‘Song of the Chattahoochee’ by Sidney Lanier, published in 1887, offers a unique perspective of the American South.
In this poem, the speaker is the Chattahoochee River, which sings a tale of its journey from Habersham County in the northern corner of Georgia into the ACF river Basin near the Gulf of Mexico.
Employing themes such as duty and nature, the River takes the audience on a tour of many of the native plants, trees, and geographical features of the Appalachian region.
Song of the Chattahoochee By Sidney Lanier Out of the hills of Habersham, Down the valleys of Hall, I hurry amain to reach the plain, Run the rapid and leap the fall, Split at the rock and together again, Accept my bed, or narrow or wide, And flee from folly on every side With a lover's pain to attain the plain Far from the hills of Habersham, Far from the valleys of Hall. All down the hills of Habersham, All through the valleys of Hall, The rushes cried 'Abide, abide,' The willful waterweeds held me thrall, The laving laurel turned my tide, The ferns and the fondling grass said 'Stay,' The dewberry dipped for to work delay, And the little reeds sighed 'Abide, abide, Here in the hills of Habersham, Here in the valleys of Hall.' High o'er the hills of Habersham, Veiling the valleys of Hall, The hickory told me manifold Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall Wrought me her shadowy self to hold, The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine, Overleaning, with flickering meaning and sign, Said, 'Pass not, so cold, these manifold Deep shades of the hills of Habersham, These glades in the valleys of Hall.' And oft in the hills of Habersham, And oft in the valleys of Hall, The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl, And many a luminous jewel lone -- Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist, Ruby, garnet and amethyst -- Made lures with the lights of streaming stone In the clefts of the hills of Habersham, In the beds of the valleys of Hall. But oh, not the hills of Habersham, And oh, not the valleys of Hall Avail: I am fain for to water the plain. Downward the voices of Duty call -- Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main, The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn, And a myriad flowers mortally yearn, And the lordly main from beyond the plain Calls o'er the hills of Habersham, Calls through the valleys of Hall.
Explore Song of the Chattahoochee
‘Song of the Chattahoochee’ is a lyric poem told from the perspective of the Chattahoochee river as it courses from down through the valleys, forests, and hills in northern Georgia to the Southernmost edge of the state.
In the poem’s opening, the first-person speaker explains that they are in a hurry, moving down from the hills in Habersham County, Georgia. The speaker runs “the rapid and leaps the fall,” which gives the audience enough information to understand that the poem’s speaker is the river itself.
The river rushes, splitting and coming back together, running over rocks, and expanding and contracting as the river bed narrows.
As the river continues its course, the local plants pad the riverbed to soak up water and push the river further downstream. Many of these plants speak to the river, either spurring it forward or asking it to stay.
The river then courses into the forest, where the trees create dark shadows, making the water cold.
As the river courses, it describes the rocks it must fight with to keep coursing downstream. The river describes the brook stones, the quartz that blocks its passage, and the bright gems that sparkle in the rocks.
In the last stanza, the river finally reaches its final spot in the ACF (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint) River Basin. The river describes a desolate scene when it arrives, with parched flowers, burning fields, and mills that need help to turn. So, the river courses on and goes to the plain, thus ending its journey for the greater good.
Sidney Lanier (1842 – 1881) was an American poet, musician, and author. He was also a private for the confederates in the American Civil War and posthumously named the “poet of the Confederacy” by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
As such, Lanier often wrote about the American South. He often wrote on themes such as nature, politics, religion, and reconstruction after the Civil war. Some of his lesser-known poems were also written in dialects specific to the Southern Appalachian region.
As one of his best-known poems, ‘Song of the Chattahoochee’ contains much of this background information, even if it is hidden in symbolism and personification.
The song traces the river’s course through real places, running South from Habersham County, Georgia, through the forests and mining areas closer to the state’s south.
Fun fact: In 1957, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created a man-made lake in Hall county to control the flow of the Chattahoochee river. They named it Lake Lanier in honor of Sidney Lanier’s ‘Song of the Chattahoochee.’
Structure and Form
‘Song of the Chattahoochee’ gained its fame because of the clever use of form, structure, and language. Lanier used all of these features to mimic the course of a running river.
While the structure may seem chaotic and disorganized initially, the poem follows a unique pattern that lends itself well to music.
The rhyme scheme is ABCBCDDCAB. In each of the five stanzas, lines three and eight end with the same word. For example, line three of stanza one ends in “plain,” and line eight also ends in “plain.” Likewise, the first two lines and the last two lines in each stanza all place the course of the river in relation to the starting point in Habersham County, GA.
The poem’s rhythm uses a combination of anapests and iambs to create a more musical pace with an arhythmic beat. The mixture of multiple meters is called logaoedic dactyls, which is the structure that Lanier primarily used.
In addition, each stanza is one long run-on sentence, glued together with commas and dashes, except in the case of the last stanza, where the river finally stops rushing. This structure creates a river-like flow throughout the poem, only pausing for a moment in a few spots.
It also carries a tone of urgency, as the river must continue and cannot take a break.
Another exciting feature of this poem is that it follows the structure of a grade-school essay. It has five stanzas, and the first serves as a thesis statement:
Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Then, the three stanzas in the middle comprise the essay’s body, and the final stanza makes up the conclusion. This rudimentary structure brings the poem back to the most basic level of organization, mimicking the simplicity of nature.
Here, Lanier emphasizes the simple, undecorated majesty of nature and showcases all of its beauty.
Some of the most prevalent literary devices in ‘Song of the Chattahoochee’ include:
- Personification. The speaker of this poem is the Chattahoochee river. In addition, many plants, stones, and trees all interact with the river as it passes by.
- Repetition. The repetition of “hills of Habersham” and “valleys of Hall” always places the river in relation to its starting point.
- Alliteration. Alliteration is everywhere in ‘Song of the Chattahoochee. Lanier primarily uses alliteration to create similar sounds to a river. For example, the phrase “hills of Habersham” creates a soft whooshing sound that mimics a jetting, misty stream.
Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover’s pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.
Stanza one of ‘Song of the Chattahoochee’ begins with two vague prepositional phrases that position our speaker somewhere between the hilly areas in Habersham County, Georgia, and the valleys of Hall county.
Whoever is speaking, they “hurry amain,” or rush at full speed, to reach a plain. However, in line four, the speaker “rush[es] the rapid and leap[s] the fall.” With this information, becomes more apparent that the speaker is the Chattahoochee river, and this poem is the song that it sings.
In these opening lines, Lanier deliberately delays introducing the speaker as a river. By doing so, he allows the audience to discover it for themselves, just as one would stumble across a river by peering behind some trees in a forest.
Additionally, once introduced, this river makes an abrupt entrance. The poet uses the alliteration of hard R sounds to illustrate the power and force of the water as it leaps straight over a cliff to become a waterfall.
The river speaks very plainly and quickly as if it cannot be bothered to sit around and chat. For example, it states, “Split at the rock and together again,” in line five, neglecting to give “together again” a verb. However, despite the simple and archaic language, the point comes across.
The Chattahoochee river is drawn to a much more important goal, though. The speaker states that it has a “lover’s pain to attain the plain,” in an excellent example of internal rhyme. The phrase “lover’s pain” has a sharp depth. Here, the river compares its urgent journey to a person who is desperately trying to get home to their lover.
All down the hills of Habersham,
All through the valleys of Hall,
The rushes cried ‘Abide, abide,’
The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said ‘Stay,’
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed ‘Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.’
In stanza three of ‘Song of the Chattahoochee,’ the river is rushing downhill as it sings of the plants it encounters in the grasslands. In many ways, this stanza and the following two function as catalogs of Georgia’s plants, stones, and other natural features.
All the plants in stanza two are personified. They interact with the river by bathing in, speaking with, or manipulating the river’s stream.
As the river crashes against the rushes, they cry, “Abide, abide,” forcing the river to stay within its bed, like bumpers. Meanwhile, the “willful waterweeds” grab onto the river, creating turbulence. Finally, the “laving,” or bathing, laurel bushes force the river to flow around them.
On the other hand, the grass and ferns, with their dense roots, tell the river to “stay.” The dewberry, a close relative of the blackberry, dips into the water to procrastinate work.
Then, the reeds, much smaller than rushes, only manage to whisper to the river.
By bringing these plants to life, Lanier paints a vivid image of a Georgia teeming with life, movement, and vibrant shades of green and yellow.
High o’er the hills of Habersham,
Veiling the valleys of Hall,
The hickory told me manifold
Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall
Wrought me her shadowy self to hold,
The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine,
Overleaning, with flickering meaning and sign,
Said, ‘Pass not, so cold, these manifold
Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
These glades in the valleys of Hall.
