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BRYANT, WILLIAM CULLEN

BRYANT, WILLIAM CULLEN (1794–1878). William Cullen Bryant
was born and raised in the back country of western Massachusetts, where
an early talent for versifying displayed in religious, sentimental, and satiric
poems culminated in the publication in the North American Review of his
best-known poem, “Thanatopsis” (1817). Thereafter, editions of his poems
appeared regularly, and he soon became America’s first internationally prominent poet. He moved to New York in 1825, joined the New York Evening
Post in 1827, first as associate editor and, two years later, as editor-in-chief
and part-owner, remaining in that position for the rest of his life. Although
he continued to write poetry until the year of his death, his position with
the Evening Post involved him increasingly in social causes such as abolition, workers’ rights, and free trade, and his poetic output declined after the early
1840s.
Bryant’s five ocean voyages to Europe and the Near East, as well as several
trips to South America, gave him considerable firsthand experience of the
sea. Fugitive references to the discomforts and potential perils of sea voyaging appear in his accounts Letters of a Traveller (1850, 1859) and Letters
from the East (1869). In one of his sea poems, “A Day Dream” (1860),
inspired by his travels abroad, the narrator bemoans the decline of myth in
a rational age as he looks out from the shores of Naples at the fading image
of sea nymphs, only occasionally evoked by the poets of his time.
Other poems explore the sea metaphorically. The vast expanse of billowing grasses that he saw on a trip to Illinois in 1832 is compared to a motionless sea in “The Prairies” (1833). In “A Hymn of the Sea” (1842), the
immense power of the sea in both its creative and destructive manifestations
becomes an emblem of divine power. In “The Tides” (1860), the upward
motion of the rising tide is a metaphor for human spiritual aspiration. Herman Melville,* Nathaniel Hawthorne,* and Oliver Wendell Holmes* listened to Cornelius Matthews read Bryant’s “Monument Mountain” (1824)
at the top of that mountain on the occasion of a famous literary picnic on
5 August 1850.
Bryant’s most significant sea poem—more than 500 lines long—is a fanciful tale titled “Sella” (1862). In the poem, the maiden Sella, thwarted by
gender boundaries that restrict her ability to explore distant lands, finds a
pair of magical slippers that transport her to the depths of the sea, where
she returns repeatedly to investigate its mysteries until her brothers throw
the slippers away. Although devastated by this loss, she spends the rest of
her life teaching people how to harness the power of water.
Bryant’s blank verse translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey (1870–1872)
were well received in his time.