into the set a little, but one of the best bits I’ve found is Appendix D to the last volume of letters, “The Mental Photograph of Sidney Lanier.” A footnote explains:

In Baltimore, during the winter of 1874, Lanier acceded to the request of a Miss Anne Perot and made a “mental photograph” of himself by writing answers to certain printed questions in her album.

The footnote adds that the idea “impressed him sufficiently to bring out a reference to the fad in his Peabody lectures on Shakespeare.” Basically, the mental photograph is a Facebook meme avant la lettre!

In 1874 Lanier was 32 years old and just at the start of his very brief literary career (he died from TB at age 39). He had only recently quit the practice of law in his home state of Georgia to become the first flute in the Peabody Orchestra of Baltimore. So far as appearance goes: he already had the full beard and mustache he wears in most photographs (see question 31), but I prefer the image to the right, as it shows the delicacy of the young man who went to war, before imprisonment broke his health (see question 22).

There are forty questions and answers. Full text below.

The Mental Photograph of Sidney Lanier


1. YOUR FAVORITE COLOR? The opal-grey which one sees on the horizon just after a gorgeous sunset.

2. FLOWER? The Tube-rose.

3. TREE? The Mimosa.

4. OBJECT IN NATURE? A certain glen in the heart of the Smoky Mountains.

5. HOUR IN THE DAY? The two twilights — of morning and evening.

6. SEASON OF THE YEAR? The last half of spring and the first half of summer.

7. PERFUME? The combination of heliotrope and violet.

8. GEM? The Opal.

9. STYLE OF BEAUTY? Oval face, large gray eyes, slender figure.

10. NAMES, MALE AND FEMALE? Clifford and Mary.

11. PAINTERS? Raphael, Titian, Guido, Salvator Rosa, Ary Scheffer.

12. MUSICIANS? Schumann, Wagner, Beethoven, Chopin.

13. PIECE OF SCULPTURE? A Mercury in the act of flying. (Author unknown.)

14. POETS? Shakspere, Chaucer, Lucretius, Robert Browning.

15. POETESSES? Elizabeth Browning, George Eliot.

16. PROSE AUTHORS? Sir Wm. Hamilton, Sir Thomas Browne, Carlyle, Richter.

17. CHARACTER IN ROMANCE? Equally fond of Chaucer’s Personae, Dumas’ Athos & Scott’s Richard Coeur de Lion.

18. CHARACTER IN HISTORY? Sir Philip Sidney.

19. BOOK TO TAKE UP FOR AN HOUR? Hood’s Own, or Dumas’ Three Guardsmen.



22. WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO LIVE? Somewhere where lungs are not necessary to life.

23. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE AMUSEMENT? To be on a springy horse in a hilly country.

24. WHAT IS YR. FAVORITE OCCUPATION? Teaching: either by poems, by music, or by lectures.


26. WHAT TRAIT DO YOU MOST ADMIRE IN WOMAN? The power of implicitly trusting.

27. WHAT TRAITS OF CHARACTER DO YOU MOST DETEST IN EACH? The opposites of these: Littleness & Suspicion.

28. IF NOT YOURSELF WHO WD. YOU RATHER BE? If I were not I, what choice could I have?

29. WHAT IS YR. IDEA OF HAPPINESS? A table with pen, ink & paper, under a big oak, in early summer: wife seated where I can see her every second: three boys rolling on the grass: a mountain in the distance and a certainty that my article won’t be declined.

30. WHAT IS YR. IDEA OF MISERY? To find the flute too sharp for the oboe, after we’ve commenced the Andante of the Fifth Symphony.

31. WHAT IS YOUR BÊTE NOIR? A certain mustache hair that will get across the embouchure when I play for company.

32. WHAT IS YOUR DREAM? To study the highest civilization of the world — i.e. of London.


34. WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE TO BE YOUR DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTIC? Suppose you answer this question for me?

35. IF MARRIED, WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE TO BE THE DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS OF YR. BETTER HALF? A passionate love for art: a heavenly combination of romantic spirituality with practical judgment: and an intense desire to take all the suffering people of the world into her heart.

36. WHAT IS THE SUBLIMEST PASSION OF WHICH HUMAN NATURE IS CAPABLE? Necessarily Love — for it includes all the other passions.

37. WHAT ARE THE SWEETEST WORDS IN THE WORLD? “My dear Sweetheart” (in the beginning of a certain lady’s letters).

38. WHAT ARE THE SADDEST WORDS? Vater rufe dein kind zuruck! — in Thekla’s song.

39. WHAT IS YOUR AIM IN LIFE? Aimer, toujours aimer, et toujours être aimé!



Written by Ben Friedlander

August 31, 2009 at 12:58 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Ben, I insist that you start a facebook meme based on this immediately, and hope very much to be tagged.


    August 31, 2009 at 1:33 pm

  2. Hi Ben,

    Loved this! The questions alone define a whole era. A world where your favorite poetesses give people a vivid picture of who you are. Well, that and your idea of THE SUBLIMEST PASSION OF WHICH HUMAN NATURE IS CAPABLE. “Somewhere where lungs are not necessary to life” is a heartbreaker.

    I like how the relatively new technology, the photograph, is already being used as an image for other kinds of representation. What will be the “mental Facebook updates” of tomorrow? Poems?

    rodney k.

    August 31, 2009 at 4:05 pm

  3. I’m starting the Facebook version of this tonight!


    August 31, 2009 at 5:57 pm

  4. Melissa: Thanks for starting the FB meme! Answers from me (and I hope Nada) to follow.

    Rodney: The line about lungs is made even sadder when I remember that Lanier played a wind instrument.

    I like your thought about new technologies becoming metaphors for the old ones. In this way the future will become an ever more ghostly image of the past. Only poems will be left!

    Ben Friedlander

    September 1, 2009 at 9:46 am

  5. Don’t forget, he helped kick off the SoQ with James Russell Lowell and Jones Very! Or so it’s been said…


    September 2, 2009 at 10:17 am

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