1821
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Ages.

Poems, by William Cullen Bryant.

William Cullen Bryant


35 Spenserians on the theme of what would later be called "manifest destiny." The occasion for William Cullen Bryant's expression of optimism was the Harvard commencement of 1821: "In this poem, begun at Great Barrington in 1820, the author has endeavored, from a survey of the past ages of the world, and of the successive advances of mankind in knowledge, virtue, and happiness, to justify and confirm the hopes of the philanthropist for the future destinies of the human race" Poetical Works (1883) 1:335n. Bryant takes his theme of the "progress of genius" from the subtitle of Beattie's The Minstrel, the account of Indian savagery from Dwight's Destruction of the Pequods, and the idea of America as the refuge of Europe from Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming. The Ages might also be considered as part of the series of imitations of the Castle of Indolence concerned with progress. But while The Ages is thematically very much in the tradition, Bryant pointedly modernizes his style by eschewing the traditional Spenserian mannerisms. Not seen.

Willard Phillips: "The first poem, entitled The Ages, was spoken before the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard University at its last anniversary. It is an outline of the different stages of society, with some general prospect of what may be hoped for hereafter.... The pictures of man, in a savage and semi-barbarous state, are given with great strength of colouring. The views are broad and full of light, and the tone of the versification deep, solemn, and powerful. The reader is borne away with an irresistible influence, while his mind is entirely filled and satisfied.... The striking features of the national character and state of society in Greece and Rome are then sketched with distinct and bold strokes. A notice of the reformation follows, when 'the web, that for a thousand years had grown o'er prostrate Europe, crumbled, as fire dissolves the flaxen thread.' These are proper topics, for the ideas and principles derived from these sources are the elements of which modern society, or rather modern mind and character, are compounded. Though they are necessarily touched upon but generally, yet there is no vagueness or obscurity; the images are illustrative, and grand, and commensurate with the subject; and it is hardly too much to say, that they are as close, as intelligible, and as full fraught with meaning, as are those of Spenser himself. The imagery and poetry of this part are not more beautiful and great, than the thoughts are just and philosophical.... In the conclusion the writer turns to his own country.... There is a more cheerful splendor in this part, which succeeds gratefully to the sterner character of the preceding. But there is kept up to the end the same sweeping power of words, and lofty tone of thought — the same radiance of imagery and intense inspiration. This whole poem occupies but a short space in a book, but it is of materials of large dimensions, and beams with a lustre that will not, we believe, grow dim" North American Review 13 (October 1821) 381-83.

Blackwood's Magazine: "William Cullen Bryant, the last name in the collection that we shall make mention of, is no mean poet. And if he be a young man, we should not be surprised at his assuming one day or another a high rank among English poets. The first specimen given of his muse [The Ages] is in the style of Childe Harold" Review of Allman's Specimens of American Poets; 11 (June 1822) 686.

Monthly Review: "His Thanatopsis is a masterly sketch. We will not apologize for the length of the two following extracts from his poem called The Ages, because we think that our readers will be gratified with such specimens of bold conception and animated description" in review of Specimens of American Poetry; NS 100 (January 1823) 30.

New-York Mirror: "It is a general outline of society in its different stages, and a prospect of what it may yet be. The savage condition of man is pictured with an accuracy that causes the blood to thrill while we read; and the sketches of Greece and Rome possess a graphic excellence in which combined the truth of history, with all the power, and melody, and deep-toned feeling of poetry. The concluding stanzas, in which our own country is described, both as it was when it slept in the uninterrupted silence and solitude of nature, and as it now is, covered with a busy and enterprising population, 'thick and numberless as the gay motes that people the sunbeams,' are really, and exquisitely beautiful. The picture is of a more animating description than those which occupy the previous part of the poem; and each sentiment expressed finds a ready response in the bosom of every reader. Throughout the production, from first to last, the language and the thoughts are the outpourings of a scholar's mind, warmed by inspiration; the first, copious without redundancy, but appropriate, powerful, and euphonious; and the latter, 'sparks of immortality.' The stanza is that of the Fairy Queen, and not Spenser himself has managed it more adroitly" "Eminent Living American Poets: Bryant" 5 (26 January 1828) 226.

