William Cullen Bryant Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111229619-Bryant_William_Cullen.jpg William Cullen Bryant Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Cullen Bryant wrote a substantial body of prose: tales, editorials, reviews, letters, appreciations, sketches or impressions, and critical essays. In 1850, he published Letters of a Traveller: Or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America; in 1859, Letters of a Traveller, Second Series; and in 1869, Letters from the East. He reviewed the careers of a number of his contemporaries in such pieces as A Discourse on the Life and Genius of James Fenimore Cooper (1852) and A Discourse on the Life and Genius of Washington Irving (1860). In 1851, he published his Reminiscences of the “Evening Post,” and in 1873, a collection of Orations and Addresses. His Lectures on Poetry, delivered to the Athenaeum Society in 1826, was published in 1884.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

William Cullen Bryant’s central achievement as a man of letters was his contribution to the developing sense of a national identity. Although Bryant’s verse is often indistinguishable from the eighteenth and nineteenth century English verse of his models, he begins to draw lines of contrast, first, by his choice of subject matter—prairies, violets, gentians, Indian legends—and, second, by developing a characteristic poetic voice that can be seen in retrospect to be the early stage of the development of a nationally distinctive poetry.

Bryant’s participation in the formative stages of American poetry was a natural corollary to the second of his two major achievements, his career as a journalist. As the editor and part-owner of the New York Evening Post for almost fifty years, he championed liberal social and political causes that were as much a part of the newly emerging national identity as was his poetry. His vigorous support of freedom of the press, of abolition, of the Republican Party, and of John Frémont and Abraham Lincoln, are among his most notable achievements as a journalist.

Although minor in comparison with his two major achievements, Bryant’s lectures on poetic theory to the Athenaeum Society in 1826 shed light on his own poetry and on some of the cultural assumptions of his period. Bryant’s emphasis on “moral uplift and spiritual refinement” as the aim of poetry is balanced by his interest in native speech and natural imagery as resources to be tapped by the poet.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. A well-written, comprehensive, and reliable account of Bryant’s life. The study of Bryant’s long career at the New York Evening Post is excellent. Little literary analysis.

Donovan, Alan B. “William Cullen Bryant: Father of American Song.” New England Quarterly 41 (December, 1968): 505-520. Identifies the importance of Calvinism and neoclassicism in shaping Bryant’s Romantic verses. Finds in Bryant’s work “the first native articulation of the art of poetry.”

Foshay, Ella M., and Barbara Novak. Intimate Friends: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and William Cullen Bryant. New York: New York Historical Society, 2000. An examination of the friendship among Bryant and the two painters.

Justice, James H. “The Fireside Poets: Hearthside Values and the Language of Care.” In Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by A. Robert Lee. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1985. Asserting that the Fireside poets established poetry as an American treasure, Justice presents Bryant as one of the firmest to show how personal values could be merged with public service. His conversion from older verse styles to newer, Romantic ones is the focus of the discussion of his work. Includes notes and an index.


(The entire section is 559 words.)