Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “William Cullen Bryant” (Text-B), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe­ (1850), 3:178-188


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­ [page 178:]

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WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.

MR. BRYANT’s position in the poetical world is, perhaps, better settled than that of any American. There is less difference of opinion about his rank; but, as usual, the agreement is more decided in private literary circles than in what appears to be the public expression of sentiment as gleaned from the press. I may as well observe here, too, that this coincidence of opinion in private circles is in all cases very noticeable when compared with the discrepancy of the apparent public opinion. In private it is quite a rare thing to find any strongly-marked disagreement — I mean, of course, about mere autorial merit. The author accustomed to seclusion, and mingling for the first time freely with the literary people about him, is invariably startled and delighted to find that the decisions of his own unbiased judgment — decisions to which he has refrained from giving voice on account of their broad contradiction to the decision of the press — are sustained and considered quite as matters of course by almost every person with whom he converses. The fact is, that when brought face to face with each other, we are constrained to a certain amount of honesty by the sheer trouble it causes us to mould the countenance to a lie. We put on paper with a grave air what we could not for our lives assert personally to a friend without either blushing or laughing outright. That the opinion of the press is not an honest opinion, that necessarily it is impossible that it should be an honest opinion, is never denied by the members of the press themselves. Individual presses, of course, are now and then honest, but I speak of the combined effect. Indeed, it would be difficult for those conversant with the modus operandi of public journals to deny the general falsity of impression conveyed. Let in America a book be published by an unknown, careless or uninfluential author; if he publishes it “on his own account,” he will be confounded at finding that no notice of it is taken at all. If it has been entrusted to a publisher of caste, there will appear forthwith in each of the leading business papers a variously-phrased critique to the extent of three or four lines, and to the effect that “we have received, ­[page 179:] from the fertile press of So and So, a volume entitled This and That, which appears to be well worthy perusal, and which is `got up’ in the customary neat style of the enterprising firm of So and So.” On the other hand, let our author have acquired influence, experience, or (what will stand him in good stead of either) effrontery, on the issue of his book he will obtain from his publisher a hundred copies (or more, as the case may be,) “for distribution among friends connected with the press.” Armed with these, he will call personally either at the office or (if he understands his game) at the private residence of every editor within his reach, enter into conversation, compliment the journalist, interest him, as if incidentally, in the subject of the book, and finally, watching an opportunity, beg leave to hand him “a volume which, quite opportunely, is on the very matter now under discussion.” If the editor seems sufficiently interested, the rest is left to fate; but if there is any lukewarmness, (usually indicated by a polite regret on the editor’s part that he really has “no time to render the work that justice which its importance demands,”) then our author is prepared to understand and to sympathize; has, luckily, a friend thoroughly conversant with the topic, and who (perhaps) could be persuaded to write some account of the volume — provided that the editor would be kind enough just to glance over the critique and amend it in accordance with his own particular views. Glad to fill half a column or so of his editorial space, and still more glad to get rid of his visitor, the journalist assents. The author retires, consults the friend, instructs him touching the strong points of the volume, and insinuating in some shape a quid pro quo, gets an elaborate critique written, (or, what is more usual and far more simple, writes it himself,) and his business in this individual quarter is accomplished. Nothing more than sheer impudence is requisite to accomplish it in all.

Now the effect of this system (for it has really grown to be such) is obvious. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, men of genius, too indolent and careless about worldly concerns to bestir themselves after this fashion, have also that pride of intellect which would prevent them, under any circumstances, from even insinuating, by the presentation of a book to a member of the press, a desire to have that book reviewed. They, consequently, and their ­[page 180:] works, are utterly overwhelmed and extinguished in the flood of the apparent public adulation upon which in gilded barges are borne triumphant the ingenious toady and the diligent quack.