Edinburgh Literary Journal: "Bryant is a strong, bold thinker, and evidently indulges the poet's best ambition — the wish to be more distinguished for his conceptions than his execution. The poem which first brought him into notice is entitled The Ages, and is a spirited sketch in the Spenserian stanza" No. 39 (8 August 1829) 130.

John Wilson: "The mind of the poet kindles, and rightly, at the prophetic visions of his country's boundless dominion, thick-peopled through cultivated regions laid open to all the light of heaven, and sheltering in the 'horrid shades forlorn,' the last remnants of the aboriginal hunter and warrior tribes. There is much of sadness, but far more of joy, in the prospect of the various and boundless provisions and processes by which nature raises up the complicated structures of civilized life as her wildernesses fade before its march, and their inhabitants pine away and perish" Blackwood's Magazine 31 (April 1832) 657.

Rufus W. Griswold: "In The Ages, from a survey of the past eras of the world, and of the successive advances of mankind in knowledge, virtue, and happiness, he endeavours to justify and confirm the hopes of the philanthropist for the future destinies of man.... This is the only poem he has written in the stanza of SPENSER. In its versification it is not inferior to the, best passages of the Faerie Queene or Childe Harold, and its splendid imagery and pure philosophy are as remarkable as the power it displays over language" Poets and Poetry of America (1842) 126.

Edgar Allan Poe: "The longest poem of Bryant is "The Ages" — thirty-five Spenserian stanzas. It is the one improper theme of its author. The design is, "from a survey of the past ages of the world, and of the successive advances of mankind in knowledge and virtue, to justify and confirm the hopes of the philanthropist for the future destinies of the human race." All this would have been more rationally, because more effectually, accomplished in prose. Dismissing it as a poem, (which in its general tendency it is not,) one might commend the force of its argumentation but for the radical error of deducing a hope of progression from the cycles of physical nature.... The poem, in general, has unity, completeness. Its tone of calm, elevated and hopeful contemplation, is well sustained throughout" in "The Literati of New York City" Godey's Lady's Book 1846; Works (1853) 3:183.

William Ellery Leonard: "The Ages, in thirty-five Spenserians, is Bryant's longest poem. It is a review writ large of the progress of man. The roll of the verses suggests the first two cantos of Childe Harold, as also the thought and the subject matter" Byron and Byronism in America (1907) 43.

On the influence of Beattie's The Minstrel, see Aldrich's dissertation (1927) 582-84. Bryant's theme had been recently treated in Spenserians by David Longworth's similar The Progress of Society: a Poem (1817). Compare also Fitz-Greene Halleck's Wyoming, which Bryant published in the United States Review and Literary Gazette 1 (February 1827) 376.



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.

And therefore, to our hearts, the days gone by,—
When lived the honor'd sage whose death we wept,
And the soft virtues beam'd from many an eye,
And beat in many a heart that long has slept,—
Like spots of earth where angel-feet have stept—
Are holy; and high-dreaming bards have told
Of times when worth was crown'd, and faith was kept,
Ere friendship grew a snare, or love wax'd cold—
Those pure and happy times — the golden days of old.

Peace to the just man's memory, — let it grow
Greener with years, and blossom through the flight
Of ages; let the mimic canvas show
His calm benevolent features; let the light
Stream on his deeds of love, that shunn'd the sight
Of all but heaven, and, in the book of fame,
The glorious record of his virtues write,
And hold it up to men, and bid them claim
A palm like his, and catch from him the hallow'd flame.

But oh, despair not of their fate who rise
To dwell upon the earth when we withdraw;
Lo! the same shaft, by which the righteous dies,
Strikes through the wretch that scoff'd at mercy's law,
And trode his brethren down, and felt no awe
Of him who will avenge them. Stainless worth,
Such as the sternest age of virtue saw,
Ripens, meanwhile, till time shall call it forth
From the low modest shade, to light and bless the earth.

