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WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.
BY JAMES GRANT WILSON.
The world hath noted, and your name is great
ANCESTORS — BIRTH - CHILDHOOD - SCHOOL AND COLLEGE DAYS — LEGAL STUDIES —
MARRIAGE-PUBLICATION OF POEMS.
SIR WALTER Scott relates that, when some one was mentioned as a “ fine old man” to Dean Swift, he exclaimed with violence that there was no such thing. “If the man you speak of had either a mind or a body worth a farthing, they would have worn him out long ago.” Béranger and Brougham, Goethe and Guizot, Humboldt and Sir Henry Holland, Lyndhurst and Palmerston, Earl Russell and Field-Marshal Moltke, and among Americans, J. Q. Adams and Taney, Professors Henry and Hodge, Horace Binney and Richard Henry Dana, now ninety-one—the age at which Titian said that genius never grows old-may be cited among the men of the nineteenth century in refutation of this theory, which it may be presumed has nothing to do with thews or stature. But if we wanted a bright and shining example of faculties, and faculties of a high order, remaining unimpaired in mind and body till long past the grand climacteric, we might name William Cullen Bryant, the beloved patriarch of American poetry, and “ the most accomplished, the most distinguished, and the most universally honored citizen of the United States," who, having lived under every President of our country, completed his fourscore years and three, cheerful and full of conversation, and continued until the last week of May, 1878, to heartily enjoy what Dr. Johnson happily calls “ the sunshine of life.”
No name in our contemporaneous literature, either in England or America, is crowned with more successful honors than that of William Cullen Bryant. Born among the granite hills of Massachusetts, at a period when our colonial literature, like our people, was but recently under the dominion of Great Britain, he lived to see that literature expand from its infancy and take a proud place in the republic of letters, and he survived to see the Republic itself, starting from its revolutionary birth,
spring up to a giant power, after passing most triumphantly through a giant rebellion. Surrounded by such historic and heroic associations, men like Bryant, who survive, embody in their lives the annals of a people, and represent in their individuality the history of a nation.
Pursuing beyond the age of fourscore an energetic literary career, the poet was also an active co-laborer in all worthy movements to promote the advancement of the arts and literature. A liberal patron of art himself, he was always the judicious and eloquent advocate of the claims of artists. On the completion of the beautiful Venetian temple to art erected by the New York Academy of Design, Mr. Bryant delivered the address inaugurating the building and consecrating it to its uses. Foremost in the literary circles of his adopted city, he was for many years the president of that time-honored institution of New York, the Century Club, which has always embraced among its members men of letters, prominent artists, and leading gentlemen of the liberal professions: the poet's predecessors in that office were Gulian C. Verplanck and George Bancroft. Philanthropic in his nature, Bryant was ever the consistent promoter of all subjects having for their tendency the elevation of the race and the furtherance of the interests of humanity. Connected with the leading evening metropolitan journal, and one of the oldest in the United States, he was enabled to bring the powerful influence of the press to bear with his own great literary renown and personal weight upon whatever measure he supported in the cause of philanthropy, letters, and the promotion of art.
William Cullen Bryant was born in a log-house at Cummington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, November 30, 1794.* He was a descendant of the English and Scotch families of Alden, Ames, Harris, Hayward, Howard, Keith, Mitchell, Packard, Snell, and Washburn, and through them from several of the Pilgrims who landed from the Mayflower at Plymouth, on the 22d of December, 1620--not a bad genealogy for an American citizen, nor unlike that of his brother-poet Halleck, who was descended from the Pilgrim Fathers, including John Eliot, the apostle to the Indians. Bryant also had a worthy clerical ancestor in the person of James Keith, the first minister of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who, after having preached from the same pulpit fifty-six years, died in that town in 1719.
Stephen Bryant, the first of the poet's American ancestors of his own name, who is known to have been at Plymouth, Massachusetts, as early as 1632, and who some time before 1650 married Abigail Shaw, had several children, one of whom was also named Stephen. He was the father of Ichabod Bryant, who moved from Raynham
* A general misapprehension exists as to Mr. Bryant's birthplace. He was born, as he told the writer, not in what is now known as the “Bryant Homestead,” but in a small house constructed of square logs and long since removed. This fact is further confirmed by the following note from the poet to a friend, dated December 5th, 1876 : “ Your uncle Eliphalet Packard was quite right in designating my birthplace. As the tradition of my family goes, I was born in a house which then stood at the north-west corner of a road leading north of the burying-ground on the hill, and directly opposite to the burying-ground. The house was afterwards removed and placed near that occupied then by Daniel Dawes. I suppose there is nothing left of it now."
