Student of Life and the Law
(LETTERS 1 TO 33)
WHEN, IN APRIL 1809, CULLEN BRYANT posted the first letter we can be sure he wrote, he was already a poet of seven years' experience with thirteen hundred lines of verse to his credit. He had recited his couplets in the district school at Cummington at the age of nine, and later seen them printed in the Hampshire Gazette at Northampton. His juvenile masterpiece, a satire scoring the bugbear of his community, Democratic President Thomas Jefferson, had been published anonymously in 1808 at Boston as "By a Youth of Thirteen." It had been reviewed in the Monthly Anthology as an "extraordinary performance," and praised so highly by his father's Federalist friends in the legislature that within eight months it reappeared under the resounding title, "The Embargo; or Sketches of the Times. A Satire. The Second Edition, Corrected and Enlarged. Together with The Spanish Revolution, and Other Poems. By William Cullen Bryant."
Bryant's precocity, and the strain such praise must have put on the boy's modesty, might suggest that his deprecatory words to Dr. Peter Bryant in submitting his translation of verses from the Aeneid were written with tongue in cheek. But the evidence of a lifetime of publication, during which Bryant never reprinted a poem he had composed before the age of twenty, attests rather an early impulse toward the high degree of self-criticism he practiced in after years.
The talents which his Grandfather Snell encouraged in Cullen's tenth year, by setting him to versifying Old Testament stories, and which his father later directed toward translation of classical epic and neo-classical satire, Cullen applied--when left to himself--to lampooning schoolmates and companions. His sharp sallies have not been preserved, but they were evidently early attempts at epistolary communication. That they were barbed we know from the replies of an older friend, Jacob Porter, who quailed under the verbal lashings of his nimble antagonist. Cullen's "boyish ire," so hot that it "like fury smok'd, like fury blaz'd," flung its "pointless satyre" at Porter until this Yale graduate cried,
I'd rather yield up, as they all did,
Than be by such hot water scalded;
I once had courage, but I say now,
I will take shelter in a haymow!
Perhaps Porter, whose friendship for his tormentor somehow survived, became proud a few months later of the company he kept when, in "The Embargo," the young satirist turned on his country's President: