Chapter 5: Bryant and the minor poets
William Ellery Leonard, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English in the University of Wisconsin.
-- Early years.
-- Bryant's Independence as a poet.
-- the unity of his life and work.
-- his ideas.
-- nature in Bryant.
-- Bryant's images.
-- his “surveys.”
-- Bryant as naturalist.
-- his fairy poems.
-- his translations.
-- his artistry.
-- his style.
-- limitations as a poet.
-- Bryant as critic and editor.
-- his prose style.
-- Bryant the Citizen.
To the old-fashioned prayers which his mother and grandmother taught him, the little boy born in Cummington, Massachusetts, 3 November, 1794, a year before John Keats across the sea, was wont to add (so we learn from the Autobiographical Fragment),1 his private supplication that he might “receive the gift of poetic genius, and write verses that might endure.” This inner urge and bent, witnessed so early and so long, could not be severed, early or late, from the unfathomable world. Bryant's was a boyhood and youth among the virginal woods, hills, and streams, among a farmer folk and country labours and pastimes, in a Puritan household, with a father prominent in the state as physician and legislator, whose independence and breadth are attested by a leaning toward that liberalism which was to develop into the American Unitarian movement and by his enlightened devotion, as critic and friend, to the boy's ambitions in rhyme. Private tutoring by unpretending clergymen, a year at poverty-stricken Williams College, law studies in an upland office, distasteful practice as a poor country lawyer, a happy marriage with her whose “birth was in the forest shades,” 2 death, season by season, of those nearest and dearest, travel down among the slave-holding states and out to the prairies of Illinois, where his brothers and mother were for a second time pioneers, with voyages on various  occasions to the West Indies, to Europe, and to the Levant, and fifty years as a New York editor, who with the wisdom of a statesman and the courage of a reformer made The evening Post America's greatest newspaper,--all this gives us a life of many visions of forest, field, and foam, of many books in diverse tongues, of many men and cities, of many problems in his own career and in the career of that nation which he made so much his own, a life not without its own adventures, struggles, joys, and griefs. So it stands recorded, a consistent and eloquent and (fortunately) a familiar chapter in American biography, even as it passed before the visionary octogenarian back in the old home, sitting “in the early twilight,” whilst
One might regard the events of this lifetime either as in subtle and inevitable ways harmoniously contributory to the poet-nature that was Bryant's (if not indeed often its persistent and victorious creation), or as in the main a deflection, a check. If no other American poet has written, year measured by year, so little poetry, the poetry of no other so clearly defines at once its author's character, environment, and country; if no other American poet was apparently so much occupied with other interests than poetry, not excepting the critic, diplomat, orator, and humorist Lowell, none felt his high calling, it seems, with as priestly a consecration,--no, truly, not excepting Whitman, who protested thereon sometimes a little too much. Bryant's public career as poet fulfilled the psalmist's threescore years and ten, if we date from The embargo, an anti-Jefferson satire in juvenile heroics (1808). It began with the year of Scott's Marmion; it was barely completed with Sigurd the Volsung of William Morris; it included the lives of Byron and Shelley and most that was best in those of Tennyson, Arnold, Browning. It began the year following Joel Barlow's American epic The Columbiad, and the publication of The Echo by the Hartford Wits. Longfellow and Whittier were in the cradle, Holmes and Poe unborn. Except Freneau, there were no poets  in the country but those imitative versifiers of an already antiquated English fashion whom Bryant was himself to characterize3 with quiet justice in the first critical appraisal of our “literature,” the first declaration of intellectual independence, antedating Emerson's American scholar by nineteen years. He compassed the generations of all that was once or is still most reputed in American poetry: the generations of Paulding, Percival, Halleck, Drake, Willis, Poe, Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, Lowell, Whitman, Bret Harte. Yet he was from very early, in imagination and expression, curiously detached from what was going on in poetry around him. The embargo is a boy's echo, significant only for precocious facility and for the twofold interest in verse and politics that was to be lifelong. Byron's voice is audible in the Spenserian stanzas and subject matter of the Phi Beta Kappa poem of 1821, The ages;4 the New York verses, so painfully facetious on Rhode Island coal and a mosquito, are less after Byron than after the town wit Halleck and his coterie. Wordsworth, at the reading of whose Lyrical ballads in 1811 , “a thousand springs,” Bryant said to Dana, “seemed to gush up at once in his heart, and the face of Nature of a sudden to change into a strange freshness and life,” was the companion into the woods and among the flowers who more than all others helped him to find himself; but Thanatopsis, so characteristic of Bryant, was written almost certainly some weeks before he had seen the Lyrical ballads,3 and, even if Bryant's eminence as poet of nature owed much to this early reinforcement, his poetry is not Wordsworthian either in philosophy or in mood or in artistry. Wordsworth never left the impress on Bryant's work that the realms of gold made upon the surprised and spellbound boy Keats. No later prophets and craftsmen, 5
Through the gathering shade
He looked on the fields around him
Where yet a child he played.A Lifetime.
II. minor poets
- Richard Henry Dana the elder. -- James Kirke Paulding. -- James Gates Percival. -- Samuel Woodworth. -- George P. -- Morris. -- Charles Fenno Hoffman. -- Nathaniel Parker Willis. -- Joseph Rodman Drake. -- the Culprit Fay. -- Fitz-Green Halleck
When Bryant, pioneer and patriarch, was laid away on that bright June afternoon of 1878 in the cemetery at Roslyn, Long Island, his oldest and dearest friend was still alive. Richard Henry Dana (1787-1879), one of the founders of The North American review26 and of the serious tradition in our literary criticism, is remembered, if at all, as verse-writer mainly through Bryant's praise, as Mason is remembered through Gray's. How remote the short jerky stanzas of The Buccaneer (1827), an ambitious tale of pirate and spectre, were from the talents and temper of the Bostonian descendant of the Puritan Anne Bradstreet, one may realize who reflects what Coleridge would have done with the spell and the uncanny, and what Byron with the crime and the movement — the two poets whom Dana was obviously emulating. But there are some good lines on the sea in The Buccaneer, and Dana's lyric, The little Beach Bird, gets a traditional honourable mention in the manuals. The other minor poets about Bryant lived in or near New York. James Kirke Paulding, humorist and proseman of no mean reputation,27 and collaborator with Bryant in prose stories,28 deserves mention here as an early representative of a conscious movement to make poetry out of American materials, convinced that
Thrice happy he who first shall strike the lyre, The backwoodsman (1818), from which this conventional couplet is taken, recounts, without much plot, in sturdy heroics more like Crabbe's realism than Goldsmith's idyllic sentiment, the rugged life and wild surroundings of a frontiersman and his family. It is an honest document, if not distinguished literature. James Gates Percival (1795-1856) typified that crude manifestation of Romanticism, the self-constituted, the self-conscious poetic genius. Similarly, he typified the poetic mood that is without the poetic reason. The stuff of him is preeminently the stuff of poetry, but unclarified, uncontrolled, unorganized. It is often as if the personalities of Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Moore, and Bryant had been merged into one helpless hypnoidal state of metrical and emotional garrulity. Yet every now and then an open-minded reader is surprised by some first-hand observation, some graceful analogy, some picturesqueness or energy, some short lyric cry; and once at least he wrought a little gem-his simple stanzas on Seneca Lake. He typified, too, a not altogether ignoble phase of earlier American culture in his zealous acquisitiveness, both in science (he died as state geologist of Wisconsin), and in languages (he wrote verse in Scandinavian and German, and translated from innumerable tongues). But he belongs chiefly to the student of human nature; lonely, shy, unmarried, disappointed, poor, and dirty, he was in appearance and mode of life a character for Dickens, in heart and soul a character for Thackeray or George Eliot. Lowell pilloried him in an essay; Bryant was perhaps juster in his kindlier obituary criticism in The evening Post. He was once a famous man. Samuel Woodworth (1785-1842）29 and George P. Morris (1802-1864), Knickerbocker editors of literary journals30 and charitably remembered respectively for The old Oaken Bucket and Woodman, Spare that Tree, were popular song writers in the sentimental fashion (perhaps more developed in America than in England) that seems to have originated with Tom Moore. Yet such songs had music, point, and refinement that sets them far above their popular descendants — the raucous, vulgar inanities born of vaudeville and cabaret. Charles Fenno Hoffman (1806-1884), another Knickerbocker  editor31 and a song-writer, who, says a recent critic,32 “possessed a lyric note almost completely unknown in the America of his time,” --by which is meant a certain catchy musical lilt,--is, however, chiefly memorable for the fine ballad Monterey:
With homebred feeling, and with homebred fire.
We were not many, we who stoodThis is, or should be, a classic in a genre rare in our literature, whose poets have seldom communicated with martial fire the rapture of the strife or celebrated worthily the achievements of our arms. Bryant wrote a critical sketch for the last edition of Hoffman's poems. Nathaniel Parker Willis, the most honoured among these literary editors of old New York,33 began as a sentimental poetizer of Scripture for meek ladies, and then helped to establish a still existing journalistic tradition in our literature — that of the light, the pretty, the clever, the urbane negligee in prose and rhyme; while his Lady Jane, a story after Don Juan and Fanny, and his Melanie, after Byron's Tales, only too well illustrate the now dead but once potent influence of Byron on our minor poets, even on poets utterly unlike Byron in temperament and in mode of life.34 Yet Willis was a true poet in a half dozen lyrics where a human form, a bit of nature, or a moral insight is registered in sincere, graceful, dignified, and, at least once (Unseen Spirits), noble speech. These, with his brief prose obituary notice of Poe and its tribute to Mrs. Clemm, are higher things than conventional criticism now associates with the brilliant and versatile gentleman of provincial but polished Broadway. Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820) and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) are remembered first for a romantic youthful friendship, not common in our literary history. For a time they  amused themselves and the town by facile and often pointed skits on contemporary politics, people, and events, under the title Croaker and Co., after the manner of English wits of the time, as Moore and the Smith brothers. Halleck is said to have written the last four lines of Drake's American Flag, a lyric full of the old-fashioned expansive and defiant Americanism, and, with its flare of imagery and blare of sound, still sure to stir the blood of any one but a professional critic. And it was on Drake, dead at twenty-five, that Halleck wrote what is the tenderest, the manliest little elegy of personal loss in American literature, beginning with the familiar lines:
Before the iron sleet that day:
Yet many a gallant spirit would
Give half his years if but he could
Have been with us at Monterey.
Green be the turf above thee,Yet they are remembered no less for achievements more noteworthy than those of the other minor men in this sketch. Drake's Culprit Fay is the best and in fact the one fairy story in American verse, if we except Bryant's Sella and The little people of the snow, which are indeed rather stories of mortals in fairyland than of the tiny, tricksy creatures themselves. Though in a sense exotic, for it roots in no folklore despite the setting on the Hudson, The Culprit Fay reports quite as well as Drayton's Nimphidia, its nearest analogue, the antic characteristics of the elfland of man's universal fancy. But it is most remarkable for its reading of nature. The Culprit Fay's adventures take him through woods, waters, and air, on to the stars above, amid the iridescent, elusive, darting, rended, prickly little objects of the real universe that heavy-lidded folk seldom observe. There are also-and this before Bryant's first volume — the American plant, bird, and insect: the chickweed and sassafras, the whippoorwill, the katydid and woodtick. The music, though perhaps influenced by Coleridge, sang itself under the unconscious guidance of a delicate and independent ear — the most striking creative act in American versification up to that time and for some time to come. Of the obvious faults of The Culprit Fay it were ungracious to speak; it was the two days diversion of a very young man, and published posthumously (1835).  Halleck was the one worthy American representative of the contemporary popular English Romanticists, Scott, Campbell, and Byron-worthy, because something of their matter and manner, despite occasional crude imitation, was thoroughly natural to his vigorous feelings, to his alert though not subtle masculine intellect, and to his sounding voice. His Spenserians on Wyoming remind one of Campbell and Byron in stanza and phraseology. The still popular Marco Bozzaris reminds one of Byron in the enthusiasm for Greek freedom (also the inspiration of some of Bryant's early verse), and of Campbell in martial vigour, while its octosyllabics have the verve of Scott's. In Alnwick Castle and several other poems grave and gay are whimsically mixed after Byron's later manner. Indeed Byron, whose works Halleck subsequently edited, was his most kindred spirit. As early as 1819 appeared his Fanny, suggested by Beppo and in its present form sometimes reminiscent of Don Juan-
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee;
Nor named thee but to praise.
With the wickedness out that gave salt to the true one,as Lowell's Fable for critics observed as late as 1848-a social satire on a flashy New Yorker and his fashionable daughter, with Byronic anti-climax and Byronic digressions on Greece, European and American politics, bad literature and bad statues. But a financial failure was substituted for Byronic crim.-cons., and the bluff and hearty Halleck “was never cynical in his satire, and Byron was” --to quote Bryant,35 who speaks, however, a truer word for Halleck than for Halleck's master. Fanny became at once popular,36 and remained so for a generation, stimulating to several long since forgotten imitations and doubtless serving to foster American Byronism in its pseudocomic phases. A detailed study of Halleck would reveal, as the chief source of his genuinely individual note, his power to phrase energetically a single moment of action or of feeling with a certain fusion of imaginative vision and of intellectual  criticism. Moreover, Halleck's Poems, including such unforgotten titles as The field of the grounded arms, Burns, and Red Jacket, still have some literary value as a volume: the anthologies do not exhaust him. Thus these early minor men left us some things worth keeping; but, nevertheless, taken all in all, they emphasize for us today, as they never could for their contemporaries, the relative greatness of Bryant.