The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

V. Bryant and the Minor Poets

§ 1. Early Years

TO the old-fashioned prayers which his mother and grandmother taught him, the little boy born in Cummington, Massachusetts, 3 November, 1794, a year before John Keats across the sea, was wont to add (so we learn from the Autobiographical Fragment), his private supplication that he might “receive the gift of poetic genius, and write verses that might endure.”

This inner urge and bent, witnessed so early and so long, could not be severed, early or late, from the unfathomable world. Bryant’s was a boyhood and youth among the virginal woods, hils, and streams, among a farmer folk and country labours and pastimes, in a Purtian household, with a father prominent in the state as physician and legislator, whose independence and breadth are attested by a leaning towards that liberalism which was to develop into the American Unitarian movement and by his enlightened devotion, as critic and friend, to the boy’s ambitions in rhyme. Private tutoring by unpretending clergymen, a year at poverty-stricken Williams College, law stuides in an upland office, distasteful practice as a poor country lawyer, a happy marriage with her whose “birth was in the forest shades,” death, season by season, of those nearest and dearest, travel down among the slave-holding states and out to the prairies of Illinois, where his brothers and mother were for a second time pioneers, with voyages on various occasions to the West Indies, to Europe, and to the Levant, and fifty years as a New York editor, who with the wisdom of a statesman and the courage of a reformer made The Evening Post America’s greatest newspaper,—all this gives us a life of many visions of forest, field, and foam, of many books in diverse tongues, of many men and cities, of many problems in his own career and the career of that nation which he made so much his own, a life not without its own adventures, struggles, joys, and griefs. So it stands recorded, a consistent and eloquent and (fortunately) a familiar chapter in American biography, even as it passed before the visionary octogenarian back in the old home, sitting “in the early twilight,” whist

  • Through the gathering shade
  • He looked on the fields around him
  • Where yet a child he played.
  • One might regard the events of this lifetime either as in subtle and inevitable ways harmoniously contributory to the poet-nature that was Bryant’s (if not indeed often its persistent and victorious creation), or as in the main a deflection, check. If no other American poet has written, year measured by year, so little poetry, the poetry of no other so clearly defines at once its author’s character, environment, and country; if no other American poet was apparently so much occupied with other interests than poetry, not excepting the critic, diplomat, orator, and humorist Lowell, none felt his high calling, it seems, with as priestly a consecration,—no, truly, not excepting Whitman, who protested thereon sometimes a little too much.