WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT
There are patriotic people who maintain that America is the predestined home of poetry. They point to litiK: Greece, with her rocky cliffs and bosky vales, her purple hills and encircling isles, and ask triumphantly if Greece was not the natural habitat of liberty and beauty. When we assent, they argue a fortiori that our great continent was even more manifestly ordained to nourish the largest and most precious growths of the human mind. Poetry is one of those largest and most precious growths, for it is the rhythmical expression of the world's meaning, in thoughts that breathe and words that burn. Poetry therefore must be native to America.
The argument would do credit to Henry Thomas Buckle, who attributes civilization wholly to environment. But it is not convincing. Unfortunately, perhaps, poetry needs for its production something more than bigness of territory or sublimity of scenery. Switzerland has giant and snow-crowned peaks, but she has never had a great poet. Our own mountain ranges and untrodden forests, our prairie cyclones and river floods, furnish proper surroundings, but they do not furnish the needed inspiration. Our struggles with Indian ferocity and British tyranny, our combi
4 POETRY A BELATED PRODUCT OF AMERICA
nation of civil freedom with civil union, give us subjects for poetry, but not the genius to treat them. A nation of Gradgrinds would still value Niagara only for its water-power, and would be entirely content with prose.
As a matter of fact, poetry was a belated product of the American soil. We may possibly explain this by remembering that
The Pilgrim bands, who passed the sea to keep
Their Sabbaths in the eye of God alone,
In his wide temple of the wilderness1
were Puritans of the most straitest sect, many of whom thought love for nature a dangerous rival to love for God. The clearing of forests and the fear of savage aggression, moreover, occupied their thoughts. The Bay Psalm Book was the nearest approach to poetical expression, and that was wholly religious. Grotesque and unmelodious as it was, it witnessed that the instinct of poetry still survived, and that men cannot long live without some such exercise of the imagination. Most wonderful it is that, after such bare and unpromising beginnings, there should have suddenly appeared the true father of American literature, the first real poet of our Western world. We wonder when we see the sun of Homer rising upon the darkness of Hellenic times; we may quite as justly wonder when we find the bizarre and tasteless lines of Trumbull and Barlow succeeded by the mature and lofty verse of William Cullen Bryant.
Yet even this prodigy was rooted in the past.
1 Bryant, "The Burial-place."
BRYANT S ANCESTRY 5
Though the poetic afflatus was an original and divine endowment, heredity and environment prepared the way for its expression. The poet came of a sturdy New England stock. His father and his father's father were physicians. His mother was a woman of energy and piety, who taught her son to love and to repeat the hymns of Isaac Watts. She hated drunkenness and lying. The father was a born naturalist. He taught his son botany and woodcraft, as well as love for good literature. For the time in which he lived, Doctor Bryant was a man of large and liberal mind. He was for several sessions member of the lower house of the Massachusetts Legislature, and once at least he was a member of the Senate. His visits to Boston and his acquaintance with public men made him the oracle of his town, though his serene nature prevented any pretense of superiority. He was careful of his dress, and was sometimes taken for a city resident, spending his holiday in the country. His physical strength was such that, though not of great stature, he could put his barrel of cider over the wheel into the wagon. Since his own father was a physician, his ambition was to have a son who should be a physician also, and with that hope he named his second son William Cullen, after the then celebrated physician of Edinburgh.
The boy was evidently well endowed in body. His only defect in childhood seems to have been a bigness of head, which the father sought to reduce, by plunging him each morning into a spring of cold water. He was born at Cummington, a little hamlet hid away among the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts.
6 BIRTHPLACE AND EARLY DISCIPLINE
The first pioneer had built his cabin there only thirty years before, and it was in a log house that William first saw the light. That log house has long since vanished from the scene, but the tradition of it still remains, in spite of the commodious mansion which after a time took its place and became the poet's country resort.
Robert Burns was born in a hovel, but Scottish minstrelsy preceded him. William Cullen Bryant owed more than Burns to his early education. His first schoolhouse was built of logs, but pedagogy in those days meant severe discipline, and the three R's were ground into the very fiber of his being. He was industrious and meditative. His natural habit of seclusion was fostered by the presence and influence, in the family, of his mother's father, Ebenezer Snell, an aweinspiring patriarch, who frowned on all frivolity in the children. Grandfather Snell was a magistrate, under whose administration Bryant remembered seeing forty lashes inflicted upon a young fellow of eighteen for theft. A bundle of birchen twigs hung beside the chimney of the old log house, as an indispensable part of the kitchen furniture, and as a warning to evil-doers; and such rods boys often had to gather for their own castigation. But there were also books. Bryant traced back his poetical gift to his great-grandfather, Doctor Howard, who had opportunely left a large part of his library to his descendants. The boy devoured "The Pilgrim's Progress" and "Robinson Crusoe." Pope, Gray, and Goldsmith were his father's possessions, and these served to mitigate the influence of Anne Bradstreet and other New England poetasters.
EDUCATIONAL INFLUENCES 7
We must not forget the educational influence of the times. Though Bryant was born in 1794, when the war of the Revolution was over, the survivors of that war were still in evidence, and stories of the Boston Tea-party and of Bunker Hill, of Saratoga and Valley Forge, were the chief entertainments of the fireside. There was no theater or circus, but the militia-muster,. the husking-bee, the apple-paring, the barn-raising, and the maple-sugar camp furnished healthful excitement to the young folk of the community. The love of country flourished side by side with the love of nature. The pulpit of that day dealt only with great themes. Heaven and hell were realities that gave light and shade to daily life. Men's thoughts of the outward world and of civil government were interpenetrated by their thoughts of God and of immortality. The poetry of that age must needs be a serious poetry. But the material was there. The beauty and grandeur of nature, patriotic pride and boundless hope for the country's future, gratitude to God for freedom and faith in God's guidance of the individual and of the State—what nobler sources of poetic inspiration were ever found in any land?
Bryant was a natural linguist. At sixteen months, he knew all the letters of the alphabet. At the age of fourteen he began Latin with his uncle, Rev. Dr. Thomas Snell, of Brookfield, and in eighteen months he had read enough Latin to fit him for admission to college at an advanced standing. At fifteen he began Greek with Rev. Moses Hallock, of Plainfield, and in two months he had read through the whole Greek Testament. This finished his preparatory studies, and 8 LACK OF COLLEGE TRAINING
at sixteen years of age he entered the sophomore class of Williams College. But shyness of nature and straitness of finance limited his stay to seven months. He left college indeed with the hope of finishing his course at Yale. This his father's means did not permit. He contented himself with a year of the classics and the mathematics with his father at home. It was no bad substitute for college training, and Williams College shortly afterward gave him his degree. To the end of his days Bryant recognized his indebtedness to his father. The father must have perceived his son's bent toward literature, for we read of no more effort to make him a physician. Doctor Bryant was himself inclined to the making of verses, and classical study had taught him correctness and compression. These qualities of style the father communicated to the son. In after years the poet, mourning his father's death, wrote touchingly:
For he is in his grave who taught my youth
The art of verse, and in the bud of life
Offered me to the Muses.'
