Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of William Cullen Bryant” (Text-02), Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, May 1840, pp. 203-205


[page 203:]





WHETHER he should base his opinions upon those of the people, or look to the Reviews, or, more wisely, to the genius of the author as evinced in his works, still the critic would find no dearth of material in inditing an account of Bryant, the poet. Of Bryant, the man, but little, comparatively, is known. He is the son of Dr. Peter Bryant of Cummington, Massachusetts, where he was born on the third of November, 1794. He is now, consequently, in his forty-seventh year. His rhyming inclinations were manifested at an early period. He was but ten, according to one authority, — but nine according to another, — when some verses, composed by him as a school-thesis, were thought worthy of publication by the editor of the “Hampshire Gazette,” a small weekly paper then printed at Northampton. This precocious dallying with the Muse was rather abetted than discouraged by the father of our poet. The good old gentleman, a physician and a scholar of no ordinary cast, scrupled not to foster the errant genius of his son, and to act for him in capacity of guide along the flowery but somewhat slippery paths of imaginative lore. The pupil has confessed his indebtedness to parental instruction for many careful habits of compression and polish.

When only fourteen years old, our author published at Boston, in a small volume with some other poems, ”The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times.” The book was so well received that a second edition was printed within the year. “The Embargo” was a political jeu d’esprit levelled at President Jefferson and his measures. It is chiefly remarkable from the fact that the boyish principles therein expressed have, of late days, been gravely brought to sustain a charge of inconsistency urged against the man.

In 1810 the young satirist entered Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He remained here two years, and then, obtaining a dismissal upon his own application, turned his attention to the study of law. In 1815 he was admitted to the bar at Plymouth, and afterward practised with moderate success.

In 1820 he removed from Plymouth to New York, and here became associated with Dr. H. J. Anderson in the conduct of the “United States Review and Literary Gazette,” in which periodical some of his finest compositions first appeared.

In 1821 he published “The Ages, Thanatopsis, and Other Poems.” In 1828 he united his fortunes with those of Mr. William Leggett in the guidance of the “New York Evening Post.”* Soon afterward he assumed a proprietary interest in that paper, and has retained it ever since. [page 204:]

During each of the years 1827, 1828, and 1829 he contributed one-third of its matter to an annual entitled “The Talisman,” the remaining two-thirds being written chiefly by Messieurs Verplanck and Sands. It was for “The Talisman” that Mr. Halleck composed his “Red Jacket.”

In 1832 Mr. Elam Bliss, of New York, issued the first complete edition of the poems of Bryant. It was soon exhausted, and a second immediately published in Boston. Of this latter, Mr. Washington Irving, then in London, took upon himself an English republication, in which he announced himself as the editor, dedicating the book in this capacity to Mr. Samuel Rogers, that tolerable author and excellent financier. Since this period the Harpers of New York have printed several editions, of which the latest contains seventeen pieces not to be found in any previous collection. One or two fine poems, not yet comprised in volume form, have lately appeared in the “Knickerbocker Magazine” and the “Democratic Review.”

In June, 1834, the poet with his family sailed for Europe, with the design of there devoting some years to literary pursuits and to the education of his children. He visited Italy and Germany, residing principally in Munich, Heidelberg, Florence, and Pisa. In the spring of 1836 he was suddenly called home by the severe illness of Mr. Leggett, his associate in the “Evening Post.”

The poetical reputation of Mr. Bryant, both at home and abroad, is, perhaps, higher than that of any other American. In England his writings have been received with especial favour, and here the public approbation has been decided and unanimous. In no instance have his great abilities been denied, nor can it be denied that this fact itself is a substantial proof of the character and of the extent of these abilities. No man of the noblest order of genius was ever distinguished by absolute uniformity of applause. On the other hand, this uniformity is never known except where we meet with the most rigorous negative merit. In truth, a manly exemption from the prevalent poetical affectations of his time has done more for Mr. Bryant than any one positive excellence. Yet of positive excellences he has many; and there are one or two of his shorter poems which sometimes startle the critic into a half belief of a rarer spirit — of a more ethereal temper — than that of which the poet gives any general or steady indication.

Why his “Thanatopsis” has been so widely received and quoted as his finest production, may be explained in part by what has been just now said respecting the negative merits of composition. It is quite devoid of fault; is undoubtedly beautiful; and in judging, absolutely, of the poems of Bryant, the public voice is not altogether wrong in its decision. But as affording evidence of the higher powers of the poet, as specimens by which his claims to the mens divinior might be best estimated, he himself, if we do not greatly misunderstand him, would select some other portions of his works. Had he, indeed, always written as in the annexed little ballad, he might have justly assumed that rank among the poets of all time, into which our national pride and partiality are so blindly disposed to thrust him as it is.

Oh, fairest of the rural maids!

Thy birth was in the forest shades;

Green boughs and glimpses of the sky

Were all that met thine infant eye.

Thy sports, thy wanderings, when a child,

Were ever in the sylvan wild;

And all the beauty of the place

Is in thy heart, and on thy face.

The twilight of the trees and rocks

Is in the lightshade of thy locks;

Thy step is as the wind that weaves

Its playful way among the leaves.

