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XI. - WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.
LIFE AND WORKS.
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT, the first American to attain to great poetical eminence, was born at Cummington, Massachusetts, Nov. 3, 1794. His father, Peter Bryant, was a physician of high character and attainments, and devoted unusual care to the education of his son. He fostered William's poetic taste, impressing upon him the value of “correctness and compression ” in his style. The poet, in his beautiful Hymn to Death, pays this tribute to his father :
For he is in his grave who taught my youth
It is said that young Bryant contributed verses to his home newspaper before he was ten years of age. Certain it is that The Embargo was written when he was only thirteen, and that in his nineteenth year he wrote Thanatopsis, which still holds its place in general estimation as one of the most impressive poems in our language.
After pursuing his studies at Williams College for two years, his proficiency in the classics being notable,
Bryant took up the study of law, was admitted to the bar in 1815, and for the next ten years practiced in the Massachusetts courts. His practice was rewarded with unusual success. But the publication of a volume of his poems, in 1821, had drawn general attention to Bryant as the coming American poet; and all his inclinations were to the field of letters.
Accordingly in 1825 he abandoned the practice of law, and removed to the city of New York, where he attached himself, after some minor ventures, to the staff of the Evening Post newspaper. A few years later he acquired exclusive control of this journal, and was its editor-in-chief until his death. About 1845 he purchased "an old-time mansion," embowered in vines and flowers, near the village of Roslyn, on Long Island, Here he resided till he died (June 12, 1878) at the age of eighty-four.
Bryant was a man of affairs, as well ag a lover and poet of nature; and the body of verse he has left us, exclusive of his extensive metrical translations, is not great. Several volumes of his correspondence from abroad, where he made four extended tours, have been collected and published ; but aside from these, his prose writing was almost wholly of the editorial class.
Among Bryant's most celebrated poems may be named Thanatopsis ; To a Waterfowl ; The Conqueror's Grave ; The Antiquity of Freedom ; The Crowded Street; The Forest Hymn ; The Future Life; Green River ; and one of his latest poems, Our Fellow - Worshipers.
In his person Bryant was of the middle height, hav
ing a spare but lithe figure. Even to his later days he walked with a light, springy, elastic step, and was possessed of unusual bodily vigor. His life had always been abstemious, his diet consisting mainly of vegetables and fruits. He had a grand Homeric head, and a flowing white beard.
In his manner he was seemingly cold, as though he were too great a lover of nature to enter much into the feelings of man. But he was a public-spirited citizen, a promoter of arts and culture; and his high personal character secured him the esteem even of political opponents. He was long a prominent figure in the great public gatherings of the metropolis.
“Bryant's writings,” says Washington Irving, “ transport us into the depths of the solemn primeval forest; to the shores of the lonely lake; the banks of the wild, nameless stream ; or the brow of the rocky upland, rising like a promontory from amidst a wide ocean of foliage; while they shed around us the glories of a climate fierce in its extremes, but splendid in all its vicissitudes.”
Bryant was master of a pure, nervous English. So -heartily did he detest neologisms, and the use of foreign terms, that he had hung up in the office of his paper, for the guidance of his corps of writers, a list of tabooed words and phrases. His poetry is imbued with a passionate love of Nature in her simpler aspects of beauty and solitude. Indeed, as a minute observer of nature, , he is almost without a rival among poets. To great delicacy of fancy, and elevation of thought, he joined a genial yet solemn philosophy.
1. – TO A WATERFOWL.
[To the stanzas To a Waterfowl the author gave the sub-title Inscription for an Entrance to a Wood. It was written during Bryant's early period (his age being then about twenty-five), but is regarded by many critics as one of his most purely chiseled and Greek-like works of art. At the time the poem was written, Wordsworth had begun his efforts to recall poetry from artificiality to nature. Bryant, in his Homes and Hills of Massachusetts, seems to have felt the same inspiration. This poem breathes a Wordsworthian and woodland sentiment.]
WHITHER,1 ’midst falling dew, While glow the heavens with the last steps of day, Far through their rosy depths dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way ? 2
Vainly the fowler's eye
Thy figure floats along.
Seek'st thou the plashy 4 brink
On the chafed ocean side?
There is a Power whose care
Lone wandering, but not lost.
1 whither. Discriminate be- from French enluminer, to illumintween whither and where.
ate (Latin lumen, light). 2 Whither... way? What type 4 plashy, watery; from plash, of sentence, grammatically and to dabble in water. rhetorically considered ?
marge. Of what word is this 3 limned, painted, outlined ; la poetic form?
All day thy wings have fanned,
Though the dark night is near.
And soon that toil shall end :
Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest.
Thou’rt gone; the abyss? of heaven
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.
2. – THE CROWDED STREET.
[In the previous poem we have had a voice from the heart of nature: in marked contrast therewith are these lines, in which the poet puts himself in sympathy with the “ever-shifting train" to be met in the crowded street of a great city.]
1 stoop. What is the subject of this verb?
2 abyss. See Webster for the derivation of this word.
3 the abyss . . . swallowed. Express in your own words.
on my heart. What is the figure of speech?