William Cullen Bryant The Prairies Analysis Essay

William Cullen Bryant 1794–1878

American poet, editor, critic, travel sketch writer, translator, short story and sketch writer, satirist, and historian.

The most accomplished and popular American poet of the first half of the nineteenth century, Bryant also was the first American poet to receive substantial international acclaim. Bryant is considered an early proponent of Romanticism in American literature, and his work is often compared thematically and stylistically to that of English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Opposing eighteenth-century poetic conventions and using experimental iam bic rhythms, Bryant's poetry usually meditates on nature and the transience of earthly things. Although its themes were few and its thought not profound, Bryant's verse possessed a simple dignity and an impeccable restrained style, most notably in "Thanatopsis" (1817) and "To a Waterfowl" (1821), the poems for which he is best remembered. Since Bryant also spent more than fifty years of his life as editor of the New York Evening Post, a career which ranks among the longest in American journalism, he never fully developed his poetic talents. However, Bryant's literary efforts make him an important, if somewhat overlooked, figure in American poetry.

Biographical Information

Born November 3, 1794, at Cummington, Massachusetts, Bryant began to compose verses at age nine. His first poem to gain critical attention, The Embargo; or, Sketches of the Times, which satirized Thomas Jefferson's laws limiting free trade, appeared in 1808. Bryant entered Williams College at age sixteen, but left without graduating and returned home, where he studied law until he was admitted to the bar in 1815. For the next ten years Bryant practiced as an attorney, a profession he came to detest. Meanwhile, he continued to write poetry and published several essays of poetry criticism. Encouraged by the highly favorable critical response to the anonymous publication of an early version of his "Thanatopsis" in the North American Review in 1817, Bryant established his name as a poet with his first collection, Poems (1821). In 1825 he moved to New York City, where he co-founded the New York Review and Atheneum Magazine, which eventually proved to be unsuccessful, and associated with artists Asher Durant and Thomas Cole and members of the renowned Knickerbocker school, which included writers Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Gulian Verplanck, each of whom later became the subjects of Bryant's biographical discourses. In 1827 Bryant was offered an editorial position at the New York Evening Post, and by 1829 he became

the newspaper's editor-in-chief and part owner. For nearly fifty years under his leadership the Evening Post espoused such liberal political causes as free trade, free speech, workers' rights, and the abolition of slavery, serving initially as an organ of the Democratic party and later the Free-Soil movement and finally the Republican party. Upon publication of his second volume of verse, Poems (1832), Bryant had attained national prominence as a public figure, both as poet and editor. Although Bryant published other poetry collections over the course of his life, his editorial responsibilities consumed his time and turned his attention to prose writing. Bryant also toured Europe and the United States: one visit to Illinois inspired "The Prairies," and the letters he wrote to the Evening Post during his trips abroad comprise three collections of travel sketches. Despite a lifetime of political, literary, and physical activity, Bryant suffered a debilitating stroke and died two weeks later on June 12, 1878.

Major Works

Distinguished by its simple dignity, didactic purpose, plain style, and a conscious concern for craftsmanship, Bryant's poetry expresses ideas derived from the Enlightenment and English Romanticism. The majority features recurrent themes of mutability, loneliness and isolation, the passing of innocence, and the somber certainty of the grave. Yet his poems are tinged by his personal interest in American politics, folklore, and history, and, above all, by his observations of the beauty and power of his native landscape, which pervades his poetic sensibilities. Bryant's poetic treatment of nature incorporates his belief that Nature is simply the visible manifestation of an omnipresent, transcendent God, who remains distinct from the natural world. For example, "To a Waterfowl" depicts the poet's vision of a lone bird on the horizon at the close of a wearisome day, which sparks his realization that all nature is directed and protected by divine providence. In "A Forest Hymn" the poet exclaims that "The groves were God's first temples," observing that even a flower possesses "an emanation of the in-dwelling Life." Many of Bryant's lyrics reveal that Nature exists to console and instruct humanity about divine purpose, which is represented by providential cycles of changes in nature and life. For instance, "Thanatopsis," whose Greek title means "view of death," gives voice to Nature, who teaches that humanity partakes of all natural processes and admonishes humanity to live well so it may not fear death. "The Death of the Flowers," written on the death of Bryant's sister, identifies the dead woman with the decay of beautiful summertime, while "To the Fringed Gentian," whose title refers to a late-blooming autumnal flower, states the poet's wish that "Hope, blossoming within my heart, / May look to heaven as I depart."

