William Cullen Bryant: Wikis


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William Cullen Bryant

from cabinet card of Bryant, c. 1876
Born November 3, 1794
Died June 12, 1878
Occupation Poet, journalist, and editor
Nationality U.S.
Notable work(s) "Thanatopsis"
Literature portal

William Cullen Bryant (November 3, 1794 – June 12, 1878) was an American romantic poet, journalist, and long-time editor of the New York Evening Post.


Youth and education

Bryant was born on November 3, 1794,[1] in a log cabin near Cummington, Massachusetts; the home of his birth is today marked with a plaque.[2] He was the second son of Peter Bryant, a doctor and later a state legislator, and Sarah Snell. His maternal ancestry traces back to passengers on the Mayflower; his father's, to colonists who arrived about a dozen years later. His paternal father's line goes from Peter, to Phillip, to Icabod and Mr. Stephen Bryant who came to America and married Mehitable Standish the granddaughter of Capt. Myles Standish also of the Mayflower.

Bryant and his family moved to a new home when he was two years old. The William Cullen Bryant Homestead, his boyhood home, is now a museum. After just two years at Williams College, he studied law in Worthington and Bridgewater in Massachusetts, and he was admitted to the bar in 1815. He then began practicing law in nearby Plainfield, walking the seven miles from Cummington every day. On one of these walks, in December 1815, he noticed a single bird flying on the horizon; the sight moved him enough to write "To a Waterfowl".[3]

Bryant developed an interest in poetry early in life. Under his father's tutelage, he emulated Alexander Pope and other Neo-Classic British poets. The Embargo, a savage attack on President Thomas Jefferson published in 1808, reflected Dr. Bryant's Federalist political views. The first edition quickly sold out—partly because of the publicity earned by the poet's young age—and a second, expanded edition, which included Bryant's translation of Classical verse, was printed. The youth wrote little poetry while preparing to enter Williams College as a sophomore, but upon leaving Williams after a single year and then beginning to read law, he regenerated his passion for poetry through encounter with the English pre-Romantics and, particularly, William Wordsworth.


Although "Thanatopsis", his most famous poem, has been said to date from 1811, it is much more probable that Bryant began its composition in 1813, or even later[citation needed]. What is known about its publication is that his father took some pages of verse from his son's desk and submitted them, along with his own work, to the North American Review in 1817. The Review was edited by Edward Tyrrel Channing at the time and, upon receiving it, read the poem to his assistant, who immediately exclaimed, "That was never written on this side of the water!"[4] Someone at the North American joined two of the son's discrete fragments, gave the result the Greek-derived title Thanatopsis (meditation on death), mistakenly attributed it to the father, and published it. With all the errors, it was well-received, and soon Bryant was publishing poems with some regularity, including "To a Waterfowl" in 1821.

On January 11, 1821,[5] Bryant, still striving to build a legal career, married Frances Fairchild. Soon after, having received an invitation to address the Harvard University Phi Beta Kappa Society at the school's August commencement, Bryant spent months working on "The Ages," a panorama in verse of the history of civilization, culminating in the establishment of the United States. That poem led a collection, entitled Poems, which he arranged to publish on the same trip to Cambridge. For that book, he added sets of lines at the beginning and end of "Thanatopsis." His career as a poet was launched. Even so, it was not until 1832, when an expanded Poems was published in the U.S. and, with the assistance of Washington Irving, in Britain, that he won recognition as America's leading poet.

His poetry has been described as being "of a thoughtful, meditative character, and makes but slight appeal to the mass of readers."[6]

Editorial career

William Cullen Bryant

Writing poetry could not financially sustain a family. From 1816 to 1825, he practiced law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and supplemented his income with such work as service as the town's hog reeve. Distaste for pettifoggery and the sometimes absurd judgments pronounced by the courts gradually drove him to break with the profession.

With the help of a distinguished and well-connected literary family, the Sedgwicks, he gained a foothold in New York City, where, in 1825, he was hired as editor, first of the New-York Review, then of the United States Review and Literary Gazette. But the magazines of that day usually enjoyed only an ephemeral life-span. After two years of fatiguing effort to breathe life into periodicals, he became Assistant Editor of the New-York Evening Post, a newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton that was surviving precariously. Within two years, he was Editor-in-Chief and a part owner. He remained the Editor-in-Chief for half a century (1828-78). Eventually, the Evening-Post became not only the foundation of his fortune but also the means by which he exercised considerable political power in his city, state, and nation.

