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

§ 8. Bryant as Naturalist

No reminder should be needed that Bryant, like Thoreau and Burroughs, was a naturalist with wide and accurate knowledge. He knew the way of the mist on river and mountaincrest, all tints of sunset, the rising and the setting of the constellations, every twig and berry and gnarled root on the forest floor, all shapes of snow on pine and shrub, the commoner insects and wild creatures, and especially the birds and the flowers; and he knew the hums and the murmurs and the boomings that rise, like a perpetual exhalation, from the breast of earth. A traveller from some other planet could take back with him no more useful account of our green home than Bryant’s honest poems of nature. There is a group of his poems that details the look, habits, and habitat of single objects: The Yellow Violet (with an intrusive moral—but his “morals” are, contrary to traditional opinion, seldom intrusive, being part of the imaginative and emotional texture), and Robert of Lincoln (which is besides most fetching in its playfulness and Bryant’s one success in dramatic portrayal). He was a good observer; he would never have placed, like Coleridge, a star within the nether tip of the crescent moon. There is an allied group which impart the quality of a moment in nature, as Summer Wind:

  • It is a sultry day; the sun has drunk
  • The dew that lay upon the morning grass;
  • There is no rustling in the lofty elm…
  • … All is silent, save the faint
  • And interrupted murmur of the bee,
  • Settling on the sick flowers.…
  • … Why so slow?
  • Gentle and voluble spirit of the air?
  • These, if not the most representative, are the most exquisite of all his poems.

    And no reminder should be needed that he knew best the American scene, and was the first to reveal it in art. Irving, in the London edition of 1832, naturally emphasized this claim to distinction; and Emerson, many years later, at an afterdinner speech on the poet’s seventieth birthday, dwelt on it with a winsome and eloquent gratitude that has made all subsequent comment an impertinence.