Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1402

William Cullen Bryant was one of the first authentic voices of the Romantic Movement in America. At his best, he combined the essential simplicity and emotion of a romantic with careful observation of and allegiance to the world of nature about him. His poems demonstrate this minute observation and this simple care, fashioned into verse that is clear, sometimes moving, and easily communicated.

Bryant was a precocious boy who demonstrated an early interest in politics and literature. In 1808, before he was fourteen years old, his first volume of poetry, THE EMBARGO, OR SKETCHES OF THE TIMES: A SATIRE, was published. “The Embargo,” the principal poem in this volume, was an attack on President Jefferson in which the young poet set down in heroic couplets all the slanderous epithets he had heard his elders use against Jefferson. Bryant’s next poem was “Thanatopsis.” First written in 1811, and published in the North American Review in 1817, it is an instance of genuine precocity. A meditation in blank verse, developing its theme with quiet power and a simple sense of movement, the poem reflects movingly on the spectacle of man going to his death secure in the knowledge that ultimate salvation is his. Avowedly moral in purpose, it became one of the most frequently read poems in American literature.

Bryant never lost his tendency to use poetry as a vehicle for his explicit moral and religious convictions. He felt that poetry should uplift and ennoble; and his work is filled with poems enjoining man to recognize the truths of nature and of God and to live his life in accordance with them. Bryant’s poems indicate that the author felt no shame or self-consciousness in preaching to his fellows. For contemporary readers, however, Bryant is remembered far more for his simple and direct observation of nature than for his moral teaching. Poems like “The Yellow Violet,” “To A Waterfowl” and “To the Fringed Gentian,” verse acute, precise, and unpretentious, seem now to represent Bryant’s highest poetic achievement. The simplicity and ease of stanzas like the following from “To the Fringed Gentian” demonstrate something of the ease and directness of Bryant’s nature poetry:

Thou comest not when violets leanO’er wandering brooks and springsunseen,Or columbines, in purple dressed,Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest

Bryant is often thought of as the American Wordsworth, the Nature Poet extraordinary. Like Wordsworth, he could be didactic in his moral certainty, direct and simple in his treatment of nature. If Bryant’s best work has not the power and the simple force of Wordsworth at his best, neither does Bryant have long sections of poems as completely prosaic and undistinguished as sections of THE PRELUDE.

Bryant wrote in a variety of stanza forms. Although he often used blank verse, he also frequently wrote his nature poems in simple quatrains. He also attempted other stanza forms; in fact, he experimented, at one time or another, with most of the forms regularly used in English poetry. An early poem, “The Ages,” written for delivery before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1821, was written in the nine-line Spenserian stanza; other poems attempted the various forms used in the ode. Although not an innovator, Bryant served a genuine function in making Americans more aware of the structural variety in English poetry, of incorporating into the American tradition the forms and the possibilities of the English tradition. Bryant’s work, as he himself was well aware, was, by its example, the work of the conscientious and enlightened teacher.

Bryant, in his effort at romantic simplicity and smoothness, often was distinguished for his sure sense of poetic diction. His aim was, like Wordsworth’s, to use simple language and to avoid the stylized or “poetic.” Yet his poetry demonstrates that, along with his belief in simplicity of diction, he felt a strong allegiance to the notion of propriety. He attempted to get a certain elevation or majesty into his poetic language, a quality that, at its best, succeeded, although at other times it led him into vast and flat abstractions. In a poem called “The Poet,” he both articulated and illustrated his sense of language as the combination of the concrete and the majestic in a carefully wrought passage:

Yet let no empty gustOf passion find an utterance in thylay,A blast that whirls the dustAlong the howling street and diesaway;But feelings of calm power and mightysweep,Like currents journeying through thewindless deep.

Despite the apparent calm, this passage shows that Bryant had a great deal of variety and power within his simple language. At other times, inversion and abstract pretense mar what might otherwise be simple and moving poetry, as in the poem called “October, 1866,” written just after his wife’s death:

Yet was the home where thou wert lyingdeadMournfully still, save when, at times,was heard,From room to room, some softly-movingtread,Or murmur of some softly-utteredword.Feared they to break thy slumber? Aswe threwA look on that bright bay and gloriousshore,Our hearts were wrung with anguish,for we knewThose sleeping eyes would look onthem no more.

Bryant’s poetry covered a great number of themes. In addition to his interest in nature, he also demonstrated his sympathy for various causes throughout the world: the fight for freedom in Italy, the Greek revolt for independence from the Turks. His opinions on social and political questions were generally on the liberal side (he was, for example, an ardent abolitionist), but these opinions, on domestic issues, seldom found their way into his verse. He also frequently mourned the death of friends and famous contemporaries in verse and used his foreign travels as the motivation for other poems. But his most frequent theme was nature; the change of the seasons, the appearance of flowers, the beauty of the familiar world were all his constant pre-occupation.

For Bryant, nature was never very far from God, a merciful and forgiving God whose bounty was evident in all his works. He wrote a number of hymns which demonstrate the same simple and genuine devotion, the same sense of pervading goodness, that emanates from his poems on nature. No human tragedy seemed to him so deep or meaningful that the calm, the peace, the divine reason behind it could not be seen. His poetry was full of a generous and pervasive faith.

Bryant was also a translator of many poems from the Spanish and German lyricists of his time. Late in his career he translated Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY, but unfortunately his versions do not convey the boldness, sweep, and power of the Homeric style. Bryant’s peaceful faith, particularly as it functioned in his later poetry, was not an effective filter through which to convey Homer’s grandeur.

Bryant’s poetry has had a great influence on poetry in America. His variety, his enthusiasm for expressing individual emotions, his genuine interest in nature, and his interest in many forms of poetic expression helped to educate generations of American poets and readers. Although his influence has been far less notable during the past thirty or forty years, he helped to introduce poetry to a young country that would have been highly suspicious of more sophisticated practitioners. In his poems he seemed an ordinary man developing simple emotions in a variety of styles, managing each in a clear, clean, dignified way. For American poetry in the middle of the nineteenth century, no more was required; before his time, no one had accomplished as much.

In addition to his historical value, Bryant still merits the modern reader’s attention for his careful diction and his simple observation of nature. At its best, his verse has a simple power and precision. If the contemporary reader cannot appreciate Bryant’s easy assurances about ultimate peace and justice or is disturbed about the poet’s lapses into flat and banal language, he can still appreciate the fact that Bryant was often a poet of skill and simple directness, still acknowledge the poetic achievement of lines such as the following from “The Burial Place”:

Yet here,Nature, rebuking the neglect of man,Plants often, by the ancient mossy stone,The brier-rose, and upon the broken turfThat clothes the fresher grave, thestrawberry plantSprinkles its swell with blossoms, andlays forthHer ruddy, pouting fruit. . . .

As these lines show, Bryant could often describe what he saw with clarity, emotion, and poetic force.

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