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The Letters of Virginia Hankins and Sidney Lanier

The Letters of Virginia Hankins and Sidney Lanier

From Isle of Wight Historical Society


Sidney Lanier (2nd Battalion, Macon Volunteers) was stationed at Norfolk in 1861-1862.  From May 1863 to October 1864, he was stationed at Burwell’s Bay with the signal corps.  He became one of the great poets of the South, his early poetry singing the beauty of the nights at Burwell’s Bay.  Without instruction he learned to play the guitar, piano, violin, and flute.  “In his hands the flute was transformed into a voice that set heavenly harmonies into vibration”  At 14 he entered Oglethorpe College, Georgia and graduated with distinction.  Years later, he was lecturer on English literature at John Hopkins University. 

“He joined the Confederate army as a private.  He loved “our forests of live-oak beautifully braided and woven with intricate shades of the vine.”  He and his brother Clifford were devoted friends of the Hankins family, owners of Bacon’s Castle in Surry county, and the brothers often visited Bacon’s Caste when they were in the army and on duty at Burwell’s Bay.  Virginia Hankins, or ‘Ginna’, as she was called, rejected Sidney Lanier’s May 1867 proposal of marriage ”solely because of the obligation she felt towards her motherless younger brothers and sisters.” ”

Below is an excerpt taken from Flute Concerto of Sidney Lanier by Myrtle Whittemore, which includes a poem, written by Lanier to Virginia (Ginna) in 1864 while he was stationed at Burwell’s Bay:

“. . . At once Sidney was reminded of the last note he had received from Ginna:

Do you remember the “Brown Bird” in the Drama of Exile by Elizabeth Barrett, whose song as he sat on his tree in Paradise was the last sound heard by Adam as he fled with Eve, “along the glare”?  So, O Friend, do I send my cry for you across these broad stretches of moonlight that lie between us. 

                At a flash he composed in reply his little “Impromptu,”and later carried it over to the Castle to read.  Sitting outdoors on the grass beneath the trees, he said to Ginna, “Want to hear the little poem I wrote a week ago in reply to your note?  I scribbled it off by moonlight, on the shore of Burwell’s Bay, like a lecturer interpreting a panorama.”



“Thou most rare brown Bird on thine Eden-tree,                “O, never was a night so dark as I!

All heaven-sweet to me                                                      But thou hast sent a sigh

Cometh thy song of Love’s high royalty                   Of love, as a star would send a beam, to fly

And Love’s deep loyalty,                                                   Downward from out the sky

And Love’s sweet-pleading loneliness in thee.                And light a heart that’s dark enough to die.                     


“Our one-star yonder uttereth her light,                                “And so, O mine exquisite Silver-Beam,

Her silver call to Night,                                                     Let me forever dream

Who, wavering between the Dark and Bright,                That I as Night and thou a Star, whose stream

On-cometh with timid flight,                                            Of light like love shall seem,--

As one that could not choose ‘twist wrong and right.                Whose love-light thro’ my dark shall ever gleam!”

Burwell’s Bay 1864                                Sidney Lanier


In early 1867 Sidney Lanier sent the following poem to Virginia Hankins:


“’Twas Winter when I met you first,                        “Ah, cold crypts love the baby-green

“’Twas Winter when I saw you last:                                         That sleeps so bravely on their breast,

But O, a Spring did bud and burst                                                For this, they sacrifice their sheen,

And bloom, ere that one Winter passed.                  With this, they satisfy their rest.


“Green grass on tombs of long ago—                     “So are you loved, from out the grave

A sweet fresh Life in Death’s own land—                    Of duty, walling me around,

Is what you were to me.  You know                                 Yet I am all content, all brave:

How hard it was to drop your hand.                                   I wait, I wait.  Sound, Trumpet, sound!”




The letters of Sidney Colin Lanier (1842 - 1881) and Virginia Wilson Hankins (1843 - 1888) sometimes rise to great beauty.  They always loved each other.  She was in many ways a very practical woman to love poetry and a poet.  She sold Bacon’s Castle in 1872 to provide for her brothers’ and sisters’ education and became a schoolteacher, learned in Latin, French, and German.  The family moved to Richmond.  She wrote poetry and an unpublished novel.  She never married.  She died December 24, 1888 and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery. 