Photograph of Bryant by Mathew Brady, c. 1860–65

Ironically, the boy who first tasted fame for his diatribe against Thomas Jefferson and his party became one of the key supporters in the Northeast of that same party under Jackson. Bryant's views, always progressive though not quite populist, in course led him to join the Free Soilers, and when the Free Soil Party became a core of the new Republican Party in 1856, Bryant vigorously campaigned for John Frémont. That exertion enhanced his standing in party councils, and in 1860, he was one of the prime Eastern exponents of Abraham Lincoln, whom he introduced at Cooper Union. (That speech lifted Lincoln to the nomination, and then the presidency.)

Bryant edited the very successful Picturesque America which was published between 1872 and 1874. This two-volume set was lavishly illustrated and described scenic places in the United States and Canada. [7]

Later years

In his last decade, Bryant shifted from writing his own poetry to translating Homer. He assiduously worked on the Iliad and The Odyssey from 1871 to 1874. He is also remembered as one of the principal authorities on homeopathy and as a hymnist for the Unitarian Church—both legacies of his father's enormous influence on him.

Bryant died in 1878 of complications from an accidental fall suffered after participating in a Central Park ceremony honoring Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini.

Critical response

"Cedarmere", William Cullen Bryant's estate in Roslyn, NY

Poet and literary critic Thomas Holley Chivers said that the "only thing [Bryant] ever wrote that may be called Poetry is 'Thanatopsis', which he stole line for line from the Spanish. The fact is, that he never did anything but steal—as nothing he ever wrote is original."[8] Contemporary critic Edgar Allan Poe, on the other hand, praised Bryant and specifically the poem "June" in his essay "The Poetic Principle":

"The rhythmical flow, here, is even voluptuous—nothing could be more melodious. The intense melancholy which seems to well up, perforce, to the surface of all the poet's cheerful sayings about his grave, we find thrilling us to the soul—while there is the truest poetic elevation in the thrill... the impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness."[9]


Asher Durand's Kindred Spirits depicts William Cullen Bryant with Thomas Cole, in this quintessentially Hudson River School work.
Statue of William Cullen Bryant in Bryant Park adjacent to the New York Public Library

In 1884, New York City's Reservoir Square, at the intersection of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, was renamed Bryant Park in his honor. The city later named a public high school in Long Island City, Queens in his honor.

Although he is now thought of as a New Englander[citation needed], Bryant, for most of his lifetime, was thoroughly a New Yorker—and a very dedicated one at that. He was a major force behind the idea that became Central Park, as well as a leading proponent of creating the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was one of a group of founders of New York Medical College[10]. He had close affinities with the Hudson River School of art and was an intimate friend of Thomas Cole. He defended immigrants and, at some financial risk to himself, championed the rights of workers to form labor unions.

As a writer, Bryant was an early advocate of American literary nationalism, and his own poetry focusing on nature as a metaphor for truth established a central pattern in the American literary tradition.

A recently-published book[11], however, argues that a reassessment is long overdue. It finds great merit in a couple of short stories Bryant wrote while trying to build interest in periodicals he edited. More importantly, it perceives a poet of great technical sophistication who was a progenitor of Walt Whitman, to whom he was a mentor[11].

Further reading

  • Muller, Gilbert H. William Cullen Bryant: Author of America. New York: State University of New York Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0791474679
  • Symington, Andrew James. William Cullen Bryant: a biographical sketch : with selections from his poems and other writings. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880. Google Books.



