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Sidney Lanier, the Language of Paradox, and Staging Contradictory Political Ideals in the Battle for Civil Rights and the War against Terrorism during the Era of Reconstruction

Brook Thomas

Pages 191 - 211


During the era of U.S. Reconstruction, emancipation and passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution heightened an ongoing conflict between the nation’s civic ideals of liberty and equality. Whereas the first ten amendments comprising the Bill of Rights restricted the power of the national government in order to protect individual liberties, the Civil War Amendments gave new enforcement powers to the national government to ensure civil and political equality for former slaves. This essay explores how a couple of works of literature by authors trained in the law stage the conflict between civil liberties and civil rights. The primary focus is on two poems by the southerner Sidney Lanier: “Civil Rights” and “Them Ku Klux.” These poems do not confirm Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Instead, by showing how poetry’s language of paradox dramatizes Sir Phillip Sidney’s recognition that “the poet […] never affirmeth,” they suggest an important role poetry can play in interdisciplinary studies of law and literature.


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