Authors: William Cullen Bryant

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet and journalist

November 3, 1794

Cummington, Massachusetts

June 12, 1878

New York, New York

Biography

William Cullen Bryant spent his childhood under the opposing influences of his father, a liberal-minded physician who later became a Unitarian and a member of the state legislature, and his maternal grandfather, a sternly Calvinist farmer who was a deacon in the local church. Bryant, a precocious boy, showed an early interest in politics, religion, and literature, and his first volume of poetry, The Embargo: Or, Sketches of the Times, a Satire, was published before his fourteenth birthday. The principal poem in this volume, “The Embargo,” written in heroic couplets, attacked President Thomas Jefferson in all the ways that were current in New England at the time, to which he added a number of pious clichés in a childish imitation of the technique of Alexander Pope.

William Cullen Bryant

(Library of Congress)

Bryant was also interested in nature and spent many hours roaming through the fields and woods near his home in western Massachusetts. His poetry gradually changed from measured heroic couplets to a style and diction more like those of William Wordsworth. He wrote several versions of the famous “Thanatopsis” while still in his teens, but, because the poem expressed many Unitarian ideas, it had to be hidden from his Calvinist grandfather. Bryant wished to study at Harvard University, and his father agreed, but when his grandfather insisted that it would be a needless extravagance, the boy was sent to Williams College. He spent only one year there before returning to Cummington to study law.

“Thanatopsis,” a poem showing how any man might go to his death confident that any faith would save him, appeared in the North American Review in 1817. The poem, which eventually came to be acknowledged as one of the first and best American Romantic poems and to demonstrate an already developed technique, initially appeared anonymously and evoked little comment for several years. His editors, however, hailed Bryant as a new poetic genius. He continued to write industriously and published another volume, Poems (containing, among others, “The Yellow Violet” and “To a Waterfowl”) in 1821. That same year he was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard, but his offering, “The Ages,” a long exposition of the progress and perfectibility of man, did not impress his academic audience. Bryant also began to contribute articles to the North American Review in which he called for a uniquely American poetry uninhibited by eighteenth century English classicism.

In 1825 Bryant left Massachusetts, where he had been practicing law, for literary life in New York, where he founded the periodical New York Review and Atheneum Magazine. Within a year he became an editor of the Evening Post, with which he was connected for the rest of his life. As editor he was a constant champion of free speech, civil rights, the abolition of slavery, and the rights of labor. His strongly liberal political opinions never worked their way into his poetry, however; most of his poetry remained devoted to nature and romantic religious ideas.

After 1830 Bryant wrote little poetry; “To a Fringed Gentian” is one of the primary exceptions. Bryant spent his later years writing editorials; traveling in Europe, from where he sent essays back to the Evening Post; giving a great many commencement and patriotic addresses; and writing critical articles. He wrote many prose pieces on American Indians and on old legends, but his prose lacked the distinction and originality of his poetry. Although he could become heatedly involved in political controversy (especially in his defense of the abolitionist position before the Civil War), his contemporaries could find little, if any, strongly felt emotion in his later poetry, his nonpolitical prose, or his conversation. He was regarded as an efficient editor and a writer and judge with high moral principles but also as a somewhat cold, aloof, unapproachable personality. In fact, he seemed to become more and more like the Calvinist grandfather against whom he had originally rebelled.

Already in his later life Bryant’s poetic criticism was regarded as anachronistic. As might be expected of the author of a number of fine nature poems, he advocated originality, simplicity, and the treatment of emotion in all poetry. He concentrated on the importance of reaching the readers and stirring their imaginations to see the beauty and truth in nature. He was opposed to the strict formalism, measured couplets, and rational satire of eighteenth century verse, and he was forceful in claiming the need for a distinctively American group of poets. These views he set forth in his famous introduction to A Library of Poetry and Song, the first true critical anthology in America. Bryant also insisted on the primary importance of morality in poetry, his doctrine being that the good poet has an obligation to make his readers more moral citizens. By the 1870s, however, American poets and intellectuals had become suspicious of direct connections between poetry and morality; to them Bryant sounded like the remnant of an earlier age.

In the last year of his life Bryant published his long poem “The Flood of Years.” Like “Thanatopsis,” this work dealt with the way an individual should face death and rest secure in the knowledge of ultimate good and with hope for the future of humankind. The poem was widely praised, not so much for its intrinsic qualities as for the fact that its author was the first American Romantic poet, one of the first in the United States to glorify nature as well as the human spirit. Bryant never lost his belief in political liberty. In May 1878, he collapsed after giving an oration at a dedication of a statue of Giuseppe Mazzini in New York’s Central Park, and he died two weeks later.

