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Establishing himself as a literary man in New York, the poet entered upon the editorship of a monthly magazine, to which he contributed The Death of the Flowers and many other popular poems, as well as numerous articles on art and kindred subjects. This position soon introduced Bryant into a very charming circle, composed of Chancellor Kent; Cooper, just achieving popularity by his American novels; the young poets Halleck, Hillhouse, and Percival; the painters Dunlap, Durand, Inman, and Morse ; the scholars Charles King and Verplanck; and many other choice spirits, all long since passed away.
A few days after the poet's arrival in New York he met Cooper, to whom he had been previously introduced, who said :
“Come and dine with me to-morrow; I live at No. 345 Greenwich Street."
Bryant did “remember three-four-five” not only for the day, but ever afterward. He dined with the novelist according to appointment, the additional guest, besides Cooper's inmediate family, being Fitz-Greene Halleck. The warm friendship of these three gifted men was severed only by death.
It was chiefly through the influence of the brothers Robert and Henry D. Sedgwick that Mr. Bryant was induced to abandon the uncongenial pursuit of the law; and it was through the influence of the same gentlemen that, during the year 1826, he became connected with the Evening Post. Mr. H. D. Sedgwick, who was among the first to appreciate the genius of young Bryant, was a brother of Miss Sedgwick, the author, and at the time of his death, in 1831, he was among the most prominent lawyers and political writers of that day. To the Evening Post Mr. Bryant brought a varied experience of literary taste and learning, and even at that time a literary reputation. Halleck at that period rendered in the Recorder a richly deserved compliment to his brother bard, when he wrote: -
“ Bryant, whose songs are thoughts that bless
The heart - its teachers and its joy –
And virtue for the listening boy.
Beings of beauty and decay,
They slumber in their autumn tomb;
And wreathed the lattice of his home,
Charmed by his song from mortal doom,
The Evening Post was founded by William Coleman, a lawyer of Massachusetts, its first number being issued on the 16th of November, 1801. Mr. Coleman dying in 1826, the well-remembered William Leggett became its assistant editor, in which capacity he continued for ten years. Mr. Bryant soon after his return from Europe in 1836, upon the retirement of Mr. Leggett, assumed the sole editorial charge of the paper, performing those duties, with intervals of absence, till the 29th day of May, 1878, when he sat at his desk for the last time. To the Post, originally a Federal journal, Mr. Bryant early gave a strongly Democratic tone, taking decided ground against all class legislation, and strongly advocating freedom of trade : when his party at a later day passed under the yoke of slavery, the poet followed his principles out of the party, becoming before the war a strong Republican. In its management he was for a long time assisted by his son-in-law, Parke Godwin,
and John Bigelow, late United States minister to France. Besides these able coadjutors, the Post has had the benefit of many eminent writers of prose and verse. To its columns Drake and Halleck contributed those sprightly and sparkling jeux d'esprit, The Croakers, which, after nearly sixty years, are still read with pleasure. At the expiration of the Post's first half-century, Mr. Bryant prepared a history of the veteran journal, in which his rersatile pen and well-stored mind had ample range and material, in men and incidents, to do justice to the very interesting and eventful period through which the paper had passed.
The following terse and just characterization of Mr, Bryant as a political journalist, taken from an article which appeared in the editorial column of the Post since his death, gives an admirable summary of the man's life and work:
“Mr. Bryant's political life was so closely associated with his journalistic life that they must necessarily be considered together. He never sought public office ; he repeatedly refused to hold it. He made no effort either to secure or to use influence in politics except through his newspaper and by his silent, individual vote at the polls. The same methods marked his political and his journalistic life. He could be a stout party man upon occasion, but only when the party promoted what he believed to be right principles. When the party with which he was accustomed to act did what according to his judgment was wrong, he would denounce and oppose it as readily and as heartily as he would the other party. ....