That year at home, under parental tutelage, with freedom to roam the woods and meditate upon their lessons, was a great year for Bryant, for it witnessed the dawn of his poetical ambition. His mind and heart were awakening, and he himself tells us:
I cannot forget with what fervid devotion
I worshiped the visions of verse and of fame;
Each gaze at the glories of earth, sky, and ocean,
To my kindled emotions, was wind over flame.
3 " Hymn to Death."
"songs of The Mock1ng-b1rd 9
Till I felt the dark power o'er my reveries stealing,
From the gloom of the thicket that over me hung,
And the thoughts that awoke, in that rapture of feeling,
Were formed into verse as they rose to my tongue.3
In his later years he gives his matured conception of his calling in the verses entitled "The Poet," and shows us that poetic inspiration does not exclude careful elaboration:
Deem not the framing of a deathless lay
The pastime of a drowsy summer day.
And in the poem named "A Lifetime," he dutifully connects the growth of his own mind with the teaching of his father:
He murmurs his own rude verses
As he roams the woods alone;
And again I gaze with wonder,
His eyes are so like my own.
I see him next in his chamber,
Where he sits him down to write
The rhymes he framed in his ramble,
And he cons them with delight.
A kindly figure enters,
A man of middle age,
And points to a line just written,
And 'tis blotted from the page.
Bryant's earliest productions, however, were only "songs of the mocking-bird," and showed no signs of originality. All the more wonderful it is, that in his eighteenth year he was the author of "Thanatopsis,"
»"I Cannot Forget."
a poem so elevated in thought and so faultless in diction as to give it rank with the world's best literature. "Thanatopsis " was at first a fragment, and its beginnings go back to the poet's sixteenth year. Up to that time he had written only school-exercises, some of which he had recited to little audiences in the schoolhouse; besides these there was one college poem, which is of no great account and was apparently gotten up to order. But his days of schooling were now over. He could no longer be dependent upon his father; he must shift for himself. His bent to poetry did not prevent him from perceiving that literature would never furnish him with a living; penury has indeed been well defined as the wages of the pen. He began the study of the law at Worthington and at Bridgewater, and at the age of twenty-one was admitted to the bar at Plymouth. But before leaving home to begin these studies, and at the age of eighteen, he completed "Thanatopsis," laid it aside, and apparently forgot it. In his absence, Doctor Bryant rummaged over the contents of a drawer and drew forth the precious document. After reading it hastily, he gave it to a lady friend, and asked her to pass upon its merits. She read it, and burst into tears, and in her weeping the doctor soon joined. They were tears of joy, for they saluted the rise above the horizon of our first poet, one of God's greatest gifts to the New World.
Dana, the editor of the " North American Review," thought it could not have been written by an American. The wonder of it was that a youth in his teens could have produced a poem so free from foreign influence, yet so faultless and sublime. Stoddard has called it
"the greatest poem ever written by so young a man." President Mark Hopkins said that Bryant "had the wisdom of age in his youth, and the fire of youth in his age." I have spoken of "Thanatopsis" as "so free from foreign influences." But I cannot wholly agree with George William Curtis, when he pronounces it " without a trace of the English masters of the hour." Chadwick is more nearly correct, when he says that Henry Kirke White's "Ode to the Rosemary," Bishop Porteus's "Death," and Blair's "Grave" all helped to shape the mood out of which "Thanatopsis" came. To my mind it owes yet more to the example and inspiration of Wordsworth, who began to print before Bryant was born. We know that Judge Howe, at Worthington, found Wordsworth in Bryant's hand, and warned him that it would spoil his style. But, thanks to his own native gift, Bryant had his own style, and Wordsworth only stimulated and encouraged it.
"Thanatopsis" is a poet's vision of death. The solemn aspects of death are in mind, but they are not funereal. The coming of the inevitable day is nothing dreaded. It is the appointed end of earthly life, and its lesson is expressed in the closing lines of the poem:
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
12 ODE ON BIRTHDAY OF WASHINGTON
Early maturity is often the precursor of early decay. But this was not the case with Bryant. His genius was a perennial plant, and he bore fruit even in old age. In his eightieth year he wrote his "Ode on the Birthday of George Washington," of which John Bigelow said that these were "the finest verses ever produced by one so young and yet so old." In some editions this ode is entitled "The Twenty-second of February." As it is brief, I quote it entire:
Pale is the February sky,
And brief the midday's sunny hours;
The wind-swept forest seems to sigh
For the sweet time of leaves and flowers.
Yet has no month a prouder day,
Not even when the summer broods
O'er meadows in their fresh array,
Or autumn tints the glowing woods.
For this chill season now again
Brings, in its annual round, the morn
When, greatest of the sons of men,
. Our glorious Washington was born.
Lo, where, beneath an icy shield,
Calmly the mighty Hudson flows!
By snow-clad fell and frozen field,
Broadening, the lordly river goes.
The wildest storm that sweeps through space,
And rends the oak with sudden force,
Can raise no ripple on his face,
Or slacken his majestic course.
Thus, 'mid the wreck of thrones, shall live
Unmarred, undimmed, our hero's fame,
And years succeeding years shall give
Increase of honors to his name.
WIDE STRETCH OF BRYANTS ACTIVITY I3
This poem, written just before Bryant died, suggests to us the wide stretch of his poetical activity, and its remarkable influence upon American literature. That influence covered a period of fifty-six years. Bryant's youth was the time of Napoleon's conquests, and of his final defeat at Waterloo. He lived through the reigns of Louis Philippe and of Napoleon the Third; through our war of 1812 and our great Civil War; and through the administrations of twelve of our American presidents. He celebrated Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation, and he expressed in pathetic verse the sorrow of the nation at Lincoln's death. His poetry never changed its sober and thoughtful air. The lyric and the impassioned were foreign to him. But interpretations of natural beauty were never lacking. He had not the melody of Shelley, nor the introspection of Browning, but there were a simplicity and a judicial quality about his verse which made it impressive and convincing.
Bryant's youth was past before there occurred the so-called Elizabethan revival. Chaucer and Shakespeare did not get their proper hold upon him. If he had models at all, he found them in Cowper and Wordsworth. So we do not find in him the vast vocabulary and deep acquaintance with human passion that are so marked in Shakespeare, nor even Chaucer's gaiety and breadth of sympathy. The stateliness of Pope and the somberness of Wordsworth made their mark upon him. Yet he avoided the platitudinous sentiment of " The Excursion," and the artistic moralizing of the " Essay on Man." He was slow to print, and quick to detect doggerel. While his verse is never
14 CORYPHEUS OF AMERICAN POETS
brilliant or startling, it never lacks correctness, both in form and substance. Its sincerity commends it. We can never say of Bryant, as has been said of Wordsworth, that his fame would be greater if ninetenths of his writing had been burned. It is this combination of beauty and truth, of insight into nature's meanings and simplicity in the expression of them, that has made Bryant the teacher and corypheus of our American poets.
