William Cullen Bryant: Contribution to American Poetry

Also Read

WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT, 1794-1878
      LIFE.-The early environment of each of the three great members of the New York group determined to an unusual degree the special literary work for which each became famous. Had Irving not been steeped in the legends of the early Dutch settlers of Manhattan, hunted squirrels in Sleepy Hollow, and voyaged up the Hudson past the Catskills, he would have had small chance of becoming famous as the author of the "Knickerbocker Legend." Had Cooper not spent his boyhood on the frontier, living in close touch with the forest and the pioneer, we should probably not have had The Leatherstocking Tales. Had it not been for Bryant's early Puritan training and his association with a peculiar type of nature, he might have ended his days as a lawyer.

William Cullen Bryant
William Cullen Bryant

      William Cullen Bryant was born in Cummington, among the hills of western Massachusetts. In her diary, his mother thus records his birth:—

      "Nov. 3, 1794. Stormy, wind N. E. Churned. Seven in the evening a son born."

      Bryant's poetry will be better understood, if we emphasize two main facts in his early development. In the first place, he was descended from John and Priscilla Alden of Mayflower stock and reared in strict Puritan fashion. Bryant's religious training determined the general attitude of all his poetry toward nature. His parents expected their children to know the Bible in a way that can scarcely be comprehended in the twentieth century. Before completing his fourth year, his older brother "had read the Scriptures through from beginning to end." At the age of nine, the future poet turned the first chapter of Job into classical couplets, beginning:—

      "Job, good and just, in Uz had sojourned long,   He feared his God and shunned the way of wrong.   Three were his daughters and his sons were seven,   And large the wealth bestowed on him by heaven."

      Another striking fact is that the prayers which he heard from the Puritan clergy and from his father and grandfather in family worship gave him a turn toward noble poetic expression. He said that these prayers were often "poems from beginning to end," and he cited such expressions from them as, "Let not our feet stumble on the dark mountains of eternal death." From the Puritan point of view, the boy made in his own prayers one daring variation from the petitions based on scriptural sanction. He prayed that he "might receive the gift of poetic genius, and write verses that might endure." His early religious training was responsible for investing his poetry with the dignity, gravity, and simplicity of the Hebraic Scriptures.

BRYANT AS A YOUNG MAN
      In the second place, he passed his youth in the fine scenery of western Massachusetts, which is in considerable measure the counterpart of the Lake Country which bred Wordsworth. The glory of this region reappears in his verse; the rock-ribbed hills, the vales stretching in pensive quietness between them, the venerable woods of ash, beech, birch, hemlock, and maple, the complaining brooks that make the valleys green, the rare May days:—

 "When beechen buds begin to swell,
 And woods the blue bird's warble know."
 [Footnote: Bryant: The Yellow Violet.]

      His association with such scenes determined the subject matter of his poetry, and his Puritan training prescribed the form of treatment. He had few educational advantages,—a little district schooling, some private tutoring by a clergyman, seven month's stay in Williams College, which at the time of his entrance in 1810 had a teaching staff of one professor and two tutors, besides the president. Bryant left Williams, intending to enter Yale; but his father, a poor country physician who had to ride vast distances for small fees, was unable to give him any further college training.

      Bryant, at about the age of eighteen, soon after leaving Williams, wrote Thanatopsis,—with the exception of the opening and the closing parts. He had already written at the age of thirteen a satiric poem, The Embargo, which had secured wide circulation in New England. Keenly disappointed at not being able to continue his college education, he regretfully began the study of law in order to earn his living as soon as possible. He celebrated his admission to the bar by writing one of his greatest short poems, To a Waterfowl (1815). When he was a lawyer practicing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he met Miss Fanny Fairchild, to whom he addressed the poem,—

 "O fairest of the rural maids!"

 

FACSIMILE OF RECORD OF BRYANT'S MARRIAGE
      Religious in all things, he prepared this betrothal prayer, which they repeated together before they were married in the following year—

      "May Almighty God mercifully take care of our happiness here and hereafter. May we ever continue constant to each other, and mindful of our mutual promises of attachment and truth. In due time, if it be the will of Providence, may we become more nearly connected with each other, and together may we lead a long, happy, and innocent life, without any diminution of affection till we die."

