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Life Sketch of William Cullen Bryant

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

Early Life

The second son of Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell, William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794 in Cummington, Massachusetts. The young lad early on demonstrated a love for nature, making it quite appropriate that his later poems would focus on those subjects.

Bryant lived a fairly long life, even though he experienced poor health from infancy. Legend has it that he had an abnormally large head as an infant, and his physician father would place the child in cold water every morning hoping to shrink the size of his head. Whether that method worked or not remains a mystery.

Entering Williams College at sixteen years of age, Bryant spent the next two years studying at that college. He had hoped to enter Yale, but unable to afford tuition, he studied law at Worthington and Bridgewater, becoming member of the bar in 1815.

Bryant then served as an attorney in Plainfield and Great Barrington. He achieved a stellar reputation as a lawyer, but he loved literature more than the law, despite his remarkable achievements before the court.

Poetry and Politics

William Cullen Bryant had begun his literary journey while still in his teens. At only thirteen years of age, he composed and then successfully published his satirical piece, "The Embargo," as well as as handful other poems.

At only eighteen years of age, he penned "Thanatopsis," which has become his most widely noted and anthologized poem.

In 1825, Bryant relocated to New York, where with a friend he established the journal that would become the prestigious New York Review. Many of his own poems have appeared in the pages of that journal. For over fifty years and until he died, Bryant also served as an editor at The Evening Post.

In 1854, Bryant became one of the founding members of the Republican Party, which was formed to abolish slavery.

He often penned influential editorials that helped guide the newly formed political party, and he worked to secure the nomination and election of the first Republican Party president, Abraham Lincoln, who then served as the sixteenth president, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and keeping the country united despite a bloody Civil War.

In addition to his influential and successful securing of the presidency for Lincoln, Bryant also assisted in selecting Salmon Chase, who served as secretary of the treasury in Lincoln’s cabinet and Gideon Welles, who served in that cabinet as secretary of the Navy.

One national magazine editor opined that the Evening Post's "clear and able political leaders have been of more service to the government of this war than some of its armies."

Bryant brought out his first volume of poems in 1832. Twenty years later he published the collection titled The Fountain and Other Poems. At age seventy-one, Bryant began translating the Iliad, completing that translation in 1869.

He then translated the Odyssey, completing that work in 1871. He penned and then published his strongest volume of poems, The Flood of Years, at age eighty-two.

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Sample Nature Poem: "October"

The following important sonnet, "October," exemplifies the style and unique, skilled craftsmanship of the poet, William Cullen Bryant:


Aye, thou art welcome, heaven's delicious breath!
When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf,
And sons grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
Wind of the sunny south! oh, still delay
In the gay woods and in the golden air,
Like to a good old age released from care,
Journeying, in long serenity, away.
In such a bright, late quiet, would that I
Might wear out life like thee, 'mid bowers and brooks,
And dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks,
And music of kind voices ever nigh;
And when my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass.

Personifying the month of October, the speaker is dramatizing the influence of death as an event not to be feared but simply to be acknowledged and respected—a theme similar to the one in his most anthologized poem, "Thanatopsis."

Reading of "October"

Dedicated Poet’s Life

William Cullen Bryant dedicated his career in letters to his country. He expressed hope that his readers and listeners will take from the past history of the nation that there remains a great "promise of a prosperous and honorable future."

He wished for peace and prosperity for his country, but at the same time he prayed for those same qualities, along with respect, to exist for other countries. He also hoped that those qualities of piety would lead a "good man to put his personal trust in a kind Providence."

He hoped that all good citizens would "cherish an equal confidence in regard to the destiny reserved for our beloved country."

Bryant’s faith in his own nation led him to express his measured patriotism, allowing him to comprehend the positive and noble characteristics of his nation while knowing that no nation is perfect. He understood that disparaging the good for not being perfect was the way to ruin.

It is always only the poet, or other artist, who takes as his/her themes and subjects the study of love, beauty, and truth who fulfills that prayerful hope that William Cullen Bryant expressed three centuries ago. Such a poet garners his/her material from real life experience and is capable of creating a truly beautiful American literary landscape.


© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 13, 2021:

Thank you, Sankhajit Bhattacharjee, for your kind words.

Bryant was a fascinating character. His love of nature led him to open his mind and heart to truths in social interaction. It is not often that a poet takes as deep an interest in politics as in the beauty and spirituality of nature. Seems the two often clash. But Bryant was able to find a satisfying balance that, no doubt, brought harmony into his own life.

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on February 11, 2021:

interesting post...l like it...

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