“He used the newspaper conscientiously to advocate views of political and social subjects which he believed to be correct. He set before himself principles whose prevalence he regarded as beneficial to the country or to the world, and his constant purpose was to promote their prevalence. He looked upon the journal which he conducted as a conscientious statesman looks upon the official trust which has been committed to him, or the work which he has undertaken -- not with a view to do what is to be done to-day in the easiest or most brilliant way, but so to do it that it may tell upon what is to be done to-morrow, and all other days, until the worthiest object of ambition is achieved. This is the most useful journalism ; and, first and last, it is the most effective and influential.”
The lines with which Dr. Johnson concluded a memoir of James Thomson may with equal truth be applied to the writings of William Cullen Bryant : “ The highest praise which he has received ought not to be suppressed : it is said by Lord Lyttleton, in the Prologue to his posthumous play, that his works contained
“No line which, dying, he could wish to blot.'" Though actively and constantly connected with a daily paper, the poet found ample time to devote to verse and other literary pursuits.
In 1827 and the two following years Mr. Bryant was associated with Verplanck and Robert C. Sands in an annual publication called The Talisman, consisting of miscellanies in prose and verse written almost exclusively by the trio of literary partners, in Sands's library at Hoboken. Verplanck had a curious habit of balancing himself on the back legs of a chair with his feet placed on two others, and occupying this novel position he dictated his portion of the three volumes to Bryant and Sands, who alternately acted as his amanuensis. In 1832 Bryant was again associated with Sands in a brace of volumes entitled Tales of the Glauber Spa, to which Paulding, Leggett, and Miss Sedgwick were also contributors. In 1839 Mr. Bryant made a most admirable selection from the American poets, which was published by the Harpers in two volumes during the following year. At the same time they brought out a similar collection from the British poets, edited by Halleck.
So far back as 1827, Washington Irving writes from Spain to his friend Henry Brevoort of the growing fame of Bryant and Halleck. He says: “I have been charmed with wbat I have seen of the writings of Bryant and Halleck. Are you acquainted with them? I should like to know something of them personally. Their vein of thinking is quite above that of ordinary men and ordinary poets, and they are masters of the magic of poetical language.” Four years later, Mr. Bryant, in a letter to Irving, informs him of the publication, in New York, of a volume comprising all his poems which he thought worth printing, and expresses a desire for their republication by a respectable English house. In order to anticipate their reproduction by any other, he requested Mr. Irving's kind aid in securing their publication. They appeared, with an introduction by Irving, in London in 1832. Professor Wilson said, in a periodical distinguished for its contempt of mediocrity: “ Bryant's poetry overflows with natural religion — with what Wordsworth calls the religion of the gods.' The reverential awe of the irresistible pervades the verses entitled Thanatopsis and Forest Hymn, imparting to thein a sweet solemnity, which must affect all thinking hearts.” Another British periodical, very chary of its praise of anything American, remarked : “ The verses of Mr. Bryant come as assuredly from the well of English undefiled ' as the finer compositions of Wordsworth ; indeed, the resemblance between the two living authors might justify a much more invidious comparison."
Irving left behind him the following picture of the poetry of this distinguished American whom his own country delighted to honor : “Bryant's writings transport us into the depths of the solemn primeval forest, to the shore of the lovely lake, the banks of the wild nameless stream, or the brow of the rocky upland, rising like a promontory from amidst a wide ocean of foliage, while they shed around us the glories of a climate fierce in its extremes but splendid in all its vicissitudes.” Dana has expressed his opinion of Bryant's poetry in equally admiring terms, and Halleck said to the writer, after repeating the whole of one of Bryant's later poems, The Planting of the Apple-Tree, * “ His genius is almost the only instance of a high order of thought becoming popular ; not that the people do not prize literary worth, but because they are unable to comprehend obscure poetry. Bryant's pieces seem to be fragments of one and the same poem, and require only a common plot to constitute a unique epic." (For the poem see p. 457.)
