Unpublished Poems by Bryant and Thoreau/Introduction

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


By Professor Curtis Hidden Page

Deep were my musings in life's early blossom
'Mid the twilight of mountain-groves wandering long,

wrote Bryant in a poem first printed by the New York Review for February, 1826. Bryant had just come to New York, in 1825, to be associate editor of this newly founded magazine. He had at last decided to give up his profession of the law, which was so irksome; no longer to

. . . scrawl strange words with the barbarous pen,
And mingle among the jostling crowd,
Where the sons of strife are subtle and loud,

but to return to the "calm life" of thought and poetry—

That won my heart in my greener years,

and to have the courage to be, for better or for worse, a man of letters. This decision had been reached only after much reflection and hesitation, after many nightly wanderings among the mountain-woods of Great Barrington,—after long musings under the stars. He was twenty-four or twenty-five when he thus spoke of his "greener years" as already belonging to the distant past—a mood that need not surprise us in the young man who had written Thanatopsis at the age of sixteen or seventeen; and he was thirty when he finally came to this decision, which marked the turning-point in his life.

These deciding years were also the most fruitful, in poetic production, of all his life. From 1824 to 1826 he wrote more than twice as many poems as in any other three years; and among these poems are many of his most characteristic and best, such as Autumn Woods, The Lapse of Time, Mutation, Monument Mountain, November, A Forest Hymn, The Death of the Flowers, "I cannot forget with what fervid devotion," The New Moon, The Journey of Life, and October; and especially several poems of the stars, including The Hymn to the North Star, The Song of the Stars, The Firmament, and The Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Yet it is probable that not half the poems written during these years are preserved. Bryant was always the sternest critic of his own writings. Of a series of three odes, written a few years earlier, he has included only one in his works. Of the many poems written for Miss Fairchild, before she became Mrs. Bryant, we have but one—"O Fairest of the rural maids." So it may well be that in choosing for publication only what he considered his best, he rejected, in this important period, many characteristic poems which, in view of the small total amount of his work, we can ill afford to lose. Musings would seem to be one of these. Though in the case of Bryant it is particularly difficult to judge of dates by internal evidence—so little did his thought and style change from the beginning to the end of his work, from Thanatopsis to The Flood of Years—yet I feel almost safe in assigning our poem to the year 1825; the more so since it is a poem of Autumn, and since the comet of Encke, which he speaks of in the poem and names in his note, was visible in September and October of that year.

In any case, Musings is thoroughly characteristic of Bryant. No one but he, in the early part of the nineteenth century in America, could have written the beautiful lines—

. . . Was breathing incense o'er the pall
Of the shrouded earth: and dark and tall . . .
Stood up the gray old trees.

He speaks again of "tall gray trees" in The Firmament, written at Great Harrington in 1825. We find "tall and dark," again ending a line, in the Forest Hymn, also written in 1825.

Indeed, Bryant seems to have realized that he had a tendency to overwork these too easily coupled adjectives; for in Monument Mountain he later changed his original reading of 1824, "these gray old rocks," to "these reverend rocks." Nowhere has he used the phrase more effectively than in this brief tenth line of Musings, which stands out bold and alone among the longer lines. We find here also not a few other phrases that are still more distinctively characteristic of Bryant, such as "the shrouded earth," "the scarf of years," "the lovely vestal throng."

The central thoughts of the poem, as well as their phrasing, may be closely paralleled in Bryant's well-known work of this period. It would seem that from the time when he wrote Thanatopsis he could hardly conceive of earth otherwise than as "the great tomb of

man," "one mighty sepulchre." So here, he calls it

. . . one vast chamber of the dead:
A mighty mausoleum, where
Nature lay shrouded: and the tread
Of man gives out a hollow sound,
As from a tomb.

The Journey of Life is of all Bryant's published poems the one which most closely resembles Musings; in fact, it is the expression, condensed into three brief stanzas, of the same succession of thoughts and moods. To make this entirely clear one has but to quote the first two lines of each stanza,—

Beneath the waning moon I walk at night
And muse on human life . . .

The trampled earth returns a sound of fear—
A hollow sound, as if I walked on tombs . . .

And I, with faltering foot-steps, journey on,
Watching the stars that roll the hours away . . .

After Bryant had written The Journey of Life (and we know that this was in 1826), he perhaps laid aside the poem Musings, thinking that he had given the essence of it in his briefer lyric. We may be permitted, however, to prefer the more full and free and spontaneous version, and may even find it more beautiful than the other. It may lead us more gently and persuasively to the mood of quiet acceptance and aspiration which Bryant drew so often from converse with night and the stars. "The thoughtful stars," he calls them in The Firmament; he was ever their poet and devotee, and they never failed to bring him inspiration and "sweet commune." Most of all he loved the Pleiades—"the gentle sisters," as he names them here—

The group of sister-stars . . . the gentle seven,

as he says again in a later tribute, The Constellations. Through all his long life, devoted more to public service than to poetry, and for the most part "in city pent," he needed only to walk alone at night,

And toward the eternal stars again aspire,

in order to find again the memories of his youth, and the Nature-inspiration which was the inmost essence of his genius.

New York, February, 1907.