William Cullen Bryant Thanatopsis Transcendentalism Essay

No line of his poetry survives in the consciousness of his nation, and none of his editorial pronouncements still resonates from his five decades with the New-York Evening Post, yet William Cullen Bryant stood among the most celebrated figures in the frieze of nineteenth-century America. The fame he won as a poet while in his youth remained with him as he entered his eighties; only Longfellow and Emerson were his rivals in popularity over the course of his life. “Thanatopsis,” if not the best-known American poem abroad before the mid nineteenth century, certainly ranked near the top of the list, and at home school children were commonly required to recite it from memory. At his death, all New York City went into mourning for its most respected citizen, and eulogies poured forth as they had for no man of letters since Washington Irving, its native son, had died a generation earlier. The similarity was appropriate: Irving brought international legitimacy to American fiction; Bryant alerted the English-speaking world to an American voice in poetry.

 

The shaping of Bryant’s mind and personality owed much to his family circumstances in Cummington, Massachusetts, a small village in the Berkshire hills carved from the forest scantly a generation before his birth. His father, Peter Bryant, a physician and surgeon, had evidently chosen to settle in Cummington to pursue the affections of Sarah Snell, whose family had migrated from the same town in eastern Massachusetts; boarding at the Snell house, he won his bride. The couple quickly met misfortune. Whether because Squire Snell’s relative affluence provoked the young husband to overreach when he saw an opportunity to become wealthy, or because his efforts to build a practice were failing, he joined in a risky business speculation and lost everything, including the humble, roughly-hewn cabin in which he had installed his wife and two infant children. Desperate–Cullen had been born within the year–he sought to recoup enough to stay out of debtor’s prison by sailing as a ship’s surgeon. That plan, too, proved ill-starred: the French stopped the ship at sea and Dr. Bryant was interned for almost a year in Mauritius. When he returned, he was forced to depend on his father-in-law’s generosity to restore his place in the community. The birth of a third child, another boy, further squeezed financial prospects, and six months before young Cullen’s fifth birthday, the Bryants resumed residence with Sarah’s parents. Peter Bryant’s letters to his own father indicate correct yet chafed relations with the patriarchal Squire Snell, despite the reestablished physician’s financial infusions into the homestead as his fortunes improved. Adding a section to the house provided accommodation both for Bryant’s medical office and for the four more children born from 1802 through 1807. The arrangement made possible some separation of the two households, but friction between the generations and their fundamentally different attitudes toward the world endured. William Cullen Bryant’s reserve and his guarded nature throughout life undoubtedly were schooled by the familial constraints of his one home until he departed to practice law at twenty-two.

 

Years later, Bryant underscored that he was not among those who look back upon childhood as a happy period. The burden of farm chores, imposed as much for their value as moral discipline as for necessity, taxed his frail physique and delicate health, and although he was ever the prize pupil, eager to please by demonstrating his brightness, the district school imposed a strict regimen: lessons were taught under threat of the switch. Yet Cummington also offered bountiful compensations. An inquisitive child, Cullen learned to make a companion of thoughts stimulated by nature. The observations of plants and flowers, of birds and sky, and of brooks and rolling fields that occupy so much of his verse were trained by the boy’s delight in investigating his surroundings. Social isolation fostered romantic sensibilities that would suit the evolving tastes of the new century.

 

The boy’s grandfather pressed a contrasting worldview on him. Western Massachusetts in that period generally eschewed the liberal religious ideas that fanned out from Boston; its dour orthodoxies looked to the more conservative Calvinism of New Haven and the Albany area of upstate New York. Ebenezer Snell, a deacon in the Congregationalist church, studied theological writers and was as intractable in his interpretation of scripture as in his rulings as a local magistrate. In prayer services he conducted for his family every morning and every evening, he made certain that religious precepts informed the Bryant children’s upbringing. Young Cullen first learned meter and poetry through the hymns of Isaac Watts, and he found an outlet for a love of language by constructing a makeshift pulpit of the parlor furniture from which he delivered sermons in imitation of what he heard at church. Worship stressed death and the power of the devil, and perhaps because of the boy’s vulnerability to illness and chronic severe headaches, he pondered mortality, even at his tender age, and saw God’s image as cast in a mold of fear and gloom.

