"Sydney Lanier,"was born February 3, 1842, in Macon, Georgia, to parents Robert Sampson Lanier and Mary Jane Anderson; he was mostly of English ancestry, with his distant French ancestors having immigrated to England in the 16th century. He began playing the flute at an early age, and his love of that musical instrument continued throughout his life. He attended Oglethorpe University near Milledgeville, Georgia, graduating first in his class shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War.
He fought in the Civil War, primarily in the tidewater region of Virginia, where he served in the Confederate signal corps. Later, he and his brother Clifford served as pilots aboard English blockade runners. On one of these voyages, his ship was boarded. Refusing to take the advice of the British officers on board to don one of their uniforms and pretend to be one of them, he was captured. He was incarcerated in a military prison at Point Lookout in Maryland, where he contracted tuberculosis (generally known as "consumption" at the time). He suffered greatly from this affliction for the rest of his life.
In an effort to support Mary and their three sons, he also wrote poetry for magazines. His most famous poems were "Corn" (1875), "The Symphony" (1875), "Centennial Meditation" (1876), "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877), "The Marshes of Glynn" (1878), and "Sunrise" (1881). The latter two poems are generally considered his greatest works. They are part of an unfinished set of lyrical nature poems known as the "Hymns of the Marshes", which describe the vast, open salt marshes of Glynn County on the coast of Georgia. There is a historical marker in Brunswick commemorating the writing of "The Marshes of Glynn". The largest bridge in Georgia (as of 2005), a short distance from the marker, is named The Sidney Lanier Bridge.
Late in his life, he became a student, lecturer, and, finally, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, specializing in the works of the English novelists, Shakespeare, the Elizabethan sonneteers, Chaucer, and the Anglo-Saxon poets. He published a series of lectures entitled The English Novel (published posthumously in 1883) and a book entitled The Science of English Verse (1880), in which he developed a novel theory exploring the connections between musical notation and meter in poetry.