My meaning will be more plain if I quote the words of Emerson and of Longfellow. These great writers had Bryant's verse before them at the very beginning of their literary careers. While Bryant was born in 1794, Emerson's birth was in 1803, and Longfellow's in 1807. Longfellow writes: "He was my master in verse—ten years my senior. His translations from the Spanish rival the originals in beauty." Emerson adds, "He has written some of the best poetry we have had in America." Yet Bryant did not devote himself wholly to poetry. The study of the law was followed by the practice of the law, and he could undoubtedly have succeeded in that profession. First at Plainfield, and then at Great Barrington, legal practice occupied him for nine whole years. During this period his reputation secured for him both readers and hearers. Harvard invited him to deliver its Phi Beta Kappa address, and he responded with his poem, "The Ages," a thoughtful review of the progress of human society, with stirring prophecy of the coming greatness of America. He writes:
Europe is given a prey to sterner fates
And writhes in shackles. . .
THE LAW EXCHANGED FOR LETTERS 15
But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall,
Save with thy children—thy maternal care,
Thy lavish love, thy blessings showered on all—
These are thy fetters—seas and stormy air
Are the wide barrier of thy borders, where,
Among thy gallant sons who guard thee well,
Thou laugh'st at enemies: who shall then declare
The date of thy deep-founded strength, or tell
How happy, in thy lap, the sons of men shall dwell!
But the law was not his chosen vocation. He became disgusted with the technicality and chicanery which often accompanied its practice. He saw himself
forced to drudge for the dregs of men,
And scrawl strange words with the barbarous pen,
And mingle among the jostling crowd,
Where the sons of strife are subtle and loud.4
He longed for an opening into some form of literary activity. This was furnished him in the city of New York, where, after a year of work upon a purely literary and short-lived review, he became, first, associate editor, and then chief editor and owner, of " The Evening Post."
The change from country to city was a momentous one. Yet the New York of 1825 was not the New York of to-day. It numbered only 180,000 inhabitants, and the city extended no farther north than Fourth Street. Bryant found much of country scenery within easy reach, for he tells us that he delighted to ramble along the wooded shores of the Hudson above Canal Street. The city, indeed, was solidly built only so far as Canal. City life was not yet differentiated from the
* " Green River."
l6 EDITOR OF "THE EVENING POST"
life of the country. Though the poet was a lawyer, with nine years' experience of litigation and of mingling with his kind, he was by nature a modest man, and he hated publicity. In Great Barrington he had held the positions of tithing-man, town clerk, and justice of the peace, with an aggregate compensation of five dollars a year for all the three. For obvious reasons he afterward declined public office. In the great city he gave himself strictly to his business as editor. For forty-six years he followed what he regarded as his peculiar calling. He did more than any other man to elevate the tone of American journalism. It greatly needed elevating, as Dickens and Trollope have shown us to our sorrow.
No one who has reached the age of seventy can remember without shame the personalities and vulgarities of the daily press of fifty years ago. Bryant dealt with principles rather than with persons. He was at first a Federalist, because he feared the Jeffersonian tendency to sectionalism and individualism. After a time he became an advocate of Free Trade, because he detested all restrictions upon commerce; indeed, he demonstrated his independence of judgment and the courage of his convictions by standing many years for Free Trade when in all the country he was its only advocate. The same general principle of liberty under law, that made him first a Federalist and then a Democrat, led him at last, when the slavery agitation began, to take sides with the Republican party, and with that party he continued to act through the remainder of his life. He was no doctrinaire, like Greeley, and he had not the sarcastic and bitter pen of Godkin, his
THE JOURNALIST AND CITIZEN 1J
successor; but he was an almost ideal editor, for sound judgment and ability to guide public opinion.
We owe him a great debt. If we abhor yellow journalism, it is because he set for us the true standard. He did not cater to popular taste, but aimed to form that taste. Not simply news, but leadership; not mere reflection of the good and evil of the day, but inculcation of right views in politics, art, and conduct— these were his aims. He loved his work as editor, because it was so impersonal. He could teach men to weigh reasons, instead of being led by passion and prejudice. But he could not be hid. He became known as the first suggester of the present park system of New York, and his statue now very properly stands behind the new building of the Public Library, and facing the park which bears his name. He was the founder of the Century Club, and its president when he died.' He was also the founder of the National Academy of Design. He was called upon for addresses in commemoration of Cole the painter, of Cooper the novelist, of Washington Irving, Samuel F. B. Morse, Shakespeare, Scott, Halleck, and last of all, Mazzini. Indeed, it was just after his address in honor of Mazzini that, on entering the house of a friend, " that good gray head that all men knew" fell backward and struck the stone pavement, so that fourteen days afterward Bryant expired.
It is calculated that his editorial writing, during the half-century of his connection with "The Evening Post," would fill a hundred octavo volumes of five hundred pages each. He wrote upon manifold subjects of politics, history, biography, travel, art; but always
18 PHYSICAL CONDITIONS OF BRYANTS ENERGY
with pellucid clearness and straightforwardness, and with a view to immediate effect. He went seven times to Europe, and made one stay of two years abroad. He was a scholar in several languages, and made translations from Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, and French poems. He recited Dante in Italian, to match Zachos*s recitation of Greek. He engaged in no financial speculations, and he never sold his editorial influence to any man or to any party. But he was all the more recognized as the leader of the American press, and his business sagacity and success were so great that at his death he left to his family a fortune of half a million dollars.
We cannot understand this untiring energy without some knowledge of its physical conditions. Bryant had one of those calm natures to which work seems easy and inevitable. There were no idle hours. Industry was bred in the bone. He tells us that his regular practice was to rise at five in summer, and at half past five in winter; to spend the first hour of the day in gymnastic exercise; then to bathe; to breakfast mainly on cereals; to avoid tea and coffee altogether; to walk three miles each morning to his office, and to reaeh that office by eight o'clock. The afternoon journal necessitated early hours in its editor. When his editorial work was over, he walked home again. But he took no office cares with him. He lived two lives. When the life of the editor closed with the day, the life of the poet began. His house at Roslyn on Long Island was a rural retreat, with forty acres of lawns and trees and shrubs and flowers about it. But within was a library of several thousand books, the sifted and CHARACTER FOUNDED IN BELIEF IN GOD 19
garnered wisdom and product of the ages. Here he luxuriated, and received many a distinguished guest. And here he continued to write poetry, though the pruning-knife and the waste-basket made the final product small. Toward the close of his life it was only on great occasions that he spent a night in his city house. Public dinners always sought him, and he frequently attended them. He was not a vegetarian, though he ate little meat; he was not a total abstainer, but his taking of wine was very rare and very sparing. He never used tobacco, though he provided it for his friends. At the age of eighty, though "a million wrinkles carved his skin," his senses of sight and of hearing were as perfect as when he was a boy. He never wore spectacles, and he was never confined to his bed by illness. His only answer, as to the secret of this wonderful endurance, was the one word, " Moderation."
