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On the evening of the 17th of May, 1870, Mr. Bryant delivered an address before the New York Historical Society, his subject being the “Life and Writings of Gulian C. Verplanck.” The venerable poet spoke of his friend, as in previous years he had spoken of their contemporaries, Thomas Cole, the painter, and the authors Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Fitz-Greene Halleck. These charming orations, together with various addresses, including those made at the unveiling of the Shakespeare, Scott, and Morse statues in the Central Park, were published in 1872 in a volume worthy of being possessed by all Bryant's admirers.
The literary life which began more than sixty years ago was crowned by his translations of Homer. He was more than threescore and ten when he set himself to the formidable task of adding another to the many translations of the Niad and Odyssey. The former occupied most of his leisure hours for three years, and the latter about two ; being completed when Mr. Bryant was well advanced in his seventy-seventh year. The opinion has been pronounced by competent critics that these will hold their own with the translations of Pope, Chapman, Newman, or the late Earl Derby, of which latter Halleck said to the writer that "it was an admirable translation of the Iliad with the poetry omitted !"*
To the breakfast-table at Roslyn I remember that Mr. Bryant one day brought some pages in manuscript, being his morning's work on Homer; for, like Scott, he was always an • early riser, and by that excellent habit he gained some hours each day. That Bryant, Bayard
Taylor, and Longfellow should have, during the past decade, simultaneously appeared as translators of Homer, Goethe, and Dante, and that their work should compare favorably with any previous renderings into English of Fuust, the Divina Commedia, and of the Iliad and Odyssey, is certainly a striking illustration of advancing literary culture in the New World.
In 1873 Mr. Bryant's name appeared as the editor of Picturesque America, a handsome illustrated quarto published by the Appletons ; and the latest prose work with which he was associated is a History of the United States, now in course of publication by the Scribners, the second volume having been completed shortly before Mr. Bryant's death, the residue of the work remaining in the hands of its associate author, Sidney Howard Gay.
To the readers of this memoir a topic of especial interest will be Mr. Bryant's connection with the volume which encloses it, - A Library of Poetry and Song. This began in 1870, with the origination of the book in its octavo form, and continued with constant interest, through the reconstruction and enlargement of the work in its more elaborate quarto form, until its completion in 1878. His own words best show how it happened that Mr. Bryant became the sponsor of this book, which, in its various editions, has already taken his name into nearly a hundred thousand American homes. “At the request of the publishers," he says, “I undertook to write an Introduction to the present work, and, in pursuance of this design, I find that I have come into a somewhat closer personal relation with the book. In its progress it has passed entirely under my revision. ....I have, as requested, exercised a free hand both in excluding and in adding matter according to my judgment of what was best
* Of Mr. Bryant's translations of the Niad and the Odysscy, the Athenæum remarks: “These translations are with Mr. Bryant, as with Lord Derby, the work of the ripened scholarship and honorable leisure of age, and the impulse is natural to compare the products of the two minds. Mr. Bryant's translations seem less laboriously rounded and ornate, but perhaps even more forceful and vigorous, than Lord Derby's ;” while the London Times expresses the judgment that “his performance fell flat on the ears of an educated audience, after the efforts of Lord Derby and others in the same direction."
adapted to the purposes of the enterprise.” Every poem took its place after passing under his clear eye. Many were dropped out by him ; more were suggested, found, often copied out by him for addition. In the little notes accompanying his frequent forwarding of matter to the publishers, he casually included many interesting points and hints of criticism or opinion : "I send also some extracts from an American poet who is one of our best, — Richard H. Dana.” “I would request that more of the poems of Jones Very be inserted. I think them quite remarkable.” “Do not, I pray you, forget Thomson's Castle of Indolence, the first canto of which is one of the most magnificent things in the language, and altogether free from the faults of style which deform his blank verse.” “The lines are pretty enough, though there is a bad rhyme - toes and clothes ; but I have seen a similar one in Dryden - clothes pronounced as cloes — and I think I have seen the same thing in Whittier."
