By Tyler E. Bagwell
For generations this community has praised the poet Sidney Lanier and over the years, it has named a bridge, a road, a tree, as well as a football stadium in his honor. This patronage stems from his well-known poem The Marshes of Glynn and his visits to Brunswick in the late 1860s and 1870s.
In the 1860s Sidney Lanier's father-in-law, Charles Day, owned a large amount of property in Brunswick and Lanier was given an interest in this land as well as a share in a local brickyard company. Brunswick historian Ernie Craft explains that Sidney Lanier was trained as a lawyer and in the 1800s the Charles Day family sold acreage to the city. Lanier acted as the attorney in the transaction, elucidates Ernie Craft, and Brunswick used the purchased land to create Palmetto Cemetery.
Originally from Macon, Georgia, Sidney Lanier contracted tuberculosis while serving as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. The disease affected his lungs and caused him breathing problems until his death in 1881. Because of the tuberculosis, Sidney Lanier would often visit different places with the hope of finding a climate to help him breathe easier. Lanier came to Brunswick several times and on at least one occasion, he, his wife Mary, and their children sojourned in the city together.
"While in Brunswick, Lanier and his family visited at the home of his wife's brother, Henry C. Day," writes Margaret Davis Cate in her book Early Days of Coastal Georgia. The Day's home was located in the 900-block of Albany Street and today a marker, situated in the road's center partition, identifies the house for spectators.
In the early 1870s Jake Dart, the son of Brunswick pioneer Urbanus Dart, befriended Sidney Lanier. He reminisced about the meeting in an early 1900s newspaper article and writes, "Passing by this store, [the G. Friedlander Emporium on Gloucester and Newcastle,] one night I heard a flute...Going in I saw Sidney Lanier, leaning against the counter. After a few minutes he asked me to take a walk."
He continues, "Gloucester Street was then a mere roadway. Passing to the foot of the street at what was then known as "The Back Landing,' we continued our walk until we reached the oak nearly in front of the residence of the late John B. Dart. Lanier said, "Let us stop here.'"
"We both sat upon its roots in silent reverie," Dart recalls.
He concludes, "After awhile...[Sidney Lanier]...arose and pointing across the water he exclaimed: "How marvelous, how wonderfully beautiful the sinuous marshes of Glynn.' On our way back we parted in front of the day house...I saw him no more; he moved back to Macon, his old home, shortly after."
Jake Dart would eventually become the mayor of Brunswick and a member of the state legislature. Local resident Bill Brown, a great grandson of Urbanus Dart, recalls hearing that the Friedlander Emporium, the place where Jake Dart met Sidney Lanier, was a store that also included a small saloon. From Brown's understanding, the two men were drinking together and then continued enjoying libations at the marshes' edge.
Historian Mary McGarvey interviewed several people in the community who were living in the 1870s and she writes, "[Harry F. du Bignon]...was just a small boy but he remembers how beautifully Mr. Lanier played his silver flute in the DuBignon parlor on George Street...Apparently a strong friendship sprung up here and Lanier presented the DuBignon family with his photograph."
Resident Jack Stiles, in another interview by Mary McGarvey, declared, "...Lanier composed the "Marshes of Glynn' during the spring of 1875 in Brunswick, and ...he first read the manuscript in the parlor of his aunt's home [Mrs. James Hamilton Couper] at the corner of Union and London Streets to a group of literary-minded people.'
"Later," said Mr. Stiles, "he understood that Mrs. Dexter, a neighbor of Mrs. Couper's, claimed it was in her parlor across the street from Mrs. Couper's parlor. "But at least,' said Mr. Stiles (a gentleman of the old school, who would never contradict a lady), "it was in that block,'"
The Marshes of Glynn became a highly acclaimed poem and Sidney Lanier made plans to write a series of poems entitled Hymns of the Marshes. Ultimately though, only a few in the series were composed. Throughout the 1900s children living in Georgia were required to memorize the poem by heart and real estate proprietor Bill Brown explains that it was once mandatory for all pupils at Glynn Academy High School to learn the poem.
Based on the accounts of local residents, it seems that at least part of The Marshes of Glynn poem was completed in Brunswick. To be sure, Lanier most likely polished and refined the poem before its publication in 1878 while living in Baltimore, Maryland. Sidney Lanier spent a great deal of time in the 1870s residing in Baltimore, lecturing on literature at Johns Hopkins University, and playing the flute in the Peabody Symphony.
In Brunswick, the oak tree where Sidney Lanier once relaxed by the edge of the marsh was soon dubbed Lanier's Oak. Today, this tree may be seen on Highway 17, north of the foot of Gloucester Street, and includes a marker that commemorates Lanier.
In the early 1970s renowned sculptor Russ Fiore, a Jekyll Island resident, designed a statue of Sidney Lanier to be located near the marshes. The city approved the model, explains Chris Dougherty, curator of the Fiore Collection, and the erection of a bronze statue in Overlook Park on Highway 17 was planned.
Chris Dougherty, who is also the art teacher at Jane Macon Middle School, mentions that due to the city's lack of funds, the Sidney Lanier statue was never constructed. The model for the bronze statue is currently on exhibit with other sculptures by Fiore in Mistletoe Cottage, a mansion-sized home located in Jekyll's Historic Landmark District. For more information on the Fiore Sculpture Exhibit contact the Jekyll Island Museum at (912) 635-4036.
While Sidney Lanier may have only been a temporary resident, his mark in the literary world resonates throughout Glynn County today. We have named a bridge, a road, and perhaps one day in the near future...we'll have a bronze statue as well!