In general, the books of the toadies and quacks, not being read at all, are safe from any contradiction of this self-bestowed praise; but now and then it happens that the excess of the laudation works out in part its own remedy. Men of leisure, hearing one of the toady works commended, look at it, read its preface and a few pages of its body, and throw it aside with disgust, wondering at the ill taste of the editors who extol it. But there is an iteration, and then a continuous reiteration of the panegyric, till these men of leisure begin to suspect themselves in the wrong, to fancy that there may really be something good lying perdu in the volume. In a fit of desperate curiosity they read it through critically, their indignation growing hotter at each succeeding page till it gets the better even of contempt. The result is, that reviews now appear in various quarters entirely at variance with the opinions so generally expressed, and which, but for these indignation reviews, would have passed universally current as the opinion of the public. It is in this manner that those gross seeming discrepancies arise which so often astonish us, but which vanish instantaneously in private society.

But although it may be said, in general, that Mr. Bryant’s position is comparatively well settled, still for some time past there has been a growing tendency to under-estimate him. The new licentious “schools” of poetry — I do not now speak of the transcendentalists, who are the merest nobodies, fatiguing even themselves — but the Tennysonian and Barrettian schools, having, in their rashness of spirit, much in accordance with the whole spirit of the age, thrown into the shade necessarily all that seems akin to the conservatism of half a century ago. The conventionalities, even the most justifiable decora of composition, are regarded, per se, with a suspicious eye. When I say per se, I mean that, from finding them so long in connexion with conservatism of thought, we have come at last to dislike them, not merely as the outward visible signs of that conservatism, but as things evil in themselves. It is very clear that those accuracies and elegancies of style, and of general manner, which in the time of Pope were considered as ­[page 181:] prima facie and indispensable indications of genius, are now conversely regarded. How few are willing to admit the possibility of reconciling genius with artistic skill! Yet this reconciliation is not only possible, but an absolute necessity. It is a mere prejudice which has hitherto prevented the union, by studiously insisting upon a natural repulsion which not only does not exist, but which is at war with all the analogies of nature. The greatest poems will not be written until this prejudice is annihilated; and I mean to express a very exalted opinion of Mr. Bryant when I say that his works in time to come will do much towards the annihilation.

I have never disbelieved in the perfect consistency, and even congeniality, of the highest genius and the profoundest art; but in the case of the author of “The Ages,” I have fallen into the general error of undervaluing his poetic ability on account of the mere “elegances and accuracies” to which allusion has already been made. I confess that, with an absolute abstraction from all personal feelings, and with the most sincere intention to do justice, I was at one period beguiled into this popular error; there can be no difficulty, therefore, on my part, in excusing the inadvertence in others.

It will never do to claim for Bryant a genius of the loftiest order, but there has been latterly, since the days of Mr. Longfellow and Mr. Lowell, a growing disposition to deny him genius in any respect. He is now commonly spoken of as “a man of high poetical talent, very ‘correct,’ with a warm appreciation of the beauty of nature and great descriptive powers, but rather too much of the old-school manner of Cowper, Goldsmith and Young.” This is the truth, but not the whole truth. Mr. Bryant has genius, and that of a marked character, but it has been overlooked by modern schools, because deficient in those externals which have become in a measure symbolical of those schools.

Dr. Griswold, in summing up his comments on Bryant, has the following significant objections: “His genius is not versatile; he has related no history; he has not sung of the passion of love; he has not described artificial life. Still the tenderness and feeling in ‘The Death of the Flowers,’ ‘Rizpah,’ ‘The Indian Girl’s Lament,’ and other pieces, show that he might have excelled in delineations of the gentler passions had he made them his study.” ­[page 182:]

Now, in describing no artificial life, in relating no history, in not singing the passion of love, the poet has merely shown himself the profound artist, has merely evinced a proper consciousness that such are not the legitimate themes of poetry. That they are not, I have repeatedly shown, or attempted to show, and to go over the demonstration now would be foreign to the gossiping and desultory nature of the present article. What Dr. Griswold means by “the gentler passions” is, I presume, not very clear to himself, but it is possible that he employs the phrase in consequence of the gentle, unpassionate emotion induced by the poems of which he quotes the titles. It is precisely this “unpassionate emotion” which is the limit of the true poetical art. Passion proper and poesy are discordant. Poetry, in elevating, tranquilizes the soul. With the heart it has nothing to do. For a fuller explanation of these views I refer the reader to an analysis of a poem by Mrs. Welby — an analysis contained in an article called “Marginalia,” and published about a year ago in “The Democratic Review.”

