William Cullen Bryant

A Student's History of American Literature

William Cullen Bryant, first of our American classic poets, was born November 3, 1794, at Cummington, in the beautiful hill region of western Massachusetts. His father, Peter Bryant, of Puritan descent, was a physician and surgeon -- a country doctor of the old school, skilled by experience, self-forgetful and self-sacrificing. He was a man of literary tastes, and not alone encouraged his son in the development of his talent, but was himself an occasional writer of verse.

For several terms he served in the state legislature as representative and as senator. He was reversed for his high ideals, and was widely known as "the good and learned Doctor Bryant." Mrs. Bryant, a descendant of John Alden of the Plymouth Colony, was a woman of great energy and keen moral sense, thoroughly representative of the sturdy New England type. With remarkable persistency, she kept a diary for fifty-three solid years -- in itself a moving testimony to her conscientious, practical character. Each year had its little volume, the paper being sometimes cut and bound by her own hands, and sewed with linen thread of her own spinning. One entry in the diary reads as follows:

"M[onday] 3. Stormy. Wind N.E. Churned -- unwell. Seven at Night a Son Born."

And this brief note records the birth of William Cullen Bryant.

Childhood

As an infant, the future poet was frail and sickly. Gathering strength as he grew he began early to take unusual delight in the beautiful environment of his country home.

Surrounded by rugged hills, the Hoosack range not far distant, amid the narrow winding valleys with their rushing mountain streams, and great tracts of woodland solemn and grand, the boy became a lover of nature. As a child, he prayed that he might be a poet. He was precocious, knew his letters before he was two years old, and was placed in school at four.

At nine, he was writing little poems, and paraphrased a part of the book of Job. In these efforts, William Cullen was encouraged and criticised by his father --

"Who taught my youth
The art of verse, and in the bud of life
Offered me to the Muses."

At thirteen, he composed a satire, The Embargo, which Dr. Bryant thought worthy of publication. This composition, aimed at the President, Thomas Jefferson, after one of the unpopular acts of his administration, appeared in print at Boston in 1808, but was afterward discarded by the poet.

School-days

The family was now living with Mrs. Bryant's parents on the farm belonging to Ebenezer Snell, a stern, rigorous Puritan, who nevertheless was not without the grace of humor; and the influence of Grandfather Snell was strong in the development of the growing boy. The activities of farm life proving too laborious for William's strength, he welcomed the opportunity to secure a college education. In 1809, he was sent to the home of an uncle, a clergyman in North Brookfield, to begin the study of Latin. In eight months, he had mastered the grammar, had read the New Testament, all of Virgil, and the Orations of Cicero. The next year he attended a school in Plainfield to learn Greek -- to which he gave himself, as he says, with his whole soul.

In September, 1810, Bryant entered Williams College as a sophomore. The experience of college life was brief, however, for at the end of seven months the student, dissatisfied with the limited advantages then offered by the institution, withdrew from Williams, expecting to enter Yale College in the fall. But this anticipation was not realized, as Dr. Bryant found it impossible to furnish the means necessary to go on, and the period of Bryant's student life -- to his own lasting regret -- was thus abruptly terminated.

The Poet's Awakening

Bryant's poetical talents were not, however, allowed to lie dormant. In his father's library, he found several volumes of the contemporary English poets, which stimulated his imagination and directly influenced his own expression. From an early age he had read Cowper with delight; he was familiar with Thomson's Seasons; he now read Southey and Kirke White; and it is worthy of note that Blair's morbid but remarkable poem, The Grave, which he discovered at this time, moved him with melancholy pleasure.

It must have been during this period -- in the autumn of 1811, as the poet recalled it -- that Thanatopsis was composed.

Studying Law

At the close of 1811, Bryant became a law student in an office at Worthington. While diligent in his legal studies, poetry still allured him and nature's hold upon his affections was strengthened by a new experience. Bryant now read Wordsworth for the first time. The Lyrical Ballads fell into his hands and, as he said in later life to his friend, Richard Henry Dana, -- "a thousand springs seemed to gush up at once in my heart, and the face of nature of a sudden to change into a strange freshness of life." This influence of the English poet -- the supreme interpreter of nature and chief apostle of simplicity and naturalness in verse -- is to be recognized not as setting a new model for the western poet, but as confirming in his mind the truthfulness and value of conceptions already there. "Now he learned what nature herself might mean to a genuinely poetic spirit, and a new world lay open before him." He knew that he, too, had received the gift of poetry. Yet he pursued his law studies to their natural close, and in 1815 was admitted to the bar.

To a Waterfowl

Bryant's twenty-first birthday fell in November, 1815. On an afternoon in December, following, the newly fledged lawyer trudged across the hills seven miles to the village of Plainfield, where it was decided that he should begin the practice of his profession. His spirit was depressed, his ambition seemed thwarted. In the previous year he had written to a friend these lines:--

"And I that loved to trace the woods before,
And climb the hills a playmate of the breeze,
Have vowed to tune the rural lay no more,
Have bid my useless classics sleep at ease,
And left the race of bards to scribble, starve and freeze."

We may well imagine that the dreariness of the wintry landscape on that December afternoon reflected the doubt and despondency of Bryant's mood. Then came a glorious sunset, and as the young man gazed at the rosy splendor of the clouds, a solitary bird appeared winging its flight along the horizon. Bryant watched it out of sight; and that evening in his new abiding-place he wrote his imperishable lines To a Waterfowl, with its tender close:--

"He who from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright."

Three months later, Bryant removed to Great Barrington, settled down to his profession, and definitely abandoned all idea of being a poet.

A Discovery

Meanwhile there occurred an event which makes a very notable record in the history of American literature. Among his Boston acquaintance, Dr. Bryant numbered Mr. Phillips, one of the editors of the new North American Review; and by that gentleman he was asked to invite his son, William Cullen Bryant, to contribute to the magazine.

To this invitation there came no immediate response from the law office in Great Barrington; but Dr. Bryant, looking through a drawer in an old desk at Cummington, came upon some of the verse which his son had left there at his departure. Among the manuscripts, he found the poems Thanatopsis and the Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood.

It was a dramatic discovery. It is said that the poet's father was so affected by what he had found, that he ran with the poems to an appreciative neighbor, burst into tears, and exclaimed, "Oh, read that; it is Cullen's." Without consulting their author, Dr. Bryant immediately copied the poems, took them to Boston, and placed them in the editor's hands. When Phillips read Thanatopsis to Richard Henry Dana, associate editor of the North American, the latter remarked with a smile, "Ah, Phillips, you have been imposed upon; no one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses." However, the two poems appeared in the Review for September, 1817.

Thanatopsis

As already stated, Bryant had written Thanatopsis, as nearly as he could recollect, in 1811. Through some impulse of self-distrust or of diffidence, he had refrained from submitting these unusual lines to his father, whose kindly criticism he had commonly invited, and they had lain thus hidden for six years. The poem was a marvelous production for a boy of seventeen -- this solemn "view of death," so calm and self controlled in its presentation, so universal and elemental in its stately setting. When published in the Review, the poem lacked its formal introduction -- the exhortation to "list to Nature's teachings," nor did it then possess the familiar lines of its present effective conclusion.

The poem began with what is now line 17, "Yet a few days," and ended with line 66, "And make their bed with thee." But it did include those sonorous verses:--

"Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world -- with kings,
The powerful of the earth -- the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, -- the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods -- rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man."

Marvelous indeed it was that one so young could rise to such lofty thought and find such impressive phraseology for its expression; and no less wonderful that this youth, roaming the woods alone, should command such skill in the use of blank verse, the resonant voice of which has eluded many a clever versifier.

In the face of this achievement, we can only recall the general precocity of Bryant's earlier youth and his enjoyment of the poet Cowper.

The Inscription.

Similar comment may be passed upon the second of these two poems, the Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood. Though expressive of a lighter, less solemn mood, it does not fall in excellence below its companion piece. It speaks of calm, tranquillity, and deep contentment. The forest shades

"Are still the abode of gladness; the thick roof
Of green and stirring branches is alive And musical with birds....
... The Rivulet
Sends forth glad sounds, and tripping o'er its bed
Of pebbly sands, or leaping down the rocks,

In its own being."

The Prose Essay

A prompt request for further contributions brought forth in the following year an essay on American Poetry, which is entitled to rank at least as the first attempt by an American writer in the field of literary criticism. In it the writer emphasized the truth that for a literature to be national, it must be natural; and must originate, without imitation, in the sincere personal expression of individual genius.

