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WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.
ILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT was born at Cum.
mington, Massachusetts, November 3, 1794; he died in New York, June 12, 1878. His first poem, The Embaryo, was published in Boston in 1809, and was written when he was but thirteen years old; his last poem, Our Fellow Worshippers, was published in 1878. His long life thus was also a long career as a writer, and his first published poem prefigured the twofold character of his literary life, for while it was in poetic form it was more distinctly a political article. He showed very early a taste for poetry, and was encouraged to read and write verse by his father, Dr. Peter Bryant, a country physician of strong character and cultivated tastes. He was sent to Williams College in the fall of 1810, where he remained two terms, when he decided to leave and enter Yale Col. lege ; but pecuniary troubles interfered with his plans and he never completed his college course. He pursued his literary studies at home, then began the study of law and was admitted to the bar in 1815. Meantime he had been continuing to write, and during this period wrote with many corrections and changes the poem by which he is still perhaps best known, Thanatopsis. It was published in the North American Review for September, 1817, and the same periodical published a few months afterward his lines To a Waterfowl, one of the most characteristic and lovely of Bryant's poems. Literature divided his attention with law, but evidently had his heart. In 1821 he was invited to read a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College, and he read The Ages, a stately grave poem which shows his own poetic power, his familiarity with the great masters of literature, and his lofty, philosophic nature. Shortly after this he issued a small volume of poems, and his name began to be known as that of the first American who had written poetry that could take its place in universal literature. His own decided preference for literature and the encouragement of friends led to his abandonment of the law in 1825, and his removal to New York, where he undertook the associate-editorship of The New York Review and Athenæum Magazine. Poetic genius is not caused or controlled by circumstance, but a purely literary life iu a country not yet educated in literature was impossible to a man of no other means of support, and in a few months, after the Review had vainly tried to maintain life by a frequent change of name, Bryant accepted an appointment as assistant editor of The Erening Post. From 1826, then, until his death,
Bryant was a journalist by profession. Oue effect of this change in his life was to eliminate from his poetry the political character which was displayed in his first published poem and had several times since showed itself. Thenceafter, he threw into his journalistic occupation all those thoughts and experiences which made him by rature a patriot and political thinker; he reserved for poetry the calm reflection, love of nature, and purity of aspiration which made him a poet. His editorial writing was rendered strong and pure by his cultivated taste and, lofty ideals, but he presented the rare combination of a poet who never sacrificed his love of high literature and his devotion to art, and of a publicist who retained a sound judgment and pur. sued the most practical ends.
His life outwardly was uneventful. He made four journeys to Europe, in 1834, 1845, 1852, 1857, and he made frequent tours in his own country. His observations on his travels were published in Letters from a Traveller, Letters from the East, and Letters from Spain and Other Countries. He never held public office, except that in 1860 he was a Presidential Elector, but he was connected intimately with important movements in society, literature, and politics, and was repeatedly called upon to deliver addresses commemorative of eminent citizens, as of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and at the unveiling of the bust of Mazzini in the Central Park. His Orations and Addresses have been gathered into a volume
The bulk of his poetry apart from his poetic translations is not considerable, and is made up almost wholly of short poems which are chiefly inspired by his love of nature. R. H. Dana in his preface to the Idle Man says: “I shall never forget with what feeling my friend Bryant some years ago described to me the effect produced upon him by his meeting for the first time with Wordsworth's Ballads. He lived, when quite young, where but few works of poetry were to be had ; at a period, too, when Pope was still the great idol of the Temple of Art. He said, that upon opening Wordsworth, a thousand springs seemed to gush up at once in his heart, and the face of nature of a sudden to change into a strange freshness and life.”
This was the interpreting power of Wordsworth suddenly disclosing to Bryant, not the secrets of nature, but his own powers of perception and interpretation. Byrant is in no sense an imitator of Wordsworth, but a comparison of the two poets would be of great interest as showing how individually each pursued the same general poetic end. Wordsworth’s Three Years she grew in Sun and Shower and Bryant's O Fairest of the Rural Maids offer an admirable opportunity for disclosing the separate treatment of similar subjects. In Bryant's lines, musical and full of a gentle revery, the poet seems to go deeper and deeper into the forest, almost forgetful of the “fairest of the rural maids ; in Wordsworth's lines, with what simple yet profound feeling the poet, after delicately disclosing the interchange of nature and human life, retires into those depths of human sympathy where nature must forever remain as a remote shadow.
1 This was written in 1833.
Bryant translated many short poems from the Spanish, but his largest literary undertaking was the translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. He brought to this task great requisite powers, and if there is any failure it is in the absence of Homer's lightness and rapidity, qualities which the elasticity of the Greek language especially favored.
A pleasant touch of simple humor appeared in some of his social addresses, and occasionally is found in his poems, as in Robert of Lincoln. Suggestions of personal experience will be read in such poems as The Cloud on the Way, The Life that Is. and in the half-autobiographic poem, A Lifetime.
The two poems which follow are the longest of Bryant's original poems, and while as fairy tales distinct from the usual subjects which he has taken, present many of his characteristics.