Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1402 words.)