Personal experiences which deeply concerned the poet occurred in quick succession. In 1820, Dr. Bryant died, and Bryant's Hymn to Death was completed by a noble tribute to his father's memory -- infused with more of personal feeling than had characterized the poems just described. In June of the following year came the poet's marriage to Miss Fanny Fairchild, a farmer's daughter, whose virtues had inspired the lines O Fairest of the Rural Maids, in which Poe saw "the truest poem written by Bryant." Shortly after his marriage, the poet was honored with an invitation from the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College to read a poem at the coming Commencement.

The Visit to Boston

Such was the occasion of Bryant's first visit to Boston and Cambridge, and his first presentation to the men who were at that time leaders in American scholarship, and in literary taste. The poem read was The Ages. Its theme is the progress of man through the centuries and the triumph of virtue and liberty in the New World.

It is composed in the Spenserian stanza; is, on that account perhaps, somewhat artificial in its effect, and falls below the standard of Bryant's best work; yet the poem was heartily received and, in the minds of many of his hearers, The Ages placed its author "at the very head of American poets."

Publication

One result of this visit was the beginning of a warm and intimate friendship between Bryant and Richard Henry Dana, a friendship which continued unbroken until death. A second result was the publication, through the influence of Dana and Phillips, of the first volume of Bryant's verse. This appeared in 1821. It was a small pamphlet of forty-four pages, bound in brown paper boards, and containing the following eight poems: The Ages, To a Waterfowl, Translation of a Fragment of Simonides (written apparently while Bryant was in college), the Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood, The Yellow Violet, Song "The Hunter of the West," Green River, and Thanatopsis. While not all of Bryant's compositions to that time are included, these poems were representative of his best work, and five of them were never surpassed by any subsequent composition. Thanatopsis now appeared in its completed form -- the conclusion having been added, possibly, to meet some criticism which had deplored the purely "pagan" sentiment of the poem in its earlier form. The poet continued to publish, his work appearing at intervals in the Review, and also in The Idle Man, a short-lived periodical established by Richard Henry Dana in New York.

In 1823, he began regularly to send his verse to a new magazine in Boston, the United States Literary Gazette, which, under the editorship of Theophilus Parsons, had a distinguished although brief career. From this magazine the poet received and accepted an offer of $200 a year for his verse, to average a hundred lines a month. In three years, Bryant published in its columns between twenty and thirty poems, among which were The Masacre of Scio, Rizpah, The Rivulet, March, Summer Wind, Monument Mountain, Autumn Woods, To a Cloud, and A Forest Hymn.

Removal to New York

In 1825, Bryant withdrew from the practice of law, and in response to the urgency of friends removed to New York. Here he assumed editorial charge of a new literary publication somewhat heavily weighted by the title of The New York Review and Athenoeum Magazine.

To its first issue the poet contributed A Song of Pitcairn's Island; the same number contained also a poem by Dana and Halleck's now familiar poem, Marco Bozzaris. Besides Halleck and Dana, the literary men of New York -- among them Paulding, Willis, and James Fenimore Cooper -- became his friends and associates. The city atmosphere was not altogether congenial, nor were the professional ideals of some in the group so high as Bryant's; they did not take the art of verse so seriously as he who deemed the poet's exercise anything but

"The pastime of a drowsy summer day."

His poems during this period still breathe the love of nature; and frequently he journeyed back to his Massachusetts hills for the freshening of the old environment.

The Evening Post

The career of the Magazine was closed in 1827. But Bryant's editorial course was only beginning. He was offered a position on the staff of the New York Evening Post, founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton, and at this time the best established of the metropolitan newspapers. In 1829, he became editor in chief; thereafter, financially independent, with a political influence national in its scope and a growing reputation as the foremost American journalist, he lived his long and useful life, absorbed in the exacting duties of his profession, universally esteemed and honored by his countrymen, but finding little time for poetic utterance, and producing nothing that compares in beauty or power with the compositions of his earlier years.

Volume of 1832

In 1832, the poet published a volume of his collected pieces, eighty-nine in all. Here were gathered all of his early poems which he cared to preserve and those contributed to magazines, including a group of compositions which had appeared in The Talisman, a miscellany of prose and verse published under Bryant's supervision as an annual in 1828, 1829, and 1830. Of this group only two poems, The Past and The Evening Wind, are worthy of note; the first was considered by the poet one of his very best; Poe greatly admired the second -- which has been said to be "less a description than the very thing itself which it describes." The Song of Marion's Men and the exquisite lines To the Fringed Gentian were first published in the volume of 1832.

