THE literary life of Bryant begins with the publication of “ Thantopsis ” in the “ North American Review,” in 1816 ; for we need take no account of those earlier blossoms, plucked untimely from the tree, as they had been prematurely expanded by the heat of party politics. The strain of that song was of a higher mood. In those days, when American literature spoke with faint and feeble voice, like the chirp of half-awakened birds in the morning twilight, we need not say what cordial welcome was extended to a poem which embodied in blank verse worthy of anybody since Milton thoughts of the highest reach and noblest power, or what wonder was mingled with the praise when it was announced that this grand and majestic moral teaching and this rich and sustained music were the work of a boy of eighteen. Not that Bryant was no more than eighteen when “ Thanatopsis ” was printed, for he must pay one of the tributes of eminence in having all the world know that he was born in 1794 ; but he was no more than eighteen when it was written, and surely never was there riper fruit plucked from so young a tree. And now we have before us, with the imprint of 1864, his latest volume, entitled “ Thirty Poems.” Between this date and that of the publication of “ Thanatopsis ” there sweeps an arch of forty-eight years. With Bryant these have been years of manly toil, of resolute sacrifice, of faithful discharge of all the duties of life. The cultivation of the poetical faculty is not always favorable to the growth of the character, but Bryant is no less estimable as a man than admirable as a poet. It has been his lot to earn his bread by the exercise of the prose part of his mind, — by those qualities which he has in common with other men, — and his poetry has been written in the intervals and breathingspaces of a life of regular industry. This necessity for ungenial toil may have added something to the shyness and gravity of the poet’s manners ; but it has doubtless given earnestness, concentration, depth, and a strong flavor of life to his verse. Had he been a man of leisure, he might have written more, but he could hardly have written better. And nothing tends more to prolong to old age the freshness of feeling and the sensibility to impressions which are characteristic of the poetical temperament than the dedication of a portion of every day to some kind of task-work. The sweetest flowers are those which grow upon the rocks of renunciation. Byron at thirtyseven was a burnt-out volcano : Bryant at threescore and ten is as sensitive to the touch of beauty as at twenty.
The poetry of Bryant is not great in amount, but it represents a great deal of work, as few men are more finished artists than he, or more patient in shaping and polishing their productions. No piece of verse ever leaves his hands till it has received the last touch demanded bv the most correct judgment and the most fastidious taste. Thus the style of his poetry is always admirable. Nowhere can one find in what he has written a careless or slovenly expression, an awkward phrase, or an ill-chosen word. He never puts in an epithet to fill out a line, and never uses one which could be improved by substituting another. The range within which he moves is not wide. He has not written narrative or dramatic poems : he has not painted poetical portraits : he has not aspired to the honors of satire, of wit, or of humor: he has made no contributions to the poetry of passion. His poems may be divided into two great classes. —those which express the moral aspects of humanity, and those which interpret the language of Nature ; though it may be added that in not a few of his productions these two elements are combined. Those of the former class are not so remarkable for originality of treatment as for the beauty and truth with which they express the reflections of the general mind and the emotions of the general heart. In these poems we see our own experience returned to us, touched with the lights and colored with the hues of the most exquisite poetry. Their tone is grave and high, but not gloomy or morbid: the edges of the cloud of life are turned to gold by faith and hope. Of the poems of this class, “ Thanatopsis,” of which we have already spoken, is one of the best known. Others are the “ Hymn to Death,” “ The Old Man’s Funeral,” “A Forest Hymn,” “ The Lapse of Time,” “ An Evening Reverie,” “ The Old Man’s Counsel,” and “ The Past.” This last is one of the noblest of his productions, full of solemn beauty and melancholy music, and we eannot deny ourselves the pleasure of quoting a few of its stanzas.
Strong are the barriers round thy dark domain,
And fetters, sure and fast,
Hold all that enter thy unbreathing reign.
Old empires sit in sullenness and gloom,
And glorious ages gone
Lie deep within the shadow of thy womb.
Youth, Manhood, Age, that draws us to the ground,
And last, Man’s Life on earth,
Glide to thy dim dominions, and are bound.