Thine eyes are springs in whose serene

And silent waters Heaven is seen;

Their lashes are the herbs that look

On their young figures in the brook.

The forest depths, by foot unpressed,

Are not more sinless than thy breast;

The holy peace that fills the air

Of those calm solitudes is there.

A graceful simplicity is the chief feature of this poem, — simplicity both of design and execution, — and in this respect the merely general character of the writer's mind is sustained. But breathings of a high ideality are also observable, which render the lines distinctive when considered in connection with this general character. The original conception of the ballad belongs to a lofty class [page 205:] of poetry, while the certainty of purpose, with which so simple a conception is adhered to throughout, appertains to the noblest province of art. The design may be thus stated: A maiden is born in the forest, — she is not merely modelled in character by her woodland associations — this were an every-day thought, — but in her physical as well as moral existence she is identified with the spirit of the green things around her. Their nature becomes hers; their traits of excellence hers; their loveliness grows to be a portion of her own.

The twilight of the trees and rocks

Is in the lightshade of her locks,

And all the beauty of the place

Is in her heart and on her face.

An author, not deeply inspired, would have been satisfied here with the idea of the tints in the locks of the maiden deducing a resemblance to “the twilight of the trees and rocks”; Mr. Bryant has more profoundly imagined the perfect identification.

But the writer of this cursory memoir has commented elsewhere, at much length, upon the poetical character of Mr. Bryant; and it appears an act of supererogation to avoid the mere words of an opinion existing now precisely as heretofore, and whose substance, if he speaks at all, he must still necessarily express. The reader will therefore pardon him for extracting from the “Southern Literary Messenger” the concluding sentences of an article upon the matter now in question.

“In all his rhapsodies which have reference to the grace or the beauty or the majesty of nature, is a most audible and thrilling tone of love and exultation. As far as he appreciates her loveliness or her augustness, no appreciation can be more ardent, more full of heart, more replete with the glowing soul of adoration. Nor, either in the moral or physical universe coming within the periphery of his vision, does he at any time fail to perceive and designate, at once, the legitimate items: of the beautiful. Therefore, could we consider (as some have considered) the mere enjoyment of the beautiful when perceived, or even this enjoyment when combined with the readiest and truest perception and discrimination in regard to beauty presented, as a sufficient test of the poetical sentiment, we could have no hesitation in according to Mr. Bryant the very highest poetical rank. But something more, we have presumed to observe, is demanded. Just above, we spoke of “objects in the moral or physical universe coming within the periphery of his vision.” We now mean to say, that the relative extent of these peripheries of poetical vision must ever be a primary consideration in our classification of poets. Judging Mr. B. in this manner, and by a general estimate of the volume before us, we should, of course, pause long before assigning him a place with the spiritual Shelleys, or Coleridges, or Wordsworths, or with Keats, or even Tennyson, or Wilson, or with some other burning lights of our own day, to be valued in a day to come. Yet if his poems, as a whole, will not warrant us in assigning him this grade, one such poem as the last upon which we have commented, is enough to assure us that he may attain it.*

“The writings of our author, as we find them here, are characterized by an air of calm and elevated contemplation more than by any other individual feature. In their mere didactics, however. they err essentially and primitively, inasmuch as such things are the province rather of Minerva than of the Camenae. Of imagination we discover much — but more of its rich and certain evidences, than of its ripened fruit. In all the minor merits Mr. Bryant is pre-eminent. His ars celare artem is most efficient. Of his “completeness,” unity, and finish of style, we have already spoken. As a versifier, we know of no writer, living or dead, who can be said greatly to surpass him. A Frenchman would assuredly call him ‘un poëte des plus correctes.”

“Between Cowper and Young, perhaps, (with both of whom he has many points of analogy,): would be the post assigned him by an examination at once general and superficial. Even in this view, however, he has a juster appreciation of the beautiful than the one, of the sublime than the other — a finer taste than Cowper — an equally vigorous, and far more delicate imagination than Young. In regard to his proper rank among American poets there should be no question whatever. Few — at least few who are fairly before the public, have more than very shallow claims to a rivalry with the author of Thanatopsis.”

The political life of our author is not a topic for these pages. I am only permitted to say that his principles, since attainment of manhood, have been rigorously democratic; and that his editorial conduct of the Evening Post has been marked by at least a polished style, a stern independence, and a courteous urbanity. In his private relations he has always so borne himself as to command entire respect even from his foes. That purity which escapes the rancor of party is purity indeed; and the elevated morality, the Christian spirit, the simplicity and warm-heartedness, the high purposes and chivalric impulses which form so unequivocally the tone of “The Ages,” of “Earth,” of “The Winds,” and of “Thanatopsis” are but the exact impress of the noble soul of the poet.

None know him but to love him —

None name him but to praise.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 203:]

*  It has been stated that Mr. Bryant came to New York in 1825; that the Magazine in question was called the “New York Review;” and that it was in 1826 he joined the “Evening Post.” We give the points as we believe them to be — but, as a doubt exists, our readers have “the benefit of the doubt.”

*  The one just quoted.


The selection from the Southern Literary Messenger review was printed in the issue for January 1837.


[S:0 - BGM, 1840] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of William Cullen Bryant [Text-02]