 

The more compelling influence on Cullen’s mental development, however, came from his father, a man of curtailed ambitions who aspired to being a citizen of a society well beyond Cummington’s horizons. Peter Bryant, like his father before him, had chosen a career in medicine, and he became an early exponent of homeopathy; his passionate preference, however, was for the arts–for music and, particularly, poetry. As an erudite American, he had immersed himself in the ancients, a classical nurture reflected in his admiration for Alexander Pope and the other eighteenth-century British paragons of the Augustan style in poetry. Dr. Bryant also wrote verse, and if his derivative efforts fell short of distinction, they were nonetheless well-turned. When his precocious son began stringing couplets, Dr. Bryant took delighted notice. Although he held the boy to a high standard and was quick to derogate his exercises as doggerel, Cullen accepted his father as an expert mentor and took satisfaction in being treated as an equal. By the age of thirteen, he was seen as a prodigy. TheNorthampton Hampshire Gazette had published several of his poems, including a fifty-four line exhortation to his schoolmates he had drafted three years earlier. Beginning with patriotic invocation of the Revolution and concluding with a charge to “Keep bright mansions ever in our eyes, / Press tow’rds the mark and seize the glorious prize,” it rapidly became a standard selection for school recitations in the region. If, given his age, the pose he struck in a poem composed in 1807 was patently absurd–“Ah me! neglected on the list of fame! / My works unnotic’d, and unknown my name!”–it nonetheless indicated his grand ambitions.

 

Ironically, an immediate fame beyond his imaginings awaited. Once again, he served as an extension of his father. When Peter Bryant, elected as representative to the state legislature in 1806, conveyed the political passions of Boston in his letters and his trips home to Cummington, Cullen absorbed the excitement, styling his juvenile understanding according to the father’s Federalist partisanship. In 1807, President Jefferson led his Congressional followers to pass the Embargo Act, deepening the young nation’s bitter division by party and region. The Act stipulated American neutrality in the hostilities between Britain and Napoleonic France, but the Northeast understood that neutrality clearly favored the French–and worse, that the bar to commerce with the British struck at the region’s economic vital organs. At no time prior to the Civil War was the Union so threatened with dissolution. Dr. Bryant embraced the pro-British party’s position, especially because his rationalist creed induced him to see menace in the embargo: an impoverished New York and New England, he feared, would be prey to Jacobin mob rule. Young Cullen, a captive of both his father’s politics and his enthusiasm for Augustan poetry, fused the two in scathing verse. Addressing Jefferson as “the scorn of every patriot name, / The country’s ruin, and her council’s shame,” he cited cowardice before “perfidious Gaul” and the rumors of a dalliance with the “sable” Sally Hemings as reasons for Jefferson to “resign the presidential chair” and “search, with curious eye, for horned frogs, / ’Mongst the wild wastes of Louisianian bogs.” Dr. Bryant proudly urged his son to extend his efforts, and when the legislator returned to Boston after the holiday recess, he circulated the poem among his Federalist friends–including a poet of minor reputation who joined the father in editing and polishing the work. By spring, The Embargo; or, Sketches of the Times, A Satire, by a Youth of Thirteen, a pamphlet of a dozen pages, quickly sold out. A second edition–in which the 244 lines of the first swelled to 420, and, with the addition of other poems, its pages tripled–was published at the start of 1809. This precocious exhibition remained the talk of Boston, not only as a political weapon but also, a reviewer for The Monthly Anthology noted, as the earnest of a talent sure “to gain a respectable station on the Parnassus mount, and to reflect credit on the literature of his country.”

 

The astonishing immediate response to The Embargo sealed Peter Bryant’s determination to provide his son the humanistic education he himself had been denied. In the eruption of colleges across the young republic he saw an unmistakable sign that society would be drawing its leaders from the new elite being formally trained; nagging concerns about his financial resources and his precept that all his children should receive even-handed treatment would have to be pushed to the side so that Cullen’s intellect might be properly nurtured. Dr. Bryant’s notion that his dream of becoming a poet might find fulfillment in his son furnished a second, and psychologically more powerful, motive. Even an outstanding talent for poetry provided no livelihood, especially in America; a profession, however, would ensure his son the economic stability to permit development of his literary interests. And so, five days after his fourteenth birthday, Cullen traveled fifty miles to board with his uncle, a clergyman who was to tutor him in Latin.

