William Cullen Bryant Bryant, William Cullen - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

William Cullen Bryant 1794–1878

American poet, editor, critic, travel sketch writer, translator, short story and sketch writer, satirist, and historian.

The most accomplished and popular American poet of the first half of the nineteenth century, Bryant also was the first American poet to receive substantial international acclaim. Bryant is considered an early proponent of Romanticism in American literature, and his work is often compared thematically and stylistically to that of English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Opposing eighteenth-century poetic conventions and using experimental iam bic rhythms, Bryant's poetry usually meditates on nature and the transience of earthly things. Although its themes were few and its thought not profound, Bryant's verse possessed a simple dignity and an impeccable restrained style, most notably in "Thanatopsis" (1817) and "To a Waterfowl" (1821), the poems for which he is best remembered. Since Bryant also spent more than fifty years of his life as editor of the New York Evening Post, a career which ranks among the longest in American journalism, he never fully developed his poetic talents. However, Bryant's literary efforts make him an important, if somewhat overlooked, figure in American poetry.

Biographical Information

Born November 3, 1794, at Cummington, Massachusetts, Bryant began to compose verses at age nine. His first poem to gain critical attention, The Embargo; or, Sketches of the Times, which satirized Thomas Jefferson's laws limiting free trade, appeared in 1808. Bryant entered Williams College at age sixteen, but left without graduating and returned home, where he studied law until he was admitted to the bar in 1815. For the next ten years Bryant practiced as an attorney, a profession he came to detest. Meanwhile, he continued to write poetry and published several essays of poetry criticism. Encouraged by the highly favorable critical response to the anonymous publication of an early version of his "Thanatopsis" in the North American Review in 1817, Bryant established his name as a poet with his first collection, Poems (1821). In 1825 he moved to New York City, where he co-founded the New York Review and Atheneum Magazine, which eventually proved to be unsuccessful, and associated with artists Asher Durant and Thomas Cole and members of the renowned Knickerbocker school, which included writers Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Gulian Verplanck, each of whom later became the subjects of Bryant's biographical discourses. In 1827 Bryant was offered an editorial position at the New York Evening Post, and by 1829 he became

the newspaper's editor-in-chief and part owner. For nearly fifty years under his leadership the Evening Post espoused such liberal political causes as free trade, free speech, workers' rights, and the abolition of slavery, serving initially as an organ of the Democratic party and later the Free-Soil movement and finally the Republican party. Upon publication of his second volume of verse, Poems (1832), Bryant had attained national prominence as a public figure, both as poet and editor. Although Bryant published other poetry collections over the course of his life, his editorial responsibilities consumed his time and turned his attention to prose writing. Bryant also toured Europe and the United States: one visit to Illinois inspired "The Prairies," and the letters he wrote to the Evening Post during his trips abroad comprise three collections of travel sketches. Despite a lifetime of political, literary, and physical activity, Bryant suffered a debilitating stroke and died two weeks later on June 12, 1878.

Major Works

Distinguished by its simple dignity, didactic purpose, plain style, and a conscious concern for craftsmanship, Bryant's poetry expresses ideas derived from the Enlightenment and English Romanticism. The majority features recurrent themes of mutability, loneliness and isolation, the passing of innocence, and the somber certainty of the grave. Yet his poems are tinged by his personal interest in American politics, folklore, and history, and, above all, by his observations of the beauty and power of his native landscape, which pervades his poetic sensibilities. Bryant's poetic treatment of nature incorporates his belief that Nature is simply the visible manifestation of an omnipresent, transcendent God, who remains distinct from the natural world. For example, "To a Waterfowl" depicts the poet's vision of a lone bird on the horizon at the close of a wearisome day, which sparks his realization that all nature is directed and protected by divine providence. In "A Forest Hymn" the poet exclaims that "The groves were God's first temples," observing that even a flower possesses "an emanation of the in-dwelling Life." Many of Bryant's lyrics reveal that Nature exists to console and instruct humanity about divine purpose, which is represented by providential cycles of changes in nature and life. For instance, "Thanatopsis," whose Greek title means "view of death," gives voice to Nature, who teaches that humanity partakes of all natural processes and admonishes humanity to live well so it may not fear death. "The Death of the Flowers," written on the death of Bryant's sister, identifies the dead woman with the decay of beautiful summertime, while "To the Fringed Gentian," whose title refers to a late-blooming autumnal flower, states the poet's wish that "Hope, blossoming within my heart, / May look to heaven as I depart."