Since the appearance of the first English edition of Bryant's poems, many others, mostly unauthorized, have been published in Great Britain, with but slight, if any, pecuniary advantage to their author. With one of these, which I bought at an English railway-stand for a shilling of their currency, and brought back with me to present to the poet in October, 1855, he appeared much amused, as it contained a villanous portrait of himself, which looked, he said, “ more like Jack Ketch than a respectable poet.” Many American editions of his poetical writings have appeared, from wbich Mr. Bryant derived a considerable amount of copyright, notwithstanding the remark he once made to the writer : “ I should have starved if I had been obliged to depend upon my poetry for a living.” Of one of these editions, known as the Red-line, there were five thousand copies sold in 1870, the year in which it appeared; and of another beautiful illustrated edition issued in 1877, the entire edition was exhausted in the course of a few months.
Intensely American in his feelings, the love of home and of his native land being among his most cherished sentiments, Mr. Bryant, like all truly cultivated and liberal minds, possessed an enlarged appreciation of the poetical associations of other lands. The inspirations of the East, the glowing imagery and romantic history of Spain, the balmy breezes and sunshine of the island of Cuba, — all had an enchantment and charm for his most appreciative genius. The range of his poetic gift embraced with comprehensive sympathy the progress
"I was most agreeably surprised, as well as flattered, the other day to receive from General Wilson, who has collected the poetical writings of Halleck, and is engaged in preparing his Life and Letters for the press, a copy in the poet's handwriting of some verses of mine entitled The Planting of the Apple-Tree, which he had taken the pains to transcribe, and which General Wilson bad heard him repeat from memory in his own fine manner." — Bryant's Address on Halloch, 1869.
and struggles of humanity, seeking its vindication in a universal and enlightened liberty, in the beauties and harmonies of nature in her many forms, and the inspirations of art in its truthfulness to nature ; and all these find their legitimate expression in productions of his muse.
Between the years 1834 and 1867, inclusive, Mr. Bryant made six visits to the Old World. In 1872 still another long journey was undertaken by him, — a second voyage to Cuba, his tour being extended to the city of Mexico. Bryant was fond of travel, and seemed as unwilling as that ancient worthy, Ulysses, whose wanderings he not long ago put in such pleasing English verse, to let his faculties rest in idleness. His letters to the Evening Post, embracing his observations and opinions of Cuba and the Old World, were collected and published after his third visit to Europe in 1849, and were entitled The Letters of a Traveller. A few years later, after recrossing the Atlantic for the fifth time, he put forth in book form his letters from Spain and the East. These charming volumes, “ born from his travelling thigh,” as Ben Jonson quaintly expressed it, are written in a style of English prose distinguished for its purity and directness. The genial love of nature and the lurking tendency to humor which they everywhere betray prevent their severe simplicity from running into hardness, and give them a freshness and occasional glow in spite of their prevailing propriety and reserve. The reception which Mr. Bryant always met among literary men of distinction, especially in Great Britain, was a direct testimony to his own fine qualities. The poets Wordsworth and Rogers particularly extended to him most cordial and intimately friendly attention.
