1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cullen Bryant

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 462-63.



Bryant (1794-1878) the first American poet of celebrity, was born at Cummington, Mass., November 3d. He began to write verse at the age of ten; and at thirteen wrote and published The Embargo, a political satire, and a very remarkable one, under the circumstances. Educated at Williams College, he was admitted to the Bar in 1815, married young, and began the practice of law at Great Barrington. His celebrated poem of Thanatopsis was written before he was twenty.

In 1825 Bryant removed to New York, and in 1826 connected himself with the New York Evening Post, his proprietary interest in which eventually became the source of an ample fortune. In 1834 he travelled in Europe, and in 1845 and 1849 repeated his visit. A collection of his poems was published in New York in 1832, and republished in London. Repeated editions of his collected works have appeared. In 1870 a fine edition of his masterly translation of Homer, in which he surpasses all predecessors, was published in Boston.

"Bryant's writings," says Washington Irving, "transport us into the depths of the solemn, primeval forest, to the shores of the lonely lake, the banks of the wild, nameless stream, or the brow of the rocky upland, rising like a promontory from amidst a wide ocean of foliage; while they shed around us the glories of a climate fierce in its extremes, but splendid in all its vicissitudes."

But it is not only in his descriptions of nature that Bryant excels. In his Antiquity of Freedom, The Future Life, The Battle-field, etc. he reaches a high ethical strain, and is, at the same time, the genuine poet in thought and diction. Few men of letters have, in the latter half of their lives, had so prosperous, so honored, and so eminently successful a career, extending beyond fourscore years of physical activity and intellectual robustness. In his domestic relations singularly fortunate, be was equally so in all his public experiences.

"Bryant," says a German critic, "is thoroughly American in his poetry. A truly national method of thinking and judging pervades even those from among his productions which treat of non-American subjects." The remark is just, and is a sufficient reply to the superficial sarcasm, heedlessly thrown out by Lord Jeffrey, that Bryant is "but a dilution of Mrs. Hemans." We can recall no one verse of Bryant's to which this rash comment could apply. He and Mrs. Hemans were born in the same year, and some of his best poems were written before she was known in America. "It is in the beautiful," says John Wilson of Blackwood's Magazine, "That the genius of Bryant finds its prime delight. He ensouls all dead, insensate things; ... and thus there is animation in the heart of the solitude."

Bryant's morality was not only physical but physiological. He reverenced and fulfilled the laws of physical health. He took scrupulous care of himself. His senses were perfect at fourscore; his eyes needed no glasses; his hearing was exquisitely fine; he outwalked most men of middle age. Milk and cereals and fruit were his preferred diet. Regular in his habits, he retained his youth almost to the last, and his final illness was contracted in a too fearless out-of-door exposure. "His power of work," says Dr. Bellows, "never abated; and the Herculean translation of Homer, which was the amusement of the last lustre of his life, showed not only no senility, but no decrease of intellectual or physical endurance."