Critical Reception

Bryant's colloquial voice and celebration of nature were hailed as poetic innovations upon publication of his debut collection Poems, and confirmed his reputation as the most eminent American poet of the day. His status generally went unquestioned by his contemporaries until the middle of the nineteenth century, when some critics began to observe that his lyrics lacked flexibility and depth of subject and theme; that his versification failed to display poetic virtuosity and breadth of conception; and that his poetry relied too much on didactic endings and generally lacked passion. Thus, by the time the poet had achieved the heights of critical adulation, he already was being reduced to a poet of historical significance, or at least a competent wordsmith of second rank. Although most critics have agreed that Bryant's early poems represent his best work, critical assessment of his work has declined considerably in the twentieth century and is largely limited to debates about whether Bryant's poetic sensibilities are more Puritan or Romantic. A small revival of interest in Bryant's poetry has occurred since 1978, which marked the hundredth anniversary of the poet's death, but most criticism has centered on a half-dozen of individual poems, comparisons to other writers and artists, or the relation between geography and poetry. Norbert Krapf has remarked, "if we ultimately find [Bryant] to be a 'minor' poet, we must realize that it is indeed no mean accomplishment to be a minor poet."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


The Embargo; or, Sketches of the Times 1809

*Poems 1821

Poems 1832

The Fountain and Other Poems 1846

The White-Footed Deer and Other Poems 1846

Hymns 1864

Thirty Poems 1864

Among the Trees 1874

The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant. 2 vols. 1883

Other Major Works

"Medfield" (short story) 1832; published in Tales of the Glauber-Spa

"The Skeleton's Cave" (short story) 1832; published in Tales of the Glauber-Spa

Letters of a Traveller; or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America (travel sketches) 1850

Discourse on the Life and Genius of Cooper (criticism) 1852

Letters of a Traveller, second series (travel sketches) 1859

A Discourse on the Life, Character, and Genius of Washington Irving (criticism) 1860

Letters from the East (travel sketches) 1869

Some Notices of the Life and Writings of Fitz-Greene Halleck (criticism) 1869

A Discourse on the Life, Character, and Writings of Gulian Crommelin Verplanck (criticism) 1870

The Iliad of Homer [translator] (poetry) 1870

The Odyssey of Homer [translator] (poetry) 1871

Orations and Addresses by William Cullen Bryant (speeches) 1873

The Prose Writings of William Cullen Bryant. 2 vols. (short stories, criticism, travel sketches, journalism, lectures, and speeches) 1884

The Letters of William Cullen Bryant. 3 vols, (letters) 1975

*This work includes the poems "Thanatopsis" and "To a Waterfowl."

Augustus Hopkins Strong (essay date 1916)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Cullen Bryant," in American Poets and Their Theology, The Griffith and Rowland Press, 1916, pp. 3-48.

[In the following excerpt, Strong discusses various aspects of Christian theology in Bryant's poetry, including the poet's expressions of divine compassion, salvation, and immortality, and also notes his limitations.]

There are patriotic people who maintain that America is the predestined home of poetry. They point to little Greece, with her rocky cliffs and bosky vales, her purple hills and encircling isles, and ask triumphantly if Greece was not the natural habitat of liberty and beauty. When we assent, they argue a fortiori that our great...

(The entire section is 3823 words.)

Marvin T. Herrick (essay date 1935)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rhetoric and Poetry in Bryant," in American Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, May, 1935, pp. 188-94.

[In the essay below, Herrick analyzes Bryant's attitude toward the relationship of poetry to rhetoric and vice versa, demonstrating its influence on the poet's theory and works.]

Recent attempts to resurrect Bryant the editor have given students of American literature a better understanding of the man. Parrington and others have convinced us that Bryant, the liberal editor of the Evening Post, was quite as important a person as Bryant, the first American poet who won international fame. This new emphasis upon Bryant's journalistic achievements, while tending to...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)

Evans Harrington (essay date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sensuousness in the Poetry of William Cullen Bryant," in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 7, 1966, pp. 25-42.

[In the following essay, Harrington investigates the "profound influence of the senses" in Bryant's poetry.]

