1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cullen Bryant

Charles D. Cleveland, in Compendium of American Literature (1858) 474-75.



This distinguished poet and political philosopher was born in Cummington, Hampshire county, Massachusetts, on the 3d of November, 1794. His father, Dr. Peter Bryant, of that place, was one of the most eminent physicians of the day, and was also distinguished for his general scholarship, and for cultivated and refined taste. When, therefore, the son began early to show marks of genius, and a fondness for literary pursuits, ho found in his father an able and skilful instructor to criticize and encourage his youthful productions.

When only tea years of age, Mr. Bryant produced several small poems, which, though bearing, of course, the marks of immaturity, were thought of sufficient merit to be published in a neighboring newspaper, the Hampshire Gazette. After going through the usual preparatory studies, he entered the sophomore class of Williams College, in 1810, and for two years pursued his studies with commendable industry, being distinguished, more especially, for his fondness of the classics. Anxious, however, to begin the profession which he had chosen — the law — he procured an honorable dismission at the end of the junior year, and entered the office of Judge Howe, of Worthington, and afterwards that of the Hon. William Baylies, of Bridgewater, and in 1815 was admitted to practice at the bar of Plymouth.

But Mr. Bryant did not, during the period of his professional studies, neglect the cultivation of his poetic talents. In 1808, before he entered college, he had published, in Boston, a satirical poem which attracted so much attention that a second edition was demanded in the course of the next year. But what gave him his early, enviable rank as a poet was the publication, in the North American Review, in 1817, of the poem Thanatopsis, written four years before, in 1812. That a young man, not yet nineteen, should have produced a poem so lofty in conception, and so beautiful in execution; so full of chaste language, and delicate and striking imagery; and, above all, so pervaded by a noble and cheerful religious philosophy, may well be regarded as one of the most remarkable examples of early maturity in literary history. Nor did this production stand alone; the Inscription for an Entrance into a Wood followed in 1813 and The Waterfowl in 1810. In 1821, he wrote his longest poem, The Ages, which was delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College, and soon after published in Boston in connection with his other poems. The appearance of this volume at once established the fame of Mr. Bryant as one of the very first, if not THE first of American poets.

In 1822, Mr. Bryant married Miss Fairchild, of Great Barrington, Mass., whither he had removed to prosecute his profession. But though skilful and successful as a lawyer, the toils of the profession did not harmonize with his fine moral and poetic sensibilities, and in 1825 he removed to New York, to commence a career of literary effort. His fame, which had preceded him, seen procured for him the editorship of the New York Review, which he managed, in connection with other gentlemen, with great industry and talent. About the same, time he joined Gulian C. Verplanck, Robert Sands, and Fitz Greene Halleck, and several young artists of the city, in the production of an annual, called The Talisman, which, for beauty and variety of contents, has not yet been surpassed.

In 1827, Mr. Bryant became an editor of the New York Evening Post, which, at that time had taken no decided stand in the politics of the day. Mr. Bryant soon infused into its columns a portion of his own originality and spirit, and in a short time it showed its sympathies with the so-called "Democratic" party, and with signal ability advocated the measures of that party, in relation to banks, the tariff, free trade, internal improvements, &c.; and no paper upon that side, in the Union, had an equal influence. Mr. Bryant continued not only to advocate its general views, but also to adhere to its tactics, until within a few years, when it abandoned its first principles, and the principles of its founders, and became more and more the ally of the slave power. Then the free and independent spirit of Bryant could not endure such an alliance, and he divorced himself from it, and devoted his fine talents to the cause of republican freedom. But notwithstanding the noble independence, the high-toned principles, the varied learning he has shown for many years, as the conductor of so distinguished a literary and political journal as the Evening Post, it is as a poet he will be longest remembered, most honored, and most loved.