William Cullen Bryant (1794—1878)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

William Cullen Bryant (1794—1878)

Bryant established himself as a poet while still in his teens and was generally regarded as the leading American poet from about 1825 until his death more than fifty years later. During the same period, he was an editor of the New York Evening Post. His most admired poem has always been “Thanatopsis,” which he published in 1817 but began much earlier. He was trained as a lawyer and employed as a journalist. Originally a Democrat, he later became one of the founders of the Republican Party. Late in life he published translations of Homer’s epics: the Iliad (1870) and the Odyssey(1871—1872).

Published in 1863, “The Poet” comes relatively late in Bryant’s career, so that it may be read as a summing up, the advice that an old poet may give to someone aspiring to excel in the art. Bryant’s diction recalls Wordsworth’s famous claim, “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” In some senses, Bryant is participating in an old debate about the springs of poetry. For most novices, it ought to be enough to express one’s feelings honestly and spontaneously, without anxiety that some cruel critic is going to count off for spelling. Most who get beyond their novitiate know—as Bryant suggests—that the feeling, while necessary, is not sufficient. Feeling is just the beginning. The strongest advocate of the opposing party had been Edgar Allan Poe, who was born fifteen years after Bryant and who died thirty-eight years before him (he did say some words in praise of the older poet). Poe argued that the work of literature is conscious and intelligent calculation of psychological effects. In 1888, not so very long after Bryant’s death, Oscar Wilde remarked that “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” (The Critic as Artist). Does that mean that all poetry that springs from genuine feeling is bad? Not necessarily. It is possible that all poetry, the bad as well as the good, springs from genuine feeling. But genuine feeling is not enough. The argument continues.

THE POET (1863)

Thou, who wouldst wear the name

Of poet mid thy brethren of mankind,

And clothe in words of flame

Thoughts that shall live within the general mind!

Deem not the framing of a deathless lay

The pastime of a drowsy summer day.

But gather all thy powers,

And wreak them on the verse that thou dost weave,

And in thy lonely hours,

At silent morning or at wakeful eve,

While the warm current tingles through thy veins,

Set forth the burning words in fluent strains.

No smooth array of phrase,

Artfully sought and ordered though it be,

Which the cold rhymer lays

Upon his page with languid industry,

Can wake the listless pulse to livelier speed,

Or fill with sudden tears the eyes that read.

The secret wouldst thou know

To touch the heart or fire the blood at will?

Let thine own eyes o’erflow;

Let thy lips quiver with the passionate thrill;

Seize the great thought, ere yet its power be past,

And bind, in words, the fleet emotion fast.

Then should thy verse appear

Halting and harsh, and all unaptly wrought,

Touch the crude line with fear,

Save in the moment of impassioned thought;

Then summon back the original glow, and mend

The strain with rapture that with fire was penned.

Yet let no empty gust

Of passion find an utterance in thy lay,

A blast that whirls the dust

Along the howling street and dies away;

But feelings of calm power and mighty sweep,

Like currents journeying through the windless deep.

Seek’st thou, in living lays,

To limn the beauty of the earth and sky?

Before thine inner gaze

Let all that beauty in clear vision lie;

Look on it with exceeding love, and write

The words inspired by wonder and delight.

Of tempests wouldst thou sing,

Or tell of battles—make thyself a part

Of the great tumult; cling

To the tossed wreck with terror in thy heart;

Scale, with the assaulting host, the rampart’s height,

And strike and struggle in the thickest fight.

So shalt thou frame a lay

That haply may endure from age to age,

And they who read shall say:

“What witchery hangs upon this poet’s page!

What art is his the written spells to find

That sway from mood to mood the willing mind!”