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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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 launched.

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.
Allison Heisch
San Jose State University

In the Heath Anthology
The Yellow Violet (1814)
To a Waterfowl (1815)
Thanatopsis (1817)
To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe (1829)
To the Fringed Gentian (1829)
The Prairies (1832)
Abraham Lincoln (1865)

Other Works

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Bryant Biography
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).

Secondary Sources

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