But he was more than an editor, and more than a poet; he was a man. The foundation of his indomitable character was his belief in God. He was not given to voluble expression of his feelings; he thought, not altogether wisely, as I think, that a gentleman should never talk of his religion or of his love-affairs. We have few glimpses of his inner life, except those which are furnished by his poems. His actions, however, speak louder than words. In his family, every Sunday morning, there was the reading of a chapter of the Bible and of prayers. He was, from his youth to his age, an invariable attendant upon the Sunday services of the church. In New England he worshiped with the Congregationalists, on Long Island with Presby
20 RELIGIOUS HABITS
terians, in the city of New York with Unitarians. But l1e never ventured to make a Christian profession until his later years. Mr. Curtis has told so beautifully the story of this epoch in his life, that I quote his words:
"The poem called 'The Life that Is,' dated at Castellamare, in May, 1858, commemorates the recovery of his wife from a serious illness. A little time before, in the month of April, after a long walk with his friend, the Reverend Mr. VVaterston, of Boston, on the shore of the Bay of Naples, he spoke with softened heart of the new beauty that he felt in the old truth, and proposed to his friend to baptize him. With prayer and hymn and spiritual meditation, a little company of seven, says Mr. Waterston, in a large upper room, as in the Christian story, partook of the Communion, and with his good gray head bowed down, Bryant was baptized."
In the painted window which commemorates the ministry of Frederick W. Robertson in Brighton, England, there is a representation of Jesus at the age of twelve before the doctors in the temple, and with this inscription, "They were thinking about theology; he about religion." Bryant dealt with religion. He was no professed theologian. Yet every man has some theology, whether he be conscious of it or not. Some conceptions of truth lie at the basis of his moral action, and the more thoughtful and logical he is, the more clear and articulate will these conceptions be. A mind so vigorous and honest as Bryant's could not help expressing itself in forms of speech; and though he was shy of utterance with regard to the deepest things of the soul, his poetic nature could not be satisfied without putting into verse that which to him was most fundamental. Many of his poems, indeed, seem written by way of gradual approach to a Christian con
BRYANT AND WORDSWORTH 21
fession, and to be glad and solemn avenues leading onward and upward to the holy of holies and to the dwelling-place of God.
I regard Bryant as a more truly Christian poet than even Wordsworth. Both were poets of nature. But Wordsworth came near to identifying God with nature: Bryant never confounded the two. Wordsworth would never have found delight in mountain, field, and flood, if he had not recognized in them a Spirit which through them manifested itself to mortals. That Spirit, however, never seems to utter articulate sounds, or to take personal form. But to Bryant, God was never mere impersonal spirit. "It " and " which" were not applicable to Him. God was transcendent, even more than he was immanent. The finite was never merged in the infinite. Mortal awe never became pantheistic absorption. In all this we see the abiding influence of the poet's New England training, and the happy effect of those theological sermons to which he listened in his youth.
What theology we find in Bryant's poetry must then be gathered from occasional utterances of the overflowing heart, rather than from any set effort to declare dogmatic truth. When we do find such utterances, we may be sure that they will be clear indications of his inmost thought, and not diplomatic concessions to the spirit of the times. He believed, first of all, in a per
22 CLEAR FAITH IN A PERSONAL GOD
sonal God, and a God of lo^e. This faith delivered him from melancholy, and made him optimistic. In this respect he was a contrast to Matthew Arnold, to whom God was only "the power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness." One of the most astounding announcements in all literature is Matthew Arnold's assertion that this is the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. Without a personal God, the forward-looking spirit of Israel would be inexplicable. It is easy to see the truth of Hutton's remark that Matthew Arnold embodies in his verse " the sweetness, the gravity, the strength, the beauty, and the languor of death." Bryant's verse has sweetness and gravity, but these are the sweetness and gravity of true life, derived from the divine source of life, and sustained thereby. The solemn joy of Bryant has its analogue, not in the nocturne of Chopin, but in the largo of Handel.
Our poet saw God in the beauty and grandeur of the world. Woods, waves, and sky were vocal with praise of their great Author. Bryant was not ignorant of science, but he wished to join science to faith. Some of his noblest poetry is the expression of spontaneous emotion in presence of God's sublime manifestations in nature. "A Forest Hymn" illustrates this characteristic of his verse:
The groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned
To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,
And spread the roof above them—ere he framed
The lofty vault, to gather and roll back
The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood,
Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down,
And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks
GOD IN NATURE S GRANDEUR 23
"A Hymn of the Sea" gives us, in a similar manner, the poet's recognition of God's presence in "old ocean's gray and melancholy waste ":
The sea is mighty, but a mightier sways
His restless billows. Thou, whose hands have scooped
His boundless gulfs and built his shore, thy breath,
That moved in the beginning o'er his face,
Moves o'er it evermore.
So too, there is a "Song of the Stars," in which the heavenly spheres are called
The boundless visible smile of Him
To the veil of whose brow your lamps are dim.
Over against God's creatorship and omnipresence, Bryant recognizes the sinfulness of humanity:
When, from the genial cradle of our race,
Went forth the tribes of men . . .
. . . and there forgot
The truth of heaven, and kneeled to gods that heard
Is full of guilt and misery, . .
Enough of all its sorrows, crimes, and cares,
To tire thee of it."
Ha! how the murmur deepens! I perceive
And tremble at its dreadful import. Earth
Uplifts a general cry for guilt and wrong,
And heaven is listening.7
There seems to be confession of his personal sin:
■ " The Ages." • " Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood."
1 " Earth."
24 SINFULNESS OF HUMANITY
For me, the sordid cares in which I dwell
Shrink and consume my heart, as heat the scroll;
And wrath has left its scar—that fire of hell
Has left its frightful scar upon my soul."
"The West Wind" is a symbol of human inconstancy and ingratitude:
Ah! thou art like our wayward race;—
When not a shade of pain or ill
Dims the bright smile of Nature's face,
Thou lov'st to sigh and murmur still.
He regrets his forgetfulness of the "Yellow Violet":
So they, who climb to wealth, forget
The friends in darker fortunes tried;
I copied them—but I regret
That I should ape the ways of pride.
"The African Chief" depicts the cruelty of the savage:
Chained in the market-place he stood,
A man of giant frame.
But his appeals for mercy are in vain:
His heart was broken—crazed his brain:
At once his eye grew wild;
He struggled fiercely with his chain,
Whispered, and wept, and smiled;
Yet wore not long those fatal bands,
And once, at shut of day,
They drew him forth upon the sands,
The foul hyena's prey.
Human sinfulness touches the divine compassion in Bryant's verse. He sees in "The Fountain," that
■"The Future Life."
THE DIVINE COMPASSION 25
springs " from the red mould and slimy roots of earth," the symbol of God's grace:
Thus doth God
Bring, from the dark and foul, the pure and bright.
And in " The Ages " he asks:
Has nature, in her calm, majestic march,
Faltered with age at last? . .
Look on this beautiful world, and read the truth
In her fair page.
■ . . . Eternal Love doth keep, In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.
