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“A doubt having been intimated in the Monthly Anthology of June last whether a youth of thirteen years could have been the author of this poem, in justice to his merits, the friends of the writer feel obliged to certify the fact from their personal knowledge of himself and his fainily, as well as his literary improvement and extraordinary talents. They would premise that they do not come uncalled before the public to bear this testimony : they would prefer that he should be judged by his works without favor or affection. As the doubt has been suggested, they deem it merely an act of justice to remove it; after which they leave him a candidate for favor in common with other literary adventurers. They therefore assure the public that Mr. Bryant, the author, is a native of Cummington, in the county of Hampshire, and in the month of November last arrived at the age of fourteen years. The facts can be authenticated by many of the inhabitants of that place, as well as by several of his friends who give this notice. And if it be deemed worthy of further inquiry, the printer is enabled to disclose their names and places of residence.”
In September, 1817, appeared in the North American Review the poem entitled “Thanatopsis,” which Professor Wilson said " was alone sufficient to establish the author's claims to the honors of genius." It was written in a few weeks, in his cighteenth year,* and but slightly retouched during the time that elapsed between its composition and its first appearance in print. The poem created a marked sensation at the time of its appearance, not unlike that caused by the publication of Halleck's “ Marco Bozzaris," a few years later. Richard H. Dana was then a member of the committee which conducted the Review, and received the manuscript poems “ Thanatopsis” and the “ Inscription on the Entrance to a Wood.” The former was understood to have been written by Dr. Bryant, and the latter by his son. When Dana learned the name, and heard that the author of " Thanatopsis” was a member of the State legislature, he proceeded to the senate chamber to observe the new poet. He saw there a man of dark complexion, with iron-gray hair, thick eyebrows, well-developed forehead, with an intellectual expression in which, however, he failed to find
“The vision and the faculty divine."
He went away puzzled and mortified at his lack of discernment. When Bryant in 1821 delivered at Harvard University his didactic poem entitled “ The Ages”-a comprehensive poetical essay reviewing the world's progress in a panoramic view of the ages, and glowing with a prophetic vision of the future of America-Dana
* In a letter to the writer, dated March 15th, 1869, Mr. Bryant says, “I return your article, the great fault of which is too kind an appreciation of its subject. . . . I am not certain that the poem entitled 'Thanatopsis' was not written a year earlier than you have made it ; indeed I am much inclined to think it was in my eighteenth year. I was not a college student at the time, though I was pursuing college studies with a view of entering Yale College, having taken a dismission from Williams College for the purpose, which, however, was never accomplished.”
The poem may be found on p. 308.
alluded in complimentary terms to Dr. Bryant's " Thanatopsis," and then learned for the first time that the son was the author of both poems.
It is related that when the father showed a copy of “ Thanatopsis” in manuscript, before its publication, to a lady well qualified to judge of its merits, simply saying, “ Here are some lines that our Willie has been writing,” she read the poem, raised her eyes to the father's face, and burst into tears, in which Dr. Bryant, a somewhat reserved and silent man, was not ashamed to join. “And no wonder," continues the writer ; “ it must have seemed a mystery that in the bosom of eighteen had grown up thoughts that even in boyhood shaped themselves into solemn harmonies, majestic as the diapason of ocean, fit for a temple-service beneath the vault of heaven.”
Mr. Bryant continued his classical and mathematical studies at home with a view to entering Yale College ; but, abandoning this purpose, he became a law student in the office of Judge Howe, of Worthington, afterwards completing his course of legal study with William Baylies, of West Bridgewater. He was admitted to the bar at Plymouth in 1815, and began practice at Plainfield, where he remained one year and then removed to Great Barrington (all these towns being in the State of Massachusetts). At Great Barrington he made the acquaintance of the author Catherine M. Sedgwick, who afterwards dedicated to him her novel, “ Redwood,” and of Miss Frances Fairchild. The lovely qualities of this latter lady the young lawyer celebrated in verses which, for simple purity and delicate imagery, are most characteristic of our poet's genius. As they are not elsewhere given in the “ Library,” it will be of interest to read them here, in connection with the incidents of their origin :
Miss Fairchild became Mr. Bryant's wife in 1821, and for more than twoscore years was the “good angel of his life.” She is mentioned in many of the poet's stanzas. “ The Future Life” * is addressed to her. “It was written,” says Mr. Bryant in a note to me,“ during the lifetime of my wife and some twenty years after our marriage--that is to say, about 1840, or possibly two or three years after.” “The Life that Is” was also inspired by Mrs. Bryant, the poet having written it on the occasion of her recovery from a serious illness in Italy in 1858. It is of so personal a character that the author hesitated about publishing it.
“ Twice wert thou given me; once in thy fair prime,
Fresh from the fields of youth, when first we met,
Clustered and glowed where'er thy steps were set.
“And now, in thy ripe autumn, once again
Given back to fervent prayers and yearnings strong,
When we had watched, and feared, and trembled long."