 

The young man made swift progress. He had barely blotted “Translation from Horace. Lib. I. Car. XXII” before sending it to the printer during the first weeks of 1809 as one of the supplementary poems in the second edition of The Embargo. By the end of June, he had conquered Virgil’s Eclogues and part of the Georgics, in addition to the entire Εneid. After a month’s farming for the family, he enrolled in a school in Plainfield, a few miles directly north of Cummington. There he immersed himself in Greek from his waking hour to bedtime, and “dreamed of Greek” in between; at term’s end in October, he could read the New Testament “from end to end almost as if it had been in English.” The next year, except for a spring stay at the school to learn mathematics, he spent at home, expanding his reading in the classics, being tutored in French by his father, and acquainting himself with philosophical writers and post-Augustan British poets. The pace and range of his studies were not exclusively a function of his aptitude: Dr. Bryant, ever mindful of education’s cost, trusted that his son’s diligence, coupled with sufficient private study, would enable him to enroll at nearby Williams College in October 1810 as a sophomore, thereby saving a year’s tuition.

 

The collegiate venture, however, did not survive the year. His most conspicuous achievement as a student, Descriptio Gulielmopolis, satirically expressed discontent with Williamstown and living conditions at the college; still more disappointing was the absence of intellectual zest among “pale-faced, moping students [who] crawl / Like spectral monuments of woe.” The academic program offered little stimulation: only two tutors were responsible for instruction of all sophomores, and the courses were far afield of his interests. Obtaining an honorable withdrawal, he retreated to Cummington for another period of intense solitary study, this time aimed at admission to Yale that fall as a junior. Besides his “more laborious academic studies,” he delved into his father’s medical library, “became a pretty good chemist” by reading Lavoisier and performing experiments, and perused Linnaeus to gain a basic knowledge of botany. But then hopes for Yale faded. Dr. Bryant, reassessing the family’s financial prospects and perhaps influenced by worsening health, concluded that money for the young man’s future should be invested directly in a legal career.

 

Convinced he lacked the requisite eloquence and confident manner, Cullen was reluctant to accept a fate that condemned him to drudgery. Although he left for Worthington, six miles from home, to begin to learn the law a month after turning seventeen, his longing for Yale persisted. A letter to a friend records his distress: it speaks of farming or a trade, possibly even blacksmithing–an implausible option given spells of pulmonary weakness and his recurrent headaches–as preferable to the law should he not realize his wish to resume under-graduate studies in New Haven the next term. Even so, he was too much the product of his caste to ignore practical exigency: before the end of the school year, he committed himself to a legal career and strove to relegate literature to an ancillary role in his life.

 

This shift in attention was not altogether unhappy. Although Cullen had proved himself an assiduous scholar, he had much left to master as a young adult trying to determine his place in the world–and his two and a half years at Worthington may have been more instructive than college. If he only rarely excused himself from the rigor of poring over the black letter pages of Littleton and Coke to write verse, it is also clear that he more freely closed his books to enjoy himself. At seventeen and eighteen, he was discovering the pleasure of conversation at the tavern, and, with rising enthusiasm, of assaying the young ladies in the neighborhood’s genteel parlors. Then, in mid 1814, he left the Berkshires for Bridgewater, the area of his family’s origins, to join the law office of a congressman whose absences while in Washington required hiring someone to run his practice. Bryant profited not only from the legal experience but also from writing reports for his employer on the politics of his district–an exercise that served as a drill for his later newspaper work and forced him to examine the issues of the day independently of his father’s Federalist views. Close friends noted his growing maturity. Bryant even contemplated temporary relocation in Boston to overcome his shyness by frequenting its courts and “engaging a little in the pleasures of the town to wear off a little of [my] rusticity.” But when his father declined to finance the experiment, Cullen, perhaps relieved that he would not have to pit his diffidence against the city’s sophistication, stated that Bridgewater was sufficiently lively after all. When he concluded his training (having characteristically squeezed the usual five years to four), he was admitted to the bar in August 1815. A three-month respite in Cummington followed; then, within view of the front porch on which he had played as a child, he set up his law office in decidedly rural Plainfield. His youth had come to an end quite different from his expectations; dispirited, he wrote a valediction to “visions of verse and of fame.” He had “mixed with the world” and sacrificed his purity; now he could only hope that those bright visions might “sometimes return, and in mercy awaken / The glories ye showed to his earlier years.” He was all of twenty-one years old.