Even before James Russell Lowell's celebrated comparison of William Cullen Bryant to an iceberg, Bryant was accused of coldness of heart. And long after the more extreme of Lowell's remarks had been denied, similiar criticisms continued to be made. Indeed scholars of our own century have not felt inclined to exempt Bryant completely from the charge. Yet modern critics generally agree with Norman Foerster that "Bryant's genius,...

(The entire section is 4638 words.)

E. Miller Budick (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Visible' Images and the 'Still Voice': Transcendental Vision in Bryant's 'Thanatopsis'," in Emerson Society Quarterly, Vol. 22 (n.s.), No. 2, 1976, pp. 71-7.

[Below, Budick demonstrates the relationship between images and ideas in "Thanatopsis, " which represents the complexities of man's apprehension of transcendent truths in natural images.]

In moments of discursive simplicity, William Cullen Bryant felt certain that poetry was the optic through which man's otherwise restricted vision could be made to perceive the interpenetration of nature and that which is above nature:

Among the most remarkable of the influences of...

(The entire section is 3502 words.)

Edwin R. Booher (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Garden Myth in 'The Prairies'," in Western Illinois Regional Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 15-26.

[In the essay below, Booher discusses Bryant's pastoral and sometimes primitive treatment of the American Midwest in "The Prairies," noting his contributions to the mythology of the American West as a literary theme.]

One of the earliest major poems about the Midwest is William Cullen Bryant's "The Prairies." Written after a visit to Illinois in 1832, the poem clearly embodies significant forms of American idealism and denotes the emergence of the West as an important literary theme. For several reasons—not the least important of which is the...

(The entire section is 2839 words.)

R. Rio-Jelliffe (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: '"Thanatopsis' and the Development of American Literature," in William Cullen Bryant and His America, edited by Stanley Brodwin and Michael D'Innocenzo, AMS Press, 1983, pp. 133-46.

[In the following essay, Rio-Jelliffe considers the traditional and innovative elements of "Thanatopsis, " examining its relationship to Bryant's own poetic theory and to the subsequent development of American literature.]

On reading an anonymous poem brought by Willard Phillips, his co-editor with Edward Channing of the North American Review, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. is said to have exclaimed: "Ah! Phillips, you have been imposed upon; no one on this side of the Atlantic is...

(The entire section is 5140 words.)

David J. Moriarty (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Cullen Bryant and the Suggestive Image: Living Impact," in William Cullen Bryant and His America, edited by Stanley Brodwin and Michael D'Innocenzo, AMS Press, 1983, pp. 209-22.

[In the following essay, originally presented at the 1978 Centennial Conference at Hofstra University, Moriarty re-evaluates Bryant's poetic imagery from a modernist point of view, suggesting that the poet's nature images are still alive, renewable, suggestive, for the reader of today.]

One suspects that the literary critics have too often risen to defend a "denatured" Bryant, the one whose reputation as a poet has been assaulted by neglect and misunderstanding for the greater...

(The entire section is 4955 words.)

Linden Peach (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Man, Nature and Wordsworth: American Versions," in British Influence on the Birth of American Literature, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1982, pp. 29-57.

[In the following excerpt, Peach shows how Bryant made use of Wordsworth's poetry, highlighting the similarities and differences of British and American literary romanticism.]

Every sympathy is the admission of a power over
us, a line in which sympathetic magic is at play.
—Robert Duncan (The Truth & Life of Myth)

The possibilities of establishing an intimate relationship with nature and an awareness of its healing and...

(The entire section is 3690 words.)

Albert F. McLean (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Divided Voice," in his William Cullen Bryant, updated edition, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 106-31.

[In the excerpt below, McLean focuses on Bryant's poetic theory and poetic technique, observing a distinct division between the poet's artistic intention and his poetic achievement.]

If Bryant's vacillation between epideictic and contemplative verse in his poems of progress was, on one level, a re-enactment of the age-old dilemma of the personal poet who feels compelled to tithe his talent to the social good, on a more profound level this indecision was too symptomatic of the fundamental weakness of his poetry. Bryant was seldom able to speak with the firm,...

(The entire section is 5983 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bigelow, John. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1890, 355 p.

General biography by Bryant's close friend and colleague at the New York Evening Post, including numerous letters and other correspondence.

McDowell, Tremaine. "Introduction" to William Cullen Bryant, pp. xiii-lxviii. New York: American Book Company, 1935.

Perceptive survey of Bryant's life and literary career, including the poet's early conservatism, political idealism, religious liberalism, views on nature, and literary romanticism.


(The entire section is 738 words.)