William Cullen Bryant

Poet: William Cullen Bryant
Date of Birth: 3 November 1794, Massachusetts, USA
Date of Death: 12 June 1878, New York, USA

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant was a romantic poet, journalist, and long-time editor for the New York Evening Post.

Bryant was born in a log cabin near Cummington, Massachusetts, USA., the second son of Peter Bryant, a doctor and later a state legislator, and Sarah Snell who’s family traces back to passengers on the Mayflower.

When he was 2 years old, Bryant and his family moved to The William Cullen Homestead. After just one year at Williams College he began to study law in Worthington and Bridgewater, Massachusetts. He was admitted to the bar in 1815 and practiced law in Plainfield.

Bryant developed an interest in poetry early in life. He emulated Alexander Pope and other Neo-Classical poets. In 1808 Bryant published ‘The Embargo’, a savage attack on Thomas Jefferson. The first edition quickly sold out – mainly due to the poet’s youthful age. During his legal studies he wrote little poetry. However encounters with the Graveyard Poets and Wordsworth regenerated his passion for the witchery of song.

‘Thanatopsis’ is Bryant’s best-known poem, which he may have been working on as early as 1811. It was mistakenly attributed to his father in 1817 but after clarification of the authorship Bryant’s poetry began appearing with regularity in the Review.

In 1821 Bryant married Frances Fairchild. He also spent months working on ‘The Ages’, a panorama in verse of the history of civilization. It led the collection entitled ‘Poems’ which he published. His career as a poet was established, though recognition as America’s leading poet waited until 1832.

From 1816 to 1825 Bryant was dependent on his law practice in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to support his family. The stress of dealing with unsophisticated neighbours and a promise of literary career pushed him to trade his profession in New York. With the encouragement of the Sedgwicks, a well-connected literary family, he quickly gained a foothold in New York’s vibrant cultural life. In 1825 he was employed as editor of the New York Review, which merged with the United States review and Literary Gazette. He also worked for the New York Evening Post under William Coleman. His duties expanded rapidly with Coleman’s ill health. From assistant editor he rose to editor-in-chief and co-owner of the newspaper. Bryant had shifted to being one of the most liberal voices of the century, promoting the right of workers to strike, defending religious minorities and immigrants and the abolition of slavery. In the battle of human rights he did not cease in speaking out against bankers and other authoritative figures despite attempts to break down the newspaper. The boy who first tasted fame for a diatribe against Thomas Jefferson and his party had become one of its key supporters. A progressive but not quite populist Bryant joined the Free Soilers, and when the Free Soil Party became a core of the new republican Part in 1856 he vigorously campaigned for John Frémont, an exertion that enhanced his standing in party councils and in 1860 he was one of the key supporters of Abraham Lincoln . he introduced Lincoln at the Cooper Union, and Lincoln’s address lifted him to the nomination and then presidency. During this period Bryant’s fictional writing with the Review to the publication of ‘Tales of Glauber Spa’ in 1832 demonstrated his variety of strategic invention. He was elected an Associate fellow of the American Academy of Arts and sciences in 1855.

In the last decade of his life, Bryant shifted from writing his own poetry to a blank verse translation of the work of Homer. He died in 1878 following an accidental fall and is buried at Roslyn Cemetery, New York.

The Evening Wind by William Cullen Bryant

Spirit that breathest through my lattice, thou
That cool’st the twilight of the sultry day,
Gratefully flows thy freshness round my brow:
Thou hast been out upon the deep at play,
Riding all day the wild blue waves till now,
Roughening their crests, and scattering high their spray
And swelling the white sail. I welcome thee
To the scorched land, thou wanderer of the sea!

Nor I alone—a thousand blossoms round
Inhale thee in the fulness of delight;
And languid forms rise up, and pulses bound
Livelier, at coming of the wind of night;
And, languishing to hear thy grateful sound,
Lies the vast inland stretched beyond the sight.
Go forth into the gathering shade; go forth,
God’s blessing breathed upon the fainting earth!

Go, rock the little wood-bird in his nest,
Curl the still waters, bright with stars, and rouse
The wide old wood from his majestic rest,
Summoning from the innumerable boughs
The strange, deep harmonies that haunt his breast:
Pleasant shall be thy way where meekly bows.
The shutting flower, and darkling waters pass,
And where the o’ershadowing branches sweep the grass.

The faint old man shall lean his silver head
To feel thee; thou shalt kiss the child asleep,
And dry the moistened curls that overspread
His temples, while his breathing grows more deep:
And they who stand about the sick man’s bed,
Shall joy to listen to thy distant sweep,
And softly part his curtains to allow
Thy visit, grateful to his burning brow.

Go—but the circle of eternal change,
Which is the life of nature, shall restore,
With sounds and scents from all thy mighty range
Thee to thy birthplace of the deep once more;
Sweet odours in the sea-air, sweet and strange,
Shall tell the home-sick mariner of the shore;
And, listening to thy murmur, he shall deem
He hears the rustling leaf and running stream

©JG Farmer 2019

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