Bryant's sympathy for the kindred arts was reciprocated by its votaries — though happily not in a posthumous form – in a novel and most beantiful manner, by a tribute paid to the poet on the anniversary of his seventieth birthday. I allude to the offering of paintings and poems made to Mr. Bryant on the evening of November 5, 1864 — which was selected for the festival — by the painters and poets of America, who cherished a love and veneration for one standing as a high-priest at the altar of nature, singing its praises in most harmonious numbers, and encouraging art in all its glowing beauties. An appropriate place for the offering was the Century Club of New York, of wbich but five of the one hundred founders are now living. On the occasion of the festival - a memorable one not only in the annals of the society itself, but in the history of American art and letters — Bancroft delivered the congratulatory address in most touching and eloquent words, and was followed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard H. Dana, Jr., and William M. Evarts, in equally felicitous addresses. Miss Sedgwick, Mrs. Sherwood, the elder Dana, Edward Everett, Halleck, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Willis, and others who were unable to be present, sent poems and epistles of affectionate greeting. Mr. Everett wrote: “I congratulate the Century Club on the opportunity of paying this richly earned tribute of respect and admiration to their veteran, and him on the well-deserved honor. Happy the community that has the discernment to appreciate its gifted sons ; happy the poet, the artist, the scholar, who is permitted to enjoy, in this way, a foretaste of posthumous commemoration and fame !” Halleck, from a sick-chamber, sent these words : “ Though far off in body, I shall be near him in spirit, repeating the homage which with heart, voice, and pen I have, during more than forty years of his threescore and ten, delighted to pay him.” Longfellow in his letter said : “I assure you, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to do bonor to Bryant at all times and in all ways, both as a poet and a man. He has written noble verse and led a noble life, and we are all proud of him." Whittier, in felicitous stanzas, written, be it remembered, in the third year of the war, exclaims:
“I praise not here the poet's art,
The rounded fitness of his song :
Must do his nobler nature wrong.
“When Freedom hath her own again,
Let happy lips his songs rehearse ;
His manhood better than his verse.
“ Thank God! his hand on nature's keys
Its cunning keeps at life's full span ;
The poet seems beside the Man,”
Other poetical tributes were addressed to Mr. Bryant by Boker, Buchanan Read, Mrs. Howe, Mrs. Sigourney, Holmes, Street, Tuckerman, and Bayard Taylor ; but the feature of the festival was the presentation to the venerable poet, in an eloquent address by the Presi. dent of the National Academy, of upward of twoscore oil-paintings, – gifts of the artistmembers of the Century Club, including Church, Darley, Durand, Gifford, Huntington, Eastman Johnson, and others.
Shelley, in his Defence of Poetry, asserts that “no living poet ever arrived at the fulness of his fame : the jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging, as he does, to all time, must be composed of his peers, — it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.” Does not the continual sale of the beloved Bryant's . poems, on which criticism and panegyric are alike unneeded, and on which the American world has pronounced a judgment of unanimous admiration, prove him to be an exception to the rule laid down by the dictum of the gifted Shelley ?
As promised in his Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood, to him who should enter and “ view the haunts of Nature,” “ the calm shade shall bring a kindred calm,” so did he truly seem to have received a quietude of spirit, a purity and elevation of thought, a “ various language” of expression, which held him at once in subtle sympathy with nature and in ready communion with the minds of men. George William Curtis writes in his editorial Easy Chair of Harper's Magazine concerning Bryant: “What Nature said to him was plainly spoken and clearly heard and perfectly repeated. His art was exquisite. It was absolutely unsuspected ; but it served its truest purpose, for it removed every obstruction to full and complete delivery of his message."
In December, 1867, Mr. Bryant responded in a beautiful letter to an invitation of the alumni of Williams College to read a poem at their next meeting. The brief letter of declination is poetical in its sympathy, and expresses, with pathos, not the decline of the powers of a mind yet vigorous, but a conscientious distrust of reaching that degree of excellence which his admirers might expect from his previous poems :
"You ask me for a few lines of verse to be read at your annual festival of the alumni of Williams College. I am ever ill at occasional verses. Such as it is, my vein is not of that sort. I find it difficult to satisfy myself. Besides, it is the December of life with me; I try to keep a few flowers in pots, — mere remembrances of a more genial season which is now with the things of the past. If I have a carnation or two for Christmas, I think myself fortunate. You write as if I had nothing to do, in fulfilling your request, but to go out and gather under the hedges and by the brooks a bouquet of flowers that spring spontaneously, and throw upon your table. If I am to try, what would you say if it proved to be only a little bundle of devil-stalks and withered leaves, which my dim sight had mistaken for fresh, green sprays and blossoms? So I must excuse myself as well as I can, and content myself with wishing a very pleasant evening to the foster-children of old Williams' who meet on. New Year's Day, and all manner of prosperity and honor to the excellent institution of learning in which they were nurtured."