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.

Dear Mother: 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 himself,

The desert and illimitable air,
Lone wandering but not lost."