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THE

PRIMITIVE METHODIST

QUARTERLY REVIEW.

JANUARY, 1881.

1.-WILLIAM CULLEN

CULLEN BRYANT.

THE FATHER OF AMERICAN POETRY.

At the time of his death, two years since, W. C. Bryant was the oldest American poet with the exception of the venerable R. H. Dana. Knowing that he had witnessed the rise of Emerson, Longfellow, Taylor, Whittier, Willis, Holmes, Poe, Lowell, and Mrs. Sigourney, we were not surprised when we saw The Times proclaiming him “The father of American Poetry.

Bryant was born in Massachusetts in the year 1794. His father, an eminent physician in Cummingstown, carefully watched over the earliest buddings of his son's intellectual life. At that time it could scarcely be said that America had a literature of her own. Dr. Bryant, however, a man abreast of the age, selected such books as were likely to impart a sound rudimentary education to his son. This done, the doctor led him forth into the higher branches of secular knowledge. At ten he made translations from the Latin poets. Like Tasso, Cowley, and Pope, he lisped in numbers while yet a schoolboy. During this period, hearing that an embargo had been placed on American commerce by British orders in Council, he wrote a satirical poem on the measure.

It secured a host of admiring readers. This poem is omitted from Mr. Bryant's collected works, published by Henry S. King and Co., seven years since ; but those first-fruits of thought foretold the advent of a poet of rare gifts. His Spanish Revolution, written in his thirteenth year, confirmed the hope of his friends. When

VOL. III. NEW SERIES. Vol. XXIII. from the beginning.

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about sixteen years of age he became a student at William's College, where he distinguished himself both as a classical scholar and student in philosophy, although he did not remain at William's more than two years. In 1816 he published • Thauatopsis, regarded by many as the best of his poems. The Ages,' his longest poem, consisting of thirtyfive Spenserian stanzas, and being, to all intents, a poetical philosophical disquisition on the past, present, and future, appeared in 1821.

Having qualified himself for the legal profession, he began to practice at Great Barrington ; but very soon, like Cowper, he took such a dislike to the law that he resolved to abandon it as soon as possible. Therefore, in 1825, he went to New York, and there established The New York Review and Athenæum Magazine, and in 1826, like Edgar A. Poe before him, became a journalist. For more than fifty years his name was closely connected with the New York Evening Post, first as its editor, and subsequently as its proprietor. As a journalist, he was ever on the side of civil and religious liberty. It is not a little singular to learn that, while the influence of Fisk and Tweed was being felt in the one direction, the influence of William Cullen Bryant's politics was felt in the same city in another direction.

But, as it is not our business to deal with the politics of The father of American poetry,' we must limit ourselves to his career as poet. Long before Stoddard, Willis, Taylor, and Lowell became known in this country Bryant's name was heralded as the New York bard.' His poems were published in England in 1832—nearly half a century

In 1842 he published another collection, under the title, The Fountain, and other Poems, and in 1844 another collection under the name, White-footed Deer, and other Poems. At various times during his busy life of more than fifty years he wrote many poems of beauty and surpassing elegance. We do not hesitate to affirm that no Transatlantic bard has excelled him in elegance, tenderness, purity of diction, and pensive sublimity. If we do not find in him the homely vigour of Dana, the profundity of Emerson, the mirthfulness of Holmes, the weird ravings of Poe, nor scarcely even the gleesomeness of Longfellow, he will, no doubt, ever maintain an honoured place amongst the American poets of the nineteenth century.

He has been designated the Wordsworth of America. Mr. Arnold affirms that nearly all Wordsworth's really first-rate work was produced within the limits of a single decade from 1798-1808. It would not be strictly correct to make a similar affirmation of

as

Bryant, yet we must admit that the poems he composed between twenty and twenty-seven were never surpassed by any subsequent poem.

In his · Fable for Critics, Lowell refers to this New York bard“ cool and as dignified as a smooth, silent iceberg, that never is ignified.? And on another occasion, though admitting there's enough that's right good in him, having a true soul for field, river, and wood in him? -having, also, Thomson's love of nature, and Cowper's penchant to preach, he sharply satirises those American lovers of song who would place Bryant head and shoulders above Scott, Coleridge, and Southey :

Don't be absurd ! he's an excellent Bryant;
But, my friends, you'll endanger the life of your client

By attemptirg to stretch him into a giant. We shall make no attempt to stretch him into a giant; but honour to whom honour is due should be given. Although he is not to our Transatlantic poetry what Wayland and Stuart are to moral philosophy and theology, what Bancroft and Irving are to history, or Tappan and Edwards are to metaphysics, yet no one can question bis claim to be ranked amongst the born-poets of America. In her “Study of John Keats,' Mrs. Owen remarks that the work of most poets may be divided into that which is the result of purpose and that which is the result of circumstance.' Such a division as this is very observable in the poems of Bryant. And if it be true that the odes and sonnets of Keats show us how he lived, and moved, and had his being, or if, on the study of Wordsworth’s • Prelude,' • Farewell,” “ The Wishing Gate,' and “The Excursion,' we are able to trace the steps of this Poet Laureate, we are also enabled, through the poems of Bryant, to look into the depths of his honest and truly philanthropic soul, and also to discern the faith which gave strength to his early life, and which nerved him for heroic work to the end.

When about twenty years of age he was admitted to the Bar, and began to practice in New England. He was in doubt as to what course he should take in life. He had heard :

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. In the midst of his anxiety as to the future he strolled out into the country, near Plymouth, and his attention was arrested by the peculiar flight of a water-fowl.' As he gazed upon its movements he began to draw a moral from the circumstance. And we have reason for believing that even so trifling an incident taught him a lesson of lifelong benefit. quotation:

The fourth, seventh, and eighth verses are worthy of

There is a Power whose care

Teaches thy way along that pathless coast-
The desert and illimitable air,

Lone wandering, but not lost.
Thou'rt gone, the abyss of heaven

Hath swallowed up thy form, yet on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,

And shall not soon depart.
He who, from zone to zone,

Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone

Will lead my steps aright.

The faith which prompted him thus to write in his early manhood finds expression in his later poems. It is very observable in his Crowded Street.' Though he tells us

How fast the flitting figures come!

The mild, the fierce, the stony face ;
Some bright with thoughtless smiles, and some

Where secret tears have left their trace,

and continues to speak of those who pass to toil, to strife,' of the youth with dreams of greatness,' of the keen son of trade with eager brow,' of those

Who sorrow o'er the untimely dead,

Who writhe in throes of mortal pain, he concludes with the reflection :

There is who heeds, who holds them all
In His large love and boundless thought.
These struggling tides of life, that seem

In wayward, aimless course to tend,
Are eddies of the mighty stream

That rolls to its appointed end. It has been said that “Thauatopsis, which he published in 1816, though a brief poem, is his best. Dana, Longfellow, and the late Bayard Taylor, besides other highly-gifted authors, have spoken in the highest terms of this poem. In one sense, Thanatopsis' is typical of a large quantity of American poetry. Account for it as we will, it is an unquestionable fact that a considerable portion of what our Transatlantic bards have written relates to the ruins of decay.' Mrs. Sigourney, E. A. Poe, and W. C. Bryant are pre-eminent amongst those who have thus written. Poe, a man of deep feeling and morbid tendency, not content with leading us to the grave, must needs unearth it

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