Beauty and excellence unknown, — to thee
Earth’s wonder and her pride
Are gathered, as the waters to the sea;
Unpublished charity, unbroken faith,—
Love, that ’midst grief began,
And grew with years, and faltered not in death.
Lurks in thy depths, unuttered, unrevered;
With thee are silent fame,
Forgotten arts, and wisdom disappeared.
Yet shalt thou yield thy treasures up at last;
Thy gates shall vet give way,
Thy bolts shall fall, inexorable Past!
Has gone into thy womb from earliest time
Shall then come forth to wear
The glory and the beauty of its prime.”
Here is nothing new. It is the old, sad strain, of coeval birth with poetry itself. It may be read in the Hebrew of the Book of Job and in the Greek of Homer: but with what dignity of sentiment, what majestic music, what beauty of language, the oft-repeated lesson of humanity is enforced ! Every word is chosen with unerring judgment, and no needless dilution of language weakens the force of the conceptions and pictures. Bryant is one of the few poets who will bear the test of the well-nigh obsolete art of verbal criticism : observe the expressions, “ silent fame,” “ forgotten arts,” “wisdom disappeared ”; how exactly these epithets satisfy the ear and the mind ! how impossible to change any one of them for the better !
In Bryant’s descriptive poems there is the same finished execution and the same beauty of style as in his reflective and didactic poems, with more originality of treatment. It was his fortune to be born and reared in the western part of Massachusetts, and to become familiar with some of the most beautiful inland scenery of New England in youth and early manhood, when the mind takes impressions which the attrition of life never wears out. In his study of Nature be combines the faculty and the vision, the eye of the naturalist and the imagination of the poet. No man observes the outward shows of earth and sky more accurately ; no man feels them more vividly; no man describes them more beautifully. He was the first of our poets who, deserting the conventional paths in which imitators move, studied and delineated Nature as it exists in New England, modified by the elements of a comparatively low latitude, a brilliant sky, uncertain springs, short and hot summers, richly colored autumns, and winters of pure and crystal cold. The merit and the popularity of Bryant’s descriptive poetry prove how intimate is the relation between imagination and truth, and how the poet who is faithful to the highest requisitions of his art must obey laws as rigid as those of science itself. Here, at the risk of making our readers read again what they may have read before, we transcribe a passage from a memorandum of Mr. Morritt’s, containing an account of Scott’s proceedings while studying the localities of “ Rokeby ”: —
“I observed him noting down even the peculiar little wild flowers and herbs that accidentally grew round and on the side of a bold crag near his intended Cave of Grey Denzil, and could not help saying, that, as he was not to be upon oath in his work, daisies, violets, and primroses would be as poetical as any of the humble plants he was examining. I laughed, in short, at his scrupulousness; but I understood him when he replied, ' that in Nature no two scenes were exactly alike, and that whoever copied truly what was before his eyes would possess the same variety in his descriptions, and exhibit apparently an imagination as boundless as the range of Nature in the scenes he recorded; whereas, whoever trusted to his imagination would soon find his own mind circumscribed and contracted to a few images, and the repetition of these would sooner or later produce that very monotony and barrenness which had always haunted descriptive poetry in the hands of any but the patient worshippers of truth.’ ”
This is excellent good sense, and the descriptive poetry of Bryant shows how carefully he has observed the rules which Scott has laid down. He never has a conventional image, and never resorts to the second-hand frippery of a poetical commonplace-book to tag his verses with. Every season of our American year has been delineated by him, and the drawing and coloring of his pictures are always correct. Our American springs, for instance, are not at all the ideal or poetical springs, and Bryant does not pretend that they are ; and yet he can find a poetical side to them, as witness his poem entitled “March”: —
With wind, and cloud, and changing skies :
I hear the rushing of the blast
That through the snowy valley flies.
Wild, stormy month ! in praise of thee ;
Yet, though thy winds are loud and bleak,
Thou art a welcome month to me.
The glad and glorious sun dost bring;
And thou hast joined the gentle train,
And wear’st the gentle name of Spring.
Smiles many a long, bright, sunny day,
When the changed winds are soft and warm,
And heaven puts on the blue of May.”