Will then the merciful One, who stamped our race
With his own image, . .
. . . leave a work so fair all blighted and accursed?
Oh, no! a thousand cheerful omens give
Hope of yet happier days, whose dawn is nigh.
He who has tamed the elements, shall not live
The slave of his own passions; he whose eye
Unwinds the eternal dances of the sky,
And in the abyss of brightness dares to span
The sun's broad circle, rising yet more high,
In God's magnificent works his will shall scan—
And love and peace shall make their paradise with man.
The poet's sympathy with nature is connected with ^ his Puritan belief in man's fall. The external world is beautiful, because unfallen. It shares with man the effects of sin; but, whenever we retreat from the regions which man's folly has despoiled, we may find something which reminds us of our lost paradise. From the wrath and injustice of man, the Puritans fled to the untrodden wilderness, and in its solitudes they o
26 THE BEAUTIFUL UNFALLEN WORLD
found a sanctuary. In the "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood," we read:
The primal curse
Fell, it is true, upon the unsinning earth,
But not in vengeance. God hath yoked to guilt
Her pale tormentor, misery.
And so all things work together for good, even though for the present they may seem to contradict the divine beneficence. Bryant's "Hymn to Death" makes even that grim messenger to be the protector of God's creatures:
Thus, from the first of time, hast thou been found
On virtue's side; the wicked, but for thee,
Had been too strong for the good; the great of earth
Had crushed the weak forever.
The " Hymn of the Waldenses " declares the justice of God:
Hear, Father, hear thy faint afflicted flock
Cry to thee, from the desert and the rock. . .
Thou, Lord, dost hold the thunder; the firm land
Tosses in billows when it feels thy hand. . .
Yet, mighty God, yet shall thy frown look forth
Unveiled, and terribly shall shake the earth.
But justice is mixed with love. He translates, from the Provencal of Bernard Rascas, the magnificent lines:
All things that are on earth shall wholly pass away,
Except the love of God, which shall live and last for aye.
The forms of men shall be as they had never been;
The blasted groves shall lose their fresh and tender green;
DIVINE JUSTICE AND LOVE 27
And the great globe itself, so the holy writings tell,
With the rolling firmament, where the starry armies dwell,
Shall melt with fervent heat—they shall all pass away,
Except the love of God, which shall live and last for aye.
And from Boethius, on " The Order of Nature ":
Thou who wouldst read, with an undarkened eye,
The laws by which the Thunderer bears sway,
Look at the stars that keep, in yonder sky,
Unbroken peace from Nature's earliest day.
Love binds the parts together, gladly still
They court the kind restraint, nor would be free;
Unless Love held them subject to the Will
That gave them being, they would cease to be.
This love cares for the individual, as well as for the great whole over which it rules. The poet, in "The Crowded Street," cannot think any human soul forgotten:
Each, where his tasks or pleasures call,
They pass, and heed each other not.
There is who heeds, who holds them all,
In his large care and boundless thought.
These struggling tides of life that seem
In wayward, aimless course to tend,
Are eddies of the mighty stream
That rolls to an appointed end.
There was a vein of humor in Bryant, which seldom came to the surface, but which his associates sometimes discovered. He invites his pastor, Doctor Dewey, to come with Mrs. Dewey and visit him at his countryseat on Long Island:
The season wears an aspect glum and glummer,
The icy north wind, an unwelcome comer,
Frighting from garden walks each pretty hummer,
28 A VEIN OF HUMOR
Whose murmuring music lulled the noons of summer,
Roars in the woods, with grummer voice and grummer,
And thunders in the forest like a drummer.
Dumb are the birds—they could not well be dumber;
The winter-cold, life's pitiless benumber,
Bursts water-pipes, and makes us call the plumber.
Now, by the fireside, toils the patient thumber
Of ancient books, and no less patient summer
Of long accounts, while topers fill the rummer,
The maiden thinks what furs will best become her,
And on the stage-boards shouts the gibing mummer.
Shut in by storms, the dull piano-strummer
Murders old tunes. There's nothing wearisomer!
This rhyming would have done credit to Browning or Lowell. But Bryant's humor appeared more often in his editorial work than in his poetry. A witty opponent said that his articles always began with a stale joke, and ended with a fresh lie—an accusation which only shows how greatly the journalism of the clay needed reformation.
No stanza of all Bryant's writing is better known or more often quoted than that from the poem entitled " The Battle-field ":
Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
Th' eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
And dies among his worshipers.
This verse has been criticized, as holding to some power of impersonal truth to conquer the world. In the light of our poet's other utterances, I must think this criticism unjust. Truth is personified only by poetic license. It has power only because it has God behind it, and because it is the very nature of God
TRUTH AND FREEDOM NOT IMPERSONAL 20.
himself. And so I must interpret those noble lines in "My Autumn Walk," in which Bryant exclaims:
Oh, for that better season,
When the pride of the foe shall yield,
And the hosts of God and Freedom
March back from the well-won field!
The hosts of truth and freedom are only the agents and instruments of God.
This persistent theism characterizes his short and fanciful, as well as his longer and more serious productions. I know of no more beautiful celebration of divine Providence than that of Bryant's address "To a Waterfowl." It brings down God's care into the affairs of individual life:
Whither, midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?.
Vainly the fowler's eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.
Seek'st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chafed ocean-side?
There is a Power whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast—
The desert and illimitable air—
Lone wandering, but not lost.
All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold, thin atmosphere,
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.
30 TO A WATERFOWL
And soon that toil shall end;
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest.
Thou'rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form; yet, on my heart
Deeply has sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.
He who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that 1 must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
These lines were written in the poet's youth, when the world was all before him where to choose, and when competence and success were far away. They are as perfect in diction as they are in faith. Matthew Arnold agreed with Hartley Coleridge in pronouncing "The Waterfowl " the finest short poem in the English language. I discern the same pure and trustful spirit in his poem entitled "Blessed are they that Mourn." The Providence that gives us days of gladness does not forget us in our days of sorrow:
Oh, deem not they are blest alone
Whose lives a peaceful tenor keep;
The Power who pities man, hath shown
A blessing for the eyes that weep.
The light of smiles shall fill again
The lids that overflow with tears;
And weary hours of woe and pain
Are promises of happier years.
There is a day of sunny rest
For every dark and troubled night:
And grief may bide an evening guest,
But joy shall come with early light.
BRYANT A CHRISTIAN 31
And thou, who, o*er thy friend's low bier,
Dost shed the bitter drops like rain,
Hope that a brighter, happier sphere
Will give him to thy arms again.
Nor let the good man's trust depart,
Though life its common gifts deny,—
Though with a pierced and bleeding heart,
And spurned of men, he goes to die.
For God hath marked each sorrowing day,
And numbered every secret tear,
And heaven's long age of bliss shall pay
For all his children suffer here.
