William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
Contributing Editor: Allison Heisch
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Most of the Bryant selections in the anthology are ruminative poems about the nature of life and the nature of nature. Some students really like this sort of thing, but substantial numbers are allergic to it.
The most effective strategy I have found is to provide visual back-up in the form of a Hudson River School slide show. A fancy version would parallel English Romantic poets (especially Gray, Cowper, and Wordsworth) and painters (e.g., Constable and Turner).
Bryant is a fine example of a writer who was not only popular but famous in his day. He can be used to open a discussion of the social and historical implications of such popularity (why it comes and why it goes), the essentially political character of anthologies (yes, even this one), and the idea of "fame" in connection with contemporary poets and poetry.
For students (and they are many) who do not naturally respond to Bryant, the questions generally run to "Why are we reading this?" Or, more decorously, "Why was he so popular?" Yet, they do respond to him as an example of how the American high culture invented itself. In an altogether different vein, the personal philosophy expressed in "Thanatopsis" has some enduring appeal.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Bryant is very useful as a means of demonstrating the imitative mode through which New Englanders of an intellectual bent sought to establish an acceptable American literary voice. This is easily demonstrated by pairing his poems with comparable English productions. He can also be linked to the Transcendentalists--though with great caution, since much more is going on.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Again, he should be shown in connection with his English models. It's useful to point out the self-conscious regularity of these poems both in connection with their particularly derivative subject matter and in contrast with the form and subjects of those contemporary poems and songs (well represented in this anthology) that were not informed by the dominant English literary culture.
I have usually talked about Bryant's audience in connection with the expansion of publishing in nineteenth-century America--especially magazines and newspapers. Ordinarily, students have no idea what a nineteenth-century newspaper would have looked like or contained. They never expect them to contain poetry. To demonstrate the probably contemporary audience, I have found it useful to collect and read commercially-produced greeting cards.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Freneau's "The House of Night" may be read with "Thanatopsis" to demonstrate both the imitation of dominant English poetic forms and transatlantic lag-time in creating them for American audiences. Obviously, Bryant may be read with Emerson and Thoreau as a pre- or proto-Transcendentalist. It is interesting to contrast Bryant's earnest view of nature with Emily Dickinson's ironic one. Bryant's poem on Abraham Lincoln against Whitman's ("When Lilacs Last. . . Bloom'd") makes a memorable contrast between Anglophile American poetry and poetry with a genuine American accent.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Based upon what you can glean from these poems, what sort of religious and philosophical outlook does this writer have?
(b) Compare the view of nature in poems such as "To a Waterfowl" and "The Yellow Violet" with that in "The Prairies."
2. Bryant's "Thanatopsis" is often read as a proto-Transcendentalist poem; yet it was discovered and rushed to publication by Bryant's father, who by all accounts was a Calvinist. Some options:
(a) Provide a Calvinist "reading" of "Thanatopsis."
(b) Locate, compare, and explain potentially "Transcendental" and "Calvinist" elements in the poem.
(c) Argue that it's one or the other (very artificial, but effective).
Brown, Charles H. William Cullen Bryant. Scribner, 1971.