During the forty-five years which followed, Bryant's further compositions hardly equaled in amount the verse included in this collection.

Travels

Bryant traveled much. Three times he visited the middle west, whither his brothers and their mother had removed after Dr. Bryant's death, in 1820. The family was established in central Illinois. The poet's first visit was in 1832. It was in the pioneer period and the country was still to a large extent picturesque and primitively wild.

"The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,"

profoundly impressed his mind. The journey on horseback across the prairies was the inspiration of one of his finest descriptive poems. Here he pictures the encircling vastness swept by the shadow of the clouds, aflame with tossing golden flowers, and still the haunt of wolf and deer. His imagination was stirred also with visions of the future; he saw the "advancing multitude" following fast upon those who had begun already to till and tame this rich garden soil of the waiting West.

An interesting incident of the journey was his chance meeting with a company of Illinois volunteers led by a tall, uncouth lad, on their way to help put down an Indian uprising under the famous chief Black Hawk. The young captain whose homely awkwardness and breezy humor had aroused Bryant's interest was introduced to him as young Abe Lincoln; thirty years later Mr. Bryant himself had the pleasure of introducing Mr. Lincoln to a great audience in New York city, as a candidate for the presidency of the United States.

In later years, the editor of the Evening Post made several trips to Europe, one of which included a tour of Egypt and the Holy Land. The letters sent by him to his paper, descriptive of his travels, were published under the titles Letters of a Traveller (1850) and Letters from the Far East (1869).

Citizen and Crator

For practically fifty years, William Cullen Bryant was a distinguished citizen of New York. His position as a leading representative of American letters became more and more conspicuous in spite of the infrequency of his verse. He was one of the most successful of public speakers; and on occasions demanding oratory of an exceptional excellence, he was the natural choice. His most notable addresses were those delivered at the meetings commemorating the work of Cooper, Irving, and Halleck. In all his utterances, private as well as public, two qualities characterized Bryant -- dignity and modesty. At a remarkable banquet given in honor of his seventieth birthday, in 1864, an occasion signalized by the presence and speech of Emerson and by poetical tributes from the distinguished contemporary poets of Cambridge and Boston, Bryant modestly described himself "as one who has carried a lantern in the night and who perceives that its beams are no longer visible in the glory which the morning pours around him."

Translation of Homer

At seventy-three, the poet began to translate the Iliad in blank verse; four years later, at the end of 1871, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were finished and Bryant's excellent translation of Homer was published. In Old Age.

The poet's old age was vigorous and hale. From youth he had been compelled to take unusual care of his health. He adopted strict rules regarding diet and exercise. He rose early and regularly spent between one and two hours in exercising with dumbbells and bar. It was his invariable practice without regard to weather to walk to and from his office in the city, and he discarded the use of the elevator. Bryant was not tall, but erect and well proportioned. In old age his appearance was distinguished and everywhere commanded reverence. His leonine head, long silvery hair and beard made him a venerable figure.

He was always courtly, always dignified; to those who did not know through intimacy his great kindness of spirit and his genial nature, Bryant seemed cold and austere. Readers of his poems do not need to be told that the religious feeling typical of the Puritan was strong and vital.

The Poet's Homes

Besides his residence in the city, Mr. Bryant owned two fine country homes: one was the Snell homestead in Cummington, to which he returned for a short period every year; the other was an estate at Roslyn, Long Island, acquired in 1843, where in a spacious old-fashioned mansion dating almost from Revolutionary times, he made his principal residence. He took especial delight in farm and garden, personally superintending the care of both and experimenting with fruits and flowers. Here he delighted to receive his friends, and here he unostentatiously entertained many a distinguished visitor from abroad.

Death

Mrs. Bryant died in 1866. The poet's death occurred twelve years later. The circumstances were peculiar. A statue to the Italian patriot, Mazzini, was unveiled in Central Park, on the twenty-ninth of May. Bryant delivered the address. He spoke bare-headed, the sun shining directly upon him; it was unusually warm for the season, and when he had finished he appeared exhausted. After the exercises the poet walked across the park with an old friend and ascended the steps of the latter's house; but as he entered the vestibule he fell suddenly backward through the open door, striking his head on the stone platform. The results were fatal; a fortnight later, he died at his own home, in his eighty-fourth year. The funeral services were held in New York; then with simple exercises the poet was buried by the side of his wife at Roslyn.

