Sunday, June 12, 2011
Deathday: Poet & Editor William Cullen Bryant 1878
William Cullen Bryant (November 3, 1794 – June 12, 1878) was an American romantic poet, journalist, and long-time editor of the New York Evening Post.
Although "Thanatopsis," his most famous poem, has been said to date from 1811, it is much more probable that Bryant began its composition in 1813, or even later. What is known about its publication is that his father took some pages of verse from his son's desk and submitted them, along with his own work, to the North American Review in 1817. The Review was edited by Edward Tyrrel Channing at the time and, upon receiving it, read the poem to his assistant, who immediately exclaimed, "That was never written on this side of the water!" Someone at the North American joined two of the son's discrete fragments, gave the result the Greek-derived title Thanatopsis ("meditation on death"), mistakenly attributed it to the father, and published it. With all the errors, it was well-received, and soon Bryant was publishing poems with some regularity, including "To a Waterfowl" in 1821.
Bryant spent months working on "The Ages," a panorama in verse of the history of civilization, culminating in the establishment of the United States. That poem led a collection, entitled Poems, which he arranged to publish on the same trip to Cambridge. For that book, he added sets of lines at the beginning and end of "Thanatopsis." His career as a poet was launched. Even so, it was not until 1832, when an expanded Poems was published in the U.S. and, with the assistance of Washington Irving, in Britain, that he won recognition as America's leading poet.
His poetry has been described as being "of a thoughtful, meditative character, and makes but slight appeal to the mass of readers."
Writing poetry could not financially sustain a family. From 1816 to 1825, he practiced law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and supplemented his income with such work as service as the town's hog reeve. Distaste for pettifoggery and the sometimes absurd judgments pronounced by the courts gradually drove him to break with the legal profession.
With the help of a distinguished and well-connected literary family, the Sedgwicks, he gained a foothold in New York City, where, in 1825, he was hired as editor, first of the New-York Review, then of the United States Review and Literary Gazette. But the magazines of that day usually enjoyed only an ephemeral life-span. After two years of fatiguing effort to breathe life into periodicals, he became Assistant Editor of the New-York Evening Post under William Coleman, a newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton that was surviving precariously. Within two years, he was Editor-in-Chief and a part owner. He remained the Editor-in-Chief for half a century (1828–78). Eventually, the Evening-Post became not only the foundation of his fortune but also the means by which he exercised considerable political power in his city, state, and nation.
Ironically, the boy who first tasted fame for his diatribe against Thomas Jefferson and his party became one of the key supporters in the Northeast of that same party under Jackson. Bryant's views, always progressive though not quite populist, in course led him to join the Free Soilers, and when the Free Soil Party became a core of the new Republican Party in 1856, Bryant vigorously campaigned for John Frémont. That exertion enhanced his standing in party councils, and in 1860, he was one of the prime Eastern exponents of Abraham Lincoln, whom he introduced at Cooper Union. (That "Cooper Union speech" lifted Lincoln to the nomination, and then the presidency.)
Bryant edited the very successful Picturesque America which was published between 1872 and 1874. This two-volume set was lavishly illustrated and described scenic places in the United States and Canada.
In his last decade, Bryant shifted from writing his own poetry to translating Homer. He assiduously worked on the Iliad and The Odyssey from 1871 to 1874. He is also remembered as one of the principal authorities on homeopathy and as a hymnist for the Unitarian Church—both legacies of his father's enormous influence on him.
Bryant died in 1878 of complications from an accidental fall suffered after participating in a Central Park ceremony honoring Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini.
Poet and literary critic Thomas Holley Chivers said that the "only thing [Bryant] ever wrote that may be called Poetry is 'Thanatopsis,' which he stole line for line from the Spanish. The fact is, that he never did anything but steal—as nothing he ever wrote is original."
Contemporary critic Edgar Allan Poe, on the other hand, praised Bryant and specifically the poem "June" in his essay "The Poetic Principle":
"The rhythmical flow, here, is even voluptuous—nothing could be more melodious. The intense melancholy which seems to well up, perforce, to the surface of all the poet's cheerful sayings about his grave, we find thrilling us to the soul—while there is the truest poetic elevation in the thrill... the impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness."
Although he is now thought of as a New Englander, Bryant, for most of his lifetime, was thoroughly a New Yorker—and a very dedicated one at that. He was a major force behind the idea that became Central Park, as well as a leading proponent of creating the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was one of a group of founders of New York Medical College. He had close affinities with the Hudson River School of art and was an intimate friend of Thomas Cole. He defended immigrants and, at some financial risk to himself, championed the rights of workers to form labor unions.
As a writer, Bryant was an early advocate of American literary nationalism, and his own poetry focusing on nature as a metaphor for truth established a central pattern in the American literary tradition.