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

§ 12. His Style

An astute and sympathetic mind who might never have seen a verse of Bryant’s could deduce that style from what has been said in this chapter—if what has been said has been correctly said. Such a mind would not need to be told that Bryant’s diction was severe, simple, chaste, narrower in range than that of his political prose; that his rhymes were dignified, sonorous, exact and emphatic rather than subtle or allusive, and narrow in range—not from artistic poverty but because the rhyme vocabulary of the simple and serious moods is in English itself narrow, and much novelty and variety of rhyme is in our speech possible only when, like Browning, one portrays the grotesque and the eccentric, or like Shelley the fantastic, or like Butler the comic, or like Chaucer the familiar. Such a mind would deduce Bryant’s most fundamental rhythm, the iambic; his most fundamental metre, the pentameter; together with his preference for stanzaic, or periodic, treatment, whether in blank verse or in rhyme, rather than for couplets; yes, together with the most characteristic cadences,—like the curves of a distant mountain range, few and clear but not monotonous; like the waves of a broad river, slow and long but not hesitant or ponderous, never delighting by subtle surprises, nor jarring by abrupt stops and shifts. Indeed, and would our critic not likewise guess, especially if recently schooled at Leipzig under Sievers, the very pitch of his voice in verse—strongest in the lower octaves—as well as the intrinsic alliteration,—an alliteration as natural as breathing, in its context unobtrusive as such to the conscious ear because so involved in a diction which is itself the outgrowth of very mood and meaning? In quite different ways, Bryant is, with Poe, America’s finest artist in verse. Perhaps this is, with Bryant’s genuineness of manhood, a reason why Bryant was the one native contemporary that Poe thoroughly respected.

What to puzzled readers seems “characteristically Bryant’s blank verse” is really the total impression of both materials and manner, manner itself including diction as well as metrics. But the metrics alone do have their peculiarities, which can, however, hardly be examined here: line endings like “and the green moss,” caesuras at the end of the first and of the fourth foot, the tendency to repeat the same caesura and cadence through a succession of lines, a stanza group of five or more lines with full stop followed by a single line or so, inverted accent at the beginning of a line, and a differentiated, strong cadence at the conclusion of the whole poem which gives the effect of a completion, not of a mere stopping,—these are all contributing factors.