- William Cullen Bryant - the Father of American Song [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
William Cullen Bryant
by Long, William J.

Bryant has been called "the father of American song," and the year 1821, when his first volume appeared, is recorded as the natal year of American poetry. Many earlier singers had won local reputations, but he was the first who was honored in all the states and who attained by his poetry alone a dominating place in American letters.

That was long ago; and times have changed, and poets with them. In any collection of recent American verse one may find poems more imaginative or more finely wrought than any that Bryant produced; but these later singers stand in a company and contribute to an already large collection, while Bryant stood alone and made a brave beginning of poetry that we may honestly call native and national. Before he won recognition by his independent work the best that our American singers thought they could do was to copy some English original; but after 1821 they dared to be themselves in poetry, as they had ever been in politics. They had the successful Bryant for a model, and the young Longfellow was one of his pupils. Moreover, he stands the hard test of time, and seems to have no successor. He is still our Puritan poet,--a little severe, perhaps, but American to the core,--who reflects better than any other the rugged spirit of that puritanism which had so profoundly influenced our country during the early, formative days of the republic.


In the boyhood of Bryant we shall find the inspiration for all his enduring work. He was of Pilgrim stock, and was born (1794) in the little village of Cummington, in western Massachusetts. There, with the Berkshire Hills and the ancient forest forever in sight, he grew to man's stature, working on the farm or attending the district school by day, and reading before the open fire at night. His father was a physician, a scholarly man who directed his son's reading. His mother was a Puritan, one of those quiet, inspiring women who do their work cheerfully, as by God's grace, and who invariably add some sign or patent of nobility to their sons and daughters. There was also in the home a Puritan grandfather who led the family devotions every evening, and whose prayers with their rich phraseology of psalm or prophecy were "poems from beginning to end." So said Bryant, who attributed to these prayers his earliest impulse to write poetry.

Between these two influences, nature without and puritanism within, the poet grew up; in their shadow he lived and died; little else of consequence is reflected in the poems that are his best memorial.

The Citizen

The visible life of Bryant lies almost entirely outside the realm of poesie. He as fitted for Williams by country ministers, as was customary in that day; but poverty compelled him to leave college after two brief terms. Then he studied law, and for nine or ten years practiced his profession doggedly, unwillingly, with many a protest at the chicanery he was forced to witness even in the sacred courts of justice. Grown weary of it at last, he went to New York, found work in a newspaper office, and after a few years' apprenticeship became editor of The Evening Post, a position which he held for more than half a century. His worldly affairs prospered; he became a "leading citizen" of New York, prominent in the social and literary affairs of a great city; he varied the routine of editorship by trips abroad, by literary or patriotic addresses, by cultivating a country estate at Long Island. In his later years, as a literary celebrity, he loaned his name rather too freely to popular histories, anthologies and gift books, which better serve their catchpenny purpose if some famous man can be induced to add "tone" to the rubbish.

The Poet

And Bryant's poetry? Ah, that was a thing forever apart from his daily life, an almost sacred thing, to be cherished in moments when, his day's work done, he was free to follow his spirit and give outlet to the feelings which, as a strong man and a Puritan, he was wont to restrain. He had begun to write poetry in childhood, when his father had taught him the value of brevity or compression and "the difference between poetic enthusiasm and fustian." Therefore he wrote slowly, carefully, and allowed ample time for change of thought or diction. So his early "Thanatopsis" was hidden away for years till his father found and published it, and made Bryant famous in a day. All this at a time when English critics were exalting "sudden inspiration," "sustained effort" and poems "done at one sitting."

Once Bryant had found himself (and the blank verse and simple four-line stanza which suited his talent) he seldom changed, and he never improved. His first little volume, Poems (1821), contains some of his best work. In the next fifty years he added to the size but not to the quality of that volume; and there is little to indicate in such poems as "Thanatopsis" and "The Flood of Years" that the one was written by a boy of seventeen and the other by a sage of eighty. His love of poetry as a thing apart from life is indicated by the fact that in old age, to forget the grief occasioned by the death of his wife, he gave the greater part of six years to a metrical translation of the Greek poet Homer. That he never became a great poet or even fulfilled his early promise is due partly to his natural limitations, no doubt, but more largely to the fact that he gave his time and strength to other things. And a poet is like other men in that he cannot well serve two masters.