 

In fact, such poetic glories as he feared would smother under the workaday routine were in gestation. The prodigy who had written The Embargo and imitated the Classical writers was a skillful mimic of a mechanical concept of verse. Beginning in 1810-11, however, a surge of wholly new influences changed his understanding of poetry. Chief among these was Lyrical Ballads. His father had brought a copy home from Boston, perhaps because, as a devoted student of poetry, he felt obliged to acquaint himself with this boldly different address to its art and subject matter. Peter Bryant was not much impressed, but to his son, it was a revelation. Remembering the encounter many years later, he claimed he heard Nature for the first time speak with a dynamic authenticity: Wordsworth’s language suddenly gushed like “a thousand springs.” Quite probably, though, Wordsworth’s full effect did not hit until some time after Bryant had begun studying law in Worthington. His mentor there, catching him scrutinizing Lyrical Ballads, warned against repetition of the offense, and Bryant, fearful of being sent away, steeled himself to obedience for a year. A vow of abstinence for the sake of the law, however, only stoked his desire to test his powers within the new possibilities Wordsworth had shown.

 

During the same period, Bryant also fell under the sway of the so-called Graveyard Poets. Henry Kirke White, virtually forgotten today, had a brief moment of great renown, though less for the merit of his lugubrious verse than for the controversy sparked by an attack on it in The Monthly Review and its defense by Robert Southey; White presently achieved martyrdom by dying, at the age of twenty, in 1809. Bryant no doubt felt an affinity with the ill-starred young Scotsman who had eluded his doom as a lawyer only to perish, it was said, from too assiduous dedication to study. Another Scotsman, Robert Blair, had an even stronger influence; his enormously popular 1743 poem, “The Grave,” had marked a shift in taste and practice from the crisp wit and erudition of the Neoclassic age to the brooding emotional indulgence that would fuse with subsequent elements of romanticism. The direct language Blair marshals into blank verse pointed the way of Bryant’s development; still more attractive was Blair’s emphasis on acceptance of death’s inevitability and overcoming the fear of extinction.

 

Mortality crowded Bryant’s mind in 1813. Typhus, or a typhus-like illness, besieged the Worthington area that year. Several friends were stricken, but the suffering and death of a particular young woman plunged him into melancholy. In April, his best childhood friend had coaxed Bryant into supplying a poem for his wedding, even though it meant breaking his pledge to abstain from writing verse while studying law. Weeks later, the bride lay dying, and the groom again asked that “your lyre not be silent”; when she died in July, Bryant composed the first of his cluster of funereal poetry. The next month, his grandfather Snell, still vigorous despite his advanced years, was found cold in his bed. As the stern Calvinist had based his relationship with his grandson on obedience and respect rather than on love, the old man’s death caused no emotional upheaval, but the sudden absence of such a commanding figure seemed to undermine life’s earthly justification. The thought that all his youthful ambition for fame was destined to wither in the dismal light of small town litigation and deed registration resonated in this encounter with emptiness.

 

Bryant’s belief in his grandfather’s God had been deteriorating since before he attended Williams, where reactionary religious discipline was failing to repress forceful liberal currents. Peter Bryant’s retreat from traditional Christianity exerted the greater influence, however: his devotion to the ancient writers reflected a humanistic view of life, which he transmitted to his son. When the elder Bryant’s legislative duties took him to Boston, he became acquainted with the writings of William Ellery Channing and other early Unitarians and found them persuasive; although he continued to attend the Congregational church in Cummington, he refused to give public assent to Trinitarian liturgy, and a few years later he joined the Unitarian church. As Peter Bryant’s closest intellectual companion, his son was profoundly affected by this departure from conventional tenets.

 

For a youth jarred by unexpected bereavements, the notion of a universe without God as a moral arbiter or of life without a manifest ultimate purpose was perturbing. Had his intended profession inspired ambition, he might have welcomed its challenges as a means of escape from dejection, but law offered him nothing more than the prospect of a living, burdened by wearying triviality. Instead, he turned once again to writing poetry, both to work through his discomfiture and to compensate for it. This reemerging poet, however, had little in common with the former prodigy schooled in the Ancients and in Pope’s crystalline verse. The new Bryant, very much of his time, reflected the aesthetics and preoccupation with nature of the Romantics, coupled with the philosophical orientation of the Graveyard Poets. Once he had counted on his facility as the key to winning fame; now he wrote seeking clarity for himself. The pivotal poem, which he would substantially revise for much of a decade, was “Thanatopsis.”

