1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cullen Bryant

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 7:84-85.



The father of the present generation of American poets, and one of the most original of the brotherhood, is WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT, born at Cummington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, November 3, 1794. With a precocity rivaling Cowley or Chatterton, Bryant at the age of thirteen wrote a satirical poem on the Jeffersonian party, which was published in 1808 under the title of The Embargo. A few lines from this piece will shew how well the boy-poet had mastered the art of versification [omitted]. From the perilous course of political versifying, the young author was removed by being place at Williams College. He was admitted to the bar, and practised for several years with fair success; but in 1825, he removed to New York, and entered upon that literary life which he has ever since followed. In 1826 Mr. Bryant became editor of the New York Evening Post, and his connection with that journal still subsists. His poetical works consist of Thanatopsis — an exquisite solemn strain of blank verse, first published in 1816; The Ages, a survey of the experience of mankind, 1828; and various pieces scattered through periodical works. Mr. Washington Irving, struck with the beauty of Bryant's poetry, had it collected and published in London in 1832. The British public, he said, had expressed delight at the graphic descriptions of American scenery and wild woodland characters contained in the works of Cooper. "The same keen eye and just feeling for nature," he added, "the same indigenous style of thinking and local peculiarity of imagery, which give such novelty and interest to the pages of that gifted writer, will be found to characterise this volume, condensed into a narrower compass, and sublimated into poetry."

From this opinion Professor Wilson — who reviewed the volume in Blackwood's Magazine — dissented, believing that Cooper's pictures are infinitely richer in local peculiarity of imagery and thought. "The chief charm of Bryant's genius," he considered, "consists in a tender pensiveness, a moral melancholy, breathing over all his contemplations, dreams, and reveries, even such as in the main are glad, and giving assurance of a pure spirit, benevolent to all living creatures, and habitually pious in the felt omnipresence of the Creator. His poetry overflows with natural religion — with what Wordsworth calls the religion of the woods." This is strictly applicable to the Thanatopsis, and Forest Hymn; but Washington Irving is so far right that Bryant's grand merit is his nationality and his power of painting the American landscape, especially in its wild, solitary, and magnificent forms. His diction is pure and lucid, with scarcely a flaw, and he is master of blank verse. Mr. Bryant translated the Iliad and Odyssey, 4 vols. (Boston, 1870-72).