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William Cullen Bryant

 

William Cullen Bryant

WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT was born at Cummington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, November 3, 1794, and, after an unusually long and active literary life, he died in New York, June 12, 1878.

His father was Peter Bryant, a physician of considerable literary culture, and a person who had traveled quite extensively. The father took an unusual interest in the culture of his children, and he was amply rewarded for all his pains. There is an unauthenticated tradition that the first Bryant of whom there is any account in America, came over in the Mayflower. Mr. Stephen Bryant came over from England, and was settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1836. Stephen's son Ichabod was the father of Philip Bryant and Philip, of Peter, the father of William Cullen.

Bryant's mother was Miss Sarah Snell, of Mayflower stock, being a descendant of John Alden. Thus our poet has an honorable and cultured ancestry. Strict Puritanical discipline was the order of the day, hence the young poet's life did not fall in pleasant places, so far as recreations were concerned. While the children were held with a steady hand, their educational and moral interests were considered with conscientious earnestness.

For some time after his birth young Bryant was very frail, and the chances for living seemed decided against him. His head was of such enormous size as to cause his father much uneasiness. Dr. Bryant decided that the size of William's head must be reduced. He thought to accomplish the desired result by giving the babe a cold bath daily. Accordingly two of his students took the child each morning and plunged it, head and all, into a clear, cold spring that bubbled from the ground near the house. Whether the size of the head was reduced or not, we are unable to tell, but the world of popular literature has ample cause to rejoice over the massive size of Bryant's head and heart and mind. In 1810, at the age of sixteen, he entered Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he studied for two years. He soon distinguished himself for his attainments in language and polite literature. In 1812 he withdrew from college and entered upon the study of law. After three years of preparation he was admitted to the bar in 1815. He practiced first at Plainfield, and afterward at Great Barrington. Bryant attained high standing in the local and state courts, but his tastes inclined him rather to literature than the law.

Bryant's literary record commenced when he was only ten years of age, and even before that age he communicated lines to the local papers. "With a precocity rivaling that of Cowley or Chatterton, Bryant, at the age of thirteen, wrote a satirical poem on the Jeffersonian party, which he published in 1808, under the title of "." By referring to history, you will notice that the English orders in council had been issued in retaliation for the decrees of Napoleon. The above action of foreign powers led Jefferson to lay an embargo on American shipping. This formed the subject of Bryant's satire, "The Embargo." This poem and "The Spanish Revolution" were published in 1808, and passed to a second edition in the succeeding year. The age of the author was called in question, and his friends came forward with proofs that the lad was only thirteen when he wrote the satire. "The Genius of Columbia" was written in 1810, and "An Ode for the Fourth of July," in 1812. When he was only eighteen years of age he wrote the imperishable poem, "Thanatopsis."

In the "Bryant Homestead Book," of 1870, is written the following: "It was here at Cammington, while wandering in the primeval forests, over the floor of which were scattered the gigantic trunks of fallen trees, moldering for long years, and suggesting an indefinitely remote antiquity, and where silent rivulets crept along through the carpet of leaves, the spoil of thousands of summers, that the poem entitled 'Thanatopsis' was composed. The young poet had read the poems of Kirke White, which, edited by Southey, were published about that time, and a small volume of Southey's miscellaneous poems; and some lines of those authors had kindled his imagination, which, going forth over the face of the inhabitants of the globe, sought to bring under one broad and comprehensive view the destinies of the human race in the present life, and the perpetual rising and passing away of generation after generation who are nourished by the fruits of its soil, and find a resting-place in its bosom." When the poem was sent to the "North American Review," Richard H. Dana was so surprised at its excellence that he doubted whether it was the product of an American. Bryant also contributed several prose articles to the "Review." While in the practice of his profession he wrote some of his finest poems. Of these we will name lines "To a Waterfowl," "Green River," "A Winter Piece," "The West Wind," "The Burial-Place," "Blessed are they that Mourn," "No Man Knoweth his Sepulchre," "A Walk at Sunset," and "The Hymn to Death." While Bryant was writing "The Hymn to Death," his father was dying at the age of fifty-four. In the same year he married Miss Frances Fairchild, and also published his first collection of verse. In 1821 Bryant wrote "The Ages'" and delivered it before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College. At that time our poet was recognized as a writer of great merit. From that time till he left his profession and took up his pen for a support, he wrote about thirty poems. We here name some of them: "The Indian Girl's Lament," "An Indian Story," "Monument Mountain," "The Massacre at Scio," "Song of the Stars," "March," "The Rivulet," "After a Tempest," "Hymn to the North Star," "A Forest Hymn," and "June." We pause here to quote Bryant's wish that he might die

"in flowery June
When brooks send up a cheerful tune,
And groves a joyous sound;"

and to remark that in that beautiful month he passed to his rest.