From Letter to Virginia Hankins from Boykin’s Bluff dated July 1863 by Sidney Lanier:

“              If my Little One has longed for me, half as often as have I for her, in the days since I saw her, - - - she will certainly have no difficulty in pardoning this greeting of pure and deep Friend’s Love, which my heart irresistibly insists on sending her this morning.

                You know, darling Friend, Liebchen, Thou dear Violet whom I have found growing amid the cold Alpine Summits of cold human-hearts, (even my pen, you see, caresses you!) - - you know, it is my theory that there is no extravagance of pure love which is not sweet, and pardonable-.  And so, my fingers are eager to write down for you the passionate love-letters that are crowding in my soul at his moment, the genuine, free forthgushings of a friendship which will contentedly allow itself to be characterized by no other word except this - - - - Infinite -.  . . . .”    Your Unchanging Friend, Sid

From Letter to Virginia Hankins dated July 28, 1864 by Sidney Colin Lanier:

“ . . . . Shall I tell you how, each night, a dainty, white hand, with the sweet blue veins branching over it, presents itself to me in the darkness, and how, when I have seized it, and pressed it to my bosom and covered it with a thousand kisses, I whisper, “Good Night, Ginna,” – and then turn me to my sleep, content, as if I had said a prayer?  Shall I speak to you of the thrill that comes to me with my salutation, “Good-Morning, Little One,” which I utter when I awake, and which then quivers and glitters like a drop of dew upon the unfolding flower of my life for all that day?  Shall I describe to you how all the Stars at night seem to me Love-lights in a myriad brown eyes, that look down on me lovingly and softly, and into which I gaze until my soul fails and grows dim with an infinite, sad yearning to draw near you?

                Dearest Brown-Eyes, these things belong to the holy kingdom of the Inarticulate--.  In a silence deep as Night, I brood over my dear dream of you; -- and I believe that I have a license to die, in having entered into so high a place in such a heart as yours --.  And so; -- content in a love which has ceased to question itself, and which, self-unconscious as a flower, quietly awaits its own outblushing and unfolding, careless whether it turn out a flower of Love or a flower of Friendship, certain that it will be beautiful and perfect and all-satisfying in either event,  -- -- I live, begging that the Unknown One may fold you in his Infinite Arms as lovingly as would I in my finite ones, did not the mysterious Fate-Wall rise so high between you and your most loving and yearning                        Colin


                James DeWitt Hankins, Virginia’s brother, was a law student at the University of Virginia at the outbreak of the war.  He was a member of the Jefferson Society, a literary society.  He was commissioned June 22, 1861 as first lieutenant of artillery, Fourth Regiment, Virginia Militia.  Later, he was Captain of the Surry Light Artillery and served through Appomattox.  He was killed by William Underwood in a so called “duel” on October 18, 1866 at Isle of Wight Courthouse not Surry.  The tragedy created intense excitement throughout the surrounding country where the families of both parties were well known.  At the request of Virginia Hankins, Lanier wrote “In Memorian” for her brother and his esteemed friend.”

 To J. D. H.

(Killed at Surrey C. H., October, 1866)

Dear friend, forgive a wild lament                                                    Grave walls are thick, I cannot see thee,

Insanely following thy flight.                                                      And the round skies are far and steep;

I would not cumber thine ascent                                                    A-wild to quaff some cup of Lethe,

Nor drag thee back into the night.                                                      Pain is proud and scorns to weep.


But the great sea-winds sigh with me,                                          My heart breaks if it cling about thee,

The fair-faced stars seem wrinkled, old,                                        And still breaks, if far from thine.

And I would that I might lie with thee                                        O drear, drear death, to live without thee,

There in the grave so cold, so cold!                                                       O sad life—to keep thee mine                                                                                                                                        1866                                        Sidney Lanier