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THANATOPSIS

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a poem so elevated in thought and so faultless in diction as to give it rank with the world's best literature. Thanatopsis" was at first a fragment, and its beginnings go back to the poet's sixteenth year. Up to that time he had written only school-exercises, some of which he had recited to little audiences in the schoolhouse; besides these there was one college poem, which is of no great account and was apparently gotten up to order. But his days of schooling were now over. He could no longer be dependent upon his father; he must shift for himself. His bent to poetry did not prevent him from perceiving that literature would never furnish him with a living; penury has indeed been well defined as the wages of the pen. He began the study of the law at Worthington and at Bridgewater, and at the age of twenty-one was admitted to the bar at Plymouth. But before leaving home to begin these studies, and at the age of eighteen, he completed "Thanatopsis," laid it aside, and apparently forgot it. In his absence, Doctor Bryant rummaged over the contents of a drawer and drew forth the precious document. After reading it hastily, he gave it to a lady friend, and asked her to pass upon its merits. She read it, and burst into tears, and in her weeping the doctor soon joined. They were tears of joy, for they saluted the rise above the horizon of our first poet, one of God's greatest gifts to the New World.

Dana, the editor of the "North American Review," thought it could not have been written by an American. The wonder of it was that a youth in his teens could have produced a poem so free from foreign influence, yet so faultless and sublime. Stoddard has called it

THANATOPSIS

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the greatest poem ever written by so young a man." President Mark Hopkins said that Bryant “had the wisdom of age in his youth, and the fire of youth in his age." I have spoken of "Thanatopsis as SO free from foreign influences." But I cannot wholly agree with George William Curtis, when he pronounces it" without a trace of the English masters of the hour." Chadwick is more nearly correct, when he says that Henry Kirke White's "Ode to the Rosemary," Bishop Porteus's "Death," and Blair's "Grave" all helped to shape the mood out of which "Thanatopsis" came. came. To my mind it owes yet more to the example and inspiration of Wordsworth, who began to print before Bryant was born. We know that Judge Howe, at Worthington, found Wordsworth in Bryant's hand, and warned him that it would spoil his style. But, thanks to his own native gift, Bryant had his own style, and Wordsworth only stimulated and encouraged it.

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Thanatopsis" is a poet's vision of death. The solemn aspects of death are in mind, but they are not funereal. The coming of the inevitable day is nothing dreaded. It is the appointed end of earthly life, and its lesson is expressed in the closing lines of the poem:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

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Early maturity is often the precursor of early decay. But this was not the case with Bryant. His genius was a perennial plant, and he bore fruit even in old age. In his eightieth year he wrote his "Ode on the Birthday of George Washington," of which John Bigelow said that these were "the finest verses ever produced by one so young and yet so old." In some editions this ode is entitled "The Twenty-second of February." As it is brief, I quote it entire:

Pale is the February sky,

And brief the midday's sunny hours;
The wind-swept forest seems to sigh
For the sweet time of leaves and flowers.

Yet has no month a prouder day,
Not even when the summer broods
O'er meadows in their fresh array,
Or autumn tints the glowing woods.

For this chill season now again
Brings, in its annual round, the morn
When, greatest of the sons of men,
Our glorious Washington was born.

Lo, where, beneath an icy shield,
Calmly the mighty Hudson flows!
By snow-clad fell and frozen field,
Broadening, the lordly river goes.

The wildest storm that sweeps through space,
And rends the oak with sudden force,

Can raise no ripple on his face,

Or slacken his majestic course.

Thus, 'mid the wreck of thrones, shall live
Unmarred, undimmed, our hero's fame,
And years succeeding years shall give
Increase of honors to his name.

WIDE STRETCH OF BRYANT'S ACTIVITY

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This poem, written just before Bryant died, suggests to us the wide stretch of his poetical activity, and its remarkable influence upon American literature. That influence covered a period of fifty-six years. Bryant's youth was the time of Napoleon's conquests, and of his final defeat at Waterloo. He lived through the reigns of Louis Philippe and of Napoleon the Third; through our war of 1812 and our great Civil War; and through the administrations of twelve of our American presidents. He celebrated Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation, and he expressed in pathetic verse the sorrow of the nation at Lincoln's death. His poetry never changed its sober and thoughtful air. The lyric and the impassioned were foreign to him. But interpretations of natural beauty were never lacking. He had not the melody of Shelley, nor the introspection of Browning, but there were a simplicity and a judicial quality about his verse which made it impressive and convincing.

Bryant's youth was past before there occurred the so-called Elizabethan revival. Chaucer and Shakespeare did not get their proper hold upon him. If he had models at all, he found them in Cowper and Wordsworth. So we do not find in him the vast vocabulary and deep acquaintance with human passion that are so marked in Shakespeare, nor even Chaucer's gaiety and breadth of sympathy. The stateliness of Pope and the somberness of Wordsworth made their mark upon him. Yet he avoided the platitudinous sentiment of "The Excursion," and the artistic moralizing of the "Essay on Man." He was slow to print, and quick to detect doggerel. While his verse is never

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CORYPHEUS OF AMERICAN POETS

brilliant or startling, it never lacks correctness, both in form and substance. Its sincerity commends it. We can never say of Bryant, as has been said of Wordsworth, that his fame would be greater if ninetenths of his writing had been burned. It is this combination of beauty and truth, of insight into nature's meanings and simplicity in the expression of them, that has made Bryant the teacher and corypheus of our American poets.

My meaning will be more plain if I quote the words of Emerson and of Longfellow. These great writers had Bryant's verse before them at the very beginning of their literary careers. While Bryant was born in 1794, Emerson's birth was in 1803, and Longfellow's in 1807. Longfellow writes: "He was my master in verse ten years my senior. His translations from the Spanish rival the originals in beauty." Emerson adds, "He has written some of the best poetry we have had in America." Yet Bryant did not devote himself wholly to poetry. The study of the law was followed by the practice of the law, and he could undoubtedly have succeeded in that profession. First at Plainfield, and then at Great Barrington, legal practice occupied him for nine whole years. During this period his reputation secured for him both readers and hearers. Harvard invited him to deliver its Phi Beta Kappa address, and he responded with his poem, "The Ages," a thoughtful review of the progress of human society, with stirring prophecy of the coming greatness of America. He writes:

Europe is given a prey to sterner fates

And writhes in shackles. . .

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