The Poetry of Bryant

Besides the translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey there are several volumes of prose to Bryant's credit, but his fame now rests wholly on a single book of original poems. The best of these (the result of fifty years of writing, which could easily be printed on fifty pages) may be grouped in two main classes, poems of death and poems of nature; outside of which are a few miscellaneous pieces, such as "The Antiquity of Freedom," "Planting of the Apple Tree" and "The Poet," in which he departs a little from his favorite themes.

Poems of Death

Bryant's poems on death reflect something of his Puritan training and of his personal experience while threatened with consumption; they are also indicative of the poetic fashion of his age, which was abnormally given to funereal subjects and greatly influenced by such melancholy poems as Gray's "Elegy" and Young's "Night Thoughts." He began his career with "Thanatopsis" (or "View of Death"), a boyhood piece which astonished America when it was published in 1817, and which has ever since been a favorite with readers. The idea of the poem, that the earth is a vast sepulcher of human life, was borrowed from other poets; but the stately blank verse and the noble appreciation of nature are Bryant's own. They mark, moreover, a new era in American poetry, an original era to replace the long imitative period which had endured since Colonial times. Other and perhaps better poems in the same group are "The Death of the Flowers," "The Return of Youth" and "Tree Burial," in which Bryant goes beyond the pagan view of death presented in his first work.

That death had a strange fascination for Bryant is evident from his returning again and again to a subject which most young poets avoid. Its somber shadow and unanswered question intrude upon nearly all of his nature pieces; so much so that even his "June" portrays that blithe, inspiring month of sunshine and bird song as an excellent time to die. It is from such poems that one gets the curious idea that Bryant never was a boy, that he was a graybeard at sixteen and never grew any younger.

Poems of Nature

It is in his poems of nature that Bryant is at his best. Even here he is never youthful, never the happy singer whose heart overflows to the call of the winds; he is rather the priest of nature, who offers a prayer or hymn of praise at her altar. And it may be that his noble "Forest Hymn" is nearer to a true expression of human feeling, certainly of primitive or elemental feeling, than Shelley's "Skylark" or Burns's "Mountain Daisy." Thoreau in one of his critical epigrams declared it was not important that a poet should say any particular thing, but that he should speak in harmony with nature; that "the tone of his voice is the main thing." If that be true, Bryant is one of our best poets. He is always in harmony with nature in her prevailing quiet mood; his voice is invariably gentle, subdued, merging into the murmur of trees or the flow of water,--much like Indian voices, but as unlike as possible to the voices of those who go to nature for a picnic or a camping excursion.

Among the best of his nature poems are "To a Waterfowl" (his most perfect single work), "Forest Hymn," "Hymn to the Sea," "Summer Wind," "Night Journey of a River," "Autumn Woods," "To a Fringed Gentian," "Among the Trees," "The Fountain" and "A Rain Dream." To read such poems is to understand the fact, mentioned in our biography, that Bryant's poetry was a thing apart from his daily life. His friends all speak of him as a companionable man, receptive, responsive, abounding in cheerful anecdote, and with a certain "overflowing of strength" in mirth or kindly humor; but one finds absolutely nothing of this genial temper in his verse. There he seems to regard all such bubblings and overflowings as unseemly levity (lo! the Puritan), which he must lay aside in poetry as on entering a church. He is, as we have said, the priest of nature, in whom reverence is uppermost; and he who reads aloud the "Forest Hymn," with its solemn organ tone, has an impression that it must be followed by the sublime invitation, "O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker."

