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Chapter 5: Bryant and the minor poets

William Ellery Leonard, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English in the University of Wisconsin.

I. Bryant

  • -- 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 [261] 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

Through the gathering shade
He looked on the fields around him
Where yet a child he played.

A Lifetime.

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 [262] 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

II. minor poets

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,
With homebred feeling, and with homebred fire.

[279] 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 [280] 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:

We were not many, we who stood
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.

This 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 [281] 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:

Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee;
Nor named thee but to praise.

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). [282]

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-

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 [283] 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. [284]

1 Godwin, Life, vol. I, p. 26.

2 Poems, p. 82. Roslyn edition (1913), from which all poetical quotations are cited in this chapter.

3 North American review, July, 1818.

4 Thomson's Liberty may have contributed something to the choice of theme.

5 The time relations seem to have been as follows. Bryant's father purchased the Lyrical ballads in Boston during 1801, when the son was at college (till May, 1811); Bryant “had picked it up at home” (Godwin, Life, vol. I, p. 104) to take with him to Worthington (Dec., 81 I), where it was that, as a young law student, he first read it with such surprised delight. Thanatopsis had been written between May and December, apparently in the autumn (Godwin, Life, vol. I, pp. 97-99), and if (as likely) before 3 November, then written when Bryant was still a lad of sixteen. See Van Doren, C., The growth of “Thanatopsis,” nation, 7 October, [263] American, English, or continental, seem to have touched him at all.5

More obvious to the registrar of parallels are Bryant's literary relations to the poets he read, and read evidently with deeper susceptibility than has been realized, before 1811.6 The reference is not alone to the well-known relation Thanatopsis bears to Blair's Grave, Porteus's Death,7 Kirke White's Time, Rosemary, etc., and the whole Undertaker's Anthology so infinitely beneath the Lucretian grandeur of America's first great poem with its vision of

Dead men whose bones earth bosomed long ago.

The reference is equally to certain themes and moods and unclassified details in poems written long after Thanatopsis, all of which, though so characteristically Bryant's, make us feel him as much closer to the eighteenth century tradition than any of his contemporaries, even than Holmes with his deference to “the steel-bright epigrams of Pope” ; so that we may appraise him much better by going forward from the moralizing, “nature” blank verse of Thomson, Cowper, Young, and Akenside, than backward from Wordsworth and Tennyson. In the eighteenth century tradition is the very preference for blank verse as the instrument for large and serious thought, and the lifelong preference itself for large and serious thought on Death, History, Destiny. The Biblical note too is of the former age. But the diction is, if anything, freer than the mature Wordsworth himself from eighteenth century poetic slang, and the peculiarities of this blank verse (to be mentioned later) have fewer cadences suggestive of Cowper than, perhaps, of the early poems of Southey, whose impression on those impressionable first years of Bryant's has apparently been overlooked.8 With this early romanticism we may connect the sentimental element in the appeal of innocent and happy savages, whether [264] on Pitcairn's Island or in the pristine Indian summers; likewise the two or three tales of horror and the supernatural, in which he succeeded so poorly. But he arrived soon enough to contribute his own influence to the nineteenth-century poetry of nature.

He came to himself early, for one who had so many years in which to change, if he would change or could. The first volume, the forty-four pages of 1821, contains most, the second, 1832, certainly contains all, of the essential Bryant, the essential as to what he cared for in nature and human life, as to how he envisaged it in imagination and dwelt with it in intellect and character, and as to how he gave it expression. In the later years there is more of Bryant's playful fancy, perhaps more of ethical thinking and mood, a slight shift of emphasis, new constructions, not new materials. His world and his speech were already his: there is no new revelation and no new instrument in any one of the several succeeding issues of his verse (though there are many new, many high poems), as there are new revelations and new instruments in Byron, Tennyson, and Browning; indeed, Keats in the three years between the volumes of 1817 and 1820 lived a much longer, a more diversified life of steadily increasing vision and voice. It need hardly be remarked, then, that he experienced no intellectual and moral crisis,--neither from without, as did Wordsworth when his country took up arms against Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality and when shortly Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality danced, like the Weird Sisters, around the cauldron of horror; nor from within, like the expatriated husband and father Byron, and the political idealist Dante, and even the flaneur who wrote The ballad of reading gaol.

