1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cullen Bryant

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:899-902.



WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT was born at Cummington, Hampshire County, Mass., November 3, 1794. His father, a physician, and a man of strength of character and literary culture, took pride in his son's early ability, and cherished the young poet with paternal affection. We have heard the anecdote of his reciting the poem Thanatopsis at the house of one of his friends, with tears in his eyes. "The father taught the son," we are told in a valuable notice of the poet's life and writings, "the value of correctness and compression, and enabled him to distinguish between true poetic enthusiasm and fustian."

We may here quote the passage which follows in the article just referred to, for its personal details of the poet's family, and the apposite citations from his verse. "He who carefully reads the poems of the man, will see how largely the boy has profited by these early lessons — and will appreciate the ardent affection with which the son so beautifully repays the labor of the sire. The feeling and reverence with which Bryant cherishes the memory of his father, whose life was "Marked with some act of goodness every day," is touchingly alluded to in several poems, and directly spoken of, with pathetic eloquence, in the Hymn to Death, written in 1825.

Alas! I little thought that the stern power
Whose fearful praise I sung, would try me thus
Before the strain was ended. It must cease—
For he is in his grave who taught my youth
The art of verse, and in the bud of life
Offered me to the Muses. Oh, cut off
Untimely! when thy reason in its strength,
Ripened by years of toil and studious search
And watch of Nature's silent lessons taught
Thy hand to practise best the lenient art
To which thou gavest thy laborious days,
And, last, thy life. And, therefore, when the earth
Received thee, tears were in unyielding eyes,
And on hard cheeks, and they who deemed thy skill
Delayed their death-hour, shuddered and turned pale
When thou wert gone. This faltering verse, which thou
Shalt not, as wont, o'erlook, is all I have
To offer at thy grave — this — and the hope
To copy thy example.

Again, in To the Past, written in 1827, from which we quote:

Thou hast my better years,
Thou hast my earlier friends — the good — the kind,
Yielded to thee with tears—
The venerable form — the exalted mind.

My spirit yearns to bring
The lost ones back — yearns with desire intense,
And struggles hard to wring
Thy bolts apart, and pluck thy captives thence.

* * * * * *

And then shall I behold
Him, by whose kind paternal side I sprung,
And her, who still and cold,
Fills the next grave — the beautiful and young.

"We have seen, too, while referring to his father, the devoted affection with which he speaks of her 'who fills the next grave.'" The allusion is to his sister who died of consumption in 1824. In The Death of the Flowers, written in the autumn of 1825, we have another allusion to the memory of that sister:

And then I think of one who in her youthful beauty died,

The fair, meek blossom that grew up and faded by my side:

* * * * * *

—The gentle race of flowers

Are lying in their lowly beds, with the fair and good of ours.

"And in his volume there is a sonnet addressed to her, while sick she waited 'Till the slow plague shall bring the fatal hour.'"

Bryant early displayed the poetical faculty, and fastened upon the genial influences of nature about him. He began to write verses at nine, and at ten composed a little poem to be spoken at a public school, which was published in a country newspaper. At the age of fourteen he prepared a collection of poems, which was published in Boston in 1809. The longest of these is entitled The Embargo, a reflection in good set heroic measure of the prevalent New England anti-Jeffersonian Federalism of the times. This was a second and enlarged edition of The Embargo, which had appeared the year previous in a little pamphlet by itself. It is noticeable that never since that early publication, while actively engaged in public life, has the poet, employed his muse upon the politics of the day, though the general topics of liberty and independence have given occasion to some of his finest poems. By the side of this juvenile production are an Ode to Connecticut River, and some verses entitled Drought, which show a characteristic observation of nature.

DROUGHT.
Plunged amid the limpid waters,
Or the cooling shade beneath;
Let me fly the scorching sunbeams,
And the south wind's sickly breath!

Sirius burns the parching meadows,
Flames upon the embrowning hill;
Dries the foliage of the forest,
And evaporates the rill.

Scarce is seen a lonely floweret,
Save amid th' embowering wood;
O'er the prospect dim and dreary,
Drought presides in sullen mood!

Murky vapours hung in aether,
Wrap in gloom, the sky serene;
Nature pants distressful — silence
Reigns o'er all the sultry scene.

Then amid the limpid waters,
Or beneath the cooling shade;
Let me shun the scorching sunbeams,
And the sickly breeze evade.

Bryant studied at Williams College, which he left to prosecute the study of the law, a profession in which he was engaged in practice, at Plainfield for one year, and afterwards for nine years at Great Barrington. In 1816 his poem of Thanatopsis, written in his nineteenth year, was published in the North American Review. Its sonorous blank verse created a marked sensation at the time, and the imitations of it have not ceased since. In 1821 he delivered the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard, his composition entitled The Ages, a didactic poem, viewing the past world's progress by the torch-light of liberty, and closing with a fair picture of American nature, and its occupation by the new race. This he published in that year with other poems at Cambridge. In 1825, abandoning the law for literature, he came to New York and edited a monthly periodical, The New York Review and Athenaeum Magazine, which in 1826 was merged in a new work of a similar character, also conducted by him, The United States Review and Literary Gazette, which closed with its second volume in September of the following year. In these works appeared many just and forcible criticisms, and a number of his best known poems including The Death of the Flowers, The Disinterred Warrior, The African Chief, The Indian Girl's Lament. These periodicals were supported by contributions from Richard H. Dana, the early friend of Bryant, who wrote both in prose and verse, by Sands, and by Halleck, whose Marco Bozzaris, Burns, and Wyoming appeared in their pages. Mr. Bryant was also a contributor of several prose articles to the early volumes of the North American Review.