 

Relying on Bryant’s casual recall, much later in his life, editors have frequently assigned the middle section–i.e., the first of its several drafts–to 1811, speculating that it was begun in the early fall, just after his withdrawal from Williams. Indeed, a forested area at the edge of Williamstown was long known as Thanatopsis Wood because the poem had supposedly been begun at that spot. But neither the recollection nor the legend is supported by evidence. A better case can be made for 1813, when the stimulus of the Graveyard Poets was strongest; the notation of that year by Bryant’s wife on the manuscript is more persuasive than the poet’s aged memory. A third conjecture would advance it to some unknown month as late as 1815, when he appears to have been in a creative flurry. Whichever date one might prefer, however, the poem attests that its author was engaged in a daring effort to stare into the abyss and courageously pronounce his creed. The fact that the poem then lay unfinished for some years before its publication has occasionally been interpreted as a sign that Bryant was entering a long period of unresolved religious crisis, but the idea that a poet would transcribe a philosophical problem in carefully wrought meter only to suspend composition until he solved the problem is implausible on its face. Obviously, Bryant was reexamining his religious beliefs, but there is nothing tentative about the perception his poem describes.

 

During his eight months in Plainfield, Bryant evidently seized the opportunity to resume writing, refashioning his ideas and refining new aesthetic strategies in the process. Some of his very best poems emerged from this time. Even so, these were private delights, not steps in a literary career directed toward public acclaim. Indeed, he was careful to screen his poetic activities, lest the local inhabitants think he entertained lofty notions about himself or lacked a proper seriousness. Conscious of the need to adapt to the demands of the role he was determined to play successfully, he fought to overcome his inhibitions in public speaking and to cultivate the trust of potential clients. This strain to develop a facade that was untrue to his personal reality only heightened his sense of alienation. “In Plainfield,” he wrote to a friend, “I found the people rather bigoted in their notions, and almost wholly governed by the influence of a few individuals who looked upon my coming among them, with a great deal of jealousy.” By June of 1816, having despaired “of ever greatly enlarging the sphere of my business,” he began investigating the prospect of joining an established practice in Great Barrington, and in October he moved to the Housatonic Valley town. But though the community changed, his inner struggle did not abate. What would not come to him naturally, he tried to conquer through will. In letters, he repeatedly resolved to defeat a tendency toward indolence and to focus on his legal work. This grinding determination succeeded; the following May, the firm’s senior partner, recognizing the young man’s keener industry and, perhaps, his superior ability, sold him his share of the practice at a bargain price. Bryant was acceding to his evident fate, but with obvious distaste. Responding to an inquiry from his former employer in Bridgewater, he confessed,

Alas, Sir, the Muse was my first love and the remains of that passion which not rooted out yet chilled into extinction will always I fear cause me to look coldly on the severe beauties of Themis. Yet I tame myself to its labors as well as I can, and have endeavoured to discharge with punctuality and attention such of the duties of my profession as I was capable of performing. . . . Upon the whole I have every cause to be satisfied with my situation.

Taming himself to the law’s labors became all the more necessary when he decided the time had come to choose a wife. After the dearth of opportunities in Plainfield, Bryant’s social life revived in Great Barrington. While his letters to former fellow law students pumped them for news of the lovely young ladies he had left behind in Bridgewater, he was scouting local entertainments; at Christmas time, he met Frances Fairchild, a nineteen-year-old orphan with “a remarkably frank expression, an agreeable figure, a dainty foot, and pretty hands, and the sweetest smile I had ever seen.” By March, in writing a message of congratulation to a recent groom, Bryant worried aloud about his “many unlucky reflections” and feelings “of secret horrour at the idea of connecting my future fortunes with those of any woman on earth,” but those very tremors attested the intensity of his desire to wed Fanny. And to qualify as a husband, he knew, would require paying less attention to the Muse.

 

A curious happenstance in Boston, however, would work to weaken Themis’s hold. Peter Bryant’s associations with the city’s intellectuals had spurred an enthusiasm for an ambitious two-year-old publication, the North American Review, which, he wrote his son in June of 1817, should nicely serve as “the means of introducing you to notice in the capital.” When the son ignored this prodding, Dr. Bryant seized the initiative. Taking some drafts Cullen had left behind in his desk and rewriting two others in his own hand, he submitted them to Willard Phillips, a friend of long standing from Cummington and an editor of the North American. Phillips in turn conveyed them to the journal’s staff, which immediately perceived a remarkably gifted new American voice–indeed, Richard Henry Dana is reputed to have declared, in astonishment, “Ah, Phillips, you have been imposed upon; no one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses.”