The editor of “The Poets and Poetry of America” thinks the literary precocity of Bryant remarkable. “There are few recorded more remarkable,” he says. The first edition of “The Embargo” was in 1808 , and the poet was born in 1794; he was more than thirteen, then, when the satire was printed — although it is reported to have been written a year earlier. I quote a few lines.

Oh, might some patriot rise, the gloom dispel,

Chase Error’s mist and break her magic spell!

But vain the wish; for, hark! the murmuring meed

Of hoarse applause from yonder shed proceed.

Enter and view the thronging concourse there,

Intent with gaping mouth and stupid stare;

While in the midst their supple leader stands,

Harangues aloud and flourishes his hands,

To adulation tunes his servile throat,

And sues successful for each blockhead’s vote.”

This is a fair specimen of the whole, both as regards its satirical and rhythmical power. A satire is, of course, no poem. I have known boys of an earlier age do better things, although the case is rare. All depends upon the course of education. Bryant’s father “was familiar with the best English literature, and perceiving in his son indications of superior genius, attended carefully to his instruction, taught him the art of composition, and guided his ­[page 183:] literary taste.” This being understood, the marvel of such verse as I have quoted ceases at once, even admitting it to be thoroughly the boy’s own work; but it is difficult to make any such admission. The father must have suggested, revised, retouched.

The longest poem of Bryant is “The Ages” — thirty-five Spenserian stanzas. It is the one improper theme of its author. The design is, “from a survey of the past ages of the world, and of the successive advances of mankind in knowledge and virtue, to justify and confirm the hopes of the philanthropist for the future destinies of the human race.” All this would have been more rationally, because more effectually, accomplished in prose. Dismissing it as a poem, (which in its general tendency it is not,) one might commend the force of its argumentation but for the radical error of deducing a hope of progression from the cycles of physical nature.

The sixth stanza is a specimen of noble versification (within the narrow limits of the Iambic Pentameter).

Look on this beautiful world and read the truth

In her fair page; see, every season brings

New change to her of everlasting youth;

Still the green soil with joyous living things

Swarms; the wide air is full of joyous wings;

And myriads still are happy in the sleep

Of Ocean’s azure gulfs and where he flings

The restless surge. Eternal Love doth keep

In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.

The cadences here at page, swarms and surge, cannot be surpassed. There are comparatively few consonants. Liquids and the softer vowels abound, and the partial line after the pause at “surge,” with the stately march of the succeeding Alexandrine, is one of the finest conceivable finales.

The poem, in general, has unity, completeness. Its tone of calm, elevated and hopeful contemplation, is well sustained throughout. There is an occasional quaint grace of expression, as in

Nurse of full streams and lifter up of proud

Sky-mingling mountains that o’erlook the cloud!”

or of antithetical and rhythmical force combined, as in

The shock that hurled

To dust, in many fragments dashed and strown,

The throne whose roots were in another world

And whose far-stretching shadow awed our own. ­[page 184:]

But we look in vain for anything more worthy commendation.

“Thanatopsis” is the poem by which its author is best known, but is by no means his best poem. It owes the extent of its celebrity to its nearly absolute freedom from defect, in the ordinary understanding of the term. I mean to say that its negative merit recommends it to the public attention. It is a thoughtful, well phrased, well constructed, well versified poem. The concluding thought is exceedingly noble, and has done wonders for the success of the whole composition.