He came, likewise, early to his fame. He was first and alone. The little world of the lovers of good things on the North Atlantic seaboard in those days, trained as it was in the English and ancient classics, quickly set the young man apart; Bryant became established, fortunately, somewhat before American literary criticism had become self-consciously patriotic, indiscriminate, vulgar. England, too, long so important an influence on American judgments of American products, early accorded him a measure of honour and thanks. It is well known that Washington Irving secured the English reprinting of the volume [265] of 1832 in the same year, with a brief criticism by way of dedication to Samuel Rogers, whose reading of the contents was the delight of that old Maecenas and Petronius Arbiter. It has, however, apparently not been observed that the entire contents of the volume of 1821 were reprinted, indeed in the same order, in Specimens of the American poets (London, 1822) with a noteworthy comment9 on the lines Thanatopsis that “there are few pieces, in the works of even the very first of our living poets, which exceed them in sublimity and compass of poetical thought.” And Bryant was spared from the beginning furor and contempt: he was never laurelled like Byron, never foolscapped like Keats by critics or public; his repute was always, like himself, dignified, quiet, secure. And so the critical problem is initially simplified, in two ways: there is no story of struggle for recognition, and the effects of that struggle on the workman; there is no story of evolution of inner forces. Thus the poetry of Bryant admits of treatment as one performance, one perception and one account of the world, in a more restricted sense than is generally applicable to poetic performance, where the unity is the unity of psychological succession in a changing temporal order: Don Juan is, perhaps, implied in the English Bards and Childe Harold, paradise lost in the Nativity, Hamlet in Romeo and Juliet; but, in a humbler sphere, Among the trees and The flood of years are less implied than actually present in A Forest Hymn and Thanatopsis. If Bryant's poems need sometimes the reference of date, it is for external occasion and impulse, not for artistic registration. Three periods have been discovered for Chaucer, and four for Shakespeare; our modest American was without “periods.”

The critical problem is simple, though not necessarily trivial or easy, in another way: this one performance was itself of a relatively simple character. Bryant's poems stress perpetually a certain few ideas, grow perpetually out of a certain few emotional responses, and report in a few noble imaginative modes a certain few aspects of man and nature, with ever recurring habits of observation, architectonics, and style. This absence of complexity is, again, emphasized by the elemental clarity and simplicity of those same few ideas, emotions, modes, methods. Within his range he is complete, harmonious, and, [266] in a deeper sense than above, impressively one. It is for this, perhaps, that of all American poets he makes the strongest impression of an organic style, as contrasted with an individual, a literary style, consciously elaborated, as in Poe and Whitman. It is partly for this, perhaps, that the most Puritan of our poets is also the most Greek. Bryant's limitations, then, are intimately engaged in the peculiar distinction of his work; and it is ungracious, as well as superficial, to quarrel with them.