 

The debut of this new voice, however, was clouded by confusion. Because the poems submitted were in two different handwritings, the editors assumed for many months following their September publication that they were the work of two different poets: father and son. And because the North American, like many journals of that time, printed its contents without identifying contributors, readers were unaware of the error, but a second mistake, consequent of the first, muddled the poet’s intentions. Seeing that one group of poems bore titles while the rest, in Dr. Bryant’s hand, bore none, the editors inferred that the latter constituted a single poem about death–to which one of them, drawing on his Greek, affixed the descriptive title “Thanatopsis.” This sutured and misattributed version impressed the editors as the best of the submissions, but those identified as the son’s from the start were also very well regarded. In December, the editors invited more submissions, and a month later, Bryant sent, via his father, a revised version of a fragment from Simonides he had translated while at Williams and a “little poem which I wrote while at Bridgewater,” presumably “To a Waterfowl.” Along with the poem written for his friend’s wedding in 1813, these appeared in the March issue.

 

That Bryant offered no new composition, despite exceptional encouragement from the North American, strongly suggests that the magazine’s readers scarcely noticed the poems. Certainly no hurrahs arose such as had greeted The Embargo; indeed, his debut in the Hampshire Gazette at the age of thirteen had caused more stir. But the approbation of the Boston literati would matter far more in the long run than a quickening of popular appeal. In February, Phillips, now engaged as Bryant's agent, suggested that he review a book by Solyman Brown as an excuse to produce a critical history of American poets and poetry, thereby establishing himself as the pre-eminent authority on the subject. Greatly aided by both his father's counsel and his collection, the twenty-three-year-old did not disappoint. The essay served not only as a cornerstone of our literary history but also as a thoughtful, temperate exordium to the many arguments for American literary nationalism about to erupt. A second essay, “On the Use of Trisyllabic Feet in Iambic Verse,” published in September 1819, reworked material possibly first drafted when he was sixteen or seventeen and trying to shake free of Pope’s Neoclassical cadence; even so, it did much to bolster his credentials as a scholar of metrics. That same month Williams College awarded him an honorary master’s degree.

 

Meanwhile, Bryant had almost suspended writing poetry of his own. Edward Channing, the chief editor, recognizing his potential importance to the journal, had solicited a commitment “to spend a little time from your profession and give it to us.” But Bryant's major allegiance continued to be to his practice. When he reached into his file and submitted “The Yellow Violet,” Channing felt compelled to reject it because, without worthy companion pieces, it was too short to justify a poetry department. The following year, Bryant finished only “Green River,” a skillfully wrought hymn to Nature, reminiscent of the earlier “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood.” It ends, ruefully, with the poet envying the stream, free to glide “in a trance of song,” while he, bound to his office, is “forced to drudge for the dregs of men, / And scrawl strange words with the barbarous pen.” A second poem, “The Burial-Place,” contrasted the graves of England, adorned with symbolic plants of remembrance, with those of New England, neglected by the Pilgrims and left to Nature’s vegetation, but this promising conceit remained a fragment, its development unresolved. Preoccupation with the conduct of his law office may not have been the only impediment. Death once again weighed on his mind–perhaps because he was enduring another period of poor health and his father was fast losing ground to consumption. His most sustained new project during the year was an essay, “On the Happy Temperament,” which, contrary to what its title might suggest, scorned unbroken cheerfulness as a manifestation of insensibility. Yet its motive was not saturnine: Bryant was seeking to convince himself to accept death as an inevitable aspect of the mutability that lends “wild and strange delight to life.”

 

In March 1820, Peter Bryant’s lungs filled with blood as his son sat beside him, watching him die. More than a father, he had been a close companion and his most esteemed mentor; although his death had been foreseen for more than a year, Bryant deeply felt the loss. “On the Happy Temperament” had been an effort to prepare for the event, but “Hymn to Death,” completed while he was in mourning, transformed the essay’s probative speculation into a strange paean, launched as an intellectual celebration of Death’s justice and equality. Once his father dies, however, grief causes the argument to collapse. Thoughts of the evildoers “left to cumber earth” affront tender memories of the father, and the injustice causes him to shudder at the hymn he has written, yet he refuses to erase its stanzas: “let them stand, / The record of an idle revery.” Despite the enfeebling calculated ambiguity of its finale, “Hymn to Death” is more charged with passion than any verse Bryant would ever again write. Paradoxically, however, its anger cloaks a subtle movement away from the heresy of “Thanatopsis,” particularly in postulating “a happier life” for his father after resurrection. (During the same months of the poem's composition, Bryant contributed five hymns to the Unitarian Society of Massachusetts for its new hymnal. Though still a nominal Congregationalist–who, moreover, continued to pay his tithe–he had rejected the core of Christian dogma, but these verses, while no more traditional than the Unitarian church, show him edging toward accommodation with conventional belief.)