This is all as strictly true as if it were drawn up for an affidavit. March, as we all know, is the eldest daughter of Winter, and bitterly like her grim sire. The snow which has melted from the uplands lingers in the valleys ; the storms, and the cloudy skies, and the rushing blasts mark the sullen retreat of winter ; but the days are growing longer, the sun mounts higher, and sometimes a soft and vernal air flows from the blue sky, like Burns’s daisy “ glinting forth ” amid the storm.
March and April come and go, and May succeeds. Hers is not quite the “blue, voluptuous eye” she wears in the portraits which poets paint of her, and those who court her smiles are sometimes chilled by decidedly wintry glances. Bryant gives us her best aspect: —
And steeped the sprouting forests, the green hills,
And emerald wheat-fields, in his yellow light.
Upon the apple-tree, where rosy buds
Stood clustered, ready to burst forth in bloom,
The robin warbled forth his full clear note
For hours, and wearied not. Within the woods,
Where young and half-transparent leaves scarce cast
Danced on their stalks; the shad-bush, white with flowers,
Brightened the glens; the new-leaved butternut
And quivering poplar to the roving breeze Gave a balsamic fragrance.”
How admirable this is ! And with what truth, we had almost said courage, the poet makes his report. The emerald wheat-fields, the rosy buds of the appletree, the half-transparent leaves of the trees, the anemones on their restless stalks, the shad-bush (Amelanchier Botryapium), the quivering poplars, and the peculiar balsamic odor which one perceives in the woods at that season are so exactly what we find in our New-England May ! How much better these distinct statements are than a tissue of generalities about flowery wreaths, and fragrant zephyrs, and genial rays, and fresh verdure, and vernal airs, and ambrosial dews !
But the year goes on. Our fitful and capricious spring passes by, and summer takes its place. But our New-England summer is not like the summer of Thomson and Cowper, and images drawn from English poetry and transplanted here would be out of place ; and our faithful interpreter of American Nature takes nothing at second-hand. How correctly he delineates the characteristic features of our glorious month of June !
“ There, through the long, long summer hours, The golden light should lie, And thick young herbs and groups of flowers Stand in their beauty by. The oriole should build and tell His love-tale close beside my cell; The idle butterfly Should rest him here, and there be heard The housewife-bee and humming-bird.”
The housewife-bee is an expressive epithet. Does it involve a double meaning, and insinuate that as a bee carries a sting, so women who are stirring, notable, and good housekeepers have something sharp in their natures ?
Next comes midsummer with its fervid and overpowering heats, which find in our poet also an accurate delineator.
The dew that lay upon the morning grass;
There is no rustling in the lofty elm
That canopies my dwelling, and its shade
Scarce cools me. All is silent, save the faint
And interrupted murmur of the bee,
Settling on the sick flowers, and then again
Instantly on the wing. The plants around
Feel the too potent fervors: the tall maize
Rolls up its long green leaves; the clover droops
Its tender foliage, and declines its blooms.
But far in the fierce sunshine tower the hills
With all their growth of woods, silent and stern,
As if the scorching heat and dazzling light Were but an element they loved.”
But our radiant and many-colored autumn is Bryant’s favorite season, and some of his most beautiful and characteristic passages are those which paint its hues of crimson and purple, and the vaporous gold of its atmosphere. Such is the number of these passages that it is difficult to make a selection of one or two for quotation. Here is one from “Autumn Woods.”
Come the strange rays; the forest-depths are bright;
Their sunny-colored foliage, in the breeze,
Twinkles like beams of light.
Where bickering through the shrubs its waters run,
Shines with the image of its golden screen
And glimmerings of the sun.
Lover to listening maid might breathe his flame,
Nor mark, within its roseate canopy,
Her blush of maiden shame.”
Here is nothing imitative or borrowed, and here are no unmeaning generalities. Everything is exact and local, — drawn from an American autumn, and no other. And how lovely an image is that in the third stanza, and what an added charm it gives to an object in itself most beautiful !
But our readers must indulge us with one more quotation under this head, although we take it from one of the moat popular—perhaps the most popular — of his poems, “ The Death of the Flowers.”
