William Cullen Bryant: A Brief Sketch

WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT is the Nestor of the Metropolitan press, and one of the best known men in the country. His name is familiar to all Europe as a poet, litterateur and journalist, and well it may be, for he is one of the best types of the editorial profession in the New World.

William Cullen Bryant's name is almost a household word throughout the land. Yet such is the indifference and absorbing nature of New-York life that when he walks up Broadway, as he often does, not one person out of five thousand who pass would recognize him. Say, however, "There goes Bryant," and almost every one would turn to gaze in the direction indicated. No reputation secures to a man in New-York what Horace considered the assurance of fame: To be pointed out as you go by, and hear 'That is he!' Giants of celebrity, monsters of notoriety may pace from Bowling Green to Madison Square, and no quick whisper, no pointing finger, no hurried comment wounds their sensibility or flatters their self-love.

Bryant, born November 3, 1794, in Cummington, Hampshire county, Massachusetts, is the son of Peter Bryant, a physician of the place, a man of fine literary and artistic tastes, who taught the boy to love poetry in his earliest years. The affection existing between William and his father was of very ardent even romantic character, as is shown in some of the first verses the poet wrote. Like Cowley, Milton and Pope, Bryant wooed the muses as soon as many boys learn to read. He might well say, with the author of the " Essay on Man":

"While yet a child, nor yet ankown to fame,
I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came."

In his tenth year he wrote verses, and in his fifteenth published them. They were so very clever that few persons would believe they were his. They could not be convinced such extraordinary productions were the work of a boy of his age, and a rigid examination was necessary to satisfy the skeptical. In precocity he closely resembled Chatterton ; writing " Thanatopsis," considered his best poem, and by many critics at home and abroad, the best of American poems—in his nineteenth year "Thanatopsis" remained in MS. for three or four years, and was printed in the North American Review, in 1817, when it gained at once a wide reputation, and has grown so popular since that many of its polished lines have been worn threadbare by quotation.

Bryant in his thirtieth year, I think, removed to New-York, and in 1826 connected himself with the Evening Post, with which he has remained ever since. For a number of years he was a very hardworking journalist, writing the leading articles, especially on political subjects, during two whole decades. The Post, in those days, was Federal, but Bryant, always Democratic (in the true sense of the term) in his views and sympathies, did much to make the paper reflect his opinions. Under his administration it grew to be a Democratic journal, continuing such until the question of slavery entering into politics gave birth to the Republican party, of which Bryant became a firm but independent supporter.

During the past twelve or fifteen years, many of which he has spent abroad, he has rested somewhat from his labors. Now-a-days he rarely writes an editorial, leaving the management of the Post to Charles Nordhoff and Augustus Maverick; but indulges his journalistic habit by writing on minor topics, with a pertness and vigor not to be expected of a man more than forty years in the editorial harness.

His literary life is too familiar to speak of at any length. In addition to a book of poems published thirty years ago, which was warmly praised by the British reviews, he printed a volume, in 1849, entitled " Letters of a Traveler," made up of his correspondence to the Post. Although a journalist and accustomed to daily writing, he is not fond of literary composition, seldom attempting it unless there is something he particularly wants to say. Poetry, with him, is not only a labor of love but a love of labor. He composes with the greatest difficulty, owing to an extreme fastidiousness that refuses to be satisfied. Like Pope and Campbell, he is always anxious to alter and revise, and is ever finding what he conceives to be happier words of expression. It is said he wrote "Thanatopsis" a hundred times, and that he now has a copy of the poem with various changes from the published form. It is often asked why he does not write more ; but those who know him wonder not at his infrequent accomplishment of verse. Poetry is a mental agony with him. He takes as much pains and toils over his lines as Jean Jacques did over his prose, or Tennyson over his verse. He has almost invariably declined to furnish poems for college commencements, public occasions and national festivals; his talent not being of the ready or spontaneous sort. The sole instance I know of his departing from the established rule of his life was when he furnished two short poems to the Ledger, for which Robert Bonner paid him the extraordinary sum of $3,000. He has none of the curiosa felicitas that distinguishes many literary men, particularly those who have been bred to journalism, or who have long followed it as a profession.

I know a score of clever fellows in the vicinity of Printing-House square who would write a drama, half a dozen pieces of verse, a story, two or three columns of paragraphs, and a score of letters to the country press while Bryant was? editing a short poem. I am bound to say, however, his work would better bear critical examination than theirs.

His travels have been quite extensive. He has been abroad five or six times, having visited every part of the continent, Egypt, Syria, Judea, and other portions of the East. Like a true journalist he has always corresponded with the Post, making there a record of his impressions of the people and places he has visited. His letters are unusually interesting, as they would naturally be, coming from a man of such refined and cultivated tastes. He is thoroughly acquainted with art, a passionate lover of nature, a poet in his life no less than in his written word. He enjoys travel and nature more than almost anything else, and finds, like the melancholy Jacques, sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, and good in everything. He has been and is the intimate friend of a number of the best artists at home and abroad, and has all the artistic feeling and sympathy of the plastic tribe.

His domestic tastes are remarkable for such a wanderer. In 1845 he purchased a beautiful piece of property on Long Island, near Roslyn, and has ever since been cultivating it with the greatest care. It is an idyllic poem in nature. His charming home is literally embowered in roses, sheltered in the midst of the most luxuriant plants of every variety. He spends much of his time with his flowers, and while he walks among and watches them with a floral affection, his youth seems restored, and his years sparkling backward in the morning sunshine. He is a widower now; but all his life long he has been devoted to his family —he has two daughters—and a model of all that is lovable in the relation of husband and father. Of late years he passes much of his time in his old homestead, making visits to the Post office only once or twice a week, and then remaining but a short time.

Personally, Bryant looks like one of the ancient patriarchs. His hair and beard, which he wears long, are of silvery white and of silken softness, and he might well sit for a model of Calchas. Though his face is deeply wrinkled, he is erect, lithe and vigorous as a man of thirty and, in his seventy-fourth year, is probably the best preserved New-Yorker in the neighborhood of Manhattan.

Men usually die here of old age before they are forty, but Bryant is an exception to those who surround him. Few young men can walk so far, take so much exercise, or do so much work as he can to-day; and he attributes his extraordinary strength to the abstemiousness of his life and his passion for nature, which has caused him to pass much of his time in the open air. He is inclined to be shy, albeit he enjoys congenial society, and has spent many happy days with Washington Irving, Fitz-Greene Halleck, William Leggett, James K. Paulding and other noble fellows and beaux esprite whom he has survived. He is a most entertaining talker, and it is a rare treat to listen to his reminiscences of the distinguished dead and the historic spots he has known so well. He is a fine specimen of the American gentleman of the past generation; and yet he is so hale and hearty there is good reason to believe he may brighten the next generation with his silvery hairs.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: William Cullen Bryant: A Brief Sketch
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Great Metropolis, A Mirror of New York: By Junius Henri Browne; American Publishing Company-Hartford (1869)
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