to West Bridgewater in 1745, bringing with himn a certificate of dismission from the church at Raynham, and a recommendation to that of his new place of residence. Philip, the eldest of his five sons, studied medicine, and settled in North Bridgewater, now Brockton, where his house is still standing. Dr. Philip Bryant married Silence Howard, daughter of Dr. Abiel Howard, with whom he studied medicine. One of their nine children, a son called Peter, born in the year 1767, studied his father's profession, and succeeded to his practice. At that time there lived in the same town a revolutionary veteran, “ stern and severe," named Ebenezer Snell, of whom a small boy of the period, still living, informs the writer that “ all the boys of Bridgewater were dreadfully afraid," so austere and authoritative were his manners. The old soldier had a pretty daughter who won the susceptible young doctor's affections, so that when Squire Snell removed with his family to Cummington, and built what is now known as the “ Bryant Homestead,” Peter Bryant followed, establishing himself there as a physician and surgeon, and in 1792 was married to “sweet Sarah Snell," as she is called in one of the youthful doctor's poetic effusions. Five sons and two daughters were the fruit of this happy marriage, their second son being the subject of this sketch. Of these seven children but two sons survive, Arthur and John Howard Bryant of Illinois, who were present at the poet's funeral. .
Dr. Peter Bryant's bearing, I am told by an aged man who remembers him, was the very reverse of that of his gruff father-in-law. Although reserved, he was gentle in manner, with a low soft voice, and always attired with scrupulous neatness. While not above the height of his gifted son, he was broad-shouldered, and would sometimes exhibit his great strength by lifting a barrel of cider from the ground over the wheel into a wagon. According to the account of another who knew him, he was “ possessed of extensive literary and scientific acquirements, an unusually vigorous and well-disciplined mind, and an elegant and refined taste.” He was for his son William an able and skilful instructor, who chastened, improved, and encouraged the first rude efforts of his boyish genius. A personal friend of the poet wrote of him in 1840, “ his father, his guide in the first attempts at versification, taught him the value of correctness and compression, and enabled him to distinguish between true poetic enthusiasm and fustian."
The son in after-life commemorated the teachings and trainings of the father in a poem entitled “Hymn to Death," published in 1825, which has often been quoted for its beauty and pathos :
“For he is in his grave who taught my youth
The art of verse, and in the end of life
The poet's great-grandfather, Dr. Abiel Howard, a graduate of Harvard College of the class of 1729, had an extensive library for those times, and in his youth wrote verses. Some of these were in Mr. Bryant's possession, and, to quote his own words," show no small power of poetic expression.” The inclination to express themselves in poetic form reappeared in Dr. Howard's grandchildren. Dr. Bryant wrote many songs and love stanzas in his younger days, and some satirical political poems in middle age. His sister Ruth Bryant, who died young, left behind several meritorious poems which her nephew had read in manuscript. When Mr. Bryant was studying law, the late Judge Daniel Howard asked him from whom he inherited his poetic gift; he promptly replied, from his great-grandfather Dr. Howard. One of the poet's surviving brothers recently said to the writer, “ We were all addicted, more or less, to the unprofitable business of rhyming."
It was the dream of Dr. Bryant's life to educate a child for his own and his father's loved profession, and so it came to pass that his second son was named after one of the great Scottish medical lights of that era, William Cullen, an eminent Edinburgh physician. The child was frail, and his head was deemed too large for his body, which fact so disturbed the worthy doctor that, unable to find in the books any remedy for excessive cerebral development, he decided upon a remedy of his own, and directed that the child should be daily ducked in an adjoining spring of clear cold water. Two of Dr. Bryant's students were deputed to carry the child from his bed
the embryo-poet fought stoutly against this singular proceeding, of which the young mother did not approve, but which notwithstanding was continued till the discrepancy of proportion between the head and the body disappeared and the father no longer deemed its continuance necessary.
As a child Bryant exhibited extraordinary precocity. He received instruction at home from his mother, whose school education, like that of most American women of her day, was limited to the ordinary English branches. He also was instructed by his father and an uncle, who taught him
Bryant has happily told the story of his boyhood* in better and more entertaining style than it can by any possibility be narrated by another. It forms a charming chapter in an autobiography to which the venerable poet devoted an occasional hour during the closing years of his long career. Says Mr. Bryant :
“The boys of the generation to which I belonged that is to say, who were born in the last years of the last century or the earliest of this-were brought up under a system of discipline which put à far greater distance between parents and their children than now exists. The parents seemed to think this necessary in order to secure obedience. They were believers in the old maxim that familiarity breeds contempt. My own parents lived in the house with my grandfather and grandmother on the mother's side. My grandfather was a disciplinarian of the stricter sort, and I can hardly find words to express the awe in which I stood of himan awe so great as almost to prevent anything like affection on my part, although he was in
* “The Boys of my Boyhood.” St. Nicholas Magazine, December, 1876.