William Cullen Bryant

The American poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) helped introduce European romanticism into American poetry. As an editor, he championed liberal causes. He was one of the most influential and popular figures of mid-19th-century America.

William Cullen Bryant was born on Nov. 3, 1794, in Cummington, Mass. His well-established New England family was staunchly Federalist in politics and Calvinist in religion. Encouraged to write poetry by his father, a physician of wide learning, the boy reflected in his earliest poems his family's political and religious attitudes. Bryant's Federalist satire on Thomas Jefferson, The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times (1808), by a "Youth of Thirteen" was published through his father's influence. In later years the liberal, democratic, Unitarian Bryant understandably wished to forget this youthful indiscretion, and he did not reprint it in any of his collections.

"Thanatopsis" and Other Poems

Bryant entered Williams College in 1810 and left after a year. In 1811 he wrote the first draft of his best-known poem, "Thanatopsis" (literally, view of death), reflecting the influence of English "graveyard" poets such as Thomas Gray.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of "Thanotopsis" is its anti-Christian, stoical view of death. There is no heaven or hell beyond the grave; death ends life, and that is all: "Thine individual being, shalt thou go/ To mix forever with the elements,/ To be a brother to the insensible rock/ And to the sluggish clod…. " Published in 1817, the poem was a marked success; it was reprinted in 1821 in the final, revised version familiar today.

A few years later Bryant modified his attitude to death in "To a Waterfowl," in which a "Power" (God) is omnipresent and beneficent. The later English poet Matthew Arnold considered this to be the finest short poem in the English language. As the 1876 poem "The Flood of Years" makes clear, Bryant held this view of death to the end of his life.

Shortly after Bryant wrote the first draft of "Thanotopsis," he came under the influence of the romantic British poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the opening lines of "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood," Bryant conveyed a love of nature that he retained throughout his career: "Thou wilt find nothing here [in nature]/ Of all that pained thee in the haunts of men,/ And made thee loathe thy life." However, like Wordsworth and other romantics, Bryant saw the world of nature less as an escape from the evils of life in the city than as a positive, vital force in itself. He explored this idea in other poems of this period, such as "The Yellow Violet," "I Cannot Forget with What Fervid Devotion," "Green River," and "A Winter Piece," and later in "A Forest Hymn," "The Death of Flowers," and "The Prairies."

Following his year at Williams College, Bryant read for the law and in 1815 was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. From 1816 to 1825 he practiced law in Great Barrington, Mass. He also kept up his literary activities, writing poetry and essays. In 1821 he published his first volume, Poems, and read his Phi Beta Kappa poem "The Ages" at Harvard. That same year he married Frances Fairchild, his "Fairest of the Rural Maids."

In 1826 Bryant became assistant editor of the liberal New York Evening Post and in 1829 editor in chief. He served in this capacity for 50 years.

Poetic Theories

Bryant formulated his poetic theories in a series of four lectures on poetry, which he delivered in 1826 before the New York Athenaeum Society (they were published in 1884). He stressed, "The most beautiful poetry is that which takes the strongest hold of the feelings…. Important, therefore, as may be the office of the imagination [and of understanding, as well] in poetry, the great spring of poetry is emotion." (He expressed a similar view in the 1864 poem "The Poet.") Models from the past which the poet chooses to follow should be used only as guides to his own originality. While acknowledging that America's historical and cultural past was not as rich for the creation of poetry as England's, Bryant nevertheless felt that when America did produce a great poet he would draw on the best the young country had to offer.

The Editor

As an editor espousing liberal causes, Bryant had considerable impact on the life of New York and of the nation. Typical of his editorials was "The Right of Workmen to Strike" (1836), in which he upheld the workers' right to collective bargaining and ridiculed the prosecution of labor unions: "Can any thing be imagined more abhorrent to every sentiment of generosity or justice, than the law which arms the rich with the legal right to fix … the wages of the poor? If this is not slavery, we have forgotten its definition."

Similarly, Bryant was firmly committed to many other liberal causes of the day, including the antislavery movement, the "free-soil" concept, and free trade among nations. He also helped in the formation of the new Republican party in 1855.

Bryant published nine volumes of poetry from 1832 on. He also translated the Iliad (1870) and the Odyssey (1871-1872). He died in New York City on June 12, 1878.

Though Bryant was not a great poet, his poems were much admired in his own time, and a number of them are eminently readable today. As the guiding force of the Evening Post, he left his mark not only on the city his liberal paper served but on the nation as well.

Further Reading on William Cullen Bryant

Parke Godwin, Bryant's son-in-law, edited the standard editions of both The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (2 vols., 1883) and Bryant's Prose Writings (2 vols., 1884). The best one-volume edition of the poems is Henry C. Sturges and Richard Henry Stoddard, eds., The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (1903). The standard biography of Bryant is Parke Godwin, A Biography of William Cullen Bryant, with Extracts from His Private Correspondence (2 vols., 1883). A more balanced assessment is Harry H. Peckham, Gotham Yankee: A Biography of William Cullen Bryant (1950). Tremaine McDowell edited and wrote an excellent introduction to William Cullen Bryant: Representative Selections (1935). Allan Nevins, The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism (1922), discusses Bryant as an editor. Recommended for general background are Roy Harvey Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets, from the Puritans to the Present (1968).