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

§ 7. His “Surveys”

Bryant wonderfully visualized and unified the vast scope of the racial movement and the range of natural phenomena. His “broad surveys,” as they have been called, are more than surveys: they are large acts of the combining imagination, presenting the significance, not merely the catalogue. These acts take us home to the most inveterate habit of his poet-mind. As method or device they seem to suggest a simple prescription for writing poetry; superficially, after one has met them again and yet again in Bryant, one might call them easy to do, because easy to understand. The task is, however, not to make a list, but to make the right list; a list not by capricious association of ideas, but by the laws of inner harmony of meaning. Again, in Bryant the list is itself often a fine, far look beyond the immediate fact—the immediate fact with which all but the poet would rest content. The Song of the Sower needed no suggestion from Schiller’s Song of the Bell, which, however, Bryant doubtless knew, it highly illustrates his own natural procedure:

  • Fling wide the golden shower; we trust
  • The strength of armies to the dust.
  • The grain shall ripen for the warrior. Then he goes on: ‘O fling it wide, for all the race: for peaceful workers on sea and land, for the wedding feast, for the various unfortunate, for the communion, for Orient and Southland’—and we live, as we read, wise in the basic fact of agriculture and wise in the activities of humankind. The precise idea is handled more lightly in The Planting of the Apple Tree. Often the ‘survey’—the word is convenient—starts from some on-moving phenomenon in nature—again an immediate fact—and proceeds by compassing that phenomenon’s whence or whither, what it has experienced or what it will do: let one re-read his tale of The River, by what haunts it flows (like, but how unlike, Tennyson’s brook); The Unknown Way, the spots it passes (becoming a path symbolic of the mystery of life); The Sea, what it does under God (like and unlike Byron’s apostrophe); The Winds, what they do on sea and land; A Rain-Dream, imaging the waters of the globe. Sometimes the phenomenon is static and calls his imagination to penetrate its secret history, or what changes it has seen about it, as when he looks at the fountain or is among the trees. Sometimes the vision rides upon or stands beside no force in Nature, but is his own direct report, as in Fifty Years, on the changes in individual lives, in history, in inventions, especially in these States, since his class graduated at Williams. “Broad surveys” of human affairs and of the face of earth, so dull, routine, bombastic as far as attempted in Thomson’s Liberty, in Blair’s Grave, in White’s Time, become in Bryant’s less pretentious poems the essential triumph of a unique imagination. The mode remained a favourite to the end: large as in The Flood of Years, intimate and tender in A Lifetime. No American poet, except Whitman, had an imagination at all like Bryant’s, or, indeed, except Whitman and Emerson, as great as Bryant’s.