Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
William Cullen Bryant (17941878)
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT is the son of Dr. Peter Bryant of Cummington, Massachusetts, and was born in that place on the third of November, 1794. At ten years, he felt an inclination for poetry, and wrote various pieces in verse, one of which was published in the Hampshire Gazette, at Northampton. In 1810, he entered Williams College, where he studied a year or two, and obtaining a dismissal on his own application, he turned his attention to the law. After completing the usual studies, he was admitted to the bar at Plymouth, in 1815. He removed to New York in 1820, and was one of the editors of the United States Review and Literary Gazette. In 1828, he became associate editor of the New York Evening Post.
Mr Bryant published in 1808, at Boston, a volume of poems with the title of The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times. Although the author was but fourteen years of age, the book was so well received, that it was reprinted the next year. In 1821, appeared the volume containing The Ages, Thanatopsis and other pieces. He also furnished many of the poetical articles in the United States Literary Gazette.
As a poet, he is entitled to rank with the most eminent among us for originality, and finished, chaste execution. He does not offend us by abruptness and inequality. He presents us with here and there a bold image, but the tenor of his poetry is even and sustained. He shows good judgment, and a careful study of the materials of his verse. He does not aim with an over-daring attempt at those lofty and bewildering flights which too often fills the poets pages with cloudy and confused representations. His delineations are clear and distinct, and without any indications of an endeavor to be startling and brilliant by strange metaphors, or unlicensed boldness of phraseology. His writings are marked by correct sentiment and propriety of diction.
Mr Bryant stands high in the general estimation, and his works have been the subject of frequent notice. The pages of our periodical criticism show the manner in which he is appreciated by the highest literary authorities. His poetry has been so justly estimated in the North American Review, that were we to go into a further analysis of it, we should but repeat in another shape the opinions which that journal has given upon the subject. We shall take the liberty, therefore, of concluding this notice by an extract from the fifty-first number of that work. We subscribe fully to the judgment therein contained.
His poetry has truth, delicacy, and correctness, as well as uncommon vigor and richness; he is always faithful to nature, his delineations are accurate, vivid, and forcible; he selects his groups and images with judgment, and sketches with spirit and exactness. He writes as one, who, in the love of nature, holds communion with her visible forms. Nothing is borrowed, nothing artificial; his pictures have an air of freshness and originality, which could come from the student of nature alone. He is alive to the beautiful forms of the outward world. These forms hold a language to his heart. Nature to him is not an inert mass, mere dead matter; it is almost a feeling, and a sentiment. His poetry is always refreshing; the scenes of stillness and repose, into which he introduces us, seem fitted to exclude care and sorrow; he draws us from the haunts of men, where we become familiar with loathsome forms of vice and misery, where our hearts are torn with anxiety, or wounded by neglect and ingratitude, and makes us partake of the deep contentment, which the mute scenes of earth breathe. He is less the poet of artificial life, than of nature and the feelings. There is something for the heart, as well as for the understanding and fancy, in all he writes; something which touches our sensibility, and awakens deep toned, sacred reflections.
Again, Mr Bryant charms us by his simplicity. Like all true lovers of nature, he is fond of those chaste beauties, which strike on the heart at once, and are incapable of being heightened by any extraneous ornament. His pictures are never overcharged. Nothing is turgid or meretricious, strange or fantastic. His heart is open to the healthful influences of nature; he muses among her gay and beautiful forms, and throws out upon the world his visions and feelings in a garb of attractive simplicity and grace. His strains, moreover, are exquisitely finished. He leaves nothing crude and imperfect; he throws off no hasty sketches, no vague, shadowy, and ill assorted images. His portraits have a picturesque distinctness; the outlines are accurately traced, and the colors laid on with delicacy and skill. We are never disgusted with grossness; nothing appears overstrained or feeble, deformed, misshapen, or out of place.
To write such poetry at any time would be no trifling distinction. Mr Bryant deserves the greater praise, as he has exhibited a pure and classical standard in an age, the tendency of which is, in some respects, toward lawless fanaticism and wildness. There is a fashion in literature, as in everything else. The popular style is now the rapid, the hasty, the abrupt, and unfinished. The age is certainly not a superficial one. It is distinguished beyond any former period for habits of deep, earnest thought. But one of its characteristics seems to be an impatience of restraint. It is fond of strong excitement, however produced. Whatever excites the mind into a state of fervor, whatever powerfully awakens the feelings, is listened to and applauded. It may be vague, fantastic, and shapeless, produced by a sort of extemporaneous effort, and sent abroad without the labor of revision. It will not have the less chance of becoming, for a time at least, popular. The press was never more prolific than at present. A great deal is written, and, as might be naturally supposed, much is written in haste. The mass of popular literature is swelling to an overgrown bulk; but much of it is crude, coarse, and immature. Mr Bryant has not been seduced by the temptations to slovenliness and negligence, which the age holds out to view; but, on the contrary, he affords a happy specimen of genuine, classical English. We are gratified to meet with such examples, especially among the distinguished and favored poets of our own country. It augurs well for the interests of taste and letters.
We cannot express in too strong terms our approbation of the moral and devotional spirit, that breathes from all which Mr Bryant writes. Poetry, which is conversant with the deeper feelings of the heart, as well as the beautiful forms of outward nature, has, we conceive, certain affinities with devotion. It is connected with all our higher and holier emotions, and should send out an exalting, a healing, and sustaining influence. We are pleased to find such an influence pervading every strain, uttered by a poet of so much richness of fancy, of so much power and sweetness, as Mr Bryant. No sentiment or expression ever drops from him, which the most rigid moralist would wish to blot. His works we may put into the hands of youth, confident, that in proportion as they become familiar with them, the best sympathies of their nature will be strengthened, and the moral taste be rendered more refined and delicate. Much of his poetry is description; but his descriptions are fitted to instruct our piety, and impart a warmth and glow of moral feeling.