By stanza three of ‘Song of the Chattahoochee,’ the river has worked its way farther downstream. Here, the trees are “veiling the valleys,” creating an image of a densely planted forest.
The trees attempt to slow the river’s course, to tell it tales, to embrace it, and command it not to leave.
However, they all seem fixated on light and shadows, which may allude to the area’s darker history. Between the mountain valleys in the forested areas of Habersham, a Civil War battle called the Battle of Narrows that occurred in 1867.
In the valley, the river recounts how the hickory tree tells “manifold,” or many, stories about shade. Meanwhile, deeper in the forest where little light gets in, the poplar tree offers herself to the river like a lover embracing the Chattahoochee.
The other native trees, including oaks, pines, walnuts, and chestnuts, poke out from the forest, competing for light. According to the river, the light that filters down through their canopies creates flickering meanings and signs as the trees tell the Chattahoochee not to go on. The trees tell the river that it gets darker and colder in the meadows.
And oft in the hills of Habersham,
And oft in the valleys of Hall,
The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
— Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet and amethyst —
Made lures with the lights of streaming stone
In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
In the beds of the valleys of Hall.
As the Chattahoochee river makes its way out of the woods, it begins to sing of the stones that barred its pathway. It sings of the white quartz, still mined in Habersham County, and smooth brook stones that line the river bed.
The river states that it had to fight these stones to keep flowing forward, though it was a friendly fight.
The river also sees rubies, garnets, and amethyst, commonly mined in the area. These shiny, colorful stones create “lures” that attempt to draw the river in. However, the river must go on.
But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call —
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
Calls o’er the hills of Habersham,
Calls through the valleys of Hall.
In the final stanza, the river makes an exclamation as if saddened that it could not stay in the hills and valleys. It sings “oh” twice, mourning the beautiful things it’s seen along the way.
However, it then restates its goal: “to water the plain.”
Line three is the only place in the poem where there is a period before the end of the stanza. This punctuation creates a natural pause, indicating that the river is persistent and can only stop once it gets to that plain.
Once there, the river must fulfill its duty, which is to rehydrate the parched fields, power up waterwheels and mills, and save the dying flowers.
In addition, the main, or the sea, calls the river down, telling the river to “toil” with the “voices of Duty.” Note the capitalization of “Duty,” which indicates that this duty is divinely ordained, like the commandments of God.
The Duty that Chattahoochee feels is the central message of the poem. While the trees, stones, and plants that the river met as it ran its course wanted him to stay, the river knew that it had to go into the city and get to work serving people.
These ideas turn this charming, naturalistic poem into a much deeper one. As such, it reflects the need for city-building, new agricultural techniques, and increased industry in the reconstruction south.
So, while all of these natural resources, such as the river, plants, trees, and rocks, are lively, vibrant forces in this poem, they are also at the heart of what Georgia needed in order to rebuild after the devastation of war. Thus, to Lanier, the role of nature is not to serve itself but to serve humanity.
Sidney Lanier wrote the ‘Song of the Chattahoochee‘ to catalog the natural landscape in his home state of Georgia. However, the main message behind the poem is that of duty to one’s land and the natural resources in it. In beautifying and describing the river, rocks, plants, and trees so vividly with personification, Lanier honored all of the living things he experienced in his home state.
The meaning of the ‘Song of the Chattahoochee‘ is that every living and non-living thing has a duty to fulfill. In the poem, the river feels tempted to stop and water other plants or succumb to large stones in its path. However, it knows that it must keep flowing down southward to help water the crops and flowers and power mills.
The ‘Song of the Chattahoochee‘ was written in November of 1877, and it was published in a newspaper in West Point, Georgia. Beyond his skills as a poet, Sidney Lanier was a talented musician and college professor who taught English Literature at Johns Hopkins University later in his life. Many schools, landmarks, and natural features were named after him.
The themes in ‘Song of the Chattahoochee‘ are duty, labor, and nature. At face value, the poem is all about the natural resources in Georgia, including the Chattahoochee river, the stones, trees, and grassland plants in the area. However, the river’s resolution and Duty to serve mankind by watering crops and powering mills are all-important and drives the river on.
- ‘Misgivings‘ by Herman Melville – this poem describes the state of America right before the beginning of the Civil War and the fear that many felt for the future.
- ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ by Walt Whitman – Walt Whitman wrote the elegy, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ in memory of deceased American President Abraham Lincoln in 1865
- ‘A Gleam of Sunshine’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – a naturalistic poem about the passage of time and love