And the brier-rose and the orehis died amid the summer glow;
But on the hill the golden-rod, and the aster in the wood,
And the yellow sunflower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,
Till fell the frost from the clear, cold heaven, as falls the plague on men,
And the brightness of their smile was gone, from upland, glade, and glen.
And now, when comes the calm mid-day, as still such days will come,
To call the squirrel and the bee from out their winter home,
When the sound of dropping nuts is heard,though all the trees are still,
And twinkle in the smoky light the waters of the rill,
The south - wind searches for the flowers whose fragrance late he bore,
And sighs to find them in the wood and by the stream no more.”
Of the poetry of these exquisite lines, the melancholy sweetness of the sentiment, the delicate beauty of the versification, we need not say one word, but we claim a moment’s attention to their fidelity to truth, and the accuracy of observation which they evince. The golden-rod and the aster are the characteristic autumn flowers in that zone of our continent in which New England is embraced, and the sunflower is a very common flower at that season. That lovely child of the declining year, the fringed gentian, would doubtless have been brought in with her fair sisters, had it not been for her somewhat unmanageable name. Bryant has written some beautiful stanzas to this flower, but in them he only calls it a “ blossom.” And how fine a landscape is condensed into the two delicious lines which we have Italicized! and yet no one ever walked into a New-England wood on a late day in autumn without hearing the nuts drop upon the withered leaves, and seeing the streams flash through the smoke-like haze which hangs over the landscape.
But winter, especially our clear and sparkling New-England winter, has its scenes of splendor and aspects of beauty ; and the poet would not be true to his calling, if he failed to recognize them.
Have glazed the snow, and clothed the trees with ice,
While the slant sun of February pours
Into the bowers a flood of light. Approach!
The incrusted surface shall upbear thy steps,
And the broad arching portals of the grove
Welcome thy entering. Look! the massy
Trunks are cased in the pure crystal; each light spray,
Nodding and tinkling in the breath of heaven,
Is studded with its trembling water-drops
That glimmer with an amethystine light;
But round the parent stem the long, low boughs
Bend, in a glittering ring, and arbors hide The glassy floor.”
There are many more lines equally good, but we have not space for them. This is a description of winter as we have it here, compounded of the elements of extreme cold, a transparent atmospahere, and brilliant sunshine. No English poet can see such a scene, at least in his own country: Ambrose Phillips did see something like it in Sweden, and described it in a poetical epistle to the Earl of Dorset, which is much the best thing he ever wrote, and has a pulse of truth and life in it, from the simple fact that he saw something new, and told his noble correspondent what he saw.
But Bryant’s claims to the honors of a truly national poet do not rest solely upon the fidelity with which he has described the peculiar scenery of his native land, for no poet has expressed with more earnestness of conviction and more beauty of language the great ideas which have moulded our political institutions and our social life. Before the breaking out of the Civil War he was a member of that great political party of which Jefferson was the head, and he is still a Democrat in the primitive sense of the word ; that is to say, he believes in man’s capacity for self-government, and in his right to govern himself. He has full trust in human progress; age has not lessened the faith with which he looks forward to the future ; his sympathies are with the many, and not with the few. Though he has travelled much in Europe, his imagination has been but little affected by the forms of beauty and grandeur which past ages have bequeathed to the present. He has not found inspiration in the palace, the cathedral, the ruined castle, the ivycovered church, the rose-embowered cottage. Indeed, it is only by incidental and occasional touches that one would learn from his poetry that he had ever been out of his own country at all: his inspiration and his themes are alike drawn from the scenery, the institutions, the history of his native land. His imagination, as was the case with Milton, rests upon a basis of gravity deepening into sternness ; and we have little doubt that not a few of the things in Europe, which move to pleasure the lightly stirred fancy of many American travellers, aroused in him a different feeling, as either memories of an age or expressions of a system in which the many were sacrificed to the few. In his mental frame there is a pulse of indignation which is easily stirred against any form of injustice or oppression. His later poems, as might naturally be expected, are those in which the sentiments and aspirations of a patriotic and hopeful American are most distinctly expressed ; among them are “ The Battle-Field,” “ The Winds,” “ The Antiquity of Freedom,” and that which is called, from its first line, “ O Mother of a Mighty Race.” It would be well to read these poems in connection with the seventeenth chapter of the second volume of De Tocqueville’s “ Democracy in America,” which treats of the sources of poetry among democratic nations; and the comparison will furnish fresh cause for admiring the prophetic sagacity of that great philosophical thinker, who, at the time he wrote, predicted all our future, because he comprehended all our past.
And here we pray the indulgence of our readers to a rather liberal citation from one of these later poems, because it enables us to illustrate from his own lips what we have just been saying. It is also one of those passages, not uncommon in modern poetry, in which the poet admits us to his confidence, and lets us see the working of the machinery as well as its product. It is from “ The Painted Cup,” a poem so called from a scarlet flower of that name found upon the Western prairies.
That these bright chalices were tinted thus
To hold the dew for fairies, when they meet
On moonlight evenings in the hazel-bowers,
And dance till they are thirsty. Call not up,
Amid this fresh and virgin solitude,
The faded fancies of an elder world;
But leave these scarlet cups to spotted moths
Of June, and glistening flies, and hummingbirds,
To drink from, when on all these boundless lawns
The morning sun looks hot. Or let the wind
O’erturn in sport their ruddy brims, and pour
A sudden shower upon the strawberry-plant,
To swell the reddening fruit that even now
Breathes a slight fragrance from the sunny slope.
Let, then, the gentle Manitou of flowers,
Lingering amid the bloomy waste he loves,
Though all his swarthy worshippers are gone,
Slender and small, his rounded cheek all brown
And ruddy with the sunshine,—let him come
On summer mornings, when the blossoms wake,
And part with little hands the spiky grass,
And, touching with his cherry lips the edge
Of these bright beakers, drain the gathered dew.”
What a lovely picture is this of the Manitou of flowers, and what a subject for an artist to embody in forms and colors ! The whole passage is very beautiful, and its beauty is in part derived from its truth. It meets the requisitions of the philosophical understanding, as well as of the shaping and aggregating fancy. The poetry is manly, masculine, and simple. The ornaments are of pure gold, such as will bear the test of open daylight.
It is the function of the critic to discriminate and divide, and we have attempted to deal thus with the poems of Bryant; but some of the best of his productions cannot be classified and arranged under any particular head. They breathe the spirit of universal humanity, and speak a language intelligible to every human heart. Among these are “The Evening Wind,” “The Conqueror’s Grave,” and “The Future Life.” All of these are exquisite alike in conception and execution. We suppose that most persons have in regard to poetry certain fancies, whims, preferences, founded on reasons too delicate to be revealed or too airy to be expressed. As Mrs. Battles in a moment of confidence confessed to “ Elia” that hearts was her favorite suit, so we breathe in the ear of the public an acknowledgment, that, of all Bryant’s poems, “ The Future Life ” is that which we read the most frequently, and with the deepest feeling. We say read, but we have known it by heart for years. We will not affirm that it is the best of his poems, but it is that which moves us most, and which we feel most grateful to him for having written. The grace and charm of this poem come from regions beyond the range of literary criticism, and the heart shrinks from making a revelation of the emotions which it awakens.
We have left ourselves but little room to speak of the new volume, called “ Thirty Poems,” which lies before us. While nothing in it was needed for the poet’s wellestablished and enduring fame, it will be welcomed by all his admirers as an accession to that stock of finished poetry which the world will not let die. Here we find the same dignity of sentiment, the same fine observation, the same grace of expression, as in the productions of his youth and manhood. The tone of thought is grave, earnest, sometimes pensive, but never querulous or desponding. Declining years have not abated in him a jot of heart or hope. His is the Indiansunamer of the mind, made genial by soft airs and golden sunshine, by green meadows and lingering flowers; and still far distant is the time, — to borrow a noble image from this very volume, —
Howling, like a wolf, flies the famished northern blast.”
All honor to the strong-hearted singer who, in the late autumn of life, retains his love of Nature, his hatred of injustice and oppression, his sympathy with humanity, his intellectual activity, his faith in progress, his trust in God !