William Cullen Bryant Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

William Cullen Bryant wrote his poetry over a fifty-year span, but the apex of his career came in the early 1830’s, very close to an exact midpoint between William Wordsworth’s 1800 preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). In retrospect, Bryant’s poetry, especially his blank verse, can be seen in terms of a development moving from Wordsworth’s theories and examples to the American model of Whitman’s free verse, celebrating the self and the newly emerging national identity. At its best, Bryant’s verse reflects the evolutionary dynamics of a national poetry in the making; at its worst, it is stale repetition of eighteenth century nature poetry, cast in static imitation of Wordsworthian models.

Bryant’s affirmative resolution of his brooding preoccupation with the mutability of all things is another characteristic that places him in the early mainstream of the emerging national literature. He will continue to be read for his place in literary history, for the fuller understanding of the development of that national literature of which he contributes, even if his verse is wholly uncongenial to the contemporary reader. His celebration of the American landscape and his affirmation of a progressive spirit became overtly central themes for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Whitman. Bryant’s best poetry prefigures the American Renaissance in both content and form, theme and style, and thus he continues to be read, and to be readable, as one of America’s literary pioneers.


“Thanatopsis,” one of Bryant’s earliest successes and his most enduring one, survives as a poem rather than as an artifact because its rhythmic and syntactic fluidity has kept it readable. Blank verse has always offered the poet writing in English the best medium, short of free verse, for such fluidity, and that fact, along with the survival of the Romantic ideal of a natural or colloquial language, goes a long way toward explaining the poem’s survival. Because, however, it is obvious that not all of Bryant’s blank verse has been so successful, “Thanatopsis” invites a more detailed examination. The basis of its rhythmic character lies primarily in the relationship between the blank verse structure and the sentence structure. Because few of the lines are end-stopped, the syntactic rhythm is stronger than the theoretical rhythm of blank verse—that is, of five-stress, iambic lines. An examination of the great variety of sentence length relative to line length and of the accentual stress pattern of both will provide some illustrative detail for this aspect of the poem’s character.

There are three thematic sections in the poem, the second beginning at line 31, with “Yet not to thine . . . ,” the third at line 73, with “So live. . . .” The opening independent clause of section 1, ending with a semicolon in line 3, has all the rhetorical quality of a sentence. It and the opening sentence of section 2 are two-and-a-half lines long. The third section has only one sentence, running through the final nine lines of the poem. Two other very long sentences are those beginning at line 8, running over eight lines, and at line 66, running over six. The two shortest sentences are at lines 29 and 60, respectively. The first of these, beginning with “The oak/ Shall send his roots abroad,” has twelve syllables, two more than the blank verse line. The latter has only nine syllables, one short of the prescribed ten. Even this shortest sentence, however, occupies parts of two lines, thus contributing to rather than diminishing the dominance of the syntactic over the verse structure. That dominance prevails in large part simply because of the variety of sentence lengths, which constitute a variety of rhetorical subunits within the thematic and blank verse structures of the poem. The relationship between these syntactical subunits and the blank verse can be best illustrated by simple scansion of...

(The entire section is 1645 words.)