William Cullen Bryant Additional Biography


William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794, in Cummington, Massachusetts, to Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell Bryant. The poet enjoyed a close family life and, from an early age, benefited from the positive influences of both parents, as well as from those of his maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Snell. The latter’s Calvinist influence, though muted, is evident in the language of the poetry and in the recurrent image of an angry God threatening retribution for humankind’s sins. His mother’s gentler religious influence bore directly on his precocity as a reader in general, and of the Bible in particular, at the age of four. Bryant was later to remember those conducting the religious services of his very early childhood experiences as “often poets in their extemporaneous prayers.”

A counter, and as time passed more prevailing, influence was that of his liberal physician father, Peter Bryant, who encouraged the poet in his early experiments with satires, lampoons, and pastorals. Under that encouraging tutelage, Bryant published his first poem of substance, “The Embargo,” in 1808, at the age of thirteen; three years later, he set about translating the third book of the Aeneid. In 1817, Peter Bryant took copies of several of his son’s poems to his friend Willard Phillips, one of the editors of the North American Review. “Thanatopsis” and one other poem were published immediately in the journal’s September issue....

(The entire section is 491 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111205058-Bryant_W.jpg William Cullen Bryant Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Cullen Bryant spent his childhood under the opposing influences of his father, a liberal-minded physician who later became a Unitarian and a member of the state legislature, and his maternal grandfather, a sternly Calvinist farmer who was a deacon in the local church. Bryant, a precocious boy, showed an early interest in politics, religion, and literature, and his first volume of poetry, The Embargo: Or, Sketches of the Times, a Satire, was published before his fourteenth birthday. The principal poem in this volume, “The Embargo,” written in heroic couplets, attacked President Thomas Jefferson in all the ways that were current in New England at the time, to which he added a number of pious clichés in a childish imitation of the technique of Alexander Pope.

Bryant was also interested in nature and spent many hours roaming through the fields and woods near his home in western Massachusetts. His poetry gradually changed from measured heroic couplets to a style and diction more like those of William Wordsworth. He wrote several versions of the famous “Thanatopsis” while still in his teens, but, because the poem expressed many Unitarian ideas, it had to be hidden from his Calvinist grandfather. Bryant wished to study at Harvard University, and his father agreed, but when his grandfather insisted that it would be a needless extravagance, the boy was sent to Williams College. He spent only one year there before returning to Cummington to study law.

“Thanatopsis,” a poem showing how any man might go to his death confident that any faith would save him, appeared in the North American Review in 1817. The poem, which eventually came to be acknowledged as one of the first and best American Romantic poems and to demonstrate an already developed technique, initially appeared anonymously and evoked little comment for several years. His editors, however, hailed Bryant as a new poetic genius. He continued to write industriously and published another volume, Poems (containing, among others, “The Yellow Violet” and “To a Waterfowl”) in 1821. That same year he was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard, but his offering, “The Ages,” a long exposition of the progress and perfectibility of man, did not impress his academic...

(The entire section is 941 words.)