 

Marriage in January 1821 to Francis Fairchild, the girl for whom he had written “Oh Fairest of the Rural Maids,” lifted his sorrow, and a year later, almost to the day, Fanny presented him with a daughter, who was given her mother's name. Bryant’s literary prospects also brightened. When a rift over succession to the editorship at the North American Review led Dana to resign, this dedicated advocate for the “new” Romantic poetry started his own publication, The Idle Man; even though the two had not yet met, Dana assigned a high priority to Bryant’s participation in the endeavor. (Their correspondence regarding this matter initiated a close friendship that would last for the rest of their lives). Bryant sent four poems to the short-lived journal. “Green River,” as yet unpublished though written the previous year, stands well above the rest. The thoroughly Wordsworthian “Winter Scenes” (later retitled “A Winter Piece”) suffers from comparison to its model in tilting much more toward recollection than emotion; that notwithstanding, it is good enough to be mistaken for portions of The Prelude, which would not appear in print for another three decades. “The West Wind,” the least of the group in both reach and achievement, moves a simple thought through seven undistinguished quatrains. “A Walk at Sunset,” though it fails to realize at the end the extended meaning it has implicitly promised, reveals Bryant's evolving interest in the cycles of civilization, and particularly in the bearing of the Indian past on white American identity. That interest would soon become compelling.

 

In the spring, Bryant's boosters from the North American had persuaded Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society to invite him to read at the August commencement (incidentally informing him, to his surprise, of his election to membership four years earlier). Bryant accepted, overcoming his usual trepidation about public speaking, but instead of preparing an address, he chose to compose for recitation “The Ages,” a poem of epic scope. A preamble of sorts raises Bryant’s familiar questions about the meaning of mortality and obliquely alludes to his father's death–the echoes of “Hymn to Death” are quite distinct–but then, after a transition recognizing change as the way of all nature, the poem chronicles the march of civilization, age by age, to the discovery of the New World and America’s realization of history’s purpose.

 

The twentieth century judged “The Ages” harshly; even the poet’s major adherents omitted it from their collections of Bryant’s works. In the nineteenth century, however, when the idea of America’s global Manifest Destiny rallied much popular support, it fared considerably better. Bryant himself, despite his lessening regard for it in later years, continued to acknowledge its position in his public’s affection by always placing it first in the six collections of his poems issued in his lifetime. 1821, however, was its ideal moment. American literature was showing its first signs of maturity, but it still missed a poet whose work could stand comparison with British rivals; “The Ages” nominated Bryant as that poet. In proclaiming a messianic America, Bryant implicitly built a case for literary nationalism as the means of expressing America’s purpose: if “The Ages” was the necessary poem, Bryant was the necessary poet. The Boston coterie that had contrived for Bryant’s appearance seized the moment. Before he left Cambridge, Phillips, Dana, and Channing had arranged for the publication of Poems by William Cullen Bryant, with “The Ages” at the front, followed by “To a Waterfowl,” “Translation of a Fragment by Simonides,” “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,” “The Yellow Violet,” “Song” (subsequently retitled “The Hunter of the West”), “Green River,” and a corrected version of “Thanatopsis” with its new beginning and ending, revised during his visit. Sales were disappointing–a year later, it had yet to cover its printing costs–but reviews were good, not only in Boston and New York but also in England, where Bryant in little time became the only known American poet. In May 1823, while commiserating over dashed financial hopes, his friend Phillips could nonetheless rejoice that “the book has finally given you an established reputation.”

 

Unfortunately, reputation could not provide for a wife and daughter or ease his obligation toward his mother and younger siblings since his father’s death. Bryant was glad for his election and appointment to several minor political offices, including a seven-year term as justice of the peace for Berkshire County, to supplement his income as an attorney, but his grudging concessions to his profession would not subside. When a letter from Channing in June 1821 apologized for “soliciting literary favours” that would interrupt his duties, Bryant replied that none was due “to one who does not follow the study of law very eagerly, because he likes other studies better; and yet devotes little of his time to them, for fear that they should give him a dislike to law.” For two years after he had completed “The Ages” and seen Poems praised, no alternative to reluctant fealty to his practice appeared possible. Then, in December 1823, came a bolt from the blue: Theophilus Parsons, the founding editor of The United States Literary Gazette, asked that he contribute “ten or twenty pieces of poetry,”  thereby joining “most of the best writers in Boston” in the new venture. When Parsons, politely apologizing, offered two hundred dollars per year for a monthly average submission of one hundred lines of verse, Bryant happily accepted. Well above the usual rate, the sum equaled approximately forty per cent of his annual law earnings.

