William Cullen Bryant

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William Cullen Bryant
William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant (November 3, 1794 - June 12, 1878) an American romantic poet, journalist, political adviser, and homeopath.


  • 1 Life and career
    • 1.1 Youth and education
    • 1.2 Poetry
    • 1.3 Editorial career
    • 1.4 Later years
  • 2 Legacy
  • 3 References
  • 4 External links

Life and career

Youth and education

Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts the second son of Peter Bryant, a doctor and later a state legislator, and Sarah Snell; the William Cullen Bryant Homestead, his boyhood home and, later, his longtime family summer retreat, is now a museum. His maternal ancestry traces back to John Alden and Priscilla Mullens, passengers on the Mayflower; his father's, to colonists who arrived about a dozen years later. After just one year at Williams College, he reluctantly studied law at Worthington and Bridgewater in Massachusetts. He was admitted to the bar in 1815.

Bryant had developed an interest in poetry early in life. Under his father's tutelage, he had emulated Alexander Pope and other Neo-Classic British poets. The Embargo, a savage attack on President Thomas Jefferson published in 1808, reflected Dr. Bryant's Federalist political views. The first edition quickly sold out--partly because of the publicity earned by the poet's young age--and a second, expanded edition, which included Bryant's translation of Classical verse, was printed. The youth wrote little poetry while preparing to enter Williams College as a sophomore, but upon leaving Williams after a single year and then beginning to read law, he regenerated his passion for poetry through encounter with the English pre-Romantics and, particularly, William Wordsworth.


Although "Thanatopsis," his most famous poem, has been said to date from 1811, it is much more probable that Bryant began its composition in 1813, or even later. What is known is that his father took some pages of verse from his son's desk and submitted them, along with his own work, to the North American Review in 1817. Someone at the North American joined two of the son's discrete fragments, gave the result the Greek-derived title Thanatopsis (meditation on death), mistakenly attributed it to the father, and published it. For all the errors, it was well received, and soon Bryant was publishing poems with some regularity.

On January 11, 1821, Bryant, still striving to build a legal career, married Francis Fairchild. Soon after, having received an invitation to address the Harvard University Phi Beta Kappa Society at the school's August commencement, Bryant spent months working on "The Ages," a panorama in verse of the history of civilization, culminating in the establishment of republican government in the United States. That poem led a collection, entitled Poems, which he arranged to publish on the same trip to Cambridge. For that book, he added sets of lines at the beginning and end of "Thanatopsis". His career as a poet was launched. Even so, it was not until 1832, when an expanded Poems was published in the U.S. and, with the assistance of Washington Irving, in Britain, that he won recognition as America's leading poet.

Editorial career

Then as now, however, writing poetry could not financially sustain a family. From 1816 to 1825, he practiced law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and supplemented his income with such work as service as the town's hog reeve. Distaste for pettifoggery and the sometimes absurd judgments pronounced by the courts gradually drove him to break with the profession.

With the help of a distinguished and well-connected literary family, the Sedgwicks, he gained a foothold in New York City, where, in 1825, he was hired as editor, first of the New-York Review, then of the United States Review and Literary Gazette. But the magazines of that day usually enjoyed only an ephemeral life-span. After two years of fatiguing effort to breathe life into periodicals, he became Assistant Editor of the New-York Evening Post, a newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton that was surviving precariously. Within two years, he was Editor-in-Chief and a part owner. He remained the Editor-in-Chief for half a century (1828-78).[1] Eventually, the Evening-Post became not only the foundation of his fortune but also the means by which he exercised considerable political power in his city, state, and nation.

Ironically, the boy who first tasted fame for his diatribe against Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party became one of the key supporters in the Northeast of that same party under Jackson. Bryant's views, always progressive though not quite populist, in course led him to join the Free Soilers, and when the Free Soil Party became a core of the new Republican Party in 1856, Bryant vigorously campaigned for John Fremont. That exertion enhanced his standing in party councils, and in 1860, he was one of the prime Eastern exponents of Abraham Lincoln, whom he introduced at Cooper Union. (That speech lifted Lincoln to the nomination, and then the presidency.)

Later years

In his last decade, Bryant shifted from writing his own poetry to translating Homer. He assiduously worked on The Iliad and The Odyssey from 1871 to 1874. He is also remembered as one of the principal authorities on homeopathy and as a hymnist for the Unitarian Church--both legacies of his father's enormous influence on him.

"Cedarmere", William Cullen Bryant's estate in Roslyn, NY
"Cedarmere", William Cullen Bryant's estate in Roslyn, NY

Bryant died in 1878 of complications from an accidental fall. In 1884, New York City's Reservoir Square, at the intersection of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, was renamed Bryant Park in his honor. The city later named a public high school in his honor.


Although he is now thought of as a New Englander, Bryant, for most of his lifetime, was thoroughly a New Yorker--and a very dedicated one at that. He was a major force behind the idea that became Central Park, as well as a leading proponent of creating the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had close affinities with the Hudson River School of art and was an intimate friend of Thomas Cole. He defended the immigrant and, at some financial risk to himself, championed the rights of workers to form labor unions. It would be difficult to find a sector of the city's life that he did not work to improve.

As a writer, Bryant was an early advocate of American literary nationalism, and his own poetry focusing on nature as a metaphor for truth established a central pattern in the American literary tradition. Yet his literary reputation began to fade in the decade after the nineteenth century's midpoint, and the rise of the new poets in the twentieth century not only cast Bryant into the shadows but made him an example of all that was wrong with poetry. Wrapped together with the "Fireside Poets", he was discarded as a poet of sentimental trash.

A recently-published book, however, argues that a reassessment is long overdue. It finds great merit in a couple of short stories Bryant wrote while trying to build interest in periodicals he edited. More important, it perceives a poet of great technical sophistication who was a progenitor of Walt Whitman, to whom he was a mentor.

  • William Cullen Bryant: An American Voice by Frank Gado

William Cullen Bryant by Charles H. Brown

  • Essay on William Cullen Bryant by Wynn Yarborough
  • Works by William Cullen Bryant at Project Gutenberg
  • Selected Poems and Songs by William Cullen Bryant
  • William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, Mass.
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