Author Works Poetry: The Embargo: Or, Sketches of the Times, a Satire, 1808 Poems, 1821, 1832, 1834, 1836, 1839 The Fountain, and Other Poems, 1842 The White-Footed Deer, and Other Poems, 1844 Poems, 1854 Thirty Poems, 1864 Hymns, 1864, 1869 Poems, 1871, 1875 The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant, 1876 The Flood of Years, 1878 Nonfiction: Letters of a Traveller: Or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America, 1850 Reminiscences of the Evening Post, 1851 A Discourse on the Life and Genius of James Fenimore Cooper, 1852 Letters of a Traveller, Second Series, 1859 A Discourse on the Life and Genius of Washington Irving, 1860 Letters from the East, 1869 Orations and Addresses, 1873 Lectures on Poetry, 1884 The Letters of William Cullen Bryant, 1975–1992 (6 volumes; William Cullen Bryant II and Thomas G. Voss, editors) Power for Sanity: Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant, 1829–1861, 1994 Translations: The Iliad of Homer, 1870 The Odyssey of Homer, 1871, 1872 Edited Text: A Library of Poetry and Song, 1871 Bibliography Bigelow, John. William Cullen Bryant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1890. Bigelow was a close friend and business partner of Bryant. His book lacks critical depth but is important for its firsthand account of Bryant’s life and character. Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. A well-written, comprehensive, and reliable account of Bryant’s life. The study of Bryant’s long career at the New York Evening Post is excellent. Little literary analysis. Bryant, William Cullen, II. “Painting and Poetry: A Love Affair of Long Ago.” American Quarterly 22 (Winter, 1970): 859-882. Traces Bryant’s involvement with painters such as Thomas Cole and his help in establishing the National Academy of the Arts. Bryant, William Cullen. Power for Sanity: Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant, 1829-1861. Bryant’s own work provides insight into his intellectual life and his times. Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. The Life, Character and Writings of William Cullen Bryant: A Commemorative Address Delivered Before the New York Historical Society, at the Academy of Music, December 30, 1878. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, [1879]. Of value for its contemporaneity, having been delivered in the year of Bryant’s death. Donovan, Alan B. “William Cullen Bryant: Father of American Song.” New England Quarterly 41 (December, 1968): 505-520. Identifies the importance of Calvinism and neoclassicism in shaping Bryant’s Romantic verses. Finds in Bryant’s work “the first native articulation of the art of poetry.” Glueck, Grace. “Three Nineteenth-Century Minds, One Vision of Nature.” The New York Times, February 16, 2001, p. E38. In the annals of male bonding, the friendship of three celebrated nineteenth century Americans—the poet and journalist Bryant and the painters Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole—should rank high. This article examines the nature of their close relationship. Justice, James H. “The Fireside Poets: Hearthside Values and the Language of Care.” In Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by A. Robert Lee. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Asserting that the “Fireside Poets” established poetry as an American treasure, Justice presents Bryant as one of the firmest to show how personal values could be merged with public service. His conversion from older verse styles to newer, Romantic ones is the focus of the discussion of his work. Includes notes and an index. Krapf, Norbert. Under Open Sky: Poets on William Cullen Bryant. New York: Fordham University Press, 1986. This resource, which includes both prose and poetry by twenty contemporary poets, pays tribute to Bryant, the United States’ first nature poet. The writings give both a broad and deep appraisal of Bryant’s poetic legacy. McLean, Albert F. William Cullen Bryant. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. The first four chapters survey Bryant’s life, examine his poems of nature, analyze “Thanatopsis” in detail, and classify several poems of “progress.” The last three chapters evaluate Bryant’s prose and translations, explicate his poetic theory and style, and review his reputation. Includes chronology, notes, a select bibliography, and an index. Nevins, Allan. The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism. New York: Russell and Russell, 1922. Includes a long account of Bryant’s accomplishments as an editor, praising his business judgment, his cultural influence, and his liberal stance on social issues. Parrington, Vernon L. “William Cullen Bryant: Puritan Liberal.” In Main Currents in American Thought. Vol. 2, 238-246. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1930. Explicates Bryant’s liberal politics and describes him as “the father of nineteenth-century journalism.” Peckham, Harry Houston. Gotham Yankee: A Biography of William Cullen Bryant. New York: Vantage Press, 1950. Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1970. Correcting misrepresentations of Bryant, Peckham describes him as a poet with an interesting personality and an interesting career as a journalist and poet. In eleven chapters, Bryant’s life is narrated from its beginnings, when he was a delicate child, through his legal work of drudgery, to his last years of eloquence. Contains illustrations, notes, a bibliography, a chronology, and an index. Phair, Judith Turner. A Bibliography of William Cullen Bryant and His Critics: 1808-1972. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing Co., 1975. An extremely useful annotated bibliography of critical commentary on Bryant. Ringe, Donald A. “Kindred Spirits: Bryant and Cole.” American Quarterly 6 (Fall, 1954): 233-244. Compares Bryant’s aesthetics with those of the painter Thomas Cole, finding that Bryant had much in common with Cole and the other artists of the Hudson River School. Ringe, Donald A. The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971. Bryant is given priority among writers who shared a pictorial aesthetic. Representation of space in Bryant’s poetry is analyzed as a view of expansive nature, with precision of detail in the play of light and shadow. Time is examined as a force of contrast and continuity. Includes notes and an index.

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