Has Nature, in her calm majestic march,
Falter'd with age at last? does the bright sun
Grow dim in heaven? or, in their far blue arch,
Sparkle the crowd of stars, when day is done,
Less brightly? when the dew-lipp'd spring comes on,
Breathes she with airs less soft, or scents the sky
With flowers less fair than when her reign begun?
Does prodigal autumn, to our age, deny
The plenty that once swell'd beneath his sober eye?

Look on this beautiful world, and read the truth
In her fair page; see, every season brings
New change, to her, of everlasting youth;
Still the green soil, with joyous living things,
Swarms, the wide air is full of joyous wings,
And myriads, still, are happy in the sleep
Of ocean's azure gulfs, and where he flings
The restless surge. Eternal love doth keep
In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.

Will then the merciful One, who stamp'd our race
With his own image, and who gave them sway
O'er earth, and the glad dwellers on her face
Now that our flourishing nations far away
Are spread, where'er the moist earth drinks the day,
Forget the ancient care that taught and nursed
His latest offspring? will he quench the ray
Infused by his own forming smile at first,
And leave a work so fair all blighted and accursed?

Oh no! a thousand cheerful omens give
Hope of yet happier days whose dawn is nigh;
He, who has tamed the elements, shall not live
The slave of his own passions; he whose eye
Unwinds the eternal dances of the sky,
And in the abyss of brightness dares to span
The sun's broad circle, rising yet more high,
In God's magnificent works his will shall scan—
And love and peace shall make their paradise with man.

Sit at the feet of history — through the night
Of years the steps of virtue she shall trace,
And show the earlier ages, where her sight
Can pierce the eternal shadows o'er their face;—
When, from the genial cradle of our race,
Went forth the tribes of men, their pleasant lot
To choose, where palm-groves cool'd their dwelling place,
Or freshening rivers ran; and there forgot
The truth of heaven, and kneel'd to gods that heard them not.

Then waited not the murderer for the night,
But smote his brother down in the bright day,
And he who felt the wrong, and had the might,
His own avenger, girt himself to slay;
Beside the path the unburied carcass lay;
The shepherd, by the fountains of the glen,
Fled, while the robber swept his flock away,
And slew his babes. The sick, untended then,
Languish'd in the damp shade, and died afar from men.

But misery brought in love — in passions strife
Man gave his heart to mercy pleading long,
And sought out gentle deeds to gladden life;
The weak, against the sons of spoil and wrong,
Banded, and watch'd their hamlets, and grew strong.
States rose, and, in the shadow of their might,
The timid rested. To the reverent throng,
Grave and time-wrinkled men, with locks all white,
Gave laws, and judged their strifes, and taught the way of right.

Till bolder spirits seized the rule, and nail'd
On men the yoke that man should never bear,
And drove them forth to battle: Lo! unveil'd
The scene of those stern ages! What is there?
A boundless sea of blood, and the wild air
Moans with the crimson surges that intomb
Cities and banner'd armies; forms that wear
The kingly circlet, rise, amid the gloom,
O'er the dark wave, and straight are swallow'd in its womb.

Those ages have no memory — but they left
A record in the desert — columns strown
On the waste sands, and statues fall'n and cleft,
Heap'd like a host in battle overthrown;
Vast ruins, where the mountain's ribs of stone
Were hewn into a city; streets that spread
In the dark earth, where never breath has blown
Of heaven's sweet air, nor foot of man dares tread
The long and perilous ways — the cities of the dead;

And tombs of monarchs to the clouds up-piled—
They perish'd — but the eternal tombs remain—
And the black precipice, abrupt and wild,
Pierced by long toil and hollow'd to a fane;—
Huge piers and frowning forms of gods sustain
The everlasting arches, dark and wide,
Like the night heaven when clouds are black with rain.
But idly skill was task'd, and strength was plied,
All was the work of slaves, to swell a despot's pride.

And virtue cannot dwell with slaves, nor reign
O'er those who cower to take a tyrants yoke;
She left the down-trod nations in disdain,
And flew to Greece, when liberty awoke,
New-born, amid those beautiful vales, and broke
Sceptre and chain with her fair youthful hands,
As the rock shivers in the thunder stroke.
And lo! in full-grown strength, an empire stands
Of leagued and rival states, the wonder of the lands.