Bryant's ideas, stated in bald prose, are elementary,common property of simple minds. His metaphysics was predominantly that of the Old Testament: God is the Creator and His works and His purposes are good. Bryant communicated, however, little sense of the loving fatherhood and divine guidance in human affairs: perhaps once only, in To a waterfowl, which originated in an intensely religious moment of young manhood.10 His ethics stress the austerer loyalties of justice and truth rather than those of faith, hope, and charity. His politics in his poems, however analytic and specific he might be as publicist, reiterate only the ideals of political freedom and progress, with ever confident reference to the high destinies of America, that “Mother of a mighty race.” His assurance of individual immortality for all men, which scarcely touches the problem of sin, rests not on revelation, not on a philosophy of the transcendental significance of intellect, struggle, and pain, but mainly on primitive man's desire to meet the loved and lost, the father, the sister, the wife. There is nothing subtle, complex, or tricky here; there are no philosophers, apparently, on his reading desk; no Spinoza, Plotinus, Berkeley, Hartley, who were behind Coleridge's discursive verse; no Thomas Aquinas who was the propedeutic for The divine comedy. And of any intricate psychology, or pseudo-psychology, such as delighted Browning, there is of course not a bit. There is in these ideas, as ideas, nothing that a noble pagan, say of republican Rome, might not have held to, even before the advent of Stoic and Academician. But there is a further paganism in the emphasis on the phenomena of life as life, on death as death. Man's life, as individual and type, is what it is-birth and toil in time; and death is what it is, save when he mentions a private grief — for men and empires it is a passing away in a [267] universe of time and change. The original version of Thanatopsis is more characteristic than its inconsistent introductory and concluding lines, now the oftenest quoted of all his writings. If Bryant was the Puritan in his austerity and morale, he was quite as much the Pagan in the universality of his ideas, and in his temperamental adjustment to brute fact.

On nature and man's relation to nature, one who reads without prepossession will find the American Wordsworth equally elemental. He raises his hymn in the groves, which were God's first temples,--venerable columns, these ranks of trees, reared by Him of old. And “the great miracle still goes on” ; and even the “delicate forest flower” seems

An emanation of the indwelling Life,
A visible token of the upholding Love,
That are the soul of this great universe.

A forest Hymn.

But more frequently nature is herself enough, in the simple thought that personifies and capitalizes: it is She herself that speaks to man, in his different hours, a various language. But it is only casually, as in Among the trees, that he wonders if the vegetable world may not have some

dim and faint
sense of pleasure and of pain,
As in our dreams;

only casually, for conscious mysticism was foreign to Bryant's intellect, and the conception had yet to be scientifically investigated in the laboratories of the Hindoo botanist Bose. Here nature, as herself the Life, is simply an hypostasis of the racial imagination in which Bryant so largely shared, just like his intimate personifications of her phenomena, her flowers, her winds, and waters; it is not a philosophic idea, but a primitive instinct. “Nature's teachings” for men are simply the ideas that suggest themselves to Bryant himself (not inevitably to everyone) when he observes what goes on, or what is before him:

The faintest streak that on a petal lies,
May speak instruction to initiate eyes.

The mystery of flowers.

[268] But this apparently Wordsworthian couplet can be related to no system of thought or Wordsworthian instruction. These ideas are sometimes merely analogies, where in effect the flower (be it the gentian), or the bird (be it the waterfowl), is the first term in a simile on man's moral life; in this phase Bryant's thought of nature differs from that of Homer, the Psalmist, Jesus, or any sage or seer, Pagan or Christian, only in the appositeness, more or less, of the illustrative symbol. It implies no more a philosophy of nature than similes drawn from the action of a locomotive or a motor-boat would imply a philosophy of machinery. As a fact, Bryant's one abiding idea about nature is that she is a profound influence on the human spirit, chastening, soothing, encouraging, ennobling-how, he does not say; but the fact he knows from experience, and mankind knows it with him, and has known it from long before the morning when the sorrowful, chafed soul of Achilles walked apart by the shore of the many-sounding sea.

Every poet, like every individual, has of course his favourite, his recurrent ideas: Wordsworth, again and again, adverts to the uses of old memories as a store and treasure for one's future days, again and again he sees his life as divided into three ages; Browning again and again preaches the doctrine that it is better to aim high and fail than to aim low and succeed; Emerson that the soul must live from within. But with Bryant the recurrence is peculiarly insistent and restricted in variety.

