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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Parsons Lathrop (1851–1898)

By William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878)

DISTINGUISHED as he was by the lofty qualities of his verse, William Cullen Bryant held a place almost unique in American literature, by the union of his activity as a poet with his eminence as a citizen and an influential journalist, throughout an uncommonly long career. Two traits still further define the peculiarity of his position—his precocious development, and the evenness and sustained vigor of all his poetic work from the beginning to the end. He began writing verse at the age of eight; at ten he made contributions in this kind to the county gazette, and produced a finished and effective rhymed address, read at his school examination, which became popular for recitation; and in his thirteenth year, during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, he composed a political satire, ‘The Embargo.’ This, being published, was at first supposed by many to be the work of a man, attracted much attention and praise, and passed into a second edition with other shorter pieces.

But these, while well wrought in the formal eighteenth-century fashion, showed no special originality. It was with ‘Thanatopsis,’ written in 1811, when he was only seventeen, that his career as a poet of original and assured strength began. ‘Thanatopsis’ was an inspiration of the primeval woods of America, of the scenes that surrounded the writer in youth. At the same time it expressed with striking independence and power a fresh conception of “the universality of Death in the natural order.” As has been well said, “it takes the idea of death out of its theological aspects and restores it to its proper place in the vast scheme of things. This in itself was a mark of genius in a youth of his time and place.” Another American poet, Stoddard, calls it the greatest poem ever written by so young a man. The author’s son-in-law and biographer, Parke Godwin, remarks upon it aptly, “For the first time on this continent a poem was written destined to general admiration and enduring fame;” and this indeed is a very significant point, that it began the history of true poetry in the United States,—a fact which further secured to Bryant his exceptional place. The poem remains a classic of the English language, and the author himself never surpassed the high mark attained in it; although the balanced and lasting nature of his faculty is shown in a pendant to this poem, which he created in his old age and entitled ‘The Flood of Years.’ The last is equal to the first in dignity and finish, but is less original, and has never gained a similar fame.

Another consideration regarding Bryant is, that representing a modern development of poetry under American inspiration, he was also a descendant of the early Massachusetts colonists, being connected with the Pilgrim Fathers through three ancestral lines. Born at Cummington, Massachusetts, November 3d, 1794, the son of a stalwart but studious country physician of literary tastes, he inherited the strong religious feeling of this ancestry, which was united in him with a deep and sensitive love of nature. This led him to reflect in his poems the strength and beauty of American landscape, vividly as it had never before been mirrored; and the blending of serious thought and innate piety with the sentiment for nature so reflected gave a new and impressive result.

Like many other long-lived men, Bryant suffered from delicate health in the earlier third of his life: there was a tendency to consumption in his otherwise vigorous family stock. He read much, and was much interested in Greek literature and somewhat influenced by it. But he also lived a great deal in the open air, rejoiced in the boisterous games and excursions in the woods with his brothers and sisters, and took long rambles alone among the hills and wild groves; being then, as always afterwards, an untiring walker. After a stay of only seven months at Williams College, he studied law, which he practiced for some eight years in Plainfield and Great Barrington. In the last-named village he was elected a tithingman, charged with the duty of keeping order in the churches and enforcing the observance of Sunday. Chosen town clerk soon afterwards, at a salary of five dollars a year, he kept the records of the town with his own hand for five years, and also served as justice of the peace with power to hear cases in a lower court. These biographical items are of value, as showing his close relation to the self-government of the people in its simpler forms, and his early practical familiarity with the duties of a trusted citizen.

Meanwhile, however, he kept on writing at intervals, and in 1821 read before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard a long poem, ‘The Ages,’ a kind of composition more in favor at that period than in later days, being a general review of the progress of man in knowledge and virtue. With the passage of time it has not held its own as against some of his other poems, although it long enjoyed a high reputation; but its success on its original hearing was the cause of his bringing together his first volume of poems, hardly more than a pamphlet, in the same year. It made him famous with the reading public of the United States, and won some recognition in England. In this little book were contained, besides ‘The Ages’ and ‘Thanatopsis,’ several pieces which have kept their hold upon popular taste; such as the well-known lines ‘To a Waterfowl’ and the ‘Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood.’

The year of its publication also brought into the world Cooper’s ‘The Spy,’ Irving’s ‘Sketch Book’ and ‘Bracebridge Hall,’ with various other significant volumes, including Channing’s early essays and Daniel Webster’s great Plymouth Oration. It was evident that a native literature was dawning brightly; and as Bryant’s productions now came into demand, and he had never liked the profession of law, he quitted it and went to New York in 1825, there to seek a living by his pen as “a literary adventurer.” The adventure led to ultimate triumph, but not until after a long term of dark prospects and hard struggles.