A few months after the young poet's marriage a small volume of forty-four dingy pages was published by Hilliard & Metcalf, of Cambridge, Mass., entitled “Poems by William Cullen Bryant.” A copy is now lying before me. It contains “The Ages,” 66 To a Waterfowl," " Translation of a Fragment of Simonides," " Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood," "The Yellow Violet," " Song,” “Green River,” and “ Thanatopsis.” In this rare little volume the first and last paragraphs of the latter poem appear as they now stand, the version originally published in the North American Review having commenced with the lines,
“Yet a few days, and thee The all-beholding sun shall see no more In all his course;"
and ended with the words,
“And make their bed with thee."
Last winter I met Mr. Bryant in a Broadway bookstore and showed him a copy of this early edition of his poetical writings, which the dealer in literary wares had just sold for ten dollars. He laughingly remarked, “ Well, that's more than I received for its contents."
* To be found on page 263.
- This little life-boat of an earth, with its noisy crew of a mankind, and their troubled history, will one day have vanished; faded like a cloud-speck from the azure of the all! What, then, is man? He endures but for an hour, and is crushed before the moth. Yet, in the being and in the working of a faithful man is there already (as all faith, from the beginning, gives assurance) a something that pertains not to this wild death-element of time; that triumphs over time, and is, will be, when time shall be no more." --THOMAS CARLYLE.
LITERARY CAREER – AUTHOR, EDITOR, AND POET-FOREIGN TRAVELS - SEVENTIETH
BIRTHDAY FESTIVAL-COUNTRY HOUSES-EIGHTIETH BIRTHDAY--POETICAL AND PROSE WRITINGS-PUBLIC ADDRESSES.
In the year 1824 Mr. Bryant's picturesque poem, “A Forest Hymn," *". The Old Man's Funeral,” “ The Murdered Traveler," and other poetical compositions appeared in the United States Literary Gazette, a weekly journal issued in Boston. The same year, at the suggestion of the Sedgwick family, he made his first visit to New York City, where, through their influence, he was introduced to many of the leading literary men of the metropolis. From the first, Bryant was averse to the dull and distasteful routine of his profession
“Forced to drudge for the dregs of men
And scrawl strange words with a barbarous pen."
IIe could not like it, and his aversion for it daily increased. With Slender he could say, “ if there be no great love in the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance." His visit to New York decided his destiny. Abandoning the law, in which he had met with a fair measure of success, having enjoyed for nine years a reasonable share of the local practice of Great Barrington, he determined upon pursuing the career of a man of letters, so well described by Carlyle, the " Censor of the Age," as " an anarchic, nomadic, and entirely aërial and ill-conditioned profession,” and he accordingly, in 1825, removed to New York, which continued to be his place of residence for more than half a century. Here he lived from earnest youth to venerable age—from eighteen to eighty-four-in one unbroken path of honor and success.
Establishing himself as a literary man in New York, the poet entered upon the editorship of a monthly magazine, to which he contributed - The Death of the Flowers" and many other popular poems, as well as numerous articles on art and kindred subjects. This position soon introduced Bryant into a very charming circle, composed of Chancellor Kent; Cooper, just achieving popularity by his American
* See page 414.
novels; the young poets Halleck, Hillhouse, and Percival ; the painters Dunlap, Durand, Inman, and Morse ; the scholars Charles King and Verplanck, and many other choice spirits, all long since passed away.
A few days after the poet's arrival in New York he met Cooper, to whom he had been previously introduced, who said : .“ Come and dine with me to-morrow ; I live at No. 345 Greenwich Street." “ Please put that down for me,” said Bryant, “or I shall forget the place." “ Can't you remember three-four-five ?” replied Cooper, bluntly.
Bryant did “ remember three-four-five” not only for the day, but ever afterward. He dined with the novelist according to appointment, the additional guest, besides Cooper's immediate family, being Fitz-Greene Halleck. The warm friendship of these three gifted men was severed only by death.
It was chiefly through the influence of the brothers Robert and Henry D. Sedgwick that Mr. Bryant was induced to abandon the uncongenial pursuit of the law ; and it was through the influence of the same gentlemen that, during the year 1826, he became connected with the Evening Post. Mr. H. D. Sedgwick, who was among the first to appreciate the genius of young Bryant, was a brother of Miss Sedgwick, the author, and at the time of his death, in 1831, he was among the most prominent lawyers and political writers of that day. To the Evening Post Mr. Bryant brought a varied experience of literary taste and learning, and even at that time a literary reputation. Halleck at that period rendered in The Recorder a richlydeserved compliment to his brother bard, when he wrote :
“Bryant, whose songs are thoughts that bless
The heart-its teachers and its joy-
And virtue for the listening boy.
Beings of beauty and decay,
They slumber in their autumn tomb ;
And wreathed the lattice of his home,
Charmed by his song from mortal doom,
The Evening Post was founded by William Coleman, a lawyer of Massachusetts, its first number being issued on the 16th of November, 1801. Mr. Coleman dying in 1826, the well-remembered William Leggett became its assistant editor, in which capacity he continued for ten years. Mr. Bryant soon after his return from Europe in 1836, upon the retirement of Mr. Leggett, assumed the sole editorial charge of the paper, performing those duties, with intervals of absence, till the 29th day of May, 1878, when he sat at his desk for the last time. To the Post, originally a Federal journal, Mr. Bryant early gave a strongly Democratic tone, taking decided ground against all class legislation, and strongly advocating