William Cullen Bryant is known as the 'Father of American Poetry'. He was the first internationally-recognised poet from the New World.
Family and Life
On 3 November, 1794, William Cullen Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts. His mother, Sarah Snell, was a descendant of Mayflower Pilgrims, and his father was the great-grandson of English Puritan immigrants. His father, Peter Bryant, was a surgeon and a learned man with a large library. The elder Bryant saw the spark of genius in his son early on and made sure that William was brought up in a cultured atmosphere and taught Latin by his uncle, Rev Dr Thomas Snell, followed by Greek. Bryant translated some pieces of Latin poetry at the age of ten, which were good enough to be published in the Northampton newspaper. Two months after beginning his study of Greek, he had read the New Testament in its original language in its entirety. At sixteen, Bryant was accepted at Williams College with sophomore status. He was forced to leave after two sessions because his family could no longer support his education financially. He studied on his own for a few years and was admitted to the bar at the age of 21. He began practising as an attorney at Great Barrington. At 26, he was married to Miss Frances Fairchild. In that same year, his father died.
In 1825, at 30 years of age, Bryant left the law practice and moved to New York, assuming the editorship of the Evening Post. In 1829, he was the sole editor and the chief owner of the publication. Between the ages of 40 and 41, he lived for a few months in the cities of Florence, Pisa, Munich and Heidelberg. Bryant's wife died in 1866 and he followed her in 1878, in New York City. Ironically, he died on the twelfth day of the month he had predicted for his death in his poem 'June'.
Raised in a Puritan household, Bryant turned to deism in his youth and by the end of his life was a Unitarian. His religious views come through strongly in many of his poems. Bryant was a passionate abolitionist and believed strongly in free trade. He was very interested in human rights. One of the earliest great American poets, he was also the first American poetical theorist. He advocated morality, simplicity and originality in poetry and wrote many critical essays on this topic — for example, his Lectures on Poetry (delivered in 1825 and published in 1884).
- 'The Fountain' and Other Poems
- 'The White-Footed Deer' and Other Poems
- Thirty Poems
- A Forest Hymn
- Hymns, By William Cullen Bryant
- Forest Scenes
- Thirty Poems
- Laurel Leaves: Original Poems, Stories, and Essays
- The Flood of Years
- Bryant's First and Last Poems: I. 'Thanatopsis', II. 'The Flood of Years'
- The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (edited by Parke Godwin)
- The Early Poems of William Cullen Bryant
- Tales of Glauber-Spa
- 'The Skeleton's Cave'
- Selections from the American Poets
- Letters of a Traveler; or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America
- Reminiscences of the Evening Post
- 'Memorial of James Fenimore Cooper'
- Letters of a Traveller, Second Series
- 'A Discourse on the Life and Genius of Washington Irving'
- Letters from the East
- 'A Discourse on the Life, Character and Writings of Gulian Crommelin'
- A Library of Poetry and Song Being Choice Selections for the Best Poets
- Orations and Addresses
- The Iliad of Homer, translated into English blank Verse
- The Odyssey of Homer, translated into English blank verse
- 'Ulysses among the Phæacians' from the translation of Homer's Odyssey
'The Ages' was originally printed in 1821 in Poems by William Cullen Bryant. It is a poem covering 'the past ages of the world', to show that mankind is always progressing and nature is always renewing itself. It is a very hopeful piece.
Another poem of importance is 'The Old Man's Funeral'. It is a poem about the death of an old man. At his funeral, everyone is mourning but for one man, who addresses the crowd, asking them why they are crying. He says that they should no more cry for this man than for dead leaves in the fall or for the sun's setting. They should be glad that he lived his time on earth happily and kindly and has gone to heaven to be with God in paradise.
'June' is a poem written about the author's own death. It is a pretty piece, reflecting that he would rather die when the world was beautiful. The imagery it contains renders it is as if the poet's spirit were hovering over the grave and watching the goings on around it. The feeling of the poem is bittersweet and without the passion of grief.
'Oh, Fairest of the Rural Maids' is a poem written by Bryant for his wife. Bryant wrote eight poems to or about his wife. This is the first, written near their wedding day. The others, in order of publication, are 'The Future Life', which contains speculations on 'the union of their spirits in the world to come', 'The Sick Bed' and 'The Life That Is', chronicling an illness and its recovery, 'The Twenty-seventh of March,' Mrs Bryant's birthday, 'October, 1866', which speaks of her death, and 'May Evening' and 'A Poet to His Wife', which speak of her memory after her death. The simplicity of these are their strongest element. Yet behind this simplistic delivery is a complex idea. The 'maid' of the story is born in the woods. She does not simply display the features of one who has grown up in the forest; she becomes the forest:
The twilight of the trees and rocks
Is in the light shade of her locks,
And all the beauty of the place
Is in her heart and on her face.
The work for which Bryant is best known is his poem 'Thanatopsis', which he wrote as a teenager. At the time, Bryant was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, a diagnosis which, had it been accurate, would have meant certain, painful death. This poem contains the adolescent Bryant's deistic thoughts on death. It is written in iambic pentameter, displaying a trust in nature without a God or an afterlife. Bryant gains comfort from the thought that when he dies, he will be joining the millions who have died before him. His body will fertilise some tree so that the earth benefits from his death.
Though he pursued many different paths during his life, William Cullen Bryant was primarily known for his poetry. The romantic style suites him, with his intense observation and appreciation for nature. Although he ended his life a religious man, Bryant's poem 'Thanatopsis' was the perfect opening for the transcendentalists who would succeed him.