Oh Greece! thy flourishing cities were a spoil
Unto each other; thy hard hand oppress'd
And crush'd the helpless; thou didst make thy soil
Drunk with the blood of those that loved thee best:
And thou didst drive, from thy unnatural breast,
Thy just and brave to die in distant climes;
Earth shudder'd at thy deeds, and sigh'd for rest
From thine abominations; after times
That yet shall read thy tale, will tremble at thy crimes.

Yet there was that within thee which has saved
Thy glory, and redeem'd thy blotted name;
The story of thy better deeds, engraved
On fame's unmouldering pillar, puts to shame
Our chiller virtue; the high art to tame
The whirlwind of thy passions was thine own;
And the pure ray, that from thy bosom came,
Far over many a land and age has shone,
And mingles with the light that beams from God's own throne.

And Rome, thy sterner, younger sister, she
Who awed the world with her imperial frown,
Drew the deep spirit of her race from thee,—
The rival of thy shame and thy renown.
Yet her degenerate children sold the crown
Of earth's wide kingdoms to a line of slaves;
Guilt reign'd, and wo with guilt, and plagues came down,
Till the North broke its flood gates, and the waves
Whelm'd the degraded race, and welter'd o'er their graves.

Vainly that ray of brightness from above,
That shone around the Galilean lake,
The light of hope, the leading star of love,
Struggled, the darkness of that day to break;
Even its own faithless guardians strove to slake,
In fogs of earth, the pure immortal flame;
And priestly hands, for Jesus' blessed sake,
Were red with blood, and charity became.
In that stern war of forms, a mockery and a name.

They triumph'd, and less bloody rites were kept
Within the quiet of the convent cell;
The well-fed inmates patter'd prayer, and slept,
And sinn'd, and liked their easy penance well.
Where pleasant was the spot for men to dwell,
Amid its fair broad lands the abbey lay,
Sheltering dark orgies that were shame to tell,
And cowl'd and barefoot beggars swarm'd the way,
All in their convent weeds, of black, and white, and gray.

Oh, sweetly the returning muses' strain
Swell'd over that famed stream, whose gentle tide
In their bright lap the Etrurian vales detain,
Sweet, as when winter storms have ceased to chide,
And all the new leaved woods, resounding wide,
Send out wild hymns upon the scented air.
Lo! to the smiling Arno's classic side
The emulous nations of the west repair,
And kindle their quench'd urns, and drink fresh spirit there.

Still, heaven deferr'd the hour ordain'd to rend
From saintly rottenness the sacred stole;
And cowl and worshipp'd shrine could still defend
The wretch with felon stains upon his soul;
And crimes were set to sale, and hard his dole
Who could not bribe a passage to the skies;
And vice beneath the mitre's kind control,
Sinn'd gaily on, and grew to giant size,
Shielded by priestly power, and watch'd by priestly eyes.

At last the earthquake came — the shock, that hurl'd
To earth, in many fragments dash'd and strown,
The throne, whose roots were in another world,
And whose far stretching shadow awed our own.
From many a proud monastic pile, o'erthrown,
Fear-struck, the hooded inmates rush'd and fled;
The web, that for a thousand years had grown
O'er prostrate Europe, in that day of dread
Crumbled and fell, as fire dissolves the flaxen thread.

The spirit of that day is still awake,
And spreads himself, and shall not sleep again;
But through the idle mesh of power shall break,
Like billows o'er the Asian monarch's chain;
Till men are fill'd with him, and feel how vain,
Instead of the pure heart and innocent hands,
Are all the proud and pompous modes to gain
The smile of heaven; — till a new age expands
Its white and holy wings above the peaceful lands.

For look again on the past years; — behold,
Flown, like the night-mare's fearful dreams, away
Full many a horrible worship, that, of old,
Subdued the shuddering realms to its dark sway;
And crimes that fear'd not once the eye of day,
Rooted from men, without a name or place;
And nations blotted out from earth, to pay
The forfeit of deep guilt; — with glad embrace
The fair disburden'd lands welcome a nobler race.

