William Cullen Bryant

Essay by Wynn Yarborough, 1994

William Cullen Bryant was our " first American writer of verse to win international acclaim." (Tomlinson, 30) Bryant was considered a child-prodigy, publishing his first poem at age ten and his first book when he was thirteen, a political satire of an embargo policy of Thomas Jefferson. Bryant studied both Latin and Greek and had access to a library full of the classics, which explains many of the classical allusions in his poetry. Dr Bryant, his father, was a physician and interceded in many points of Bryant's life. He pushed Bryant towards the legal profession, helped critique and even sent his poems, without his son's approval, to literary magazines, and helped to publish his first book, Embargo .

Bryant's early poetry was published in the early nineteenth century. He published poems in the North American Review. In fact this is where we first find "Thanatopsis." This early poetry seems to be written before and submitted much later; Bryant was known for editing his work for quite some time before submissions. He also published essays in which he called for a " . . . robust American literature." (Tomlinson, 33) He wanted poetry praised for its merit not its "American-ness". He was very interested in technique, publishing "On the Use of Trisyllabic Feet in Iambic Verse" in 1819. His combination of freedom and form is not seen as paradoxical:" His poetic theory and practice, founded upon romantic principles of emotional expression, naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity, irregularity, and freedom, set him squarely in the romantic movement which he anticipates in America by over a decade." (Jelliffe, p. 134)

He practiced law, supporting a wife and family, and wrote very little between 1818-1825. Most of the material published during this period was previously written poems now submitted. His newest poem of that period, The Ages, resulted from delivering the Phi Beta Kappa poem at the Harvard commencement. Bryant's first book of poems was published following the warm reception of this poem. It appears that this is when he made a change that would alter his prominence and affect his art, profoundly. He became assistant editor to the New York Evening Post, after giving up the drudgery of practicing law. While he would make more money as a journalist, his output of poetry was greatly reduced thus directly reducing his placement in literary history according to critics.

The New York Evening Post was a paper established by the Federalist Party stalwart, Alexander Hamilton. Bryant was a proponent of "Laissez-Faire," hands-off , economic policy. He opposed tariffs of any kind, as we saw in his earliest book where he satirizes the embargo of U.S. goods to the European ports. He was against slavery, endorsing the Free-Soil party, the Republican party, and Lincoln. His influence from the editorial desk of the New York Evening Post was great. He published poetry, but his first collected edition included only five previously unpublished poems.

Bryant received great praise for his poetry, but the critics did not give him unconditional laurels, due to the absence of a full range of poetry, such as epics, elegies, and verse drama. In short, as we have seen, he didn't publish enough. He looked at art as something demanding time and reflection, something not afforded to him on his travels or by his work at the paper. He did publish The Letters of a Traveller in 1850, a series of letters he had written to the Evening Post, describing his tours of Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and South America.

In 1866, after the death of his wife, Bryant resumed translating the Iliad and subsequently the Odyssey. He took up translation and editing anthologies as he did less and less with the newspaper. He published a collected edition, a final one, in 1876.

Bryant's place in literary history is not altogether secure. He is regarded as falling somewhat short of his potential. Although he published little as he became immersed in the journalistic life, he was extremely popular in his time and even one time was named as a candidate for President.

Paper for graduate course in American Literature, Fall 1994 for Dr. Ann Woodlief, Virginia Commonwealth University. Do not copy; this may be used in academic papers with permission from Dr. Woodlief (awood@vcu.edu).

Note: If you are interested in knowing more about Bryant and his poetry, check out Frank Gado's William Cullen Bryant, An American Voice.