He was not a man given to humorous turns, yet he was not deficient in the sense of the comical. In forwarding some correction for an indexed name, he writes : “ It is difficult always to get the names of authors right. Please read the enclosed, and see that Mrs. be not put into a pair of breeches."
In specifying some additional poems of Stedman's for insertion, he says: “I think Alectryon a very beautiful poem. It is rather long. .... The Old Admiral should go in, - under the head of ‘Patriotism,' I think ; or, better, under that of Personal. The Door-Step is a poem of 'Love'; but it is pretty enough for anywhere," etc. “I do not exactly like the poem To a Girl in her Thirteenth Year, on account of the bad rhymes ; nor am I quite pleased with Praed's I remember, I remember, printed just after Hood's, – it seems to me a little flippant, which is Praed's fault.” The scrupulous care which Mr. Bryant exercised in keeping the compilation clean and pure was exemplified in his habitual name for it in correspondence and conversation, — “The Family Book,” “The Family Library.” He writes : “I have made more suggestions for the omission of poems in the humorous department than in any other ; several of them being deficient in the requisite literary merit. As to the convivial poems, the more I think of it the more I am inclined to advise their total omission.”
When the book appeared in 1870, it met with an instant and remarkable popular welcome, selling more than twenty thousand copies during the first six months, which, for a book costing five dollars in its least expensive style, was certainly unusual. In 1876 it was determined to give the work a thorough revision, although it had been from time to time benefiting by the amendments sent by Mr. Bryant or suggested by use. Mr. Bryant took a keen interest in this enlargement and reconstruction, and, as stated in the Publisher's Preface to the quarto edition, it “entailed upon him much labor, in conscientious and thorough revision of all the material, — cancelling, inserting, suggesting, even copying out with his own hand many poems not attainable save from his private library ; in short, giving the work not only the sanction of his widely honored name, but also the genuine influence of his fine poetic sense, his unquestioned taste, his broad and scholarly acquaintance with literature." Both the octavo and the quarto editions now contain his much-admired Introduction, in the form of an essay on “ The Poets and Poetry of the English Language.” Of this, Edmund Clarence Stedman, in an admirable paper on Bryant as “The Man of Letters," contributed to the Evening Post since the poet's death, says : “This is a model of expressive English prose, as simple as that of the Spectator essayists and far more to the purpose. Like all his productions, it ends when the writer's proper work is done. The essay, it may be added, contains, in succinct language, the poet's own views of the scope and method of song, a reflection of the instinct governing his entire poetical career.”
Bryant's prose has always received high commendation. A little collection of extracts from his writings has been compiled for use in scbools, as a model of style. The secret of it, so far as genius can communicate its secrets, may be found in a letter addressed by Mr. Bryant to one of the editors of the Christian Intelligencer, in reply to some questions, and published in the issue of that journal, July 11, 1878 :
“Roslyn, LONG ISLAND, July 6, 1863.
“It seems to me that in style we ought first, and above all things, to aim at clearness of ex. pression. An obscure style is, of course, a bad style. In writing we should always consider not only whether we have expressed the thought in a manner which meets our own comprehension, but whether it will be understood by readers in general.
“The quality of style next in importance is attractiveness. It should invite and agreeably detain the reader. To acquire such a style, I know of no other way than to contemplate good mod. els and consider the observations of able critics. The Latin and Greek classics of which you speak are certainly important helps in forming a taste in respect to style, but to attain a good English style something more is necessary, — the diligent study of good English authors. I would recur for this purpose to the elder worthies of our literature — to such writers as Jeremy Taylor and Barrow and Thomas Fuller — whose works are perfect treasures of the riches of our language. Many modern writers have great excellences of style, but few are without some deficiency. ....
“I have but one more counsel to give in regard to the formation of a style in composition, and that is to read the poets, - the nobler and grander ones of our language. In this way warmth and energy is communicated to the diction and a musical flow to the sentences.
“I have here treated the subject very briefly and meagrely, but I have given you my own method and the rules by which I have been guided through many years mostly passed in literary labors and studies."
