| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
William Cullen Bryant
Born in Cummington, Massachusetts, William Cullen Bryant was the
son of a country doctor who served several terms in the Massachusetts State
Legislature and was both a stern Calvinist and a strict disciplinarian. Dr.
Bryant’s library, which contained at least seven hundred books, provided Bryant
with a formidable basis for his copious early reading, reading which apparently
began when he was sixteen months old. At thirteen, Bryant was sent to live with
an uncle so that he might begin to study Latin and Greek and he learned so
rapidly that at sixteen he entered Williams College as a sophomore. Despite his
wish to continue working towards a classical education, Bryant was compelled by
family financial circumstances to leave college during his first year and he
reluctantly turned to the law, reading for the bar in Worthington and entering
practice in Plainfield, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-one.
Bryant’s precocity was
evident also in his early poetry. At thirteen, he wrote an anti-Jeffersonian
poem called “The Embargo” after the manner of the seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century satires of Dryden and Pope. Even though the political
sentiments of the poem probably owed more to his father’s opinions than to any
political views young Cullen might claim, the poem so impressed Dr. Bryant that
he had it printed in the Hampshire Gazette. Other early compositions
which in their subject matter and manner prefigure the later poetry included a
pair of odes in praise of the Connecticut River and patriotic stanzas called
“The Genius of Columbia.” In these, Bryant’s style was influenced by his
reading of English poets of the preceding generation, such as Thomas Gray,
William Cowper, Henry Kirke White, Robert Southey, and Robert Blair. Their
subjects, which tended to be pastoral and philosophical, helped to form
Bryant’s conception of what a poem should be: grave, somber, dignified,
meditative, and above all, regular.
His most famous poem,
“Thanatopsis,” was composed when he was eighteen. His father, having discovered
it, recopied the poem and submitted it to The North American Review,
where it was published in September, 1817. Although “Thanatopsis” means a
“meditation on death,” the poem is also a meditation on nature, and in its
implicit pantheism the poem looks at once backward to William Wordsworth’s Lyrical
Ballads (1798; 1800) and forward to the Transcendentalists. Of
“Thanatopsis,” Richard Henry Dana remarked that “no one on this side of the
Atlantic is capable of writing such verses.” Steeped as he was in English
poetry, Bryant was able to manufacture American verses altogether as
satisfactory as those produced abroad. Although poems such as “The Yellow
Violet” and “To a Fringed Gentian” could as easily refer to English settings as
American, the nationality of the author gave them a domestic stamp, and in
poems such as “The Prairies” and “To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe,”
Bryant attempted to capture the spirit and landscape of the New World.
In 1821, the year of
his marriage to Frances Fairchild, Bryant published a small book entitled
simply Poems. The connection established with Richard Henry Dana and
Willard Philips at the North American Review had led to an invitation
from the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College to present a “poetical
address” at the 1821 commencement, and his poem for that occasion, “The Ages,”
together with seven others, was published in a forty-four page pamphlet which
was warmly reviewed by the North American Review and promptly reprinted
in a British anthology of American poetry. Bryant’s literary career was now
Moving to New York in
1825, Bryant happily abandoned his job as justice of the peace in Berkshire
County to become an editor of The New York Review and Athenaeum, but
when the publication folded in 1827 he renewed his license to practice law in
New York. Yet his return to the legal profession was brief, for he was
offered a job as assistant editor of the New York Evening Post and in
1829 became its editor-in-chief, a position he held until his death in 1878 at
the age of eighty-four. During his years at the Post, he published a
dozen volumes of his poetry to great acclaim. Although his poetic production
fell off in his middle years, new collections of his poetry continued to be
published and republished and he achieved the sort of fame ordinarily reserved
for traditional public figures, such as actors and politicians. Seemingly
indefatigable, later in his life he undertook translations of both The Iliad
and The Odyssey.
As editor of the Evening
Post he was first in the vanguard of the Free Soil movement and later a
founder of the Republican party. Although relatively little of his published
poetry even hints at the existence of politics, his editorials in the Post
were influential in shaping public opinion and he was a staunch supporter of
Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Yet, even when he wrote on subjects which had some
currency, Bryant was careful to keep his distance. In his poem “Civil War”
(1861), for example, he drew on Horace’s Epode VII and was ultimately ambiguous
about the war, except to deplore its fraternal bloodshed. Thus, Bryant’s
phenomenal career existed in two carefully separated spheres: the political
journalist and the philosophical poet were never confounded. Yet, he was
lionized chiefly for his poetry and his extraordinary popularity owed greatly
to his ability to select subjects with which no one could disagree and then to
cast them in forms recognizable and understandable to all.
San Jose State
In the Heath Anthology
The Yellow Violet
To a Waterfowl
To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe
To the Fringed Gentian
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Biography written by a student.
Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's page providing a bibliography of primary and secondary works and suggested directions for research.
A short biography and a photograph (from the Matthew Brady Gallery).
Charles H. Brown, William Cullen Bryant, 1971
Albert F. McLean, William Cullen Bryant, 1989
William Cullen Bryant and his America: Centennial Conference Proceedings, 1878-1978, 1983