A Treasury of Great Poems: English and American

By Louis Untermeyer | Go to book overview

XIII
Faith, Doubt, and Democracy

WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT
[1794-1878]

THANATOPSIS, the first important American poem, was written by a boy of seventeen and, when first published, was considered a hoax. Bryant's father found the manuscript in the family desk, copied it, and sent it to the NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW. Richard Henry Dana , author of TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, told the editor he had been imposed upon. "No one, on this side of the Atlantic," said Dana, "is capable of writing such verses."

Born in a log house at Cummington, Massachusetts, November 3, 1794, William Cullen Bryant was descended from Mayflower Pilgrims. He was a frail but scarcely pampered child. His father, a country doctor, attempted to reduce his son's abnormally large head by soaking it every morning in a spring of cold water, and the boy was put to work raising timber frames, helping at the mill, and cutting the twigs for the whipping birch which was "as much a part of the necessary furniture as the crane that hung in the fireplace."

Although the boy was kept busy doing countless chores, he was precociously studious. Two months after learning the Greek alphabet, he read the entire New Testament. In 1808 he printed his first book of verse, THE EMBARGO: OR SKETCHES OF THE TIMES, which bore the subtitle "A Satire by a Youth of Thirteen," and which called upon President Thomas Jefferson "to resign because he was in

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