But these ideas were involved in a temperament. The chief differences among men are not in their ideas, as ideas, but in the power of the ideas over their emotions, or in the ideas considered as the overflow of their emotions. In Bryant presumably the ideas became formulas of thought, clarified and explicit, through his feelings. A man of great reserve and poise, both in life and art, his “coldness,” well established in our literary tradition by some humorous lines of Lowell and a letter of Hawthorne, is a pathetic misreading. There is no sex passion; if there was in Bryant any potentiality of the young Goethe or Byron, it was early transmuted into the quiet affections for wife and home. There is no passion for friends; without being a recluse, he never craved comradeship, like Whitman, for humanity's sake, nor, like Shelley, for affinity's sake, and was, in the lifelong fellowship with such men as the [269] elder Dana, the literary mentor who is responsible for more of Bryant's revisions in verse than any one knows,11 spared the shocks that usually stimulate the expression of the passion of friendship. But his feelings, for woman and friend, were deep if quiet-perhaps deeper because quiet. And the other primary feelings were equally deep: awe in the presence of the cosmic process and the movements of mankind, reverence for holiness, pity for suffering, brooding resentment against injustice, rejoicing in moral victory, patriotism, susceptibility to beauty of outline and colour and sound, with peculiar susceptibility to both charm and sublimity in natural phenomena. These emotions, in Bryant, ring out through his poetry, clear, without blur or fringe, like the Italian vowels. He had no emotional crotchets, no erratic sensibilities; among other things, he was too robust and too busy. He had the “feelings of calm power and mighty sweep” of which he himself speaks, as befitting the poet.12

The few aspects of man and nature he reported have, in a way, been necessarily already suggested. With senses more alert to observe details in the physiognomy and voice of nature than of man, his imagination continually sees the same general vision: the Indian, shadowy type of a departed world, accoutred with feathers and tomahawk, realized, however, in almost none of his actual customs and in none of his actual feelings save that of sorrow for tribal ruin; the warriors of freedom, especially of the American Revolution; the infinite and mysterious racial past on this earth with all its crimes, triumphs, mutations, rather than with its more ethical future which he believes in more than he visualizes, an act of his thinking rather than of his imagination; the earth itself as the sepulchre of man; and, like one great primeval landscape, the mountain, the sea, the wind, the river, the seasons, the plain, the forest that undergo small change from their reality, take on few subjective peculiarities, by virtue of an imagination that seems, as it were, to absorb rather than to create its objects,--in this more like the world of phenomena in Lucretius than, say, in Tennyson, or in the partially Lucretian Meredith, certainly than in Hugo, to whom [270] nature becomes so often monstrous and grotesque. And yet Bryant's imagination has its characteristic modes of relating its objects. Three or four huge and impressive metaphors underlie a great part of his poetry: the past as a place, an underworld,13 dim and tremendous, most poignantly illustrated in the poem The past with its personal allusions, and most sublimely in The death of slavery, a great political hymn, with Lowell's Commemoration ode, and Whitman's When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed, the highest poetry of solemn grandeur produced by the Civil War; death as a mysterious passageway, whether through gate14 or cloud,15 with the hosts ever entering and disappearing in the Beyond; mankind conceived as one vast company, a troop, a clan; and, as suggested above, nature as a multitudinous Life.

Bryant wonderfully visualized and unified the vast scope of the racial movement and the range of natural phenomena. His “broad surveys,” as they have been called, are more than surveys: they are large acts of the combining imagination, presenting the significance, not merely the catalogue. These acts take us home to the most inveterate habit of his poet-mind. As method or device they seem to suggest a simple prescription for writing poetry; superficially, after one has met them again and yet again in Bryant, one might call them easy to do, because easy to understand. The task is, however, not to make a list, but to make the right list; a list not by capricious association of ideas, but by the laws of inner harmony of meaning. Again, in Bryant the list is itself often a fine, far look beyond the immediate fact — the immediate fact with which all but the poet would rest content. The song of the Sower needed no suggestion from Schiller's Song of the Bell, which, however, Bryant doubtless knew;16 it highly illustrates his own natural procedure: [271]

Fling wide the golden shower; we trust
The strength of armies to the dust.