William Cullen Bryant was a Christian. He declared his entire reliance on Christ for salvation. I do not know that his faith would have answered to the ordinary dogmatic standards, but it was certainly strong enough to lead him to confession and to baptism. He knew his own weakness and insufficiency, and he trusted in what God had done for him, and what God would do for him, in Jesus Christ. In his Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard, he showed
Instead of the pure heart and innocent hands,
Are all the proud and pompous modes to gain
The smile of Heaven.
It is not generally known that he wrote hymns for public worship, for not all of these are included in most editions of his works. But Symington, in his biography, quotes for us two stanzas of a hymn founded on the saying of Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the marriage in Cana of Galilee:
2)2 BRYANT A HYMN-WRITER
Whate'er he bids observe and do;
Such be the law that we obey.
And greater wonders men shall view
Than that of Cana's bridal day.
The flinty heart with love shall beat,
The chains shall fall from passion's slave,
The proud shall sit at Jesus' feet
And learn the truths that bless and save.
His published works do, however, furnish us witl: another hymn which bears the title, "Receive Tb Sight," and is a metrical version of the Gospel story:
When the blind suppliant in the way,
By friendly hands to Jesus led.
Prayed to behold the light of day,
"Receive thy sight," the Saviour said.
At once he saw the pleasant rays
That lit the glorious firmament;
And, with firm step and words of praise,
He followed where the Master went .
Look down in pity, Lord, we pray,
On eyes oppressed with moral night,
And touch the darkened lids and say
The gracious words, " Receive thy sight."
Then, in clear daylight, shall we see
Where walked the sinless Son of God;
And, aided by new strength from Thee,
Press onward in the path He trod.
There is a hymn to celebrate Christ's nativity:
As shadows cast by cloud and sun
Flit o'er the summer grass,
So, in thy sight, Almighty One!
Earth's generations pass.
THE NATIVITY AND MISSIONS 33
And while the years, an endless host,
Come pressing swiftly on,
The brightest names that earth can boast
Just glisten, and are gone.
Yet doth the Star of Bethlehem shed
A lustre pure and sweet;
And still it leads, as once it led,
To the Messiah's feet.
O Father, may that holy Star
Grow every year more bright,
And send its glorious beam afar
To fill the world with light.
And prayer for the regions of our own land that need the gospel:
Look from the sphere of endless day,
Oh, God of mercy and of might!
In pity look on those who stray,
Benighted, in this land of light.
In peopled vale, in lonely glen,
In crowded mart, by stream or sea,
How many of the sons of men
Hear not the message sent from thee.
Send forth thy heralds, Lord, to call
The thoughtless young, the hardened old,
A wandering flock, and bring them all
To the Good Shepherd's peaceful fold.
Send them thy mighty word to speak
Till faith shall dawn, and doubt depart,—
To awe the bold, to stay the weak,
And bind and heal the broken heart.
Then all these wastes, a dreary scene
On which, with sorrowing eyes, we gaze,
Shall grow with living waters green,
And lift to heaven the voice of praise.
34 A PRAYER FOR THE INTEMPERATE
There is a hymn of pity for the intemperate, and a prayer for their rescue:
When doomed to death, the Apostle lay
At night, in Herod's dungeon-cell,
A light shone round him like the day,
And from his limbs the fetters fell.
A messenger from God was there,
To break his chain and bid him rise,
And lo! the Saint, as free as air,
Walked forth beneath the open skies.
Chains yet more strong and cruel bind
The victims of that deadly thirst
Which drowns the soul, and from the mind
Blots the bright image stamped at first.
Oh, God of Love and Mercy, deign
To look on those, with pitying eye,
Who struggle with that fatal chain,
And send them succor from on high I
Send down, in its resistless might,
Thy gracious Spirit, we implore,
And lead the captive forth to light,
A rescued soul, a slave no more.
And even the dedication of a church draws out his prayerful sympathy and poetic feeling:
O thou whose own vast temple stands,
Built over earth and sea,
Accept the walls that human hands
Have raised to worship thee.
Lord, from thine inmost glory send,
Within these walls to bide,
The peace that dwclleth without end
Serenely by thy side.
MOST SIGNIFICANT RELIGIOUS POEM 35
May erring minds, that worship here,
Be taught the better way;
And they who mourn, and they who fear,
Be strengthened as they pray.
May faith grow firm, and love grow warm,
And pure devotion rise,
While, round these hallowed walls, the storm
Of earth-born passion dies.
I have yet to quote the most significant of Bryant's distinctly religious poems. It is entitled "He hath put all things under his feet," and this hymn declares the world-wide supremacy of Christ:
O North, with all thy vales of green!
O South, with all thy palms!
From peopled towns and fields between
Uplift the voice of psalms;
Raise, ancient East! the anthem high,
And let the youthful West reply.
Lo! in the clouds of heaven appears
God's well-beloved Son;
He brings a train of brighter years:
His kingdom is begun;
He comes a guilty world to bless
With mercy, truth, and righteousness.
Oh, Father! haste the promised hour,
When, at His feet, shall lie
All rule, authority, and power
Beneath the ample sky;
When He shall reign from pole to pole,
The Lord of every human soul;
When all shall heed the words He said
Amid their daily cares,
And, by the loving life He led,
Shall seek to pattern theirs;
And He, who conquered Death, shall win
The nobler conquest over Sin.
1,6 THE CROSS RARELY IN BRYANT*S VERSES
This hymn does not declare Christ's absolute deity, nor does it indicate the poet's knowledge of that spiritual union with Christ which is the source of greatest joy to the believer. Joy has its root in sacrifice— Christ's sacrifice for us and our sacrifice to him. We seldom read of the Cross, in Bryant's poetry. Yet faith in the Cross is not wholly absent. In his poem, "Waiting by the Gate," he seems to make all final joy depend upon Christ's death:
And some approach the threshold whose looks are blank with
fear, And some whose temples brighten with joy in drawing near, As if they saw dear faces, and caught the gracious eye Of Him, the Sinless Teacher, who came for us to die.
The infrequency of our poet's reference to Calvary, and to the Christian's union with the crucified One, is the reason why his work is so somber, so redolent of duty, so given to external nature. If he had penetrated more deeply into "the mystery of the gospel," which is "Christ in us," he would have had more of the Christian's "hope of glory." Yet Mr. John Bigelow writes of him: "Though habitually an attendant upon the ministrations of the Unitarian clergy when they were accessible, no one ever recognized more completely or more devoutly the divinity of Christ" Even here, "divinity" may not mean the same as "deity." But let us be thankful for what we find. His theism and his recognition of God's providence, his faith in God's love and revelation, have for their corollary an unwavering belief in immortality. This appears conspicuously in his love-songs, which were, almost without exception, addressed to his wife, with
BELIEF IN IMMORTALITY 37
whom he spent forty-five years of married life. Before their marriage he addressed her as "fairest of the rural maids," and under the pseudonym of "Genevieve" he made her the subject of one of his lightest and sweetest poems:
Soon as the glazed and gleaming snow
Reflects the day-dawn cold and clear,
The hunter of the West must go
In depth of woods to seek the deer.