This brings our poet to 1825, when, through the efforts of Mr. Sedgwick and Mr. Verplanck, he was appointed assistant editor of the "New York Review" and "Atheneum Magazine." Bidding adieu to courts and law books, he became a follower of Apollo. In 1825 Bryant removed to New York to enter upon his new duties. The "Review" did not prosper, and in one year it was merged into the "New York Literary Gazette." In a few months the magazine was consolidated with the "United States Literary Gazette," which in turn passed into the "United States Review." These publications were not profitable, although they contained the writings of such men as Bryant, Halleck, Willis, Dan a, Bancroft and Longfellow. Our poet next connected himself with the "Evening Post," and remained with that journal till his death. Between 1827 and 1830 he assisted in the editorial management of the "Talisman," a very successful annual, and also contributed the tales of "Medfield," and "The Skeleton's Cave" to a book entitled "Tales of the Glauber Spa." A complete edition of his poems was published in New York in 1832, and in England about the same time. The English edition was brought out through the influence of Washington Irving, who wrote a laudatory preface. John Wilson praised the work in an article in "Blackwood's Magazine" This volume established Bryant's reputation abroad, and made him almost as popular in England as in America.

In 1834, the poet, rich in fame, sailed for Europe. He traveled through France, Italy, and Germany. Returning to his native land, he spent several years in literary work, when in 1845 he again crossed the ocean. In 1849 he made his third journey abroad, and extended his travels into Egypt and Syria. He also traveled extensively over the various parts of the United States and Cuba. The letters written by him in his wanderings were collected into book form, and entitled "Letters of a Traveler." In 1857 and 1858 he again visited Europe, and, as the result of this journey, soon appeared "Letters from Spain and other Countries." A new and complete edition of his poems was printed in 1855; and in 1863 appeared a volume of new poems entitled "Thirty Poems." In 1870 appeared his translation of the "Iliad," and in 1871 of the "Odyssey." These great epics were translated into English blank verse, which were considered the best English version in print. In 1876 Bryant and Sydney Howard Gay commenced a "History of the United States," but the work was not complete when the poet died. The book was to extend through four finely illustrated volumes.

Bryant was frequently called upon to pay public tributes to the memory of Americans. On the death of the artist, Thomas Cole, in 1848, he pronounced a funeral oration; in 1852 he delivered a lecture upon the life and writings of James Fenimore Cooper; and in 1860 he paid a similar tribute to his friend Washington Irving; he made an address on the life and achievements of S. F. B. Morse, on the occasion of the dedication of his statue in Central Park, New York, in 1871; addresses on Shakespeare and Scott on similar occasions in 1872; and one on Mazzini in 1878; on his return from which, a fall resulted in his death."

Bryant's prose writings are marked by pure and vigorous English, and he stands in the front rank as a poet. We quote from Professor Wilson's review of the poet's first volume, published in England: "The chief charm of Bryant's genius consists in a tender pensiveness, a moral melancholy, breathing over all his contemplations, dreams, and reveries, even such as in the main are glad, and giving assurance of a pure spirit, benevolent to all living creatures, and habitually pious in the felt omnipresence of the Creator. His poetry overflows with natural religion--with what Wordsworth calls the religion of the woods. This is strictly applicable to `Thanatopsis' and `Forest Hymn;' but Washington Irving is so far right that Bryant's grand merit is his nationality and his power of painting the American landscape, especially in its wild, solitary and magnificent forms. His diction is pure and lucid, with scarcely a flaw, and he is master of blank verse."

We cannot close this sketch better than by showing the poet's devotion to his country in his own words: "We are not without the hope that those who read what we have written, will see in the past, with all its vicissitudes, the promise of a prosperous and honorable future, of concord at home, and peace and respect abroad; and that the same cheerful piety which leads the good man to put his personal trust in a kind Providence, will prompt the good citizen to cherish an equal confidence in regard to the destiny reserved for our beloved country."