Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"The Reign of Nature"; or, Mr Bryant's Wordsworth

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"The Reign of Nature"; or, Mr Bryant's Wordsworth

Article excerpt

In 1825, William Cullen Bryant arrived in New York as reviews editor for the New York Review and Athenaeum Magazine, already a man with a mission. Seven years earlier, at twenty-four, he had informed The North American Review that poetry in the New World was hopelessly moribund; Timothy Dwight's ponderous The Conquest of Canaan (1785) was "remarkable for its unbroken monotony," Joel Barlow's Columbiad (1807) was "utterly destitute of interest," and Philip Freneau was dismissed as a "a writer of inferior verse." All three exemplified a poetic culture addled by "sickly and affected imitation" (Bivant 5: 50, 51, 54) As indeed (in all candour) they did. Now, aged thirty-one, Bryant delivered four authoritative lectures on poetry at the New York Athenaeum, lauding the new poetry of the Old World. His mission was the reformation of American poetry and his campaign theme, in effect, "close thy Pope, open thy Wordsworth." The poetry of "Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Byron, Southey, Shelley and others," he told his audience, is "bold, varied, impassioned, irregular, and impatient of precise laws, beyond that of any former age." It exhibits "the freshness, the vigor, and perhaps also the disorder, of a new literature" (Bryant, 5: 31-2). Twelve years later, Emerson's belated "American Scholar" lecture will demand a new poetry with "an original relation to the universe," which (Emerson implies) would necessarily be American. Bryant by contrast, candidly acknowledged--at least in private--how Lyrical Ballads had already liberated him from what Emerson would call the "courtly muse." "I shall never forget," Richard Henry Dana famously writes, in Hazlittian vein:"with what feeling my friend Bryant, some years ago, described to me the effect produced upon him of meeting for the first time with Wordsworth's ballads. He said that upon opening the book, a thousand springs seemed to gush up at once in his heart, and the face of Nature, of a sudden, to change into a strange freshness and life. He had felt the sympathetic touch from an according mind, and ... instantly his powers and affections shot over the earth and through his kind" (Dana, 148)

Bryant's father gave him a copy of Lyrical Ballads in 1810, a year or so before Bryant Jr. began to produce his and the first authentically American Romantic poems. When some of these--including "Thanatopsis," "Inscription for the entrance to a wood" and "Waterfowl" were published together in the North American Review in 1817, the effect of a new language was comparable to that of the debut of Ted Hughes with Hawk in the Rain in 1957. One editor told another: "you have been imposed upon; no one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses." (1)

Bryant who candidly adopted Wordsworth as what he called "a sort of poetical master" (Letters 1: 235) (2) absorbed more thoroughly than anyone the principles of the Prefaces, and went on to formulate the emost succinct of Romantic manifestos: "the elements of poetry," he decided retrospectively in 1876, "lie in natural objects, in the vhicissitudes of human life, in the emotions of the human heart, and the relations of man to man" and what characterised the Romantic renovation of poetry was that poets "learned to go directly to nature for their imagery, instead of taking it from what had once been regarded as the common stock of poets" (Bryant 5: 158). He read Wordsworth voraciously, read him with a recurring sense of "awe," and defended aspects of his own poetic practice by appealing to Wordsworth's example. Rhyming "blossom and bosom," he tells Dana in 1833, is acceptable because Wordsworth does so, and "his rhymes are generally exact" (Letters 1: 385; the touchstone in this case is "Foresight," one of the least regarded poems in Poems, in Two Volumes).

According to Fenimore Cooper, while some writers reaped some praise once in a while, Bryant was lauded as " the author of America" (not quite, as the title of Gilbert Muller's admirable biography seems to suggest, the author of America). …

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