1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cullen Bryant

Anonymous, in "Poetical Writers of the United States" Philadelphia Monthly Magazine NS 1 (September 1829) 739-42.



The small volume which has been offered to public attention by Mr. Bryant, contains some poetry of no common merit. In the poem entitled "The Ages," there are evidences of a vigorous mind, imbued with a feeling becoming him who aspires to the honors of the poet. Part of the opening stanza is animated by the true spirit of poetry.

When, to the common rest that crowns our days,
Call'd in the noon of life, the good man goes,
Or full of years, and ripe in wisdom, lays
His silver temples in their last repose;
When, o'er the buds of youth, the death-wind blows,
And blights the fairest; when our bitterest tears
Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,
We think on what they were, with many fears
Lest Goodness die with them, and leave the coming years.

In this "needless Alexandrine" there is a feebleness which detracts from the pleasure that is felt while perusing the preceding part of the stanza. It is difficult to reconcile to our general sense of propriety, the idea of Goodness dying with those whose dissolution we are called to witness, and leaving years which are yet to come. Even poetical privilege will not justify a violation of good sense, and although it may be allowed to transcend, in rhetorical flights, the bounds to which poetical writers are restricted, it must never pass beyond the limits prescribed by reason and nature.

The poet, who is worthy of the name, may display his power and secure admiration in any form of composition to which his muse may invite him. It is not to any particular arrangement of his thoughts in certain syllables and feet — in continuous lines, in which the sound of one couplet responds to that of another, or in verses interrupted at regular intervals by the close of the sentiment, that we are to refer for proofs of his high capacities. Yet there is in the form of the stanza an obstacle opposed to the poet by whom it is employed, which it requires all his genius to surmount. The formality and regularity which he appears to be compelled to observe in his progress from one part of his work to another, are so contrary to the natural freedom which he should enjoy, that he is subjected to continual difficulty in his course. There is a monotony apparent in the occurrence, at defined distances, of verses which must all be regulated by the same rules of metre and number of lines. We become wearied with passing continually from one part of the poem to another, which we are already aware is precisely similar in form and arrangement to that by which it was preceded. Yet with these difficulties before him, perplexing as they are, Mr. Bryant has advanced with a daring spirit, and has conducted his work to a conclusion, which may justly be pronounced successful. There are not indeed observable in it any thoughts which surprise us by their rarity, or dazzle us with excess of lustre. But there is a smooth, steady flow of language, bearing with it thoughts and feelings which we cannot censure for their violation of truth and nature, although we may not be deeply impressed with their resemblance to those of which we are ourselves conscious, or unusually delighted with the glowing spirit in which they are expressed.

The occasional and more brief compositions which are comprised in the volume of Mr. Bryant, have nothing remarkable, either in their subjects or the manner in which they are pursued. "Thanatopsis," the poem with which the volume is terminated, appears to be intended as a moral lecture, upon the evanescence and vanity of all sublunary things. The "still voice" of admonition addresses some one — whom we may identify with one of our own feeble race, listening to it as the representative of us all — and thus delivers its homily.

Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean shall exist
Thy image....

All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favourite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee.

This is indeed all very true, and it ought to be specially attended to and laid to heart by the creature of clay that it is designed to instruct. But such grave lessons have been so often addressed to us all, that we are become rather indifferent to the wisdom which they contain, and keep on our way with as much nonchalance, as if poets has never been specially commissioned to remind us of our mortality. The "wise saws and modern instances" which are so generously propounded by the followers of the grave muse, "pro salute animarum," have indeed lost much of their salutary influence, since it has been, by a rare accident, discovered that they are, after all, nothing more than what we already believe, and fancy that we comprehend. They have, besides, been delivered in much more attractive phrase than that in which Mr. Bryant has embodied them. It is not to be denied, that "Thanatopsis" has but little either of novelty in the precepts and sentiments which it displays, or energy and beauty of poetical language in which it is presented. It moves on in the deliberate, calculating pace which blank verse is generally compelled, in this dull age of ours, to maintain, and when it comes to this abrupt conclusion,

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams,

was as suddenly arrest our train of thought, and break off all connexion which it might have held with that which the poet designed to pursue.

The admirers of Mr. Bryant must not be offended with the opinion which is now expressed of the poetical merits of "Thanatopsis," or condemn, in grave displeasure, the attempt at critical levity which they may detect in the observations upon the work. Although it is not a very successful effort of Mr. Bryant, it is not to be supposed that there is any design, in expressing that belief, of doing manifest injustice to his general character as a poet. He certainly does possess merit as a poetical writer, much superior to that of many who have outstripped him in the race of popularity, and whose works are looked upon as the very best models of poetical excellence.