      In 1821, the year in which Cooper published The Spy and Shelley wrote his Adonais lamenting the death of Keats, Bryant issued the first volume of his verse, which contained eight poems, Thanatopsis, The Inscription for Entrance to a Wood, To a Waterfowl, The Ages, The Fragment from Simonides, The Yellow Violet, The Song, and Green River. This was an epoch-making volume for American poetry. Freneau's best lyrics were so few that they had attracted little attention, but Bryant's 1821 volume of verse furnished a new standard of excellence, below which poets who aspired to the first rank could not fall. During the five years after its publication, the sales of this volume netted him a profit of only $14.92, but a Boston editor soon offered him two hundred dollars a year for an average of one hundred lines of verse a month. Bryant accepted the offer, and wrote poetry in connection with the practice of law.

      Unlike Irving and Charles Brockden Brown, Bryant attended to his legal work doggedly and conscientiously for nine years, but he never liked the law, and he longed to be a professional author. In 1825 he abandoned the law and went to New York City. Here he managed to secure a livelihood for awhile on the editorial force of short-lived periodicals. In 1827, however, he became assistant editor, and in 1829 editor-in-chief, of The New York Evening Post—a position which he held for nearly fifty years, until his death.

      The rest of his life is more political and journalistic than literary. He made The Evening Post a power in the development of the nation, but his work as editor interfered with his poetry, although he occasionally wrote verse to the end of his life.

      In middle life he began a series of trips abroad, and wrote many letters describing his travels. To occupy his attention after his wife died in 1866, he translated Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, at the nearly uniform rate of forty lines a day. This work still remains one of the standard poetic translations of Homer.

BRYANT'S HOME, ROSLYN, L.I.
      As the years passed, he became New York's representative citizen, noted for high ideals in journalism and for incorruptible integrity, as well as for the excellence of his poetry. He died in 1878, at the age of eighty four, and was buried at Roslyn, Long Island, beside his wife. POETRY.—Thanatopsis, probably written in 1811, was first published in 1817 in The North American Review, a Boston periodical. One of the editors said to an associate, "You have been imposed upon. No one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses." The associate insisted that Dr. Bryant, the author, had left them at the office, and that the Doctor was at that moment sitting in the State Senate, representing his county. The editor at once dashed away to the State House, took a long look at the Doctor, and reported, "It is a good head, but I do not see Thanatopsis in it." When the father was aware of the misunderstanding, he corrected it, but there were for a long time doubts whether a boy could have written a poem of this rank. In middle age the poet wrote the following to answer a question in regard to the time of the composition of Thanatopsis:—

      "It was written when I was seventeen or eighteen years old—I have not now at hand the memorandums which would enable me to be precise—and I believe it was composed in my solitary rambles in the woods. As it was first committed to paper, it began with the half line—'Yet a few days, and thee'—and ended with the beginning of another line with the words—'And make their bed with thee.' The rest of the poem—the introduction and the close—was added some years afterward, in 1821."

      Thanatopsis remains to-day Bryant's most famous production. It is a stately poem upon death, and seems to come directly from the lips of Nature:—

 "… from all around—
 Earth and her waters and the depth of air—
 Comes a still voice.—
 Yet a few days, and thee
 The all-beholding sun shall see no more …"

      No other poem presents "all-including death" on a scale of such vastness. The majestic solemnity of the poem and the fine quality of its blank verse may be felt in this selection:—

 "… 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."

      Thanatopsis shows the old Puritan tendency to brood on death, but the Inscription for Entrance to a Wood, written in 1815 and published in the same number of The North American Review as his first great poem, takes us where

      "… the thick roof Of green and stirring branches is alive And musical with birds."

      The gladness of the soft winds, the blue sky, the rivulet, the mossy rocks, the cleft-born wild-flower, the squirrels, and the insects,—all focus our attention on the "deep content" to be found in "the haunts of Nature," and suggest Wordsworth's philosophy of the conscious enjoyment of the flower, the grass, the mountains, the bird, and the stream, voicing their "thousand blended notes."