His rifle on his shoulder placed,
His stores of death arranged with skill,
His moccasins and snow-shoes laced—
Why lingers he beside the hill?
Far, in the dim and doubtful light,
Where woody slopes a valley leave,
He sees what none but lover might,
The dwelling of his Genevieve.
And oft he turns his truant eye,
And pauses oft, and lingers near;
But when he marks the reddening sky,
He bounds away to hunt the deer.
When in 1858 Mrs. Bryant had recovered from a long and painful illness, the poet welcomed his wife in the verses which he named "The Life that Is," and of these I quote the first and the last:
Thou, who so long hast pressed the couch of pain,
Oh welcome, welcome back to life's free breath—
To life's free breath and day's sweet light again,
From the chill shadows of the gate of death!
Now may we keep thee from the balmy air
And radiant walks of heaven a little space,
Where He, who went before thee to prepare
For His meek followers, shall assign thy place.
38 "A LIFETIME"
But in 1866 death finally took his wife from him. It was an irremediable loss, for his reserved nature had found in her his only intimate friend. His poem, "A Lifetime," begins with a treatment of grief in the third person, but it ends most pathetically by attributing all the sorrow to himself. It is the last poem he composed, and it summarizes his own life:
And well I know that a brightness
From his life has passed away,
And a smile from the green earth's beauty,
And a glory from the day.
But I behold, above him,
In the far blue depths of air,
Dim battlements shining faintly,
And a throng of faces there;
See over crystal barrier
The airy figures bend,
Like those who are watching and waiting
The coming of a friend.
And one there is among them,
With a star upon her brow,
In her life a lovely woman,
A sinless seraph now.
I know the sweet calm features;
The peerless smile I know;
And I stretch my arms with transport
From where I stand below.
And the quick tears drown my eyelids,
But the airy figures fade,
And the shining battlements darken
And blend with the evening shade.
I am gazing into the twilight
Where the dim-seen meadows lie,
And the wind of night is swaying
The trees with a heavy sigh.
A SORROW NOT WITHOUT HOPE 39
He did not sorrow as those without hope, for he believed in Him who has brought life and immortality to light in his glorious gospel. He cannot think that the separation caused by death is lasting. In his poem, "The Future Life," he writes:
How shall I know thee in the sphere which keeps
The disembodied spirits of the dead,
When all of thee that time could wither sleeps
And perishes among the dust we tread?
For I shall feel the sting of ceaseless pain,
If there I meet thy gentle presence not;
Nor hear the voice I love, nor read again
In thy serenest eyes the tender thought.
The love that lived through all the stormy past,
And meekly with my harsher nature bore,
And deeper grew, and tenderer to the last,
Shall it expire with life, and be no more?
Shalt thou not teach me, in that calmer home,
The wisdom that I learned so ill in this—
The wisdom which is love—till I become
Thy fit companion in that land of bliss?
Indeed, he trusts that even now the separation is not complete:
May we not think that near us thou dost stand
With loving ministrations? for we know
Thy heart was never happy when thy hand
Was forced its tasks of mercy to forego.
May'st thou not prompt with every coming day
The generous aim and act, and gently win
Our restless, wandering thoughts, to turn away
From every treacherous path that ends in sin?
His poem, "The Death of the Flowers," has a moving pathos, from the fact that it commemorates the
40 THE DEATH OF THE FLOWERS
loss of a beloved sister who died in her twenty-second year:
The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year, Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere. . .
Where are the flowers, the fair young flowers, that lately
sprang and stood, In brighter, light and softer airs, a beauteous sisterhood? Alas, they all are in their graves! The gentle race of flowers Are lying in their lowly beds, with the fair and good of ours.
And then I think of one who in her youthful beauty died,
The fair, meek blossom that grew up and faded by my side:
In the cold, moist earth we laid her, when the forests cast
the leaf, And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief: Yet not unmeet it was that one, like that young friend of
ours, So gentle and so beautiful, should perish with the flowers.
He calls one of his poems " The Past." He sees all of earth's treasures sooner or later swallowed up by time. But, personifying the past, he writes:
Thine for a space are they—
Yet shalt thou yield thy treasures up at last;
Thy gates shall yet give way,
Thy bolts shall fall, inexorable Past!
All that of good and fair
Has gone into thy womb from earliest time,
Shall then come forth to wear
The glory and the beauty of its prime.
They have not perished—no!
Kind words, remembered voices once so sweet,
Smiles, radiant long ago,
And features, the great soul's apparent seat.
FILIAL PIETY 41
All shall come back; each tie
Of pure affection shall he knit again;
Alone shall Evil die,
And Sorrow dwell a prisoner in thy reign.
And then shall I behold
Him, by whose kind paternal side I sprung,
And her, who, still and cold.
Fills the next grave—the beautiful and young.
One of Bryant's noblest traits was his filial piety, the love for parents and for kindred, which many waters could not quench nor the floods drown, and which the lapse of time and the separation of death only intensified and exalted. He cannot view the glory of " June," without thinking of the friends who will visit his tomb:
These to their softened hearts should bear
The thought of what has been,
And speak of one who cannot share
The gladness of the scene;
Whose part, in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the summer hills,
Is that his grave is green.
Rest, therefore, thou
Whose early guidance trained my infant steps—
Rest, in the bosom of God, till the brief sleep
Of death is over, and a happier life
Shall dawn to waken thine insensible dust."
In "The Indian Girl's Lament," the bereaved maiden comforts her soul with the thought that her lover will yet be hers:
• " Hymn to Death." E
42 THE FRINGED GENTIAN
And thou dost wait and watch to meet
My spirit sent to join the blessed.
And, wondering what detains my feet
From that bright land of rest,
Dost seem, in every sound, to hear
The rustling of my footsteps near.
"The Fringed Gentian " suggests to Bryant an old man's departure from this earthly life:
Thou waitest late and com'st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.
Then doth thy sweet and quiet «ye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.
I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.
"The Old Man's Funeral " is a poem in which Bryant might seem to be describing his own end:
Why weep ye then for him, who, having won
The bound of man's appointed years, at last,
Life's blessings all enjoyed, life's labors done,
Serenely to his final rest has passed;
While the soft memory of his virtues, yet,
Lingers like twilight hues, when the bright sun is set.
His youth was innocent; his riper age
Marked with some "act of goodness every day;
And watched by eyes that loved him, calm and sage,
Faded his late declining years away.
Meekly he gave his being up, and went
To share H1e holy rest that waits a life well spent.
IMMORTAL HOPE 43
"The Journey of Life" ends with a stanza of immortal hope:
And I, with faltering footsteps, journey on,
Watching the stars that roll the hours away,
Till the faint light that guides me now is gone,
And, like another life, the glorious day
Shall open o'er me from the empyreal height,
With warmth, and certainty, and boundless light.
There is a " Paradise of Tears ":
There every heart rejoins its kindred heart;
There, in a long embrace that none may part,
Fulfilment meets desire, and that fair shore
Beholds its dwellers happy evermore.