Even in his latest years Bryant used to declare that his favorite among his poems—although it is one of the least known—was ‘Green River’; perhaps because it recalled the scenes of young manhood, when he was about entering the law, and contrasted the peacefulness of that stream with the life in which he would be

  • “Forced to drudge for the dregs of men,
  • And scrawl strange words with the barbarous pen,
  • And mingle among the jostling crowd,
  • Where the sons of strife are subtle and loud.”
  • This might be applied to much of his experience in New York, where he edited the New York Review and became one of the editors, then a proprietor, and finally chief editor of the Evening Post. A great part of his energies now for many years was given to his journalistic function, and to the active outspoken discussion of important political questions; often in trying crises and at the cost of harsh unpopularity. Success, financial as well as moral, came to him within the next quarter-century, during which laborious interval he had likewise maintained his interest and work in pure literature and produced new poems from time to time in various editions.

    From this point on until his death, June 12th, 1878, in his eighty-fourth year, he was the central and commanding figure in the enlarging literary world of New York. His newspaper had gained a potent reputation, and it brought to bear upon public affairs a strong influence of the highest sort. Its editorial course and tone, as well as the earnest and patriotic part taken by Bryant in popular questions and national affairs, without political ambition or office-holding, had established him as one of the most distinguished citizens of the metropolis, no less than its most renowned poet. His presence and co-operation were indispensable in all great public functions or humanitarian and intellectual movements. In 1864 his seventieth birthday was celebrated at the Century Club with extraordinary honors. In 1875, again, the two houses of the State Legislature at Albany paid him the compliment, unprecedented in the annals of American authorship, of inviting him to a reception given to him in their official capacity. Another mark of the abounding esteem in which he was held among his fellow-citizens was the presentation to him in 1876 of a rich silver vase, commemorative of his life and works. He was now a wealthy man; yet his habits of life remained essentially unchanged. His tastes were simple, his love of nature was still ardent; his literary and editorial industry unflagging.

    Besides his poems, Bryant wrote two short stories for ‘Tales of the Glauber Spa’; and published ‘Letters of a Traveler’ in 1850, as a result of three journeys to Europe and the Orient, together with various public addresses. His style as a writer of prose is clear, calm, dignified, and denotes exact observation and a wide range of interests. So too his editorial articles in the Evening Post, some of which have been preserved in his collected writings, are couched in serene and forcible English, with nothing of the sensational or the colloquial about them. They were a fitting medium of expression for his firm conscientiousness and integrity as a journalist.

    But it is as a poet, and especially by a few distinctive compositions, that Bryant will be most widely and deeply held in remembrance. In the midst of the exacting business of his career as an editor, and many public or social demands upon his time, he found opportunity to familiarize himself with portions of German and Spanish poetry, which he translated, and to maintain in the quietude of his country home in Roslyn, Long Island, his old acquaintance with the Greek and Latin classics. From this continued study there resulted naturally in 1870 his elaborate translation of Homer’s Iliad, which was followed by that of the Odyssey in 1871. These scholarly works, cast in strong and polished blank verse, won high praise from American critics, and even achieved a popular success, although they were not warmly acclaimed, in England. Among literarians they are still regarded as in a manner standards of their kind. Bryant, in his long march of over sixty-five years across the literary field, was witness to many new developments in poetic writing, in both his own and other countries. But while he perceived the splendor and color and rich novelty of these, he held in his own work to the plain theory and practice which had guided him from the start. “The best poetry,” he still believed—“that which takes the strongest hold of the general mind, not in one age only but in all ages—is that which is always simple and always luminous.” He did not embody in impassioned forms the sufferings, emotions, or problems of the human kind, but was disposed to generalize them, as in ‘The Journey of Life,’ the ‘Hymn of the City,’ and ‘The Song of the Sower.’ It is characteristic that two of the longer poems, ‘Sella’ and ‘The Little People of the Snow,’ which are narratives, deal with legends of an individual human life merging itself with the inner life of nature, under the form of imaginary beings who dwell in the snow or in water. On the other hand, one of his eulogists observes that although some of his contemporaries went much beyond him in fullness of insight and nearness to the great conflicts of the age, “he has certainly not been surpassed, perhaps not been approached, by any writer since Wordsworth, in that majestic repose and that self-reliant simplicity which characterized the morning stars of song.” In ‘Our Country’s Call,’ however, one hears the ring of true martial enthusiasm; and there is a deep patriotic fervor in ‘O Mother of a Mighty Race.’ The noble and sympathetic homage paid to the typical womanhood of a genuine woman of every day, in ‘The Conqueror’s Grave,’ reveals also great underlying warmth and sensitiveness of feeling. ‘Robert of Lincoln,’ and ‘The Planting of the Apple-Tree’ are both touched with a lighter mood of joy in nature, which supplies a contrast to his usual pensiveness.

    Bryant’s venerable aspect in old age—with erect form, white hair, and flowing snowy beard—gave him a resemblance to Homer; and there was something Homeric about his influence upon the literature of his country, in the dignity with which he invested the poetic art and the poet’s relation to the people.