William Cullen Bryant, whom Walt Whitman called the “bard of the river and wood, ever conveying a taste of open air, with scents as from hayfields, grapes, birch-borders” (267), worked to develop a uniquely American poetic style focusing on the country's raw, vital landscape.
Bryant was born in 1794 in Cumington, Massachusetts, the second son of Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell. Bryant was educated at Williams College, chose law as his career, and was admitted to the bar in 1815. He married Frances Fairchild in 1821. He struggled as a lawyer until his career as a poet and journalist took off in the mid-1820s.
Bryant's father cultivated his son's interest in poetry, training him in the Neo-Classical style current in the late eighteenth-and early-nineteenth centuries. However, while Bryant was never a revolutionary in his use of form, he quickly shed his Neo-Classical thematic concerns in favor of Romantic ones when he developed an interest in nature. This is apparent in the early “Thanatopsis” (“Death-vision”), perhaps his most famous work. In this blank-verse poem, the poet advises an unidentified listener concerned with death to “Go forth, under the open sky, and list / To Nature's teachings” (122), and thus learn, from the cyclical character of nature itself, that all must die, and that much wisdom flows there from. The poem's veneration for nature as instructor, and its fascination with death, indicate Bryant's growing Romanticism and attraction toward the natural world.
Bryant published the first edition of his Poems in the early 1820s. While this edition was important, the expanded 1832 edition, published under Washington Irving's editorship, secured Bryant lasting fame. The collection contains Bryant's most famous compositions, in which he explores many themes central to his time's environmental thinking, among them, nationalism as it relates to the American landscape (Manifest Destiny); a cyclical view of human history; and the Native American's place in the expanding United States.
Bryant's interest in developing an American poetic incorporates into his Romanticism Jeffersonian ideals of pastoral virtue (American Pastoral). As Charles Sanford explains, the nationalism of Bryant's day contrasted “America's simple rural virtues with the supposed decadence of urban Europe. Celebrating the grandeur of native scenery especially fulfilled the psychological needs of a nation bent upon greatness” (434). Working from this context in his “To an American Painter Departing for Europe,” Bryant develops the idea that the proper subject for American cultural nationalism was America's landscape. Bryant addresses this sonnet to the nationalist landscape painter Thomas Cole. After exhorting Cole to remember American scenery when he arrives in Europe, Bryant ascends into an ekphrastic description of a Cole painting: “Lone lakes — savannahs where the bison roves—/ Rocks rich with summer garlands — solemn streams —/ Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams —/ Spring bloom and autumn blasé of boundless grove” (160-61). The poem is no mere flag-waving, however; Bryant's ekphrasis here also indicates his intense sense of the complex relation between man and nature. Glossing the lines, Robert Kern claims that “the speaker … slip[s] … into … an inward mode of contemplation or visualization, in which he loses himself in what he evokes … [the lines are,] I want to suggest, ecocentric” (439).
Bryant concludes the poem by exhorting Cole to remember America by reemphasizing the contrast between civilized, urban Europe and the pristine wildness of America. Bryant's description of the Plains in “The Prairies” further reflects his belief that wild, vital landscapes distinguish the United States; however, as in the poem to Cole, we should not read such descriptions as mere patriotic clichés. In a manner useful for understanding Bryant, Kern glosses Lawrence Buell’s concept of eco-criticism, claiming that it “may or should lead to … the sense that we share our place with all that is other-than-human” (426).
Bryant provides such an outlook in “The Prairies.” In the poem's opening simile, the poet loses himself in a vision of the ocean that the view of the Plains inspires in him: “Lo! they stretch / In airy undulations, far away, / As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell, / Stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed, / And motionless for ever” (102). In this sublime reverie, the poet loses his sense of self in a powerful transcendental epiphany. While the poet's return to his senses at the poem's close — “All at once / A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream, / And I am in the wilderness alone” (165) — suggests that for Bryant an ecocentric state can only persist momentarily, that Bryant even imagined such a state of perception attests to an interest in and approach to the environment unique in his time.
In his “The Ages,” Bryant develops a stadialist historical narrative. He presented this long poem, which consists of 35 Spenserian stanzas, to the Harvard 1821 graduating class. Stadialism was a prominent contemporary philosophy of history positing that human history conforms to four states: the savage, the barbarian, the agrarian, and the civilized. These states are grounded in four modes of subsistence: hunting and gathering, herding, farming, and commerce. In a sense, then, this philosophy of history is rooted in a naturalistic worldview, because for stadialists history follows necessary, natural changes, much like the seasons. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the prospect of death and Bryant's meditation upon it prompt the historical discourse that comprises “The Ages,” as death serves for Bryant as a reminder of humanity's subjection to cycle and nature. The poem owes much to stadialist thought in its conception of history as a set of progressive movements toward civilization. Bryant begins by exploring the savage state, when “he who felt the wrong, and had the might, / His own avenger, girt himself to slay” (135-36); then shifts to the rise of states when “The weak, against the sons of spoil and wrong, / Banded, and watched their hamlets, and grew strong” (136). As one can see from these lines, Bryant's historical narrativization tends to be normative as well as descriptive. While these earlier stages — as well as those of the Greeks, Romans, the Catholics of the European Dark Ages, and others — are necessary steps toward civilization, their foibles are regrettable for the poet. Those unfortunate characteristics, as one might expect from the nationalist Bryant, nonetheless yielded at last to the lofty (relative) merits that Bryant finds in his contemporary America. While many stadialists warned U.S. citizens that they must guard themselves against civilization's vices, to avoid the fate of prior great civilizations such as Rome, Bryant claims in “The Ages” that the United States will not fall victim to history: “But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall” (143). In other poems, however, Bryant could be less sanguine on this topic, which suggests that his statements here may partly reflect the rhetorical exigencies of motivating the young Harvard graduates.
Further evidencing Bryant's stadialist perspective is his belief in the necessity of Indian removal. In “The Ages,” the United States effectively subsumes Native America, an example of the savage state giving way before a later, higher order. “The Prairies” also takes up this theme. After describing the Plains’ grasslands, Bryant makes a characteristic ubi sunt gesture, asking what has happened to the glorious, idyllic race of mound builders that once inhabited the area. Answering this question, he claims that they fell to waves of marauding Indians. These mutabilities as well as the later removal of these Indians by Europeans, for Bryant, occur naturally: “Thus change the forms of being. Thus arise / Races of living things, glorious in strength, / And perish… The red man too —/ Has left the blooming wilds he ranged so long, / And, nearer to the Rocky Mountains, sought / A wider hunting-ground” (164). While Bryant naturalizes the horrors and injustices of the Indian removal, he often mourns the loss of Indian culture; and this ethical dialectic has much to do with the poet's sense of the environment, as Bryant, like many in his time, sees Native Americans as an integral part of the New World landscape. While the move dehumanizes Native Americans, Bryant's lament over removal in this sense attests to his belief that U.S. expansion, while necessary, entails a tragic loss for the natural order. This poem, then, as well as others focused on Native America such as “An Indian at the Burying-Place of His Fathers,” reflects his concern for man's ethical relation to nature. The tragedy of the native's fate, moreover, resides not only in the dispossession of the natives but also in the possibility that European Americans may one day suffer the same fate at history's hands.
At his death in 1878, Bryant was considered among the preeminent American poets of his time. Since then, his more radical contemporaries, Whitman and Emily Dickinson, have attained a higher place in the canon. In a time of growing environmental consciousness, however, Bryant's insights into the cultural and ethical dimensions of man's relation to nature still warrant attention.
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