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From the Flats
A Poem by Sidney Lanier (1842-1881)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Poem as a Metaphor
Theme
Summary and Theme
Secondary Theme
Text of the Poem
Tone
End Rhyme
Verse Format
Alliteration
Anaphora
Metaphor
Personification
Paradox
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography of Lanier
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.. 2011
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Type of Work and Publication

.......Sidney Lanier's "From the Flats" is a lyric poem contrasting the monotony of the flat Florida landscape with the variety of the Georgia landscape. Lanier, a native of Georgia, resided for a short time in Tampa, Florida, in the belief that the climate there would improve his health. (He suffered from tuberculosis, a disease he contracted while serving with the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil war.) Apparently, the flatness of the Florida landscape inspired him to write "From the Flats." The highest natural formation in all of Florida is only 345 feet above sea level. The highest natural formation in Tampa is fewer than 50 feet above sea level.
.......Lanier wrote the poem in 1871. Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science published the the poem in 1877, and Charles Scribner's Sons published it in New York in 1884 as part of a collection, The Poems of Sidney Lanier

Poem as a Metaphor and a Letter

.......One may read "From the Flats" as a metaphor comparing a boring and uneventful life to that of an exciting and varied life. The title suggests that the poem represents a letter written "from the flats."

Summary and Main Theme

.......The theme is monotony, or boredom. The monotony bemoaned by the speaker results from the flatness of Florida's topography. He sees no hills, no deep valleys, no slopes, no mountain passes, no surprises around the next turn in the road. Instead, he sees—as lines 8 and 16 indicate—only the same landscape again and again. Florida has none of the variety of Georgia, where there are mountains, hills, and rolling valleys as well as flat plains. On the slopes of such hills, quartz crystals and pebbles gleam, and the hickory tree reaches for the sky. Grapes spill over the slopes, and oaks cast shadows over the dogwood in the open spaces of forests.
.......The poem may be interpreted as a metaphor for an uneventful life—one that lacks challenges, excitement, and variety. For example, the "hill my Georgia high uprears" (line 18) could symbolize a challenge and "Bright leaps of living brook" (line 24) could symbolize an exciting enterprise or event.

Secondary Theme

.......A secondary theme of the poem is homesickness. This theme becomes clear in lines 17 and 18: "Oh might I through these tears / But glimpse some hill my Georgia high uprears."

Text of the Poem

What heartache—ne'er a hill! 
Inexorable, vapid, vague and chill
The drear sand-levels drain my spirit low.
With one poor word they tell me all they know;
Whereat their stupid tongues, to tease my pain,
Do drawl it o'er again and o'er again.
They hurt my heart with griefs I cannot name:
Always the same, the same.

Nature hath no surprise,
No ambuscade of beauty 'gainst mine eyes
From brake or lurking dell or deep defile
No humors, frolic forms—this mile, that mile;
No rich reserves or happy-valley hopes
Beyond the bend of roads, the distant slopes.
Her fancy fails, her wild is all run tame: 
Ever the same, the same.

Oh might I through these tears
But glimpse some hill my Georgia high uprears, 
Where white the quartz and pink the pebble shine, 
The hickory heavenward strives, the muscadine 
Swings o'er the slope, the oak's far-falling shade 
Darkens the dogwood in the bottom glade,
And down the hollow from a ferny nook
Bright leaps a living brook! 

Notes

ambuscade: Ambush.
brake: Cluster of ferns.
dell: Small valley. 
defile: Narrow pass.
quartz: Crystallized silica used in making glass and gems.
muscadine: Purple grape.
glade: Open space in woods.
m.

Tone

.......The tone of the first three stanzas of the poem is dreary and depressing. But the final stanza brightens when the speaker pictures the landscape of his native Georgia, perhaps in expectation of returning there soon. 

End Rhyme

.......The poem consists of twelve couplets (two successive rhyming lines). The first four lines demonstrate the pattern.

What heartache—ne'er a hill
Inexorable, vapid, vague and chill
The drear sand-levels drain my spirit low
With one poor word they tell me all they know
Verse Format

.......The verse format of the first and eighth lines of each stanza is iambic trimeter. The format of the second through seventh lines of each stanza is iambic pentameter. The first stanza demonstrates the pattern.

    .........1......................2................ 3
    What HEART..|..ache—NE'ER..|..aHILL...............................................;...........(iambic trimeter)

    ...1..........2........... 3............... 4................. 5
    In EX..|..or A..|..ble VAP..|..id VAGUE..|..and CHILL...........................................(iambic pentameter)

    ........1..................2................. 3................. 4............. 5
    The DREAR..|..sand-LEV..|..els DRAIN..|..my SPIR..|..it LOW.............................(iambic pentameter)

    ......1...................2.................. 3................. 4.............. 5
    With ONE..|..poor WORD..|..they TELL..|..me ALL..|..they KNOW.......................(iambic pentameter)

    .......1.................2.................... 3................... 4............... 5
    Where AT..|..their STU..|..pid TONGUES,..|..to TEASE..|..my PAIN,.....................(iambic pentameter)

    ........1.................2............ 3............. 4............... 5
    Do DRAWL..|..it O'ER..|..a GAIN..|..and O'ER..|..a GAIN......................................(iambic pentameter)

    .......1....................2.................... 3............... 4............ 5
    They HURT..|..my HEART..|..with GRIEFS..|..I CAN..|..not NAME:........................(iambic pentameter)

    ......1.................2................. 3
    Al WAYS..|..the SAME,..|..the SAME..................................................................(iambic trimeter)


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Alliteration

.......Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of a word or a syllable. It occurs frequently in "From the Flats" to enhance the appeal of the poem to the ear. The highlighted letters below indicate the occurrence of alliteration in the first stanza.

What heartache—ne'er a hill!  
Inexorable, vapid, vague and chill 
The drear sand-levels drain my spirit low. 
With one poor word they tell me all they know;.....................(Note: One begins with a w sound.)
Whereat their stupid tongues, to tease my pain,
Do drawl it o'er again and o'er again.
They hurt my heart with griefs I cannot name:
Always the same, the same.
Anaphora

.......Anaphora is the repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. Anaphora occurs in the following lines. 

No humors, frolic forms—this mile, that mile;
No rich reserves or happy-valley hopes (lines 12-13)

Her fancy fails, her wild is all run tame (line 15)

Metaphor

.......A metaphor is a comparison between unlike things without the use of as, like, or than. An example from the poem is line 24.

Bright leaps a living brook! 
Comparison of the brook to a leaping creature
Personification

.......Personification treats a thing, a place, or an idea as if it were a person. In the second stanza, the speaker says of nature, "Her fancy fails, her wild is all run tame" (line 15).

Paradox

.......A paradox is a contradictory statement that contains truth. This figure of speech occurs in line 15.
...........Her fancy fails, her wild is all run tame
...........Nature is wild and tame at the same time.

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Write a short poem that imitates the end rhyme of "From the Flats."
  • Write a short poem about the landscape where you live.
  • Inversion of word order occurs in lines 19 and 24. In reference to poetry, what is inversion?
  • List additional examples of alliteration besides those mentioned above
  • Define inexorable and vapid (line 2). 
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