On Mr. Bryant's eightieth birthday he received a congratulatory letter with its thousands of signatures, sent from every State and Territory of his native land, followed soon after by the presentation, in Chickering Hall, New York, in the presence of a large and appreciative audience, of a superb silver vase, the gift of many hundred admirers in various portions of the country. This exquisite and valuable specimen of American silver work is now in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Standing before it, the spectator may titly recall those noble lines of Keats upon a Grecian urn:
“When old age shall this generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
A few months later, the venerable poet presented to the citizens of Roslyn a new ball and public reading-room, having previously given one to his native town. It was the wish of his fellow-citizens that the handsome hall should be named in honor of Mr. Bryant; but as he proposed that it should be known simply as “The Hall,” that title was bestowed upon it by popular acclamation.
The Centennial Ode, written by Bryant for the opening of the International Exposition at Philadelphia, is worthy of the great fame of its author. Another of his recent compositions, and one of his noblest, elicited from a prominent foreign journal the following mention: “The venerable American poet, who was born before Keats, and who has seen so many tides of influence sweep over the literature of his own country and of England, presents us here with a short but very noble and characteristic poem, which carries a singular weight with it as embodying the reflection of a very old man of genius on the mutability of all things, and the hurrying tide of years that cover the past as with a flood of waters. In a vein that reminds us of Thanatopsis, the grand symphonic blank verse of which was published no less than sixty-one years ago, Mr. Bryant reviews the mortal life of man as the ridge of a wave ever hurrying to oblivion the forms that appear on its surface for a moment.” In this worthy companion to Thanatopsis, written in his eighty-second year, the poet strikes the old familiar key-note that he took so successfully in his greatest poem in 1812, in The Ages in 1821, and again in Among the Trees in 1874. It is called The Flood of Years. A gentleman recently bereaved was so struck by the unquestioning faith in immortality expressed in the concluding lines of this poem that he wrote to the poet, asking if they represented his own belief. Mr. Bryant answered him in the following note, dated Cummington, August 10, 1876: “Certainly I believe all that is said in the lines you bave quoted. If I had not, I could not have written them. I believe in the everlasting life of the soul; and it seems to me that immortality would be but an imperfect gift without the recognition in the life to come of those who are dear to us here."
If the harmony of the poet's career was sustained in his writings and his love of art, it was further manifested in the taste and affection which governed him in the selection of his homes. Like the historian Prescott, Bryant had three residences, – a town-house and two country homes. One of these is near the picturesque village of Roslyn, Long Island, and commands a view which in its varied aspect takes in a mingled scene of outspreading land and water. The mansion, embosomed in trees and vines, an ample dwelling-place situated at the top of the hills, was built by Richard Kirk in 1781. Mr. Bryant, who was ever mindful of the injunction given by the dying Scotch laird to his son, “Be aye sticking in a tree, Jock: it will be growing while ye are sleeping," alternated recreations of tree planting and pruning and other rural occupations with his literary labor.
This country-seat at Roslyn, called “Cedarmere,” has been the resort of many distinguished men of art and literature, of travellers and statesmen, gone thither to pay their respeets to the sage, philosopher, and author. They were always welcomed, and enjoyed the purity of taste and simplicity of manner which presided over the mansion. Here the venerable host continued to the last to enjoy the society of his friends; and here much of his best literary work had been done since his purchase of the place in 1845. He was accustomed to spend most of the time there from May to the end of November of each year, excepting the months of August and September, which were given to the old Homestead at Cummington. Not extensive, but excellent in wide and judicious selections, was his Cedarmere library of several thousand volumes. The poet's knowledge of ancient and living languages enabled him to add with advantage to his collection of books the works of the best French, German, Italian, and Spanish authors. Among his poems may be found admirable translations from these various languages as well as from the Greek and Latin.
Cedarmere is an extensive estate, and rich in a great variety of trees. As I was walking on a sunny October afternoon with the poet through his loved domain, he pointed out a Spanish chestnut-tree laden with fruit, and, springing lithely on a fence, despite his seventysix summers, caught an open burr hanging from one of the lower branches, opened it, and, jumping down with the agility of a youth, handed to his city guest the contents, consisting of two as large chestnuts as I ever saw in Spain. The Madeira and Pecan nuts were also suecessfully cultivated by him at Cedarmere. During another walk, Mr. Bryant gave a jump and caught the branch of a tree with his hands, and, after swinging backward and forward several times with his feet raised, he swung himself over a fence without touching it.
About a quarter of a mile from the mansion, he pointed out a black-walnut tree, which was planted by Adam Smith, and first made its appearance above ground in 1713. It had attained a girth of twenty-five feet and an immense breadth of branches. It was the comfortable home of a small army of squirrels, and every year strewed the ground around its gigantic stem with an abundance of “heavy fruit." The tree is alluded to in one of Mr. Bryant's poems :
“On my cornice linger the ripe black grapes ungathered ;
Children fill the groves with the echoes of their glee,
Drops the heavy fruit of the tall black-walnut tree.”
The taste displayed by the poet in the selection and adornment of his residence at Roslyn was more than equalled by the affection and veneration which fourteen years ago prompted him to purchase the old Bryant Homestead and estate at Cummington, which had some thirty years previous passed out of the family into other hands. The mansion is situated among the Hampshire hills, and is a spot that nature has surrounded with scenes calculated to awaken the early dreams of the poet, and to fill his soul with purest inspiration. In the midst of such scenes the young singer received his earliest impressions, and descriptive of them he has embodied some of his most cherished and home-endearing poetry. To a friend who requested information about the home of his boyhood, Mr. Bryant in 1872 wrote as follows:
“I am afraid that I cannot say much that will interest you or anybody else. A hundred years since this broad highland region lying between the Housatonic and the Connecticut was principally forest, and bore the name of Pontoosuc. In a few places settlers had cleared away woodlands and cultivated the cleared spots. Bears, catamounts, and deer were not uncommon here. Wolves were sometimes seen, and the woods were dense and dark, without any natural openings or meadows. My grandfather on the mother's side came up from Plymouth County, in Massachusetts, when a young man, in the year 1773, and chose a farm on a commanding site overlooking an extensive prospect, cut down the trees on a part of it, and built a house of square logs with a chimney as large as some kitchens, within which I remember to have sat on a bench in my childhood. About ten years afterward he purchased, of an original settler, the contiguous farm, now called the Bryant Homestead, and having built beside a little brook, not very far from a spring from which water was to be drawn in pipes, the house which is now mine, he removed to it with his family. The soil of this region was then exceedingly fertile, all the settlers prospered, and my grandfather among the rest. My father, a physician and surgeon, married his daughter, and after a while came to live with him on the homestead. He made some enlargements of the house, in one part of which he had his office, and in this, during my boyhood, were generally two or three students of medicine, who sometimes accompanied my father in his visits to his patients, always on horseback, which was the mode of travelling at that time. To this place my father brought me in my early childhood, and I have scarce an early recollection which does not relate to it.
“On the farm beside the little brook, and at a short distance from the house, stood the district school-house, of which nothing now remains but a little hollow where was once a cellar. Here I received my earliest lessons in learning, except such as were given me by my mother, and here, when ten years old, I declaimed a copy of verses composed by me as a description of a district school. The little brook which runs by the house, on the site of the old district school-house, was in after years made the subject of a little poem entitled The Rivulet. To the south of the house is a wood of tall trees clothing a declivity, and touching with its outermost boughs the grass of a moist meadow at the foot of the hill, which suggested the poem entitled An Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood.
“In the year 1835 the place passed out of the family; and at the end of thirty years I repurchased it, and made various repairs of the house and additions to its size. A part of the building which my father had added, and which contained his office, had, in the mean time, been detached from it, and moved off down a steep hill to the side of the Westfield River. I supplied its place by a new wing with the same external form, though of less size, in which is now my library.