Littell's Living Age/Volume 1/Issue 1/W. C. Bryant
We have been all along looking out for a purely American poet, who should be strictly national in the comprehensive sense of the term. The only man who approaches that character is William Cullen Bryant; but if Bryant were not a sound poet in all other aspects, his nationality would avail him nothing. Nature made him a poet, and the accident of birth has placed him amongst the forests of America. Out of this national inspiration he draws universal sympathies—not the less universal because their springs are ever close at hand, ever in view, and ever turned to with renewed affection. He does not thrust the American flag in our faces, and threaten the world with the terrors of a gory peace; he exults in the issues of freedom for nobler ends and larger interests. He is. the only one of the American poets who ascends to “the height of this great argument,” and lifts his theme above the earthly taint of bigotry and prejudice. In him, by virtue of the poetry that is in his heart, such themes grow up into dignity. His genius makes all men participators in them, seeking and developing the universality that lies at their core. The woods, prairies, mountains, tempests, the seasons, the life and destiny of man, are the subjects in which he delights. He treats them with religious solemnity, and brings to the contemplation of nature, in her grandest revelations, a pure and serious spirit. His poetry is reflective, but not sad; grave in its depths, but brightened in its flow by the sunshine of the imagination. His poems addressed to rivers, woods, and winds, all of which he has separately apostrophized, have the solemn grandeur of anthems, voicing remote and trackless solitudes. Their beauty is affecting, because it is true and full of reverence. Faithful to his inspiration, he never interrupts the profound ideal that has entered into his spirit to propitiate the genius loci:—he is no middleman standing between his vernal glories and the enjoyment of the rest of mankind. He is wholly exempt from verbal prettiness, from flaunting imagery and New World conceits; he never paints on gauze; he is always in earnest, and always poetical. His manner is everywhere graceful and unaffected.
Two collections of Mr. Bryant’s poems have been published in London, and the reader may be presumed to be already acquainted with nearly all he has written. The following passage, descriptive of the train of thoughts suggested by the shutting in of evening, has appeared only in the American editions:
The summer day has closed—the sun is set: Well have they done their office, those bright hours The latest of whose train goes softly out In the red west. The green blade of the ground Has risen, and herds have cropped it; the young twig Has spread its plaited tissues to the sun; Flowers of the garden and the waste have blown, And withered; seeds have fallen upon the soil From bursting cells, and in their graves await Their resurrection. Insects from the pools Have filled the air awhile with humming wings, That now are still forever; painted moths Have wandered the blue sky, and died again; The mother-bird hath broken for her brood Their prison-shells, or shoved them from the nest, Plumed for their earliest flight. In bright alcoves, In woodland cottages with earthy walls, In noisome cells of the tumultuous town, Mothers have clasped with joy the new-born babe. Graves, by the lonely forest, by the shore Of rivers and of ocean, by the ways Of the thronged city, have been hallowed out, And filled, and closed. This day hath parted friends, That ne’er before were parted; it hath knit New friendships; it hath seen the maiden plight Her faith, and trust her peace to him who long Hath wooed; and it hath heard, from lips which late Were eloquent of love, the first harsh word, That told the wedded one her peace was flown. Farewell to the sweet sunshine! one glad day Is added now to childhood’s merry days, And one calm day to those of quiet age; Still the fleet hours run on; and as I lean Amid the thickening darkness, lamps are lit By those who watch the dead, and those who twine Flowers for the bride. The mother from the eyes Of her sick infant shades the painful light, And sadly listens to his quick-drawn breath.
When America shall have given birth to a few such poets as Bryant, she may begin to build up a national literature, to the recognition of which all the world will subscribe.