  1. ^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 48. ISBN 086576008X
  2. ^ Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982: 46. ISBN 0195031865
  3. ^ Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982: 56. ISBN 0195031865
  4. ^ Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1952: 116.
  5. ^ Vital Records of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850, Gt Barrington, MA: NEHGS, 1904 (online.) His 1878 biographer, Parke Goodwin, confused the issue of the marriage date through a typographical error, as explained here.
  6. ^ Alexander K. McClure, ed (1902). Famous American Statesmen & Orators. VI. New York: F. F. Lovell Publishing Company. pp. 62. 
  7. ^ http://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/bryant.htm
  8. ^ Parks, Edd Winfield. Ante-Bellum Southern Literary Critics. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1962: 175.
  9. ^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 37. ISBN 081604161X
  10. ^ http://www.nymc.edu/AboutNYMC/
  11. ^ a b Frank Gado, ed (1996). Famous American Statesmen & Orators. New York: Antoca. pp. 198. 

External links





Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Weep not that the world changes—did it keep
A stable, changeless state, 'twere cause indeed to weep.

William Cullen Bryant (November 3, 1794June 12, 1878) was an American Romantic poet and journalist.



  • Vainly the fowler's eye
    Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
    As, darkly painted on the crimson sky,
    Thy figure floats along.
  • 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.
  • Thine eyes are springs in whose serene
    And silent waters heaven is seen;
    Their lashes are the herbs that look
    On their young figures in the brook.
  • Here the free spirit of mankind, at length,
    Throws its last fetters off; and who shall place
    A limit to the giant's unchained strength,
    Or curb his swiftness in the forward race!
  • Oh, sun! that o'er the western mountains now
    Goest down in glory! ever beautiful
    And blessed is thy radiance, whether thou
    Colourest the eastern heaven and night-mist cool,
    Till the bright day-star vanish, or on high
    Climbest and streamest thy white splendours from mid-sky.
  • The little wind-flower, whose just opened eye
    Is blue as the spring heaven it gazes at.
  • Ah, why
    Should we, in the world's riper years, neglect
    God's ancient sanctuaries, and adore
    Only among the crowd and under roofs
    That our frail hands have raised?
    • A Forest Hymn
  • They talk of short-lived pleasures—be it so—
    pain dies as quickly: stern, hard-featured pain
    Expires, and lets her weary prisoner go.
    The fiercest agonies have shortest reign;
    And after dreams of horror, comes again
    The welcome morning with its rays of peace.
  • Remorse is virtue's root; its fair increase
    Are fruits of innocence and blessedness.
    • Mutation. A Sonnet
  • Weep not that the world changes—did it keep
    A stable, changeless state, 'twere cause indeed to weep.
    • Mutation. A Sonnet
  • And the blue gentian flower, that, in the breeze,
    Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last.
  • Loveliest of lovely things are they,
    On earth, that soonest pass away.
    The rose that lives its little hour
    Is prized beyond the sculptured flower.
  • Thou unrelenting Past!
    Strong are the barriers round thy dark domain,
    And fetters, sure and fast,
    Hold all that enter thy unbreathing reign.
  • The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
    Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.
  • The south wind searches for the flowers whose fragrance late he bore,
    And sighs to find them in the wood and by the stream no more.
  • These are the gardens of the Desert, these
    The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
    For which the speech of England has no name—
    The Prairies.
  • The summer morn is bright and fresh, the birds are darting by,
    As if they loved to breast the breeze that sweeps the cool clear sky.
  • Heed not the night; a summer lodge amid the wild is mine -
    'Tis shadowed by the tulip-tree, 'tis mantled by the vine.
    • The Strange Lady, st. 6
  • When April winds
    Grew soft, the maple burst into a flush
    Of scarlet flowers. The tulip tree, high up,
    Opened in airs of June her multitude
    Of golden chalices to humming-birds
    And silken-wing'd insects of the sky.
  • Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
    The eternal years of God are hers;
    But Error, wounded, writhes with pain,
    And dies among his worshippers.
  • These struggling tides of life that seem
    In wayward, aimless course to tend,
    Are eddies of the mighty stream
    That rolls to its appointed end.
  • And suns grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
    And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
  • Glorious are the woods in their latest gold and crimson,
    Yet our full-leaved willows are in the freshest green.
    Such a kindly autumn, so mercifully dealing
    With the growths of summer, I never yet have seen.
    • The Third of November, 1861. Thirty Poems. Appleton, New York. pp. 112-115. (1864)
  • The rugged trees are mingling
    Their flowery sprays in love;
    The ivy climbs the laurel
    To clasp the boughs above.
  • Wild was the day; the wintry sea
    Moaned sadly on New England's strand,
    When first the thoughtful and the free,
    Our fathers, trod the desert land.