“The Waterfowl” is very beautiful, but like “Thanatopsis,” owes a great deal to its completeness and pointed termination.

“Oh, Fairest of the Rural Maids!” will strike every poet as the truest poem written by Bryant. It is richly ideal.

“June” is sweet and perfectly well modulated in its rhythm, and inexpressibly pathetic. It serves well to illustrate my previous remarks about passion in its connexion with poetry. In “June” there is, very properly, nothing of the intense passion of grief, but the subdued sorrow which comes up, as if perforce, to the surface of the poet’s gay sayings about his grave, we find thrilling us to the soul, while there is yet a spiritual elevation in the thrill.

And what if cheerful shouts at noon

Come, from the village sent,

Or songs of maids beneath the moon

With fairy laughter blent?

And what if, in the evening light,

Betrothed lovers walk in sight

Of my low monument?

I would the lovely scene around

Might know no sadder sight nor sound.

I know — I know I should not see

The season’s glorious show,

Nor would its brightness shine for me,

Nor its wild music flow;

But if around my place of sleep

The friends I love should come to weep,

They might not haste to go: —

Soft airs, and song, and light, and bloom,

Should keep them lingering by my tomb.

The thoughts here belong to the highest class of poetry, the imaginative-natural, and are of themselves sufficient to stamp their author a man of genius.

I copy at random a few passages of similar cast, inducing a similar conviction.  ­[page 185:]

The great heavens

Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love,

A nearer vault and of a tenderer blue

Than that which bends above the eastern hills. . . . . .

 

Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked and wooed

In a forgotten language and old tunes

From instruments of unremembered form,

Gave the soft winds a voice. . . . . .

 

Breezes of the south,

That toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,

And pass the prairie hawk, that, poised on high,

Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not. . . . .

 

On the breast of earth

I lie, and listen to her mighty voice —

A voice of many tones sent up from streams

That wander through the gloom, from woods unseen;

Swayed by the sweeping of the tides of air;

From rocky chasms where darkness dwells all day,

And hollows of the great invisible hills,

And sands that edge the ocean, stretching far

Into the night — a melancholy sound! . . . . .

All the green herbs

Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers

By the road side and the borders of the brook,

Nod gayly to each other.

[There is a fine “echo of sound to sense” in “the borders of the brook,” etc.; and in the same poem from which these lines are taken, (”The Summer Wind,”) may be found two other equally happy examples, e. g.

For me, I lie

Languidly in the shade, where the thick turf,

Yet virgin from the kisses of the sun,

Retains some freshness.

And again —

All is silent, save the faint

And interrupted murmur of the bee

Settling on the sick flowers, and then again

Instantly on the wing.

I resume the imaginative extracts.]

Paths, homes, graves, ruins from the lowest glen

To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air. . . . . .

 

And the blue gentian flower that in the breeze

Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last. . . . . .

 

A shoot of that old vine that made

The nations silent in the shade. . . . . .

 

But ‘neath yon crimson tree,

Lover to listening maid might breathe his flame,

 

Nor mark, within its roseate canopy,

Her flush of maiden shame. . . . . . ­ [page 186:]

 

The mountains that infold,

In their wild sweep, the colored landscape round,

Seem groups of giant kings in purple and gold

That guard the enchanted ground.

[This latter passage is especially beautiful. Happily to endow inanimate nature with sentience and a capability of action, is one of the severest tests of the poet.]

. . . . . There is a power whose care

Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,

 

The desert and illimitable air,

Lone, wandering, but not lost. . . . . .

 

Pleasant shall be thy way, where weekly bows

The shutting flowers and darkling waters pass,

And ‘twixt the o’ershadowing branches and the grass. . . . . .

 

Sweet odors in the sea air, sweet and strange,

Shall tell the home-sick mariner of the shore,

And, listening to thy murmur, he shall deem

He hears the rustling leaf and running stream. . . . . .

In a “Sonnet, To —— ,” are some richly imaginative lines. I quote the whole.

