logotype

Life and Works

Bryant, at 80

Along with Philip Freneau (1752-1832), William Cullen Bryant can be thought of as a precursor of American Romantic poetry, although Bryant was born four decades later than Freneau, (in 1794) and lived well into the second half of the nineteenth century, dying in 1878. In one of his earliest poems, “Thanatopsis” (which he began as early as 1813 or 14), he addresses some of the deepest issues raised by the philosophical reaction to Enlightenment “faith” in rationality: What can death mean when we no longer seriously believe in Heaven and Hell? What importance does the individual have if we are all slated for an inevitable and irreversible extinction? And, as a consequence, what is the relation between human life and the rest of life in nature?

However, he very soon stepped back from the philosophical and religious brink he had reached at such an early age in “Thanatopsis” to a less complex and challenging vision of human being and deity and became, for a while, one of the best-known and most accessible American poets of the time. And so, although some of his early poetry might be thought of “avant-garde” for the beginning of the nineteenth century, the great bulk of his work looks forward to the Fireside Poets of the second half of the century, characterized by their technical polish, their shallow Romanticism and their melodramatic tone.

Bryant’s forebears were among the first Puritan settlers of Massachusetts. His mother, Sarah Snell, is thought to be a descendent of John Alden, who immigrated to America on the Mayflower. His great great grandfather, Stephen Bryant, is believed to have settled at Plymouth during the decade of the 1630s. William was born in the tiny village of Cummington, Massachusetts. His father, Peter Bryant, was a doctor, and taught the young boy Greek and Latin with a strict Puritanical discipline in keeping with the conservative Calvinism of the family.

In 1810, at the age of sixteen, he entered Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Bored with the curriculum there, he left after only one year, with the intention of entering Yale. His father, however, claimed that he couldn’t afford the tuition and pressured the young William into studying law instead. In 1815, at the age of 21, he was admitted to the bar. Bryant attained high standing in the local and state courts, but his tastes inclined him rather to literature than the law.He was especially interested, during these years, in the work of such British “Graveyard Poets” as Robert Blair, Thomas Gray and Henry Kirke White. And while his first poems – “The Embargo” and “The Spanish Revolution” (1808), “The Genius of Columbia” (1810) and “An Ode for the Fourth of July” (1812) – dealt with political themes, the influence of this fascination with the graveyard poets is clearly apparent in “Thanatopsis”, which was first published in the North American Review in 1817, with a revised version appearing in 1821.

He married Frances Fairchild in 1821and, moved by the need to support his family, accepted the job of editor of the New York Review and Atheneum Magazine in 1825. He quickly became a well-known literary figure, and was one of the earliest members of James Fenimore Cooper’s Bread and Cheese Club. Although the Review contained the work of many leading American writers, such as Halleck, Willis, Dana, Bancroft and Longfellow, it soon failed. But Bryant remained in New York and became editorial

Bryant, at 30

 

assistant on the Evening Post in 1826. It didn’t take him long to become part owner and editor-in-chief of the Post, making it over the following decades one of the leading newspapers in the country. A complete edition of his poems was published in 1832, and an English edition, with a preface by Washington Irving, appeared soon after. These two publications consolidated his reputation as a poet, both at home and abroad.

As editor of the Post Bryant travelled extensively in the U.S., as well as Europe, and contributed to Americans’ sense of their national identity through the many letters describing his experiences in the expanding republic he sent to the newspaper. One of these journeys provided the inspiration for his well-known poem, “The Prairies” (1834). As a result, his Letters of a Traveller was published in 1851 and Letters of Traveller, Second Series, in 1859. A new and complete edition of his poems was printed in 1855; and in 1864 a volume of new poems appeared, entitled Thirty Poems. In 1869 a collection of letters from his journeys in the Middle East (Letters from the East) was published.

He was an important public figure, especially in New York, where one of his most significant contributions to the community was his central role in the campaign for the creation of Central Park. A fervent supporter of Andrew Jackson, he led the anti-slavery Free-Soil movement within the Democratic Party. And then when party reform seemed impossible, he helped to establish the Republican Party and was an effective supporter of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1844 he moved from the city to an estate on Long Island Sound, which he named Cedarmere.

From Evert A. & George L. Duyckinck The Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1880)

He continued to work at the Evening Post for the rest of his life. Wealthy and famous, and blessed with a strong constitution and good health, he undertook in his seventies the demanding project of translating Homer. His version of the Iliad was published in 1870 and the Odyssey in 1872. In 1876 a revised edition of his Poems, containing some new pieces, brought an end to his publishing career.

Bryant died in 1878 from the consequences of a fall following a speech he gave in Central Park to mark the unveiling of a statue of Joseph Mazzini. He had become highly repected in the U.S. and was mourned all over the country. His reputation, however, was based as much on his work as an editor, travel writer and political activist as on his poetry. In fact, his poetic output had been relatively small and his range of subject-matter and treatment, rather limited.

From the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 

He never carried through on the early promise of “Thanatopsis” to develop into one of the first – if not the first – fully Romantic American poet. Instead, the vision of life and death, nature and deity, implicit in his later poetry moved back toward a more conventional religious conception that the American public felt more comfortable with. The great majority of his poems focus on American landscapes, Indian legends and historical characters and express a reassuring emotional response to the experience of nature and offered readers an accessible poetry that, far from challenging their self-concepts or subverting their religious or philosophical beliefs, served to reinforce them.

In many ways, then, Bryant’s work anticipates the phenomenon of the Fireside Poets during the second half of the nineteenth century. But it is also worth recalling that a few of his earlier poems also mark out the deeper pathway of Romanticism in American poetry and serve as a bridge between the proto-Romantic poems of Philip Freneau and the full Romanticism of later poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.

 

Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)