The grain shall ripen for the warrior. Then he goes on: “O fling it wide, for all the race: for peaceful workers on sea and land, for the wedding feast, for the various unfortunate, for the communion, for Orient and Southland” --and we live, as we read, wise in the basic fact of agriculture and wise in the activities of humankind. The precise idea is handled more lightly in The planting of the Apple Tree. Often the “survey” the word is convenient-starts from some on-moving phenomenon in nature-again an immediate fact-and proceeds by compassing that phenomenon's whence or whither, what it has experienced or what it will do: let one re-read his tale of The River, by what haunts it flows (like, but how unlike, Tennyson's brook); The unknown way, the spots it passes (becoming a path symbolic of the mystery of life); The sea, what it does under God (like and unlike Byron's apostrophe); The winds, what they do on sea and land; A Rain-Dream, imaging the waters of the globe. Sometimes the phenomenon is static and calls his imagination to penetrate its secret history, or what changes it has seen about it, as when he looks at the fountain17 or is among the trees.18 Sometimes the vision rides upon or stands beside no force in Nature, but is his own direct report, as in Fifty years, on the changes in individual lives, in history, in inventions, especially in these States, since his class graduated at Williams. “Broad surveys” of human affairs and of the face of earth, so dull, routine, bombastic as far as attempted in Thomson's Liberty, in Blair's Grave, in White's Time, become in Bryant's less pretentious poems the essential triumph of a unique imagination. The mode remained a favourite to the end: large as in The flood of years, intimate and tender in A Lifetime. No American poet, except Whitman, had an imagination at all like Bryant's, or, indeed, except Whitman and Emerson, as great as Bryant's.

No reminder should be needed that Bryant, like Thoreau and Burroughs, was a naturalist with wide and accurate knowledge. He knew the way of the mist on river and mountain-crest, all tints of sunset, the rising and the setting of the [272] constellations, every twig and berry and gnarled root on the forest floor, all shapes of snow on pine and shrub, the commoner insects and wild creatures, and especially the birds and the flowers; and he knew the hums and the murmurs and the boomings that rise, like a perpetual exhalation, from the breast of earth. A traveller from some other planet could take back with him no more useful account of our green home than Bryant's honest poems of nature. There is a group of his poems that details the look, habits, and habitat of single objects: The yellow Violet (with an intrusive moral-but his “morals” are, contrary to traditional opinion, seldom intrusive, being part of the imaginative and emotional texture), and Robert of Lincoln (which is besides most fetching in its playfulness and Bryant's one success in dramatic portrayal). He was a good observer; he would never have placed, like Coleridge, a star within the nether tip of the crescent moon. There is an allied group which impart the quality of a moment in nature, as Summer Wind:

It is a sultry day; the sun has drunk
The dew that lay upon the morning grass;
There is no rustling in the lofty elm . . .
. . . All is silent, save the faint
And interrupted murmur of the bee,
Settling on the sick flowers ....
. . Why so slow?
Gentle and voluble spirit of the air?

These, if not the most representative, are the most exquisite of all his poems.

And no reminder should be needed that he knew best the American scene, and was the first to reveal it in art. Irving, in the London edition of 1832, naturally emphasized this claim to distinction; and Emerson, many years later, at an after-dinner speech on the poet's seventieth birthday, dwelt on it with a winsome and eloquent gratitude19 that has made all subsequent comment an impertinence.

Apart from the characteristics outlined above, Bryant had, as if a relief and release from the verities and solemnities, a love of fairyland: he had found it already, for instance, in the snow [273] world of the Winter piece; he went to it more often and eagerly from the editorial desk and the noise and heat of the Civil War: in The little people of the snow, in Sella (the underwater maiden), and in the fragments, A Tale of Cloudland, and Castles in the air. Their flowing blank verse (each some hundreds of lines), unlike his early experiments in prose narrative (which in their wooden arrangement, dull plot, and stilted characterizations are of a piece with the American short story before Poe and Hawthorne), tells, in simple chronological order, of one simple type of adventure, a mortal penetrating beyond the confines of nature-again the repetition of theme and architectonics, and one more manifestation of the primitive in Bryant (for the fairy-tale is, as the anthropologists tell us, among the most primitive activities of man) as dreamer and poet.

