American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

William Cullen Bryant, Poems (1821)

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For a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry
William Cullen Bryant, Poems (Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1821). 44 pp.

Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems to enjoy
Existence, than the winged plunderer
That sucks its sweets.

― “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood”

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library.

Bryant showed an early gift for poetry, “composing tolerably clever verses” by the age of nine and learning Greek while still a boy. His first book, The Embargo (1808), identified him as “a Youth of Thirteen” (his name did not appear until the second, enlarged edition of 1809), but it was only with “Thanatopsis” that his work really got going. Written in 1811, the poem first appeared in The North American Review in 1817; it was subsequently revised for its first book publication in Poems. Since he refused in later years to reprint “The Embargo,” “Thanatopsis” became the earliest work Bryant was willing to embrace; and despite his later prolificness (he lived until 1878), “Thanatopsis” was also the high point. Indeed, it remains the high point of Bryant’s era, roughly the quarter century between the War of 1812 and Longfellow’s rise to prominence at the end of the 1830s. Other poets more interesting to me were active in the same years ― Fitz-Greene Halleck, Edgar Allan Poe ― but “Thanatopsis” is clearly the era’s epitaph, a forecasting of the transcendentalism that would wash its memory away. This is ironic, perhaps, given the poem’s message: that one should cheerfully accept the erasure of one’s epitaph. But then, what better poem to remember a largely forgotten era in American verse? Articulating in advance the values of the rural cemetery movement, “Thanatopsis” (Greek for “vision of death”) sought meaning in nature, not monuments:

Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around ―
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air ―
Comes a still voice ― Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourish’d thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock,
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world ― with kings,
The powerful of the earth ― the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.

Richard Eberhart makes the case for Bryant’s place in history even as he consigns the work to oblivion:

Was it not Pound who said that to be remembered a poet must have two, meaning at least two, memorable poems? You do not have to read all of Marvell but everybody knows his “Coy Mistress” and “The Garden.” Bryant wrote one great poem and he wrote it when he was very young. Pound’s dictum should be revised downward in his case.

Bryant did, however, write at least one other memorable poem. It too appeared in Poems, and it too drew meaning from nature, though more piously than “Thanatopsis” did. Using a quatrain borrowed from Southey (as I learn from John Hollander), “To a Waterfowl” is a fine example of Bryant’s sensitivity to particulars, one of his defining qualities as a writer: his bird is no more generic than his stanza. Piety, however, is surely why Arnold found this the best short poem in English. Unlike “Thanatopsis” ― a plain-spoken, blank-verse tribute to death at its most elemental, a materialist manifesto ― “To a Waterfowl” is hymn-like, a tribute to a power stronger than death; it upholds the individual’s ability to transcend the elemental. What makes the poem delightful even for those with no taste for piety is Bryant’s resistance to allegory, the fact that he is able to take a bird’s labors as a model for his own without losing sight of the creature’s otherness. In this respecct, the poem is kin to “The Yellow Violet,” also in Poems, about an early spring flower that exemplifies humility. Here too the poem’s delight lies in the specificity of the example. I love in particular the glowing face bent down to the ground in the following two quatrains, which nonetheless make the flower vivid as flower:

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Poems begins with “The Ages”: thirty-five Spenserian stanzas commissioned by Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, first delivered in the Old Congregational Church of Cambridge, August 30, 1821. The audience that day included John Quincy Adams and William Ellery Channing. Emerson ― a graduating senior (and class poet) ― may have been in the audience as well. The poem is a survey of human history, a fitting subject for a graduation ceremony, yet Bryant’s vantage point in the opening stanza is the deathbed, which suggests that he was not simply writing for the occasion, but reconsidering the argument of “Thanatopsis.” In the earlier poem, the qualitative distinctions shaping human history dissolve in death, creating a virtual if literally unlivable democracy:

All that breathe
Will share thy destiny.
…As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men,
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man ―
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those who in their turn shall follow them.

The Phi Beta Kappa poem reconsiders that “long train / Of ages” from the vantage point of those who remain behind, the living, who still labor to create their democracy.