Ay, thou art for the grave; thy glances shine

Too brightly to shine long: another spring

Shall deck her for men’s eyes, but not for thine,

Sealed in a sleep which knows no waking.

The fields for thee have no medicinal leaf,

And the vexed ore no mineral of power;

And they who love thee wait in anxious grief

Till the slow plague shall bring the fatal hour.

Glide softly to thy rest, then: death should come

Gently to one of gentle mould like thee,

As light winds, wandering through groves of bloom,

Detach the delicate blossom from the tree,

Close thy sweet eyes calmly and without pain,

And we will trust in God to see thee yet again.

The happiest finale to these brief extracts will be the magnificent conclusion of “Thanatopsis.”

So live, that, when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan that moves

To that mysterious realm where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave —

Like one that draws the drapery of his couch

About him and lies down to pleasant dreams.

In the minor morals of the muse Mr. Bryant excels. In versification ­[page 187:] (as far as he goes) he is unsurpassed in America — unless, indeed, by Mr. Sprague. Mr. Longfellow is not so thorough a versifier within Mr. Bryant’s limits, but a far better one upon the whole, on account of his greater range. Mr. B., however, is by no means always accurate — or defensible, for accurate is not the term. His lines are occasionally unpronounceable through excess of harsh consonants, as in

As if they loved to breast the breeze that sweeps the cool clear sky.

Now and then he gets out of his depth in attempting anapæstic rhythm, of which he makes sad havoc, as in

And Rispah, once the loveliest of all

That bloomed and smiled in the court of Saul.

Not unfrequently, too, even his pentameters are inexcusably rough, as in

Kind influence. Lo! their orbs burn more bright.

which can only be read metrically by drawing out “influence” into three marked syllables, shortening the long monosyllable “Lo!” and lengthening the short one “their.”

Mr. Bryant is not devoid of mannerisms, one of the most noticeable of which is his use of the epithet “old” preceded by some other adjective, e.g.

In all that proud old world beyond the deep; . . . . 

There is a tale about these gray old rocks; . . . . .

The wide old woods resounded with her song; . . . . .

And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven,

etc. etc. etc. These duplicates occur so frequently as to excite a smile upon each repetition.

Of merely grammatical errors the poet is rarely guilty. Faulty constructions are more frequently chargeable to him. In “The Massacre of Scio” we read —

Till the last link of slavery’s chain

Is shivered to be worn no more.

What shall be worn no more? The chain, of course — but the link is implied. It will be understood that I pick these flaws only with difficulty from the poems of Bryant. He is, in the “minor morals,” the most generally correct of our poets.

He is now fifty-two years of age. In height, he is, perhaps, five feet nine. His frame is rather robust. His features are large ­[page 188:] but thin. His countenance is sallow, nearly bloodless. His eyes are piercing gray, deep set, with large projecting eyebrows. His mouth is wide and massive, the expression of the smile hard, cold — even sardonic. The forehead is broad, with prominent organs of ideality; a good deal bald; the hair thin and grayish, as are also the whiskers, which he wears in a simple style. His bearing is quite distinguished, full of the aristocracy of intellect. In general, he looks in better health than before his last visit to England. He seems active — physically and morally energetic. His dress is plain to the extreme of simplicity, although of late there is a certain degree of Anglicism about it.

In character no man stands more loftily than Bryant. The peculiarly melancholy expression of his countenance has caused him to be accused of harshness, or coldness of heart. Never was there a greater mistake. His soul is charity itself, in all respects generous and noble. His manners are undoubtedly reserved.

Of late days he has nearly, if not altogether abandoned literary pursuits, although still editing, with unabated vigor, “The New York Evening Post.” He is married, (Mrs. Bryant still living,) has two daughters, (one of them Mrs. Parke Godwin,) and is residing for the present at Vice-Chancellor McCown’s, near the junction of Warren and Church streets.


Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - Works, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - William Cullen Bryant (Text-B)