Like Cowper and Longfellow, and so many others, Bryant turned, in later life, to a long task of translation, in his case Homer, as relief from sorrow. The literary interest was to see if he might not, by closeness to the original and simplicity of straightforward modern English, supersede the looseness and artificial Miltonic pomp of Cowper. His translation, by detailed comparison line for line with the Greek and with the English poet, will be found to be exactly what Bryant intended it. By block comparison of book for book, or version for version, it will be found to be the better translation, from the point of view of limpid and consequent story-telling-perhaps the best in English verse. Of Arnold's four Homeric characteristics, rapidity of movement, plainness of style, simplicity of ideas, nobility of manner, Bryant's translation is inadequate mainly in the first and the last, but the Homer is, in any case, a proof of intellectual alertness, scholarship, and technical skill. All his translations, many of them made before Longfellow's now widely-recognized activities as spokesman in America for European letters, are a witness to Bryant's knowledge of foreign tongues and literatures, to his part in the culturization of America, to the breadth of his taste and a certain dramatic adaptability (for the originals that attracted him had often not much of the specific qualities of his own verse), and to his all but impeccable artistry.

Of his artistry this study has scarcely spoken; yet it has [274] been throughout implied. His qualities of thought, feeling, imagination, were communicated, were indeed only communicable, because so wrought into his diction, his rhymes, cadences, and stanzas. Indeed, there is no separating a poet's feeling, say, for a beautiful flower from his manner of expressing it — for all we know about his feeling for the flower is what he succeeds in communicating by speech. It is tautology to say that a poet treats a sublime idea sublimely — for it is the sublimity in the treatment that makes us realize the sublimity of the idea. We can at most conceive a poet's “style” as a whole; as, along with his individual world of meditation and vision, another phase of his creative power — as his creation of music. Possibly it is the deepest and most wonderful of the poet's creations, transcending its manifestation in connection with any single poem. Perhaps, for instance, Milton's greatest creative act was not Lycidas, or the Sonnets, or Paradise lost, but that music we call Miltonic. Certainly this is the more true the more organic the style is; and, as said before, Bryant's style was highly organic.

An astute and sympathetic mind who might never have seen a verse of Bryant's could deduce that style from what has been said in this chapter — if what has been said has been correctly said. Such a mind would not need to be told that Bryant's diction was severe, simple, chaste, narrower in range than that of his political prose; that his rhymes were dignified, sonorous, exact and emphatic rather than subtle or allusive, and narrow in range — not from artistic poverty but because the rhyme vocabulary of the simple and serious moods is in English itself narrow, and much novelty and variety of rhyme is in our speech possible only when, like Browning, one portrays the grotesque and the eccentric, or like Shelley the fantastic, or like Butler the comic, or like Chaucer the familiar. Such a mind would deduce Bryant's most fundamental rhythm, the iambic; his most fundamental metre, the pentameter; together with his preference for stanzaic, or periodic, treatment, whether in blank verse or in rhyme, rather than for couplets; yes, together with the most characteristic cadences,--like the curves of a distant mountain range, few and clear but not monotonous; like the waves of a broad river, slow and long but not hesitant or ponderous, never delighting by subtle surprises, nor jarring [275] by abrupt stops and shifts. Indeed, and would our critic not likewise guess, especially if recently schooled at Leipzig under Sievers, the very pitch of his voice in verse-strongest in the lower octaves — as well as the intrinsic alliteration,20--an alliteration as natural as breathing, in its context unobtrusive as such to the conscious ear because so involved in a diction which is itself the outgrowth of very mood and meaning? In quite different ways, Bryant is, with Poe, America's finest artist in verse. Perhaps this is, with Bryant's genuineness of manhood, a reason why Bryant was the one native contemporary that Poe thoroughly respected.