Thus error's monstrous shapes from earth are driven;
They fade, they fly — but truth survives their flight;
Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;
Each ray, that shone, in early time, to light
The faltering footsteps in the path of right,
The broader glow of brightness, shed to aid
In man's maturer day his bolder sight,
All blended, like the rainbow's radiant braid,
Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.

Late, from this western shore, that morning chased
The deep and ancient night, that threw its shroud
O'er the green land of groves, the beautiful waste,
Nurse of full streams, and lifter up of proud
Sky-mingling mountains that o'erlook the cloud.
Erewhile, where yon gay spires their brightness rear,
Trees waved, and the brown hunter's shouts were loud
Amid the forest; and the bounding deer
Fled at the glancing plume, and the gaunt wolf yell'd near.

And where his willing waves yon bright blue bay
Sends up, to kiss his decorated brim,
And cradles, in his soft embrace, the gay
Young group of grassy islands born of him,
And, crowding nigh, or in the distance dim,
Lifts the white throng of sails, that bear or bring
The commerce of the world; — with tawny limb,
And belt and beads in sunlight glistening,
The savage urged his skiff like wild bird on the wing.

Then, all his youthful paradise around,
And all the broad and boundless mainland, lay
Cool'd by the interminable wood, that frown'd
O'er mound and vale, where never summer ray
Glanced, till the strong tornado broke his way
Through the grey giants of the sylvan wild;
Yet many a shelter'd glade, with blossoms gay
Beneath the showery sky and sunshine mild,
Within the shaggy arms of that dark forest smiled.

There stood the Indian hamlet, there the lake
Spread its blue sheet that flash'd with many an oar,
Where the brown otter plunged him from the brake,
And the deer drank — as the light gale flew o'er,
The twinkling maize-field rustled on the shore;
And while that spot, so wild and lone and fair,
A look of glad and innocent beauty wore,
And peace was on the earth and in the air,
The warrior lit the pile, and bound his captive there:

Not unavenged — the foeman, from the wood,
Beheld the deed, and when the midnight shade
Was stillest, gorged his battle-axe with blood;
All died — the wailing babe — the shrieking maid—
And in the flood of fire that scathed the glade,
The roofs went down; but deep the silence grew,
When on the dewy woods the day-beam play'd;
No more the cabin smokes rose wreath'd and blue,
And ever, by their lake, lay moor'd the light canoe.

Look now abroad — another race has fill'd
These populous borders — wide the wood recedes,
And towns shoot up, and fertile realms are till'd;
The land is fall of harvests and green meads;
Streams numberless, that many a fountain feeds,
Shine, disembower'd, and give to sun and breeze
Their virgin waters; the full region leads
New colonies forth, that toward the western seas
Spread, like a rapid flame among the autumnal trees.

Here the free spirit of mankind at length
Throws its last fetters off; and who shall place
A limit to the giant's unchain'd strength,
Or curb his swiftness in the forward race.
Far, like the comet's way through infinite space,
Stretches the long untravell'd path of light
Into the depths of ages: we may trace,
Afar, the brightening glory of its flight,
Till the receding rays are lost to human sight.

Europe is given a prey to sterner fates,
And writhes in shackles; strong the arms that chain
To earth her struggling multitude of states;
She too is strong, and might not chafe in vain
Against them, but shake off the vampyre train
That batten on her blood, and break their net.
Yes, she shall look on brighter days, and gain
The meed of worthier deeds; the moment set
To rescue and raise up, draws near — but is not yet.

But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall,
But with thy children — thy maternal care,
Thy lavish love, thy blessings shower'd on all—
These are thy fetters — seas and stormy air
Are the wide barrier of thy borders, where
Among thy gallant sons that guard thee well,
Thou laugh'st at enemies: who shall then declare
The date of thy deep-founded strength, or tell
How happy, in thy lap, the sons of men shall dwell.

[Kettell, Specimens (1828) 3:136-44]