Page images
PDF
EPUB

20

RELIGIOUS HABITS

terians, in the city of New York with Unitarians. But he never ventured to make a Christian profession until his later years. Mr. Curtis has told so beautifully the story of this epoch in his life, that I quote his words:

"The poem called 'The Life that Is,' dated at Castellamare, in May, 1858, commemorates the recovery of his wife from a serious illness. A little time before, in the month of April, after a long walk with his friend, the Reverend Mr. Waterston, of Boston, on the shore of the Bay of Naples, he spoke with softened heart of the new beauty that he felt in the old truth, and proposed to his friend to baptize him. With prayer and hymn and spiritual meditation, a little company of seven, says Mr. Waterston, in a large upper room, as in the Christian story, partook of the Communion, and with his good gray head bowed down, Bryant was baptized."

In the painted window which commemorates the ministry of Frederick W. Robertson in Brighton, England, there is a representation of Jesus at the age of twelve before the doctors in the temple, and with this inscription, "They were thinking about theology; he about religion." Bryant dealt with religion. He was no professed theologian. Yet every man has some theology, whether he be conscious of it or not. Some conceptions of truth lie at the basis of his moral action, and the more thoughtful and logical he is, the more clear and articulate will these conceptions be. A mind so vigorous and honest as Bryant's could not help expressing itself in forms of speech; and though he was shy of utterance with regard to the deepest things of the soul, his poetic nature could not be satisfied without putting into verse that which to him was most fundamental. Many of his poems, indeed, seem written by way of gradual approach to a Christian con

BRYANT AND WORDSWORTH

21

fession, and to be glad and solemn avenues leading onward and upward to the holy of holies and to the dwelling-place of God.

II

I regard Bryant as a more truly Christian poet than even Wordsworth. Both were poets of nature. But Wordsworth came near to identifying God with nature: Bryant never confounded the two. Wordsworth would never have found delight in mountain, field, and flood, if he had not recognized in them a Spirit which through them manifested itself to mortals. That Spirit, however, never seems to utter articulate sounds, or to take personal form. But to Bryant, God was never mere impersonal spirit. "It" and "which" were not applicable to Him. God was transcendent, The finite was

even more than he was immanent. never merged in the infinite. Mortal awe never became pantheistic absorption. In all this we see the abiding influence of the poet's New England training, and the happy effect of those theological sermons to which he listened in his youth.

What theology we find in Bryant's poetry must then be gathered from occasional utterances of the overflowing heart, rather than from any set effort to declare dogmatic truth. When we do find such utterances, we may be sure that they will be clear indications of his inmost thought, and not diplomatic concessions to the spirit of the times. He believed, first of all, in a per

22

CLEAR FAITH IN A PERSONAL GOD

sonal God, and a God of love. This faith delivered him from melancholy, and made him optimistic. In this respect he was a contrast to Matthew Arnold, to whom God was only "the power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness." One of the most astounding announcements in all literature is Matthew Arnold's assertion that this is the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. Without a personal God, the forward-looking spirit of Israel would be inexplicable. It is easy to see the truth of Hutton's remark that Matthew Arnold embodies in his verse "the sweetness, the gravity, the strength, the beauty, and the languor of death." Bryant's verse has sweetness and gravity, but these are the sweetness and gravity of true life, derived from the divine source of life, and sustained thereby. The solemn joy of Bryant has its analogue, not in the nocturne of Chopin, but in the largo of Handel.

Our poet saw God in the beauty and grandeur of the world. Woods, waves, and sky were vocal with praise of their great Author. Bryant was not ignorant of science, but he wished to join science to faith. Some of his noblest poetry is the expression of spontaneous emotion in presence of God's sublime manifestations in nature. "A Forest Hymn" illustrates this characteristic of his verse:

The groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned
To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,

And spread the roof above them-ere he framed

The lofty vault, to gather and roll back

The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood,

Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down,

And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks
And supplication.

GOD IN NATURE'S GRANDEUR

23

"A Hymn of the Sea" gives us, in a similar manner, the poet's recognition of God's presence in "old ocean's gray and melancholy waste"

The sea is mighty, but a mightier sways

His restless billows. Thou, whose hands have scooped His boundless gulfs and built his shore, thy breath, That moved in the beginning o'er his face,

Moves o'er it evermore.

[ocr errors]

So too, there is a Song of the Stars," in which the heavenly spheres are called

The boundless visible smile of Him

To the veil of whose brow your lamps are dim.

Over against God's creatorship and omnipresence, Bryant recognizes the sinfulness of humanity:

When, from the genial cradle of our race,

Went forth the tribes of men . . .

... and there forgot

The truth of heaven, and kneeled to gods that heard

them not."

The world

Is full of guilt and misery, . .

Enough of all its sorrows, crimes, and cares,
To tire thee of it."

Ha! how the murmur deepens! I perceive
And tremble at its dreadful import. Earth
Uplifts a general cry for guilt and wrong,
And heaven is listening."

There seems to be confession of his personal sin:

5" The Ages."

"Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood."

7" Earth."

24

24

SINFULNESS OF HUMANITY

For me, the sordid cares in which I dwell

Shrink and consume my heart, as heat the scroll;

And wrath has left its scar-that fire of hell

Has left its frightful scar upon my soul.

"The West Wind" is a symbol of human inconstancy and ingratitude:

Ah! thou art like our wayward race;—
When not a shade of pain or ill
Dims the bright smile of Nature's face,
Thou lov'st to sigh and murmur still.

He regrets his forgetfulness of the "Yellow Violet":

So they, who climb to wealth, forget

The friends in darker fortunes tried;
I copied them-but I regret

That I should ape the ways of pride.

"The African Chief" depicts the cruelty of the sav

age:

Chained in the market-place he stood,
A man of giant frame.

But his appeals for mercy are in vain:

His heart was broken-crazed his brain:
At once his eye grew wild;

He struggled fiercely with his chain,
Whispered, and wept, and smiled;
Yet wore not long those fatal bands,
And once, at shut of day,

They drew him forth upon the sands,

The foul hyena's prey.

Human sinfulness touches the divine compassion in

Bryant's verse.

8" The Future Life."

He sees in "The Fountain," that

« PreviousContinue »