In 1824 a number of his poems, The Murdered Traveller, The Old Man's Funeral, The Forest Hymn, March, and others, appeared in The United States Literary Gazette, a weekly review published at Boston, at first edited by Theophilus Parsons, and afterwards by James G. Carter.

In 1826 Bryant became permanently connected with the Evening Post, a journal in which his clear, acute prose style has been constantly employed since; enforcing a pure and simple administration of the government within the confines of its legitimate powers, steadily opposing the corruptions of office, advocating the principles of free trade in political economy both in its foreign and domestic relations, generous and unwearied in support of the interests of art and literature, uncompromising in the rebuke of fraud and oppression of whatever clime or race.

On the completion of the half century of The Evening Post, Mr. Bryant published in that paper a history of its career. Its first number was dated November 16, 1801, when it was founded by William Coleman, a barrister from Massachusetts, with the support of the leading members of the Federal party, to which, till the close of the war with England, it was a devoted adherent. In 1826 Mr. Bryant began to write for its columns. On the death of Coleman in 1829, William Leggett was employed as assistant editor, and remained with the paper till 1836, when he retired on the return of Mr. Bryant from Europe. It now remained in Mr. Bryant's sole editorial hands, assisted by various contributors, including the regular aid of his son-in-law, Mr. Parke Godwin, till the purchase by Mr. John Bigelow of a share of the paper in 1850, since which time he has been associated in the editorship.

In the first years of his engagement in these editorial duties, Bryant wrote, in conjunction with his friends Sands and Verplanck, The Talisman, in three annual volumes, 1827-29-30; the collection entitled, Tales of the Glauber Spa, in 1832. His contributions to The Talisman, besides a few poems, were an Adventure in the East Indies, The Cascade of Melsingah, Recollections of the South of Spain, A Story of the Island of Cuba, The Indian Spring, The Whirlwind, Phanette des Gaulelmes, and the Marriage Blunder. He also assisted in writing The Legend of the Devil's Pulpit, and Reminiscences of New York. For the Tales of the Glauber Spa, he wrote The Skeleton's Cave, and Medfield. He has since from time to time published new poems in the periodicals of the day, which he has collected at intervals in new editions. In the Evening Post have also appeared several series of Letters from Europe, the Southern States, and the West Indies, which mark the period of the author's travels at various times from 1834 to 1853. The last tour extended to the Holy Land. A collection of these papers has been published by Putnam, entitled Letters of a Traveller; or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America.

Among Mr. Bryant's separate publications should be mentioned his Eulogy of his friend Thomas Cole, the artist, delivered in New York in 1848, and a similar tribute to the genius of Cooper the novelist, in 1852. The style of these addresses, and of the author's other prose writings, is remarkable for its purity and clearness. Its truthfulness, in accuracy of thought and diction, is a constant charm to those who know the value of words, and have felt the poverty of exaggerated language. This extends to the dally articles written by the author in his newspaper, where no haste or interruptions are suffered to act aside his fastidious and jealous guardianship, not merely of sincere statement but of its pure expression. The style must have been formed at the outset by a vigorous nature, which can thus mist the usually pernicious influences of more than a quarter of a century of editorial wear and tear.

The poems of Bryant may be classed, with regard to their subjects: — those expressing a universal interest, relative to the great conditions of humanity, — as Thanatopsis, The Ages, Hymn to Death, The Past; types of nature, symbolical of these, as The Winds; poems of a national and patriotic sentiment, or expressive of the heroic in character, as The Song of Marion's Men, the Indian Poems, and some foreign subjects mingled with translations. Of these, probably the most enduring will be those which draw their vitality more immediately from the American soil. In these there is a purity of nature, and a certain rustic grace, which speak at once the nature of the poet and his subject. Mr. Bryant has been a close student of English poetry through its several periods, and while his taste would lead him to admire those who have minutely painted the scenes of nature, his fidelity to his own thoughts and experiences has preserved him from imitation of any.

Mr. Dana, in his preface to, his reprint of his Idle Man, speaks of a poetic influence in the early period of Bryant's career. "I shall never forget," says he, "with what feeling my friend Bryant, some years ago, described to me the effect produced upon him by his meeting for the first time with Wordsworth's Ballads. He lived, when quite young, where but few works of poetry were to be had; at a period, too, when Pope was still the great idol of the Temple of Art. He said, that upon opening Wordsworth, a thousand springs seemed to gush up at once in his heart, and the face of nature, of a sudden, to change into a strange freshness and life." This may have been a seed sown in a generous nature, but the predetermined quality of the soil has marked the form and fragrance of the plant. It is American air we breathe, and American nature we see in his verses, and "the plain living and high thinking" of what should constitute American sentiment inspire them.

Bryant, whose songs are thoughts that bless
The heart, its teachers, and its joy,
As mothers blend with their caress,
Lessons of truth and gentleness,
And virtue for the listening boy.
Spring's lovelier flowers for many a day,
Have blossomed on his wandering way,
Beings of beauty, and decay,
They slumber in their autumn tomb;
But those that graced his own Green River,
And wreathed the lattice of his home,
Charmed by his song from mortal doom,
Bloom on, and will bloom on for ever.
[Author's note: lines by Halleck, in his poem, The Recorder.]

Mr. Bryant's country residence is at Roslyn, Long Island, a picturesquely situated village on the Sound, a few hours' journey from the city. There at a home, in the immediate vicinity of numerous fine land and water views, he finds retirement from the care and turmoil of metropolitan life, and there we may readily suppose his favorite woods and fields inspire the most genial moods of his poetic creations.