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

§ 15. His Prose Style

As a whole, Bryant’s prose style has quality as well as qualities, but here a word only on its relation to the style of his poetry. Bryant more than once explicitly differentiated the functions of the two harmonies; but Prescott was not the only one who detected in both the same qualities of mind: obviously a man is not two different beings according to whether he is playing a violin or a cello, singing or talking. Bryant, as Dowden said of Burke, saw “the life of society in a rich, concrete, imaginative way”; and not unlike Burke he had, as politician, the poet’s generalizing power. But the point here of special interest is the recurrence in his prose so often, when his prose rises to things in their significance (as apart from their mere relations), of the same imaginative procedure: there is the “broad survey,” as in the account of the waters of the Mississippi (themselves introduced as a simile to illustrate the fame of Homer); there are his fundamental metaphors, the grammar of his dialect, as that of the past as a place, occurring in the editorial on the amendment abolishing slavery, which is besides in many details of imagery almost another version of the poem on the same theme, written, says Godwin, a little later. In a public address on the electric telegraph he said:

  • My imagination goes down to the chambers of the middle sea, to those vast depths where repose the mystic wire on beds of coral, among forests of tangle, or on the bottom of the dim blue gulfs strewn with the bones of whales and sharks, skeletons of drowned men, and ribs and masts of foundered barks, laden with wedges of gold never to be coined, and pipes of the choicest vintages of earth never to be tasted. Through these watery solitudes, among the fountains of the great deep, the abode of perpetual silence, never visited by living human presence and beyond the sight of human eye, there are gliding to and fro, by night and by day, in light and in darkness, in calm and in tempest, currents of human thought borne by the electric pulse which obeys the bidding of man.
  • Is not this in imagination, mood, manner, even in the recurrent blank verse cadences, veritably as if an unpublished fragment of A Hymn of the Sea?