Bryant as a Poet

The love of nature is preƫminently the theme of Bryant's verse, and his characteristic treatment of this theme is in connection with the elemental experiences -- life and death. He is our recognized poet of the forest; no other American singer has interpreted so impressively as he the mystery and sanctity of the woods. To him the woodland solitude was eloquent of majesty and monition, of benevolence and sympathy:

"The groves were God's first temples.
... . .
Fit shrine for humble worshipper to hold
Communion with his Maker."

Descriptive Poems

Bryant is both descriptive and reflective in his verse. He is often called the American Wordsworth, because he resembled the great English poet in these traits; but Bryant was never an imitator of Wordsworth or of any other poet. He was distinctly original in choice of themes and true to his own native personality in his expression. He was faithful to the scenes with which he was familiar and to the spirit of what he himself had observed. In A Winter Piece, for example, a poem which in its beginning contains many suggestions of Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, the atmosphere is unmistakably that of the Massachusetts woods in winter. The snow-bird twitters on the beechen bough, the partridge nestles beneath the hemlock, the rabbit, fox, and raccoon have left their tracks in the snow; smoke wreaths rise among the maples where the sap is being gathered in brimming pails, the woods ring with the stroke of the axe; and with the first breath of spring --

"Lodged in sunny cleft,
Where the cold breezes come not, blooms alone
The little wind-flower, whose just opened eye
Is blue as the spring heaven it gazes at."

The poet is wont to feel the serious and chastening aspect of these scenes, and the spirit of his brooding is often tinged with melancholy. He sings: --

"The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds and naked woods and meadows brown and sere."

But this tender poem was intensely personal, and was inspired by the death of a dear sister. There are other poems in which an entirely different spirit is manifested, as The Planting of the Apple Tree and that rollicking bird-song, Robert of Lincoln. Nor could anything be cheerier than the musical lines of that beautiful descriptive poem, Green River.

The Descriptive Quality

This descriptive quality in Bryant's compositions must not be overlooked; it is an important feature of his verse. We get exquisite illustration of it in the two flower-poems, The Yellow Violet and To the Fringed Gentian. Both these poems are like many of Wordsworth's in their simplicity and in the little moral lessons which they convey -- a characteristic resented by some critics as an intrusion or a defect, although the imaginative insight of each descriptive touch is disputed by nobody.

The Reflective Poems

It is, of course, the reflective poems which have given to Bryant his lasting fame. For various reasons the early composition, Thanatopsis, overshadows all the others. The universality of its theme, its passionless exaltation of spirit, its rugged and lofty eloquence, its diction so calm, so austere, and elemental, place it yet among the great poetical expressions of the race.

The Hymn to Death is an amplification of the same theme in less impressive setting, although the utterance of a personal grief gives pathos to its close. In A Forest Hymn, which completes this remarkable trilogy of poems on the mortality of man, the poet's idea shapes itself more clearly: Death is indeed universal -- Lo! all grow old and die; -- but Life is ever reappearing. There is not lost one of earth's charms. After the flight of centuries --

"The freshness of her far beginning lies
And yet shall lie. Life mocks the idle hate
Of his arch-enemy Death."

Technique

The Saxon element predominates in Bryant's verse. His style is simple -- sometimes severe; yet always fitting. What crispness of diction do we find, for instance, in the oft-quoted stanza: --

"Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
Th' eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
And dies among his worshippers."

Bryant commonly used the so-called iambic ten-syllabled line. When he employed the stanza, it was usually the four lines of alternating rhymes, known as the quatrain; but Bryant was at his best in blank verse, which he used with a facility and power of expression unsurpassed by any other American poet. The volume of Bryant's poetry is comparatively small, and its range of subjects is somewhat narrow. he is called stern and cold by many of the critics; and it is true, as they point out, that the poet lacked humor, and his poetry passion. And yet in spite of these and other limitations, a high estimate must be placed upon the value of Bryant's work, and on its significance in the development of our national literature. He was original, natural, and sincere; he drew his inspiration not from the poets he read, but direct from Nature as he saw her in the mountains and the valleys, the trees, the brooks, and the flowers, of his New England home. He proved that native themes were as poetical in America as in England, and that the true poet finds his material at his hand. In his poems -- as in his profession and his private life -- he celebrated the virtues typical of the Puritan, truth, purity, moral earnestness, reverence, and faith. He wrote a few poems which must remain a permanent possession in our literature, and what is, after all, more notable yet, he laid a safe and substantial foundation for American verse.