 

Within a twelve-month period, Bryant contributed twenty-three poems to the Literary Gazette, seventeen under the terms of his agreement with Parsons and six more in 1825, when Bryant shed his commitment after a new editor, trying to economize, offered half the stipend for half the number of lines. As the necessity of keeping to a schedule would suggest, the quality of his submissions was highly uneven. “The Rivulet” is among the best of all his poems, but he had already written it before the contract with Parsons. Too much of what he wrote to quota reflects an impulse to supply appropriate embellishment for the magazine’s upcoming number: e.g., “March,” “November,” “Autumn Woods,” “Summer Wind.” At times, the result is inspired, but in general the quality is mixed, and often an arresting image or a felicitous line leads into a cliché or a merely convenient rhyme. Even “To  —– ” (subsequently retitled “Consumption”)–a sonnet composed in 1824 while his most beloved sibling, Sarah, lay dying–spoils a tender, personal expression of despair with a trite rhyme in a banal last line. Also, in awareness of writing for a magazine, Bryant may have begun to cater to popular taste. Despite having lamented a recent proliferation of Indian narratives, he fed the public’s appetite with “An Indian Story” and “Monument Mountain,” as well as another meditation on the displacement of one race by another in “An Indian at the Burial-Place of His Fathers.” He evinced boldness by very few experiments with metrical irregularity, which had been one of his salient concerns. Two of the Literary Gazette

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

Contributing Editor: Allison Heisch

Classroom Issues and Strategies

Most of the Bryant selections in the anthology are ruminative poems about the nature of life and the nature of nature. Some students really like this sort of thing, but substantial numbers are allergic to it.

The most effective strategy I have found is to provide visual back-up in the form of a Hudson River School slide show. A fancy version would parallel English Romantic poets (especially Gray, Cowper, and Wordsworth) and painters (e.g., Constable and Turner).

Bryant is a fine example of a writer who was not only popular but famous in his day. He can be used to open a discussion of the social and historical implications of such popularity (why it comes and why it goes), the essentially political character of anthologies (yes, even this one), and the idea of "fame" in connection with contemporary poets and poetry.

For students (and they are many) who do not naturally respond to Bryant, the questions generally run to "Why are we reading this?" Or, more decorously, "Why was he so popular?" Yet, they do respond to him as an example of how the American high culture invented itself. In an altogether different vein, the personal philosophy expressed in "Thanatopsis" has some enduring appeal.

Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

Bryant is very useful as a means of demonstrating the imitative mode through which New Englanders of an intellectual bent sought to establish an acceptable American literary voice. This is easily demonstrated by pairing his poems with comparable English productions. He can also be linked to the Transcendentalists--though with great caution, since much more is going on.

Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

Again, he should be shown in connection with his English models. It's useful to point out the self-conscious regularity of these poems both in connection with their particularly derivative subject matter and in contrast with the form and subjects of those contemporary poems and songs (well represented in this anthology) that were not informed by the dominant English literary culture.

Original Audience

I have usually talked about Bryant's audience in connection with the expansion of publishing in nineteenth-century America--especially magazines and newspapers. Ordinarily, students have no idea what a nineteenth-century newspaper would have looked like or contained. They never expect them to contain poetry. To demonstrate the probably contemporary audience, I have found it useful to collect and read commercially-produced greeting cards.

Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

Freneau's "The House of Night" may be read with "Thanatopsis" to demonstrate both the imitation of dominant English poetic forms and transatlantic lag-time in creating them for American audiences. Obviously, Bryant may be read with Emerson and Thoreau as a pre- or proto-Transcendentalist. It is interesting to contrast Bryant's earnest view of nature with Emily Dickinson's ironic one. Bryant's poem on Abraham Lincoln against Whitman's ("When Lilacs Last. . . Bloom'd") makes a memorable contrast between Anglophile American poetry and poetry with a genuine American accent.

Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

1. (a) Based upon what you can glean from these poems, what sort of religious and philosophical outlook does this writer have?

(b) Compare the view of nature in poems such as "To a Waterfowl" and "The Yellow Violet" with that in "The Prairies."

2. Bryant's "Thanatopsis" is often read as a proto-Transcendentalist poem; yet it was discovered and rushed to publication by Bryant's father, who by all accounts was a Calvinist. Some options:

(a) Provide a Calvinist "reading" of "Thanatopsis."

(b) Locate, compare, and explain potentially "Transcendental" and "Calvinist" elements in the poem.

(c) Argue that it's one or the other (very artificial, but effective).

Bibliography

Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. Scribner, 1971.

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