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

§ 2. Bryant’s Independence as a Poet

Bryant’s public career as poet fulfilled the psalmist’s three-score years and ten, if we date from The Embargo, an anti-Jefferson satire in juvenile heroics (1808). It began with the year of Scott’s Marmion; it was barely completed with Sigurd the Volsung of William Morris; it included the lives of Byron and Shelley and most that was best in those of Tennyson, Arnold, Browning. It began the year following Joel Barlow’s American epic The Columbiad, and the publication of The Echo by the Hartford Wits. Longfellow and Whittier were in the cradle, Holmes and Poe unborn. Except Freneau, there were no poets in the country but those imitative versifiers of an already antiquated English fashion whom Bryant was himself to characterize with quiet justice in the first critical appraisal of our “literature,” the first declaration of intellectual independence, antedating Emerson’s American Scholar by nineteen years. He compassed the generations of all that was once or is still most reputed in American poetry: the generations of Paulding, Percival, Halleck, Drake, Willis, Poe, Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, Lowell, Whitman, Bret Harte.

Yet he was from very early, in imagination and expression, curiously detached from what was going on in poetry around him. The Embargo is a boy’s echo, significant only for precocious facility and for the twofold interest in verse and politics that was to be lifelong. Byron’s voice is audible in the Spenserian stanzas and subject matter of the Phi Beta Kappa poem of 1821, The Ages the New York verses, so painfully facetious on Rhode Island coal and a mosquito, are less after Byron than after the town wit Halleck and his coterie. Wordsworth, at the reading of whose Lyrical Ballads in 1811, “a thousand springs,” Bryant said to Dana, “seemed to gush up at once in his heart, and the face of Nature of a sudden to change into a strange freshness and life,” was the companion into the woods and among the flowers who more than all others helped him to find himself; but Thanatopsis, so characteristic of Bryant, was written almost certainly some weeks before he had seen the Lyrical Ballads, and even if Bryant’s eminence as poet of nature owed much to this early reinforcement, his poetry is not Wordsworthian either in philosophy or in mood or in artistry. Wordsworth never left the impress on Bryant’s work that the realms of gold made upon the surprised and spellbound boy Keats. No later prophets and craftsmen, American, English, or continental, seem to have touched him at all.

More obvious to the registrar of parallels are Bryant’s literary relations to the poets he read, and read evidently with deeper susceptibility than has been realized, before 1811. The reference is not alone to the well-known relation Thanatopsis bears to Blair’s Grave, Porteus’s Death, Kirk White’s Time, Rosmary, bears etc., and the whole Undertaker’s Anthology so infinitely beneath the Lucretian grandeur of America’s first great poem with its vision of

  • Dead men whose bones earth bosomed long ago.
  • The reference is equally to certain themes and moods and unclassified details in poems written long after Thanatopsis, all of which, though so characteristically Bryant’s, make us feel him as much closer to the eighteenth century tradition than any of his contemporaries, even than Holmes with his defernce to “the steel-bright epigrams of Pope”; so that we may appraise him much better by going forward from the moralizing, “nature” blank verse of Thomson, Cowper, Young, and Akenside, than backward from Wordsworth and Tennyson. In the eighteenth century tradition is the very preference for blank verse as the instrument for large and serious thought, and the lifelong preference itself for large and serious thought on Death, History, Destiny. The Biblical note too is of the former age. But the diction is, if anything, freer than the mature Wordsworth himself from eighteenth century poetic slang, and the peculiarities of this blank verse (to be mentioned later) have fewer cadences suggestive of Cowper than, perhaps, of the early poems of Southey, whose impression on those impressionable first years of Bryant’s has apparently been overlooked. With this early romanticism we may connect the sentimental element in the appeal of innocent and happy savages, whether on Pitcairn’s Island or in the pristine Indian summers; likewise the two or three tales of horror and the supernatural, in which he succeeded so poorly. But he arrived soon enough to contribute his own influence to the nineteenth-century poetry of nature.

    He came to himself early, for one who had so many years in which to change, if he would change or could. The first volume, the forty-four pages of 1821, contains most, the second, 1832, certainly contains all, of the essential Bryant, the essential as to what he cared for in nature and human life, as to how he envisaged it in imagination and dwelt with it in intellect and character, and as to how he gave it expression. In the later years there is more of Bryant’s playful fancy, perhaps more of ethical thinking and mood, a slight shift of emphasis, new constructions, not new materials. His world and his speech were already his: there is no new revelation and no new instrument in any one of the several succeeding issues of his verse (though there are many new, many high poems), as there are new revelations and new instruments in Byron, Tennyson, and Browning; indeed, Keats in the three years between the volumes of 1817 and 1820 lived a much longer, a more diversified life of steadily increasing vision and voice. It need hardly be remarked, then, that he experienced no intellectual and moral crisis,—neither from without, as did Wordsworth when his country took up arms against Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality and when shortly Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality danced, like the Weird Sisters, around the cauldron of horror; nor from within, like the expatriated husband and father Byron, and the political idealist Dante, and even the flaneur who wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

    He came, likewise, early to his fame. He was first and alone. The little world of the lovers of good things on the North Atlantic seaboard in those days, trained as it was in the English and ancient classics, quickly set the young man apart; Bryant became established, fortunately, somewhat before American literary criticism had become self-consciously patriotic, indiscriminate, vulgar. England, too, long so important an influence on American judgments of American products, early accorded him a measure of honour and thanks. It is well known that Washington Irving secured the English reprinting of the volume of 1832 in the same year, with a brief criticism by way of dedication to Samuel Rogers, whose reading of the contents was the delight of that old Maecenas and Petronius Arbiter. It has, however, apparently not been observed that the entire contents of the volume of 1821 were reprinted, indeed in the same order, in Specimens of the American Poets (London, 1822) with a noteworthy comment on the lines Thanatopsis that “there are few pieces, in the works of even the very first of our living poets, which exceed them in sublimity and compass of poetical thought.” And Bryant was spared from the beginning furor and contempt: he was never laurelled like Byron, never foolscapped like Keats by critics or public; his repute was always, like himself, dignified, quiet, secure. And so the critical problem is initially simplified, in two ways: there is no story of struggle for recognition, and the effects of that struggle on the workman; there is no story of evolution of inner forces. Thus the poetry of Bryant admits of treatment as one performance, one perception and one account of the world, in a more restricted sense than is generally applicable to poetic performance, where the unity is the unity of psychological succession in a changing temporal order: Don Juan is, perhaps, implied in the English Bards and Childe Harold, Paradise Lost in the Nativity, Hamlet in Romeo and Juliet; but, in a humbler sphere, Among the Trees and The Flood of Years are less implied than actually present in A Forest Hymn and Thanatopsis. If Bryant’s poems need sometimes the reference of date, it is for external occasion and impulse, not for artistic registration. Three periods have been discovered for Chaucer, and four for Shakespeare; our modest American was without “periods.”