"And I," he said, "shall sleep ere long;
These fading gleams will soon be gone;
Shall sleep to rise refreshed and strong
In the bright day that yet will dawn."10
"The Flood of Years" will bring at length the consummation of all our hopes:
Old sorrows are forgotten now,
Or but remembered to make sweet the hour-
That overpays them; wounded hearts that bled
Or broke are healed forever. In the room
Of this grief-shadowed present, there shall be
A Present in whose reign no grief shall gnaw
The heart, and never shall a tender tie
Be broken; in whose reign the eternal Change,
That waits on growth and action, shall proceed
With everlasting Concord hand in hand.
It must be acknowledged that this earliest of our American poets had his limitations. He had not the
*> " The Two Travellers."
44 BRYANT S LIMITATION'S
breadth of the great masters of his art. Science and philosophy did not interest him, as they interested Tennyson. The complexity of human nature is not depicted in his verse, as we find it depicted by Browning. A certain narrowness of range characterizes all lis work. He is descriptive and meditative, but never lyric or dramatic. There is an ever-recurring remembrance of death and the grave. Critics have debated the question how a youth of seventeen could have chosen " Thanatopsis" for a subject. It is even more remarkable that the poetical writing of after years still dealt with this as its central theme. Dr. William C. Gannett, with his minute knowledge of literary history, has suggested an explanation both plausible and interesting. The first five years of Bryant's life were spent in a log house whose windows looked across the road upon the stone-walled village burying-ground. The child's earliest impressions of the world were connected with man's mortality. Puritan training traced this mortality to an original apostasy of the race from God, and to the penalty of a broken law. The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts, and Bryant never outgrew the somberness of this early view of the universe.
Jean Paul has said that the melancholy of youth is the veil which a kind Providence throws over the faces of those who are to climb the dazzling Alpine heights of success and fame. But it surely belongs to manhood to look with unveiled face upon the realities of existence. The meagerness of Bryant's schooling prevented his emancipation. If he had gone to Yale, as he had hoped to do, association with his equals and
SOMBERNESS OF BRYANT S VERSE 45
his superiors would have drawn him out of himself, and would have made him more a man of the world. He was naturally shy and seclusive. As an editor, he disliked to meet socially those whom he might be called upon to criticize. His impartiality was sometimes like that of the reviewer whose freedom from prejudice is due to the fact that he has not read the book he criticizes. Greater variety of association would have added to the number of the themes which kindled in him the poetic fire.
But I must add to all this my belief that Bryant's mournfulness was the result of an imperfect understanding of the Christian revelation. He was a Puritan poet, and Puritanism too often lacked the recognition of a present Christ . In " The Pilgrim's Progress," Christian expects to see his Saviour when he reaches the heavenly city, but he is destitute of his companionship on the journey thither. Though strong faith in a future life made Bryant serene, his serenity was too much like resignation—he needed more of joy in the present. Such joy would have enlarged the area of his poetic achievement, while at the same time it tempered the critical spirit of the editor.
But one thing must always be said of our poet: he was sincere and pure. There is no mawkish sentimentality in his verse, no pandering to the lower instincts of humanity, no expression of merely transient and conventional religious feeling. Lord Byron could write hymns in histrionic fashion, as a brilliant impersonator; of such hypocrisy Bryant was incapable. His limitations, therefore, are as instructive as his gifts. Like Wordsworth, he is a poet of nature. But, while
46 "LIBRARY OF POETRY AND SONG"
Wordsworth sees in nature the immanence of God, Bryant sees in nature God's transcendence rather, and so is the greater Puritan of the two. His reverence for God's work in nature is greater than his reverence for God's work in man. But he has certainly taught us that poetry is no mere vers de socicte, but rather an embodiment of the deepest thoughts of the human soul:
He let no empty gust
Of passion find an utterance in his lay,
A blast that whirls the dust
Along the crowded street and dies away;
But feelings of calm power and mighty sweep,
Like currents journeying through the windless
In "The Library of Poetry and Song," the great octavo volume which he edited, and which contains fifteen hundred selections from four hundred authors, Bryant prefaced the collection with an Introduction of his own. No better summary of the history of English poetry has ever been written, and no more judicious choice of poems has e\;er been made. In his Introduction, the poet gives us in sober prose his theory of verse. He tells us that "only poems of moderate length, or else portions of the greater works, . . produce the effect upon the mind and heart which make the charm of this kind of writing." He measured his own productions by this rule. Most of his poems are short, and the shortest are in general the best. Yet in his seventy-second year he undertook the Herculean task of putting Homer's Iliad into English verse,
u " The Poet," paraphrased by John Bigclow.
TRANSLATOR OF HOMER 47
and the success of this venture encouraged him to continue his work until he had accomplished the translation of the Odyssey. He gave five years to this task, and finished it in his seventy-seventh year. We cannot understand it, unless we remember that it was his means of occupation and diversion after the death of his wife. It was not the toil and strain of original composition. Homer furnished the thought; Bryant had only to give the thought new expression. Homer led him out again into the open air. There was a likeness between Bryant's view of nature and that of the first great classic poet. The stateliness and resonance of Homer's verse appealed to him. Embodying that verse in English seemed to him a service to literature. And critics have agreed that no English version of the Iliad or of the Odyssey, in metrical form, surpasses it in value. To my mind, this five years' work of the old man eloquent, accomplished in the darkness of bereavement, and with the single light of an undying hope, shows a strength of will which even death was powerless to subdue.
One of our best American critics, Professor William C. Wilkinson, has compared Bryant's lack of tropical fervor to the statuesque repose of Greek art, and to the calm dignity of George Washington. There is emotion in his verse, but it is emotion that warms, while it does not burn. Passion is controlled, rather than deficient. The expression is less, not greater, than the feeling. There is no violence of diction. We have had but one Washington, and but one Bryant. It is well that our line of poets begins with one so high, severe, and pure. This judgment of Professor Wil
48 SUMMARY OF BRYANT'S CHARACTER
kinson I would adopt for my owY1, and would add the verses in which he has described the poet:
Gentle in spirit as in mien severe;
Calm but not cold; strength, majesty, and grace,
Measure, and balance, and repose, in clear
Lines, like a sculptor's, graven on the face
Such image lovers of his verse have learned
To limn their poet, peaceful after strife;
A statue, as of life to marble turned?
Nay, as of marble turned to breathing life.
I have taken interest in the story of Bryant's life and work, in large part because the religious and theological aspects of it have seemed to me to have been hitherto neglected. Our earliest American poet furnished no object-lesson of unbelief to his successors. He did not compass the whole range of Christian truth, any more than he compassed the whole range of poetic inspiration; but he taught his countrymen, and he taught the world, of God in nature and in history, of Christ as the Guide and Saviour of mankind, and of an immortal life that opens for us all beyond this present transitory scene. His teaching is all the more impressive and convincing because he does not speak to us as a preacher, but as a man; and because he utters only what he has seen and felt. He shows himself to be the true poet, by telling us the inner meaning of the universe, and by bringing us
Authentic tidings of invisible things.