Page images




his superiors would have drawn him out of himself, and would have made him more a man of the world. was naturally shy and seclusive. As an editor, he disliked to meet socially those whom he might be called upon to criticize. His impartiality was sometimes like that of the reviewer whose freedom from prejudice is due to the fact that he has not read the book he criticizes. Greater variety of association would have added to the number of the themes which kindled in him the poetic fire.

But I must add to all this my belief that Bryant's mournfulness was the result of an imperfect understanding of the Christian revelation. He was a Puritan poet, and Puritanism too often lacked the recognition of a present Christ. In "The Pilgrim's Progress," Christian expects to see his Saviour when he reaches the heavenly city, but he is destitute of his companionship on the journey thither. Though strong faith in a future life made Bryant serene, his serenity was too much like resignation-he needed more of joy in the present. Such joy would have enlarged the area of his poetic achievement, while at the same time it tempered the critical spirit of the editor.

But one thing must always be said of our poet: he was sincere and pure. There is no mawkish sentimentality in his verse, no pandering to the lower instincts of humanity, no expression of merely transient and conventional religious feeling. Lord Byron could write hymns in histrionic fashion, as a brilliant impersonator; of such hypocrisy Bryant was incapable. His limitations, therefore, are as instructive as his gifts. Like Wordsworth, he is a poet of nature. But, while

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

Wordsworth sees in nature the immanence of God, Bryant sees in nature God's transcendence rather, and so is the greater Puritan of the two. His reverence for God's work in nature is greater than his reverence for God's work in man. But he has certainly taught us that poetry is no mere vers de société, but rather an embodiment of the deepest thoughts of the human soul:

He let no empty gust

Of passion find an utterance in his lay,

A blast that whirls the dust

Along the crowded street and dies away;

But feelings of calm power and mighty sweep,
Like currents journeying through the windless


In "The Library of Poetry and Song," the great octavo volume which he edited, and which contains fifteen hundred selections from four hundred authors, Bryant prefaced the collection with an Introduction of his own. No better summary of the history of English poetry has ever been written, and no more judicious choice of poems has ever been made. In his Introduction, the poet gives us in sober prose his theory of verse. He tells us that "only poems of moderate length, or else portions of the greater works, . . produce the effect upon the mind and heart which make the charm of this kind of writing." He measured his own productions by this rule. Most of his poems are short, and the shortest are in general the best. Yet in his seventy-second year he undertook the Herculean task of putting Homer's Iliad into English verse,

11" The Poet," paraphrased by John Bigelow.



and the success of this venture encouraged him to continue his work until he had accomplished the translation of the Odyssey. He gave five years to this task, and finished it in his seventy-seventh year. We cannot understand it, unless we remember that it was his means of occupation and diversion after the death of his wife. It was not the toil and strain of original composition. Homer furnished the thought; Bryant had only to give the thought new expression. Homer led him out again into the open air. There was a likeness between Bryant's view of nature and that of the first great classic poet. The stateliness and resonance of Homer's verse appealed to him. Embodying that verse in English seemed to him a service to literature. And critics have agreed that no English version of the Iliad or of the Odyssey, in metrical form, surpasses it in value. To my mind, this five years' work of the old man eloquent, accomplished in the darkness of bereavement, and with the single light of an undying hope, shows a strength of will which even death was powerless to subdue.

One of our best American critics, Professor William C. Wilkinson, has compared Bryant's lack of tropical fervor to the statuesque repose of Greek art, and to the calm dignity of George Washington. There is emotion in his verse, but it is emotion that warms, while it does not burn. Passion is controlled, rather than deficient. The expression is less, not greater, than the feeling. There is no violence of diction. We have had but one Washington, and but one Bryant. It is well that our line of poets begins with one so high, severe, and pure. This judgment of Professor Wil



kinson I would adopt for my own, and would add the verses in which he has described the poet :

Gentle in spirit as in mien severe;

Calm but not cold; strength, majesty, and grace,
Measure, and balance, and repose, in clear
Lines, like a sculptor's, graven on the face-

Such image lovers of his verse have learned

To limn their poet, peaceful after strife;
A statue, as of life to marble turned?

Nay, as of marble turned to breathing life.

I have taken interest in the story of Bryant's life and work, in large part because the religious and theological aspects of it have seemed to me to have been hitherto neglected. Our earliest American poet furnished no object-lesson of unbelief to his successors. He did not compass the whole range of Christian truth, any more than he compassed the whole range of poetic inspiration; but he taught his countrymen, and he taught the world, of God in nature and in history, of Christ as the Guide and Saviour of mankind, and of an immortal life that opens for us all beyond this present transitory scene. His teaching is all the more impressive and convincing because he does not speak to us as a preacher, but as a man; and because he utters only what he has seen and felt. He shows himself to be the true poet, by telling us the inner meaning of the universe, and by bringing us

Authentic tidings of invisible things.


« PreviousContinue »