Bryant thought highly enough of “The Ages” to place it at the start of all retrospective collections of his  work, moving it out of the chronological sequence he otherwise followed. But readers have failed to share this enthusiasm. Even his son-in-law, Parke Godwin, failed to share his enthusiasm, returning “The Ages” to its rightful place in the chronology in the posthumous edition of Bryant’s writing, which had the effect of making “Thanatopsis” first poem (for Godwin did follow Bryant in leaving out “The Embargo”).

Recently, Virginia Jackson has tried to renew interest in “The Ages,” but she is more eloquent on why contemporary readers have failed to understand the poem than she is on why they ought to try. Indeed, she calls the poem “clumsy.” What interests her is “the genre of the stanza”; and how that genre was used by the British Romantics; and how that use, taken up by Bryant, supported but also undermined his project. That project, in Jackson’s account, is the repetition of an historical model (progress leading to collapse: the Spenserian stanza’s eight lines of pentameter leading to one hexameter).[1] That repetition takes Bryant from the tribes and empires of the ancient world to the papacy and beyond. America ― the final chapter in his history ― is offered as an alternative. But can it, asks Jackson, avoid the regression encoded in the stanza? Can America avoid being but another iteration of the model? Her broader point in asking these questions is to argue that American poetry should not be equated with the drive toward innovation. “The Ages” makes a narrative of that drive, but resists it formally. I am not sure, however, that Jackson’s ingenious reading supports her argument. One need not share Bryant’s crude belief in progress in order to want a stanza capable of articulating a different historical model. Why learn “the genre of the stanza” if it cannot accommodate new meanings? Bryant’s failure would seem to be an argument for innovation, at least with regard to poetic form.

Jackson’s argument stands or falls on the claim she makes regarding the content of poetic form, in this case the content of the Spenserian stanza. Does it really encode meaning as completely as Jackson says? She is most convincing when she quotes all the moments of hexameter collapse in Bryant’s poem. The reiterations are almost comical when read side by side. It is a very Poe-like use of quotation, and Poe, in fact, drew the same conclusion as Jackson in his reading of Bryant’s poem, though he based his judgment on its theme and argument, not its versification (which he does examine in detail):

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.

For me, the interest of the poem is its allegorical strangeness at the end, which Jackson touches on. The final two stanzas present two giantesses in chains, Europe and America, the former trampled by her captors, the latter protected by her children. Those captors and protectors are presumably Bryant’s readers, European and American. Thus, when Bryant addresses the American giantess in his last stanza (“thou, my country”), he is not speaking to us, as Jackson asserts, but in our presence, hence the singular pronoun “thou.” But Jackson is right to emphasize the poem’s address, and to ground her reading of the poem by considering the nature of its original address. When Bryant first recited “The Ages” in Cambridge, before an audience of distinguished Americans, that “thou” in the final stanza provided the maternal lap upon which his auditors were seated ―an oddly infantilizing figuration for a graduation ceremony. Odd too was the nature of that mother-child relationship: chained to his mother country by her “care,” “lavish love,” and “blessings,” the infantilized citizen is enjoined to guard his mother or see her fall. No wonder the last hexameter ends with a question mark, notwithstanding the boldness of its stanza’s opening claim:

But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall,
Save with thy children ― thy maternal care,
Thy lavish love, thy blessings showered on all ―
These are thy fetters ― seas and stormy air
Are the wide barrier of thy borders, where,
Among thy gallant sons that guard thee well,
Thou laugh’st at enemies: who shall then declare
The date of thy deep-founded strength, or tell
How happy, in thy lap, the sons of men shall dwell?

* * *

“The Ages” takes up almost half the pages in Poems, but it is balanced there by “Thanatopsis,” which closes the book. Poems, in fact, has three sections, each with its own title page: “The Ages,” “To a Waterfowl,” and “Thanatopsis.” The first and last are single poems; the middle sections is a sequence of six: “To a Waterfowl,” “Translation of a Fragment of Simonides,” “Inscription for the Entrance into a Wood,” “The Yellow Violet,” “Song” (“Soon as the glazed and gleaming snow”), and “Green River.” Structurally speaking, then, the book is a juxtaposition of two opposed examples of rhetorical address ― the first ornate and civic-minded, the second intimate ― with a fulcrum of miscellaneous poems that try to find a place of balance. Remembering that the payoff for balance in a see-saw is movement, not stillness, it will seem more fitting than confused that the poems should be so unsettled in their viewpoint. Stoicism, animism, piety, democracy, disdain for the crowd … dogmatism was not one of Bryant’s flaws. I love the way he brushes aside original sin in “Inscription”:

The primal curse
Fell, it is true, upon the unsinning earth,
But not in vengeance.