Thanatopsis (1817-1821)

  • To him who in the love of Nature holds
    Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
    A various language.
    • l. 1
  • Go forth under the open sky, and list
    To Nature's teachings.
    • l. 14
  • The hills,
    Rock-ribbed, and ancient as the sun.
    • l. 37
  • Old ocean's gray and melancholy waste.
    • l. 43
  • All that tread,
    The globe are but a handful to the tribes
    That slumber in its bosom.
    • l. 48
  • 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.
    • l. 73. Note: The edition of 1821 read, "The innumerable caravan that moves / To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take".

About William Cullen Bryant

  • [Thanatopsis] was written in 1817, when Bryant was 23. Had he died then, the world would have thought it had lost a great poet. But he lived on.


  • The stormy March has come at last,
    With winds and clouds and changing skies;
    I hear the rushing of the blast
    That through the snowy valley flies.
    • March. Reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • But ’neath yon crimson tree
    Lover to listening maid might breathe his flame,
    Nor mark, within its roseate canopy,
    Her blush of maiden shame.
    • Autumn Woods. Reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).

External links

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT (1794-1878), American poet and journalist, was born at Cummington, a farming village in the Hampshire hills of western Massachusetts, on the 3rd of November 1794. He was the second son of Peter Bryant, a physician and surgeon of no mean scholarship, refined in all his tastes, and a public-spirited citizen. Peter Bryant was the greatgrandson of Stephen Bryant, an English Puritan emigrant to Massachusetts Bay about the year 1632. The poet's mother, Sarah Snell, was a descendant of "Mayflower" pilgrims. He was born in the log farmhouse built by his father two years before, at the edge of the pioneer settlement among those boundless forests, the deep stamp of whose beauty and majesty he carried on his own mind and reprinted upon the emotions of others throughout a long life spent mainly amid the activities of his country's growing metropolis. By parentage, by religious and political faith, and by hardness of fortune, the earliest of important American poets was appointed to a life typical of the first century of American national existence, and of the strongest single racial element by which that nation's social order has been moulded and promoted. Rated by the amount of time given to school books and college classes, Bryant's early education was limited. After the village school he received a year of exceptionally good training in Latin under his mother's brother, the Rev. Dr Thomas Snell, of Brookfield, followed by a year of Greek under the Rev. Moses Hallock, of Plainfield, and at sixteen entered the sophomore class of Williams College. Here he was an apt and diligent student through two sessions, and then, owing to the straitness of his father's means, he withdrew without graduating, and studied classics and mathematics for a year, in the vain hope that his father might yet be able to send him to Yale College. But the length of his school and college days would be a very misleading measure of his training. He was endowed by nature with many of those traits which it is often only the final triumph of books and institutional regimen to establish in character, and a double impulse toward scholarship and citizenship showed its ruling influence with a precocity and an ardour which gave every day of systematic schooling many times its ordinary value. It is his own word that, two months after beginning with the Greek alphabet, he had read the New Testament through. On abandoning his hope to enter Yale, the poet turned to and pursued, under private guidance at Worthington and at Bridgewater, the study of law. At twenty-one he was admitted to the bar, opened an office in Plainfield, presently withdrew from there, and at Great Barrington settled for nine years in the attorney's calling, with an aversion for it which he never lost. His first book of verse, The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times; A Satire by a Youth of thirteen, had been printed at Boston in 1808.

