Remembering William Cullen Bryant



Today is the birthday of William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). 19th century America would be astounded to know that a man of his standing and eminence could be so swallowed up by time — to such an extent that millions of people could walk in, around, and through the park that is named after him and located right in the heart of New York City and still have no idea whom it is named after nor even have any curiosity about it. Or that those same millions could pass by the great monument to him that is in that park, a monument that could answer the question they never thought to ask, and never look at it or read its inscription. (There it is above. I snapped it a few months ago as I strolled around Bryant Park with my son Charlie).

The significance of William Cullent Bryant is multifold; this might one reason why he is not well remembered. His complex career does not boil down to a trivia question. He was both one of 19th century America’s most important poets and one of its most important journalists and newspaper editors. So was Whitman though of course. And it might be argued that Bryant was more important on both scores, so I guess that won’t explain his present obscurity. Like Irving and Cooper, Bryant was one of America’s first literary figures of international importance. Like Longfellow, he was one of our first poets. He was born and raised in Western Massachusetts, the same area where Melville would later meet Hawthorne, and where the cloistered Emily Dickinson would later toil, but he would come to be associated primarily with New York City, like Irving, Cooper, Melville and Whitman. And, he became one of that city’s most influential newspaper editors, casting a shadow not unlike that of Horace Greeley. 

There are two most important things you need to know about William Cullen Bryant:

One is that from 1829 until his death (thus for nearly half a century) he was the editor of the New York Evening Post (the same paper as today’s New York Post). Under his direction, the paper had quite a different tone and philosophy from the one it inherited from its founder Alexander Hamilton, and of course a very different one from today. Despite the fact that he had begun his political life as a Federalist, and had first gained notoriety by writing an anti-Jefferson satirical  poem, the Post was not a “conservative” paper under Bryant. Events (and probably New York) changed him. Bryant’s Post was a pro-Jacksonian Democratic one. In time, it evolved. Bryant took an Abolitionist stance, which caused him to drift away from the Democrats to the Free Soilers, who later evolved into the Republicans. Truth be known, it was his longtime editorship of the Post that got him a monument and a park. People and politicians may pay lip service to poetry, but in the modern age they seldom move mountains to honor it.

The other important thing you should know about Bryant is his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis”. Time was when it was learned by every American schoolchild and when it was one of America’s proudest (and only) literary exports. If you only know one thing he wrote (and most people who know anything do only know this one thing) this is the thing. To this day, “Thanatopsis” is widely anthologized, and it’s been my experience that it’s the only Bryant poem (out of many volumes of poetry he wrote during his lifetime) that you will see so represented.

Coming across “Thanatopsis” from time to time is one way I came to know about Bryant. The other is my years at the New-York Historical Society. Bryant spoke there many times in the 19th century. If you visit their Luce Center on the top floor, you will find this bust of him by the sculptor John Rogers:


And closer to home nowadays, at the Brooklyn Museum, I always stop and look at this portrait of him done in his last months by the painter Wyatt Eaton: 


I have a stake in promoting him; Bryant and I share many of the same Pilgrim ancestors. There is some irony to be found in the fact that this dead poet’s poem about death, with its meditation on immortality, has proved all too mortal in the popular memory. Yet there are so many good reasons to know it and remember it. It is an incredible fulcrum, a torch-passing, full of the English influence of the Graveyard Poets and nature-loving Wordsworth, but also having much in common with the Transcendentalists and the upbeat optimism of Whitman. I don’t find it dated or stuffy or irrelevant. All young people should be exposed to “Thanatopsis”. I can’t imagine that most of them couldn’t be taught to appreciate it. Bryant was essentially a Goth teenager when he wrote it, but there is a touching, naive hopefulness to it that I also relate to and associate with youth.


     To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
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 nourished 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.   The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glide 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.
     So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which 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 who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

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