William Cullen Bryant, The Author of Thanatopsis
by Edwin Watts Chubb
Thanatopsis may be said to be the most remarkable poem written by an
American youth. "The unfailing wonder of it is," writes an American
critic in a magazine article, "that a boy of seventeen could have
written it; not merely that he could have made verse of such
structural beauty and dignity, but that the thoughts of which it is
compacted could have been a boy's thoughts. The poem seems to have
been written while he was at his father's house in Cummington, in the
summer of 1811, before he had definitely begun the study of law. Fond
as he had been of showing his earlier effusions to his father and
others, the consciousness of having done something different and
greater must have come upon him at this time, for it was only by
accident, six years after the writing of Thanatopsis, that his
father chanced to find it and the poem now called An Inscription Upon
the Entrance to a Wood, among some papers in a desk the boy had used
while at home. Dr. Bryant read them with amazement and delight,
hurried at once to the house of a neighbor, a lady of whose sympathy
he felt sure, thrust them into her hands, and, with the tears running
down his cheeks, said, 'Read them; they are Cullen's.'
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT
From a photograph from life
"Now it had happened only a short time before, that Dr. Bryant had
been asked in Boston to urge his son to contribute to the newly
established North American Review, and had written him a letter on
the editor's behalf. Here was the opportunity of a proud father.
Without telling his son of his discovery or his purpose, he left the
poems one day, together with some translations from Horace by the
same hand, at the office of The North American. The little package
was addressed to his editorial friend, Mr. Willard Phillips, of whom
tradition tells us that as soon as he read the poems he betook himself
in hot haste to Cambridge to display his treasures to his associates,
Richard H. Dana and Edward T. Channing. 'Ah, Phillips,' said Dana,
when he had heard the poems read, 'you have been imposed upon. No one
on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verse.' But
Phillips, believing Dr. Bryant to be responsible for it, declared that
he knew the writer, and that Dana could see him at once if he would go
to the State House in Boston. Accordingly the young men posted into
town, and Dana, unconvinced after looking long and carefully at Dr.
Bryant in his seat in the Senate, said, 'It is a good head, but I do
not see Thanatopsis in it.'"
Bryant is never thought of as a humorist, and his poetry is devoid of
playfulness. But in this letter to his mother, in which he announces
his marriage with Frances Fairchild, we have evidence that Bryant had
a strong sense of humor.
: I hasten to send you the melancholy
intelligence of what has lately happened to me.
Early on the evening of the eleventh day of the present month
I was at a neighboring house in this village. Several people
of both sexes were assembled in one of the apartments, and
three or four others, with myself, were in another. At last
came in a little elderly gentleman, pale, thin, with a solemn
countenance, pleuritic voice, hooked nose, and hollow eyes. It
was not long before we were summoned to attend in the
apartment where he and the rest of the company were gathered.
We went in and took our seats; the little elderly gentleman
with the hooked nose prayed, and we all stood up. When he had
finished most of us sat down. The gentleman with the hooked
nose then muttered certain cabalistic expressions, which I was
too much frightened to remember, but I recollect that at the
conclusion I was given to understand that I was married to a
young lady by the name of Frances Fairchild, whom I perceived
standing by my side, and I hope in the course of few months to
have the pleasure of introducing to you as your
daughter-in-law, which is a matter of some interest to the
poor girl, who has neither father or mother in the world.
Next to Thanatopsis the most widely-known and admired of Bryant's
work is To a Waterfowl. There are two very interesting stories
pertaining to this much quoted poem, one relating to the origin of the
poem, the other recording its effect on two fastidious young
Englishmen, Hartley Coleridge and Matthew Arnold.
Bryant was a young man with no assurance as to what the future might
have in store for him. He was journeying over the hills to Plainfield
to see whether there might possibly be an opening for a young lawyer.
It was the 15th of December, 1816, and we can imagine that the gloom
of the gathering twilight helped to deepen the youth's despondency.
But before the glimmering light of evening had given place entirely to
the dark of night, the sky was transfigured with the bright rays of
the setting sun. The New England sky was flooded for a moment with
seas of chrysolite and opal. While young Bryant stopped to enjoy the
brilliant scene, a solitary bird made its way across the sky. He
watched it until it was lost in the distant horizon, and then went on
with new courage as he thought the thoughts so beautifully expressed
in the poem which he wrote after he reached the house where he was to
stay for the night.
The incident in regard to Matthew Arnold is related by Godwin in a
letter to Bigelow:
"Once when the late Matthew Arnold, with his family, was visiting the
ever-hospitable country home of Mr. Charles Butler, I happened to
spend an evening there. In the course of it Mr. Arnold took up a
volume of Mr. Bryant's poems from the table and turning to me said,
'This is the American poet, facile princeps'; and after a pause, he
continued: 'When I first heard of him, Hartley Coleridge (we were both
lads then) came into my father's house one afternoon considerably
excited and exclaimed, 'Matt, do you want to hear the best short poem
in the English language?' 'Faith, Hartley, I do,' was my reply. He
then read a poem To a Waterfowl in his best manner. And he was a
good reader. As soon as he had done he asked, 'What do you think of
that?' 'I am not sure but you are right, Hartley, is it your
father's?' was my reply. 'No,' he rejoined, 'father has written
nothing like that.' Some days after he might be heard muttering to
The desert and illimitable air,
Lone wandering but not lost."