What to puzzled readers seems “characteristically Bryant's blank verse” is really the total impression of both materials and manner, manner itself including diction as well as metrics. But the metrics alone do have their peculiarities, which can, however, hardly be examined here: line endings like “and the green moss,” caesuras at the end of the first and of the fourth foot, the tendency to repeat the same caesura and cadence through a succession of lines, a stanza group of five or more lines with full stop followed by a single line or so, inverted accent at the beginning of a line, and a differentiated, strong cadence at the conclusion of the whole poem which gives the effect of a completion, not of a mere stopping,--these are all contributing factors.

Yet Bryant is not one of the world's master-poets. It is not so much that he contributed little or nothing to philosophic thought or spiritual revolution, not altogether that his range was narrow, not that he never created a poem of vast and multitudinous proportions, drama, epic, or tale, not that he knew nature better than human life and human life better than human nature, not that he now and then lapsed from imaginative vision into a bit of sentiment or irrelevant fancy,--not either that there is not a single dark saying, or obscure word, construction, allusion, in all his verse, for the judicious to elucidate at a club or in a monograph. He is not one of the world's master-poets, because he was not pre-eminently endowed with intellectual intensity and imaginative concentration. The character of his whole mind was discursive, enumerative, [276] tending, when measured by the masters, to the diffuse. Thus, among other results, his report of things has given man's current speech but few quotations, of either epigrammatic criticism or haunting beauty. A book could be written on this thesis, but a paragraph must suffice. It is just as well: it is better to realize what Bryant was than to exploit what he was not.

And if he was and is a true poet, he belongs to our best traditions also as critic. He was never, to be sure, the professional guide of literary taste, like Arnold and Lowell. Apart from sensible but obvious memorial addresses on Irving, Halleck, and Cooper, his best known essay is introductory to his Library of poetry and song; it enunciates fewer keen judgments on individuals, fewer profound principles, than does Emerson's introduction to his Parnassus, but it does enunciate the primacy of “a luminous style” and of themes central to common man, in noble paragraphs that should not be forgotten, certainly not by any one who believes that criticism gains in authority when it is the concentrated deduction of experience. Of his services as editor of a leading metropolitan paper, through nearly two generations of crisis after crisis in the nation's life, only an historian should speak. Not even Godwin, his editorial colleague, has spoken, it seems, quite the definitive word. Why should it not be spoken? The fact is, no such man ever sat, before or since, in the editorial chair; in no one other has there been such culture, scholarship, wisdom, dignity, moral idealism. Was it all in Greeley? in Dana? What those fifty years may have meant as an influence on the American press, especially as counteracting the flamboyant and vulgar, the layman may only conjecture.

There is no space to speak of his letters beyond noting that, with all their elegance, courtesy, criticism, information, they do not belong, with Cicero's, Gray's, Cowper's, Byron's, Emerson's, Meredith's, to the literature of correspondence, because they are without zest for little details of human life (whether in others or in himself), or without informal spontaneity and flashes of insight-or without whatever it be that makes a private letter ultimately a public joy.

As a whole, Bryant's prose style has quality as well as qualities, but here a word only on its relation to the style of his [277] poetry. Bryant more than once explicitly differentiated the functions of the two harmonies21; but Prescott22 was not the only one who detected in both the same qualities of mind: obviously a man is not two different beings according to whether he is playing a violin or a cello, singing or talking. Bryant, as Dowden said of Burke, saw “the life of society in a rich, concrete, imaginative way” ; and not unlike Burke he had, as politician, the poet's generalizing power. But the point here of special interest is the recurrence in his prose so often, when his prose rises to things in their significance (as apart from their mere relations), of the same imaginative procedure: there is the “broad survey,” as in the account of the waters of the Mississippi 23 (themselves introduced as a simile to illustrate the fame of Homer); there are his fundamental metaphors, the grammar of his dialect, as that of the past as a place, occurring in the editorial24 on the amendment abolishing slavery, which is besides in many details of imagery almost another version of the poem on the same theme, written, says Godwin, a little later. In a public address on the electric telegraphs he said:

My imagination goes down to the chambers of the middle sea, to those vast depths where repose the mystic wire on beds of coral, among forests of tangle, or on the bottom of the dim blue gulfs strewn with the bones of whales and sharks, skeletons of drowned men, and ribs and masts of foundered barks, laden with wedges of gold never to be coined, and pipes of the choicest vintages of earth never to be tasted. Through these watery solitudes, among the fountains of the great deep, the abode of perpetual silence, never visited by living human presence and beyond the sight of human eye, there are gliding to and fro, by night and by day, in light and in darkness, in calm and in tempest, currents of human thought borne by the electric pulse which obeys the bidding of man.

Godwin, Prose, vol. II, p. 259.

Is not this in imagination, mood, manner, even in the recurrent blank verse cadences, veritably as if an unpublished fragment of A Hymn of the Sea?

So we return to the Poet. Yet when all is said, it is the whole man that is ours and that should be ours. He is the Citizen of [278] our tradition; not to us today so much for his hand in the founding of two political parties, nor for his counsels by personal letter and speech that Lincoln, the Statesman of our tradition, heard with such grave respect, nor for his civic activities in art, charity, and reform; but for that Mosaic massive head, those deep, peering, brooding eyes, those white shaggy brows, and the great beard over the old man's cloak that, in the engraving after Sarony's photograph, has been now for a generation familiar in so many homes of our land.

6 Tennysonian blank-verse in Sella has been suggested-unconvincingly.

7 See Autobiographical Fragment for a partial list.

8 Winner of the Seaton Prize at Cambridge for 1759. Death may be found in Musae Seatonianae, Cambridge, 1808-a copy of which was apparently in Doctor Bryant's library.

9 Compare Southey's Inscriptions (themselves imitated from Akenside), especially In a forest, with Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood.

10 P. 190.

11 Godwin, Life, vol. I, pp. 143-145.

12 See some correspondence between Bryant and Dana apropos the 1846 edition of the Poems, Godwin, Life, vol. II, p. 14 ff.

13 The Poet.

14 The figure is in Kirke White's Time:

Where are conceal'd the days which have elapsed?
Hid in the mighty cavern of the past,
They rise upon us only to appal,
By indistinct and half-glimpsed images.

This is doubtless one of the many indications of how thoroughly Bryant's early reading penetrated his subconsciousness and, with boyhood's woods and mountains, contributed to his essential make — up in maturity.

15 Poems, p. 260.

16 Poems, p. 250.

17 See The death of Schiller.

18 Poems, p. 185.

19 Ibid., p. 321.

20 Godwin, Life, vol. II, p. 216 ff.

21 Largely on b and frequently in idiomatic pairs, as “bees and birds,” “bled or broke.”

22 Godwin, Prose, vol. n, p. 22.

23 Godwin, Life, vol. II, p. 36.

24 Godwin, Prose, vol. II, p. 269.

25 Godwin, Life, vol. II, p. 235.

26 See Book II, Chap. XX.

27 See also Book II, Chaps. I, III, IV, and VII.

28 Tales of the Glauber Spa (1832).

29 See Book II, Chaps. II and VI.

30 See Book II, Chap. XX.

31 See Book II, Chaps. VII and XX.

32 Trent, W. P., in American literature, p. 457.

33 See also Book II, Chap. III.

34 See Leonard, W. E., Byron and Byronism in America (Columbia Univ. Diss.), 1905.

35 Godwin, Prose, vol. I, p. 374.

36 It was reprinted almost entire in Specimens of the American poets, London, 1822, in which it is called a “sprightly little poem” and “one of the cleverest efforts of the American Muse.” The note concludes, however, with a comment that the English edition had not apparently had “a very extensive circulation.” Part of its American popularity was due to its purely local allusions.

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