Critical Reception

Bryant's colloquial voice and celebration of nature were hailed as poetic innovations upon publication of his debut collection Poems, and confirmed his reputation as the most eminent American poet of the day. His status generally went unquestioned by his contemporaries until the middle of the nineteenth century, when some critics began to observe that his lyrics lacked flexibility and depth of subject and theme; that his versification failed to display poetic virtuosity and breadth of conception; and that his poetry relied too much on didactic endings and generally lacked passion. Thus, by the time the poet had achieved the heights of critical adulation, he already was being reduced to a poet of historical significance, or at least a competent wordsmith of second rank. Although most critics have agreed that Bryant's early poems represent his best work, critical assessment of his work has declined considerably in the twentieth century and is largely limited to debates about whether Bryant's poetic sensibilities are more Puritan or Romantic. A small revival of interest in Bryant's poetry has occurred since 1978, which marked the hundredth anniversary of the poet's death, but most criticism has centered on a half-dozen of individual poems, comparisons to other writers and artists, or the relation between geography and poetry. Norbert Krapf has remarked, "if we ultimately find [Bryant] to be a 'minor' poet, we must realize that it is indeed no mean accomplishment to be a minor poet."

 

THE PRAIRIES by William Cullen Bryant

 These are the gardens of the Desert, these
The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
For which the speech of England has no name-
The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
Takes in the encircling vastness. Lo! they stretch,
In airy undulations, far away,
As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,
Stood still, with an his rounded billows fixed,
And motionless forever.- Motionless?-
No- they are all unchained again. The clouds
Sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,
The surface rolls and fluctuates to the eye;
Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase
The sunny ridges. Breezes of the South!
Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,
And pass the prairie-hawk that, poised on high,
Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not- ye have played
Among the palms of Mexico and vines
Of Texas, and have crisped the limpid brooks
That from the fountains of Sonora glide
Into the calm Pacific- have ye fanned
A nobler or a lovelier scene than this?
Man hath no power in all this glorious work:
The hand that built the firmament hath heaved
And smoothed these verdant swells, and sown their slopes
With herbage, planted them with island groves,
And hedged them round with forests. Fitting floor
For this magnificent temple of the sky-
With flowers whose glory and whose multitude
Rival the constellations! The great heavens
Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love,-
A nearer vault, and of a tenderer blue,
Than that which bends above our eastern hills. -
  As o'er the verdant waste I guide my steed,
Among the high rank grass that sweeps his sides
The hollow beating of his footstep seems
A sacrilegious sound. I think of those
Upon whose rest he tramples. Are they here-
The dead of other days?- and did the dust
Of these fair solitudes once stir with life
And burn with passion? Let the mighty mounds
That overlook the rivers, or that rise
In the dim forest crowded with old oaks,
Answer. A race, that long has passed away,
Built them;- a disciplined and populous race
Heaped, with long toil, the earth, while yet the Greek
Was hewing the Pentelicus to forms
Of symmetry, and rearing on its rock
The glittering Parthenon. These ample fields
Nourished their harvests, here their herds were fed,
When haply by their stalls the bison lowed,
And bowed his maned shoulder to the yoke.
All day this desert murmured with their toils,
Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked, and wooed
In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
From instruments of unremembered form,
Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came-
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt. The prairie-wolf
Hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den
Yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground
Where stood their swarming cities. All is gone;
All- save the piles of earth that hold their bones,
The platforms where they worshipped unknown gods,
The barriers which they builded from the soil
To keep the foe at bay- till o'er the walls
The wild beleaguerers broke, and, one by one,
The strongholds of the plain were forced, and heaped
With corpses. The brown vultures of the wood
Flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres,
And sat unscared and silent at their feast.
Haply some solitary fugitive,
Lurking in marsh and forest, till the sense
Of desolation and of fear became
Bitterer than death, yielded himself to die.
Man's better nature triumphed then. Kind words
Welcomed and soothed him; the rude conquerors
Seated the captive with their chiefs; he chose
A bride among their maidens, and at length
Seemed to forget- yet ne'er forgot- the wife
Of his first love, and her sweet little ones,
Butchered, amid their shrieks, with all his race. -
  Thus change the forms of being. Thus arise
Races of living things, glorious in strength,
And perish, as the quickening breath of God
Fills them, or is withdrawn. The red man, too,
Has left the blooming wilds he ranged so long,
And, nearer to the Rocky Mountains, sought
A wilder hunting-ground. The beaver builds
No longer by these streams, but far away,
On waters whose blue surface ne'er gave back
The white man's face- among Missouri's springs,
And pools whose issues swell the Oregon-
He rears his little Venice. In these plains
The bison feeds no more. Twice twenty leagues
Beyond remotest smoke of hunter's camp,
Roams the majestic brute, in herds that shake
The earth with thundering steps--yet here I meet
His ancient footprints stamped beside the pool.
  Still this gret solitude is quick with life.
Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers
They flutter over, gentle quadrupeds,
And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man
Are hear, and sliding reptiles of the ground,
Startlingly beautiful. The graceful deer
Bounds to the wood at my approach. The bee,
A more adventurous colonist than man,
With whom he came across the eastern deep,
Fills the savannas with his murmurings,
And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,
Within the hollow oak. I listen long
To his domestic humn, and think I hear
The sound of that advancing multitude
Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground
Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds
Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain
Over the dark-brown furrows. All at once
A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,
And I am in the wilderness alone.

1832

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