      We may say of Bryant what was true of Cooper, that when he enters a forest, power seems to come unbidden to his pen. Bryant's Forest Hymn (1825) finds God in those green temples:—

 "Thou art in the soft winds
 That run along the summit of these trees  In music."

      He points out the divinity that shapes our ends in:—

 "That delicate forest flower,
 With scented breath and look so like a smile."

      No Puritan up to this time had represented God in a guise more pleasing than the smile of a forest flower. This entire Hymn seems like a great prayer rooted deep in those earlier prayers to which the boy used to listen.

      Although Bryant lived to be eighty-four, he wrote less poetry than Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five, and about one third as much as Shelley, who was scarcely thirty when he was drowned. It is not length of days that makes a poet. Had Bryant died in his thirtieth year, his excellence and limitations would be fairly well shown in his work finished at that time. At this age, in addition to the five poems in his 1821 volume (p. 139), he had written The Winter Piece, A Forest Hymn, and The Death of the Flowers. These and a number of other poems, written before he had finished his thirtieth year, would have entitled him to approximately the same rank that he now holds in the history of American poetry. It is true that if he had then passed away, we should have missed his exquisite call to The Evening Wind (1829), and some of his other fine productions, such as To the Fringed Gentian (1829), The Prairies (1832), The Battle-Field (1837), with its lines which are a keynote to Bryant's thought and action:—

 "Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again,
 Th' eternal years of God are hers."

      We are thankful for the ideals voiced in The Poet (1863), and we listen respectfully to The Flood of Years (1876), as the final utterance of a poet who has had the experience of fourscore years.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—Bryant is the first great American poet. His poetry is chiefly reflective and descriptive, and it is remarkable for its elevation, simplicity, and moral earnestness. He lacks dramatic power and skill in narration. Calmness and restraint, the lack of emotional intensity, are also evident in his greatest work. His depths of space are vast, but windless. In The Poet he says that verse should embody:—

 "… feelings of calm power and mighty sweep,
 Like currents journeying through the windless deep."

      His chosen field is describing and interpreting nature. He has been called an American Wordsworth. In the following lines Bryant gives poetic expression to his feeling that a certain maiden's heart and face reflected the beauty of the natural scenes amid which she was reared:—

 "… all the beauty of the place
 Is in thy heart and on thy face.
 The twilight of the trees and rocks
 Is in the light shade of thy locks."
[Footnote: "O Fairest of the Rural Maids." (1820.)]

      With these lines compare Wordsworth's Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower (1799):—

 "… she shall lean her ear
 In many a secret place
 Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
 And beauty born of murmuring sound  Shall pass into her face."

       Bryant himself says that under the influence of Wordsworth, nature suddenly changed "into a strange freshness and life." It is no discredit to him to have been Wordsworth's pupil or to have failed to equal the magic of England's greatest poet of nature.

      Bryant's range was narrow for a great poet, and his later verse usually repeated his earlier successes. As a rule, he presented the sky, forest, flower, stream, animal, and the composite landscape, only as they served to illumine the eternal verities, and the one verity toward which nature most frequently pointed was death. His heart, unlike Wordsworth's, did not dance with the daffodils waving in the breeze, for the mere pleasure of the dancing.

      The blank verse of his Thanatopsis has not been surpassed since Milton. In everything that he did, Bryant was a careful workman. Painters have noticed his skill in the use of his poetic canvas and his power to suggest subjects to them, such as:—

 "… croft and garden and orchard, That bask in the mellow light."

      Three vistas from To a Waterfowl,—"the plashy brink of weedy lake," "marge of river wide," and "the chafed ocean side,"—long ago furnished the suggestion for three paintings.

      Bryant's Puritan ancestry and training laid a heavy hand upon him. Thoughts of "the last bitter hour" are constantly recurring in his verse. The third line of even his poem June brings us to the grave. His great poems are often like a prayer accompanied by the subdued tones of a mighty organ. Nothing foul or ignoble can be found in his verse. He has the lofty ideals of the Puritans.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions