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“Your letter reminds me of the fact that there are but very few persons left who knew Mr. Bryant in college. "The Flood of Years' has swept them all away except the Rev. Herman Halsey, of the class of 1811, who yet survives in Western New York, and my classmate the Rev. E. D. Barrett, of Missouri, and myself. If I live to see the first day of September, I shall have completed eighty-three years of life.”
The Rev. E. D. Barrett, under date Sedalia, Missouri, July 9, 1878, writes:
“I well remember Bryant's first appearance at college in my Sophomore year. Many of the class were assembled in one of our rooms when he presented himself. A friendly greeting passed round the circle, and all seemed to enjoy the arrival of the young stranger and poet. News of Mr. Bryant's precocious intellect, his poetical genius, and his literary taste had preceded his arrival. He was looked up to with great respect, and regarded as an honor to the class of which he had become a member, and to the college which had now received him as his alma mater. I was the poet's senior by more than four years, having been born in January, 1790, and am, with the single exception of Charles F. Sedgwick, the sole survivor of the Williams College class of 1813.”
No American poet has equalled Bryant in early poetic development. In that particular he surpassed Pope and Cowley and Byron. At the age of nine we find him composing tolerably clever verses, and four years later writing The Embargo, a political as well as a poetical satire upon the Jeffersonian party of that day. The poem is also remarkable as having manifested at that early age a political order of mind which continued to develop in an equal ratio with his poetical nature through life. That mind, indeed, taking higher range, was not active in the turmoils and schemes of politicians; but it investigated the great questions of political economy, and grappled with principles of the gravest moment to society and humanity.
The Embargo; or, Sketch of the Times, a Satire, we could easily imagine had been written in 1878, instead of seventy-one years ago, when, our fathers tell us, demagogism was unknown.
“E'en while I sing, see Faction urge her claim,
Mislead with falsehood, and with zeal inflame;
And darkness perches on her dragon wings.” This poem, printed in Boston, attracted the public attention, and the edition was soon sold. To the second edition, containing The Spanish Revolution and several other juvenile pieces, was prefixed this curious advertisement, dated February, 1809:
" A doubt having been intimated in the Monthly Anthology of June last, whether a youth of thirteen years could have been the author of this poem, in justice to his merits, the friends of the writer feel obliged to certify the fact from their personal knowledge of himself and his family, as well as his literary improvement and extraordinary talents. They would premise that they do not come uncalled before the public to bear this testimony: they would prefer that he should be judged by his works without favor or affection. As the doubt has been suggested, they deem it merely an act of justice to remove it ; after which they leave him a candidate for favor in common with other literary adventurers. They therefore assure the public that Mr. Bryant, the author, is a native of Cummington, in the county of Hampshire, and in the month of November last arrived at the age of fourteen years. The facts can be authenticated by many of the inhabitants of that place, as well as by several of his friends who give this notice. And if it be deemed worthy of further inquiry, the printer is enabled to disclose their names and places of residence."
In September, 1817, appeared in the North American Review the poem entitled Thanatopsis, which Professor Wilson said " was alone sufficient to establish the author's claims to the honors of genius.” It was written in a few weeks, in his eighteenth year, and but slightly retouched during the time that elapsed between its composition and its first appearance in print. The poem created a marked sensation at the time of its appearance, not unlike that caused by the publication of Halleck's Marco Bozzaris, a few years later. Richard H. Dana was then a member of the committee which conducted the Review, and received the manuscript poems Thanatopsis and the Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood. The former was understood to have been written by Dr. Bryant, and the latter by his son. When Dana learned the name, and heard that the author of Thanatopsis was a member of the State legislature, he proceeded to the Senate-chamber to observe the new poet. He saw there a man of dark complexion, with iron-gray hair, thick eyebrows, welldeveloped forehead, with an intellectual expression, in which, however, he failed to find
“The vision and the faculty divine.” He went away puzzled and mortified at his lack of discernment. When Bryant in 1821 delivered at Harvard University his didactic poem entitled The Ages, - a comprehensive poetical essay reviewing the world's progress in a panoramic view of the ages, and glowing with a prophetic vision of the future of America, — Dana alluded in complimentary terms to Dr. Bryant's Thanatopsis, and then learned for the first time that the son was the author of both poems.
It is related that when the father showed a copy of Thanatopsis in manuscript, before its publication, to a lady well qualified to judge of its merits, simply saying, “ Here are some lines that our Willie has been writing,” she read the poem, raised her eyes to the father's face, and burst into tears, in which Dr. Bryant, a somewhat reserved and silent man, was not ashamed to join. “And no wonder," continues the writer ; “it must have seemed a mystery that in the bosom of eighteen had grown up thoughts that even in boyhood shaped themselves into solemn harmonies, majestic as the diapason of ocean, fit for a temple-service beneath the vault of heaven."
Mr. Bryant continued his classical and mathematical studies at home with a view to entering Yale College ; but, abandoning this purpose, he became a law student in the office of Judge Howe, of Worthington, afterwards completing his course of legal study with William Baylies, of West Bridgewater. He was admitted to the bar at Plymouth in 1815, and began practice at Plainfield, where he remained one year, and then removed to Great Barrington (all these towns being in the State of Massachusetts). At Great Barrington he made the acquaintance of the author Catherine M. Sedgwick, who afterwards dedicated to him her novel, Redwood, and of Miss Frances Fairchild. The lovely qualities of this latter lady the young lawyer celebrated in verses which, for simple purity and delicate imagery, are most characteristic of our poet's genius. They are elsewhere given in the Library (on page 130), and it will be of interest to read them in connection with the incidents of their origin. They are entitled 0 Fairest of the Rural Maids.
Miss Fairchild became Mr. Bryant's wife in 1821, and for more than twoscore years was the “good angel of his life.” She is mentioned in many of the poet's stanzas. The Future Life (see page 275) is addressed to her. “It was written,” says Mr. Bryant in a note to me, “during the lifetime of my wife, and some twenty years after our marriage, — that is to say, about 1840, or possibly two or three years after.”
A few months after the young poet's marriage a small volume of forty-four dingy pages was published by Hilliard & Metcalf, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, entitled Poems by William Cullen Bryant. A copy is now lying before me. It contains The Ages, To a Waterfowl, Translation of a Fragment of Simonides, Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,
The Yellow Violet, Song, Green River, and Thanatopsis. In this rare little volume the first and last paragraphs of the latter poem appear as they now stand, the version originally published in the North American Review having commenced with the lines,
“Yet a few days, and thee The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course ;' and ended with the words,
“And make their bed with thee."
Last winter I met Mr. Bryant in a Broadway bookstore, and showed him a copy of this early edition of his poetical writings, which the dealer in literary wares had just sold for ten dollars. He laughingly remarked, “Well, that's more than I received for its contents."
“This little life-boat of an earth, with its noisy crew of a mankind, and their troubled history, will one day have vanished ; faded like a cloud-speck from the azure of the all! What, then, is man? He endures but for an hour, and is crushed before the moth. Yet, in the being and in the working of a faithful man is there already (as all faith, from the beginning, gives assurance) a something that pertains not to this wild death-element of time; that triumphs over time, and is, will be, when time shall be no more." - THOMAS CARLYLE.
BIRTHDAY FESTIVAL - COUNTRY HOUSES -- EIGHTIETH BIRTHDAY – POETICAL AND PROSE WRITINGS -- PUBLIC ADDRESSES.
In the year 1824 Mr. Bryant's picturesque poem, A Forest Hymn, The Old Man's Funeral, The Murdered Traveller, and other poetical compositions appeared in the United States Literary Gazette, a weekly journal issued in Boston. The same year, at the suggestion of the Sedgwick family, he made his first visit to New York City, where, through their influence, he was introduced to many of the leading literary men of the metropolis. From the first, Bryant was averse to the dull and distasteful routine of his profession, --
“Forced to drudge for the dregs of men
And scrawl strange words with a barbarous pen." He could not like it, and his aversion for it daily increased. With Slender he could say, “If there be no great love in the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance.” His visit to New York decided his destiny. Abandoning the law, in which he had met with a fair measure of success, having enjoyed for nine years a reasonable share of the local practice of Great Barrington, he determined upon pursuing the career of a man of letters, so well described by Carlyle, the “Censor of the Age," as “an anarchic, nomadic, and entirely aërial and ill-conditioned profession,” and he accordingly, in 1825, removed to New York, which continued to be his place of residence for more than half a century. Here he lived from earnest youth to venerable age -- from thirty-one to eightyfour--in one unbroken path of honor and success.
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 charning 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 immediate 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 columna 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 versatile 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
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