A poet presents 19th-century America
WHILE browsing in a large secondhand bookstore, I came upon an attractive green-and-gold volume. It was a 19th-century hardback with gold-tipped leaves and 100 fine engravings that would delight a print collector. This chance discovery of ``Poems of William Cullen Bryant,'' a third edition published in 1876 by S. Appleton and Company, led me to take a closer look at a poet largely neglected during my years as student and teacher. Turning pages, I was struck by a title, ``The Prairies.'' Since I had grown up on a Texas prairie, I read the poem at once and was convinced that Bryant had actually seen the ``unshorn fields.'' He describes them in the ``Notes'':
The prairies of the west, with an undulating surface ... present to the unaccustomed eye, a singular spectacle when the shadows of the clouds are passing rapidly over them. The face of the ground seems to fluctuate and toss like the billows of the sea.
In 1832 Bryant visited his brothers in Princeton, Illinois, where they had taken up land for settlement. He rode horseback for 100 miles, seeing not only pioneer activity but also flora and fauna of the ``encircling vastness.'' Here Bryant probably thought of lines for the closing of ``The Prairies.'' He listens to a bee's hum and then hears...
The sound of that advancing multitude Which soon shall fill these deserts.
This vision suggests manifest destiny, the belief that the United States would finally occupy the entire North American continent. Bryant's ``Oh Mother of a Mighty Race'' glorifies the New World and the frontier where... ``There's freedom at thy gates and rest/For Earth's down-trodden and opprest.''
Bryant's life was marked by a period of the country's unparalleled expansion. When he was born in Cummington, Massachusetts, in 1794, 15 states composed the Union. When the poet died in 1878, there were 38 states, and 22 of these were called ``western.''
Bryant was a public-spirited citizen. As editor and part owner of the New York Evening Post he became both wealthy and influential and took part in the establishment of New York City's Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In editorials he stood for free trade and fearlessly upheld the right of workingmen to organize. He supported their right to strike when strikes were called conspiracies. He favored the abolition of slavery, raised a loud voice for insurrectionary John Brown. Hearing Bryant speak, Lincoln said, ``It was worth the journey to see such a man.'' Bryant supported the rejected plans of Lincoln and Johnson for reconstruction of the South.
Meanwhile he was writing and publishing poetry.
Recognition had come in 1817 with the publication of ``Thanatopsis'' in The North American Review. Richard Henry Dana, author of ``Two Years Before the Mast,'' told its editor that he had been hoaxed: ``No one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verse.''
Neither the editor nor Dana realized the poem had in large part been written in 1811, while Bryant was a teen-ager.
Although much of his poetry is universal, the American point of view is evident in flowers, birds, and scenery which he knew as a New England country boy.
``To a Waterfowl'' was written when Bryant faced the world alone after opening a law office. Struggling with practically no clientele, he composed the poem following a walk from Cummington to Plainfield, Massachusetts, in 1815. The flight of a bird, ``a Power,'' gives the poet an idea of protection. The moral analogy of man and bird aside, the final stanza is apt and sincere:
He who, from zone to zone Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight, In the long way that I must tread alone, Will lead my steps aright.
In 1821 Bryant married Fanny Fairchild, the ``good angel'' of his life. The same year he visited Boston to read ``The Ages'' before the Phi Beta Kappa society at Harvard and arranged for the publication of ``Poems.''
``The Ages'' consists of 35 Spenserian stanzas, or a total of 315 lines. In his ``Notes'' Bryant states his purpose: to ``form a survey of the past ages of the world and of successive advances of mankind in knowledge, virtue, and happiness to justify and confirm the hopes of philanthropists for the future destinies of the human race.'' The contributions of all other nations notwithstanding, he asks them to observe his own country, where the ``free spirit, at length,/Throws its last fetters off....'' He sees America's growth in a bountiful nature:
Look now abroad - another race has filled These populous borders - wide the wood recedes, And towns shoot up, and fertile realms are tilled: The land is full of harvests and green meads; Streams numberless, that many a fountain feeds, Shine, disembowered, and give to sun and breeze Their virgin waters; the full region leads New colonies forth, that toward the western seas Spread, like a rapid flame among the autumnal trees.
Called the American Wordsworth, Bryant, who spent most of his adult life in cities, found in nature a prominent theme for reflection.
His most frequently quoted lines, however, come from ``The Battlefield'':
Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again; Th' eternal years of God are hers; But error, wounded, writhes in pain, And dies among his worshippers.
Modern artistic temperament is often critical of the didacticism and melancholy in Bryant's poetry. Yet no one questions his ideals. If the poems no longer exalt or excite, at least they are without pretense.
William Cullen Bryant is much more than a transition figure in the growth of American literature.