With Emily Dickinson, we would take “unsinning” as a rebuke to God and “not in vengeance” as sarcasm, but Bryant we feel ― or I feel anyway ― is not interested in judgment. He is trying to make pious, but not very successfully, a more heretical view of nature. According to the doctrine he dutifully acknowledges, the earth and its inhabitants are cursed, but the cursed, he insists, can take pleasure still in their creaturely existence:

God hath yoked to guilt
Her pale tormentor, misery. Hence, these shades
Are still the abodes of gladness; the thick roof
Of green and stirring branches is alive
And musical with birds, that sing and sport
In wantonness of spirit; while below
The squirrel, with raised paws and form erect,
Chirps merrily. Throngs of insects in the shade
Try their thin wings and dance in the warm beam
That waked them into life. Even the green trees
Partake the deep contentment; as they bend
To the soft winds, the sun from the blue sky
Looks in and sheds a blessing on the scene.

The lines that claim this blessing make no sense logically, they teeter on the fulcrum of a “Hence,” but the teeter is itself a claim, an argument about the nature of belief. If only Bryant had allowed this argument to become full-throated, or even, simply, explicit! But he was not that sort of poet.

Bibliographic Note

The “Roslyn Edition of Bryant’s Poetical Works (1903) begins with a chronology and bibliography, which makes possible a reconstruction of the sequence in which Bryant’s poems were written and also the overall shape in which they appeared before the public. The book begins with seven of the eight poems in Poems, but their arrangement is altered. “The Ages” still comes first, but after that the chronological arrangement gives “Thanatopsis” second, followed directly by “The Yellow Violet,” “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,” “Song,” “To a Waterfowl,” and “Green River.” Missing from the opening is the “Translation from Simonides,” which begins a separate section of translations.

bryantBryant’s subsequent books are dissolved more thoroughly into the mix, but this is only fitting since his bibliography is largely a story of ever-enlarging retrospective collections. In 1832 Bryant published a second Poems, this one swallowing all the work from 1821 while adding some 200 additional pages. An 1834 version added three more poems, including “The Prairies,” often anthologized; other poems were added in 1836 and 1839. The Fountain (1842) and The White Footed Dear (1844) swelled the 1847 Poems to 378 pages. Other editions appeared at regular intervals, replaced in 1876 by a 500-page Poetical Works. The only other individual collection listed in the bibliography is Thirty Poems (1864).

The main lesson in this is that Bryant’s career was not very different, bibliographically speaking, from that of Whitman. He worked in essence to create one book his entire career, with the 1821 Poems functioning like the 1855 Leaves of Grass as the basis for all subsequent editions. There were a few individual collections along the way, as was the case with Whitman too, but the most important of the later poems did not necessarily appear in these.

The 1821 Poems is too rare, alas, to be owned or easily examined; someone should make a facsimile edition. I managed to hold a copy at the Library of Congress, but did not have time to arrange for photocopies and was not allowed to make photographs with my own camera. The image above comes from Brick Row Book Shop in San Francisco, which is selling a copy through AbeBooks for $3250.00.

1 [Back to text] Jackson advances this reading of the stanza in the following sentences:

“[T]he movement of the Spenserian stanzas …  suggests a temporality: because each stanza is exactly the same as each other stanza, the effect of the narration depends on a formal repetition. And because within each identical stanza the same metrical pattern repeats itself, the effect of the eight pentameter lines’ advance toward the culminating alexandrine is also a repetetive effect, a series of movements from five feet to six feet and then, inevitably, back to five. The fact that in the nineteenth century the pentameter line was associated with accentual verse and the hexameter with quantitative metter exaggerates the effect of a progress arrested in regress, a movement toward modernity that drifts in the last line back to antiquity.”

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