At the age of twenty-six Bryant married, at Great Barrington, Miss Frances Fairchild, with whom he enjoyed a happy union until her death nearly half a century later. In the year of his marriage he suffered the bereavement of his father's death. In 1825 he ventured to lay aside the practice of law, and removed to New York City to assume a literary editorship. Here for some months his fortunes were precarious, until in the next year he became one of the editors of the Evening Post. In the third year following, 1829, he came into undivided editorial control, and became also chief owner. He enjoyed his occupation, fulfilling its duties with an unflagging devotion to every worthy public interest till he died in 1878, in the month of his choice, as indicated in his beautiful poem entitled "June." Though Bryant's retiring and contemplative nature could not overpower his warm human sympathies, it yet dominated them to an extent that made him always, even in his journalistic capacity and in the strenuous prose of daily debate, a councillor rather than a leader. It was after the manner of the poet, the seer, that he was a patriot, standing for principles much more than for measures, and, with an exquisite correctness which belonged to every phase of his being, never prevailing by the accommodation of himself to inferiors in foresight, insight or rectitude. His vigorous and stately mind found voice in one of the most admirable models of journalistic style known in America. He was founder of a distinct school of American journalism, characterized by an equal fidelity and temperance, energy and dignity. Though it is as a poet that he most emphatically belongs to history, his: verse was the expression of only the gentler motions of his mind; and it gathers influence, if not lustre, when behind it is seen a life intrepid, upright, glad, and ever potent for the nobler choice in all the largest affairs of his time. His renown as a poet antedated the appearance of his first volume by some four or five years. "American poetry," says Richard Henry Stoddard, "may be said to have commenced in 1817 with.. (Bryant's) Thanatopsis' and ` Inscription for the entrance of a wood.'" "Thanatopsis," which revealed a voice at once as new and as old as the wilderness out of which it reverberated, had been written at Cummington in the poet's eighteenth year, and was printed in 1817 in the North American Review; the "Inscription" was written in his nineteenth, and in his twentyfirst, while a student of law at Bridgewater, he had composed his lines "To a Water-fowl," whose exquisite beauty and exalted faith his own pen rarely, if ever, surpassed. The poet's gift for language made him a frequent translator, and among his works of this sort his rendering of Homer is the most noted and most valuable. But the muse of Bryant, at her very best, is always brief-spoken and an interpreter initially of his own spirit. Much of the charm of his poems lies in the equal purity of their artistic and their moral beauty. On the ethical side they are more than pure, they are - it may be said without derogation - Puritan. He never commerces with unloveliness for any loveliness that may be plucked out of it, and rarely or never discovers moral beauty under any sort of mask. As free from effeminacy as from indelicacy, his highest and his deepest emotions are so dominated by a perfect self-restraint that they never rise (or stoop) to transports. There is scarcely a distempered utterance in the whole body of his poetical works, scarcely one passionate exaggeration. He faces life with an invincible courage, an inextinguishable hope and heavenward trust, and the dignity: of a benevolent will which no compulsion can break or bend. The billows of his soul are not waves, but hills which tempests ruffle but can never heave. Even when he essays to speak for spirits unlike his own - characters of history or conceptions of his own imagination - he never with signal success portrays them in the bonds, however transient, of any overmastering passion. For merriment he has a generous smile, for sorrow a royal one; but the nearest he ever comes to mirth is in his dainty rhyme, "Robert of Lincoln," and the nearest to a wail in those exquisite notes of grief for the loss of his young sister, "The Death of the Flowers," which only draw the tear to fill it with the light of a perfect resignation. As a seer of large and noble contemplation, in whose pictures of earth and sky the presence and care of the Divine mind, and every tender and beautiful relation of man to his Creator and to his fellow, are melodiously celebrated, his rank is among the master poets of America, of whom he is historically the first.

Bryant published volumes of Poems in 1821 (Cambridge) and 1832 (New York), and many other collections were issued under his supervision, the last being the Poetical Works (New York, 1876). Among his volumes of verse were "The Fountain" and other poems (New York, 1842); The White-Footed Deer and Other Poems (New York, 1844); Thirty Poems (New York, 1864); and blank-verse translations of The Iliad of Homer (Boston, 1870) and of The Odyssey of Homer (Boston, 1871). His Poetical Works and his Complete Prose Writings (New York, 1883 and 1884) were edited by Parke Godwin, who also wrote A Biography of William Cullen Bryant, with Extracts from his private Correspondence (New York, 1883). See also J. Grant Wilson, Bryant and his Friends (New York, 1886); John Bigelow, William Cullen Bryant (Boston,1890), in the "American Men of Letters" series; W. A. Bradley, Bryant, in the "English Men of Letters" series (1905); E. C. Stedman, Poets of America (1885); and biographical and bibliographical introductions by Henry C. Sturges and Richard Henry Stoddard to the "Rosyln edition" of his Poetical Works (New York, 1903). (G. W. CA.)

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