1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cullen Bryant

Nathaniel Parker Willis, in "The Editor's Table" American Monthly Magazine [Boston] 2 (August 1830) 350-53.



We commenced last month, by some remarks upon Mr. Percival, a series of loose sketches of the American Poets. We shall not pretend to speak of them in the order of estimation in which we hold them ourself, but shall follow our fancy both as to the sequence and the manner — a plan which will give us more scope, and our notices a greater variety.

Mr. Bryant is beyond competition the most finished poet of our country. With less inborn poetry than Percival, less force and originality than Halleck, and less invention and graphicism (if we may make a word) than Hillhouse, he has written better poetry than either, and will probably be longer read and remembered. His few productions are as familiar, line by line, to the reading public, as the most standard poetry in the language. Every body can repeat "the Water-fowl" and "Thanatopsis," and his last delicious verses to the Evening Wind are still to be seen in three newspapers out of four, though it is a year since their appearance in the Talisman. We scarcely know how to define the peculiarities of Mr. Bryant's style. It seems hardly to account for the prodigious effect he produces, to ascribe it only to a singularly apt choice of epithets, and a certain elaborate simplicity and directness of expression. Yet we know not what else is peculiar, and we were a little struck in looking over his pieces, to see of what comparatively common-place thought, and with how little invention their rich texture was woven. In Percival's poetry you are dazzled with a far-gathered thought, or a new illustration from Nature, or an exquisite detection of affinities. In Hillhouse, the studied and finely constructed invention captivate your fancy — in Halleck, the keen satirical truth, or bold energy of conception and expression; but Bryant takes the simple thought from before your eyes — the every-day word and similitude from your lip — the familiar moral that was taught you on the knee, and so clothes and returns it to you, that, though you recognize, you can scarce realize it for the same. It is like the ore that you spurned with your foot, wrought into a polished vessel. It is like the beggar taken and dressed richly. It is like the flower plucked from its humble stalk to be woven into the tresses of the noble-born and beautiful. There is scarcely in all that he has written, a new figure, or an original truth; and yet if you can read the commonest passage — the simplest distich in it all, and not thrill with its beauty, you are less susceptible to the influences of poetry than the best minds that have fallen in the way of our observation. This, we are aware, is like pulling the rose in pieces to show its construction; for feeling is the same however produced, and it is poetry — real and beautiful, and such only — that can so waken and stir up the soul within us; but it is the fashion of the time to dissect the spell while we obey it, and we trust the more ardent lovers of Bryant, among whom we claim (ex officio) to be numbered, will not think it profane that we have opened our eyes during the incantation. We extract Thanatopsis here, not because it is not familiar to the reader, but that, as it is Mr. Bryant's best production, you may run your eye over its exquisite periods and judge of the correctness of our remark:—

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his dark musings, with a mild
And gentle sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth, unto the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air,—
Comes a still voice — 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. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again;
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to th' insensible rock,
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould,
Yet not to thy eternal resting place
Shalt thou retire alone — nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world — with kings,
The powerful of the earth — the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. — The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, — the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between
The venerable woods — rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and poured round all
Old ocean's gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom. — Take the wings
Of morning — and the Barcan desert pierce,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregan, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings — yet, the dead are there,
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep — the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest — and what if thou shalt fall
Unnoticed by the living — and no friend
Take note of thy departure? 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 favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
The youth in life's green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The bowed with age, the infant in the smiles
And beauty of its innocent age cut off,—
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those who in their turn shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves
To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Mr. Bryant writes rarely — averaging not more than one short piece in a year. This arises doubtless from an unavoidable devotion to other and most uncongenial pursuits, and not, as we have seen it lately enviously said, from a necessity of nursing and husbanding his resources. To a mind like his, the leaves of the book of Nature are perpetually turning, and the fountains within his own soul are perpetually welling anew. He cannot live and not feel the treasure within enriching and accumulating; and we have little doubt that his long intervals of silence are periods of suppression — the result of a far greater and more painful effort than is made by the most assiduous trimmer of the lamp. He is probably the oldest among our eminent poets, and has reached a perfection of style beyond which it is hardly possible to go. The exquisite balance and music of his periods cannot be improved, and the absolute fitness of his epithets can scarcely be outdone. But he might bring up from his store much that is thirsted for in the world, and we trust there will yet come a turn of the Blind Dame's wheel which shall loosen him from the degrading harness of Politics, and set him aside to cultivate and develope his own soul in unvexed retirement.