In Lighter Mood

Though Bryant is always serious, it is worthy of note that he is never gloomy, that he entirely escapes the pessimism or despair which seizes upon most poets in times of trouble. Moreover, he has a lighter mood, not gay but serenely happy, which finds expression in such poems as "Evening Wind," "Gladness of Nature" and especially "Robert of Lincoln." The exuberance of the last-named, so unlike anything else in Bryant's book of verse, may be explained on the assumption that not even a Puritan could pull a long face in presence of a bobolink. The intense Americanism of the poet appears in nearly all his verse; and occasionally his patriotism rises to a prophetic strain, as in "The Prairie," for example, written when he first saw what was then called "the great American desert." It is said that the honeybee crossed the Mississippi with the first settlers, and Bryant looks with kindled imagination on this little pioneer who

  Fills the savannas with his murmurings,
  And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,
  Within the hollow oak. I listen long
  To his domestic hum, and think I hear
  The sound of that advancing multitude
  Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground
  Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
  Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
  Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds
  Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain
  Over the dark brown furrows. All at once
  A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,
  And I am in the wilderness alone.

Our Pioneer Poet

From one point of view our first national poet is a summary of all preceding American verse and a prophecy of better things to come. To be specific, practically all our early poetry shows the inclination to moralize, to sing a song and then add a lesson to it. This is commonly attributed to Puritan influence; but in truth it is a universal poetic impulse, a tribute to the early office of the bard, who was the tribal historian and teacher as well as singer. This ancient didactic or moralizing tendency is very strong in Bryant. To his first notable poem, "Thanatopsis," he must add a final "So live"; and to his "Waterfowl" must be appended a verse which tells what steadfast lesson may be learned from the mutable phenomena of nature.

Again, most of our Colonial and Revolutionary poetry was strongly (or weakly) imitative, and Bryant shows the habit of his American predecessors. The spiritual conception of nature revealed in some of his early poems is a New World echo of Wordsworth; his somber poems of death indicate that he was familiar with Gray and Young; his "Evening Wind" has some suggestion of Shelley; we suspect the influence of Scott's narrative poems in the neglected "Stella" and "Little People of the Snow." But though influenced by English writers, the author of "Thanatopsis" was too independent to imitate them; and in his independence, with the hearty welcome which it received from the American public, we have a prophecy of the new poetry.

His Originality

The originality and sturdy independence of Bryant are clearly shown in his choice of subjects. In his early days poetry was formal and artificial, after the manner of the eighteenth century; the romantic movement had hardly gained recognition in England; Burns was known only to his own countrymen; Wordsworth was ridiculed or barely tolerated by the critics; and poets on both sides of the Atlantic were still writing of larks and nightingales, of moonlight in the vale, of love in a rose-covered cottage, of ivy-mantled towers, weeping willows, neglected graves,--a medley of tears and sentimentality. You will find all these and little else in The Garland, The Token and many other popular collections of the period; but you will find none of them in Bryant's first or last volume. From the beginning he wrote of Death and Nature; somewhat coldly, to be sure, but with manly sincerity. Then he wrote of Freedom, the watchword of America, not as other singers had written of it but as a Puritan who had learned in bitter conflict the price of his heritage:

  O Freedom! thou art not, as poets dream,
  A fair young girl, with light and delicate limbs,
  And wavy tresses gushing from the cap
  With which the Roman master crowned his slave
  When he took off the gyves. A bearded man,
  Armed to the teeth, art thou; one mailÚd hand
  Grasps the broad shield, and one the sword; thy brow,
  Glorious in beauty though it be, is scarred
  With tokens of old wars; thy massive limbs
  Are strong with struggling.

He wrote without affectation of the Past, of Winter, of the North Star, of the Crowded Street, of the Yellow Violet and the Fringed Gentian. If the last-named poems now appear too simple for our poetic taste, remember that simplicity is the hardest to acquire of all literary virtues, and that it was the dominant quality of Bryant. Remember also that these modest flowers of which he wrote so modestly had for two hundred years brightened our spring woods and autumn meadows, waiting patiently for the poet who should speak our appreciation of their beauty. Another century has gone, and no other American poet has spoken so simply or so well of other neglected treasures: of the twin flower, for example, most fragrant of all blooms; or of that other welcome-nodding blossom, beloved of bumblebees, which some call "wild columbine" and others "whippoorwill's shoes."

In a word, Bryant was and is our pioneer poet in the realm of native American poetry. As Emerson said, he was our first original poet, and was original because he dared to be sincere.


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