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BRYANT'S ANCESTRY

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Though the poetic afflatus was an original and divine endowment, heredity and environment prepared the way for its expression. The poet came of a sturdy New England stock. His father and his father's father were physicians. His mother was a woman of energy and piety, who taught her son to love and to repeat the hymns of Isaac Watts. She hated drunkenness and lying. The father was a born naturalist. He taught his son botany and woodcraft, as well as love for good literature. For the time in which he lived, Doctor Bryant was a man of large and liberal mind. He was for several sessions member of the lower house of the Massachusetts Legislature, and once at least he was a member of the Senate. His visits to Boston and his acquaintance with public men made him the oracle of his town, though his serene nature prevented any pretense of superiority. He was careful of his dress, and was sometimes taken for a city resident, spending his holiday in the country. His physical strength was such that, though not of great stature, he could put his barrel of cider over the wheel into the wagon. Since his own father was a physician, his ambition was to have a son who should be a physician also, and with that hope he named his second son William Cullen, after the then celebrated physician of Edinburgh.

The boy was evidently well endowed in body. His only defect in childhood seems to have been a bigness of head, which the father sought to reduce, by plunging him each morning into a spring of cold water. He was born at Cummington, a little hamlet hid away among the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts.

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BIRTH PLACE AND EARLY DISCIPLINE

The first pioneer had built his cabin there only thirty years before, and it was in a log house that William first saw the light. That log house has long since vanished from the scene, but the tradition of it still remains, in spite of the commodious mansion which after a time took its place and became the poet's country resort.

Robert Burns was born in a hovel, but Scottish minstrelsy preceded him. William Cullen Bryant owed more than Burns to his early education. His first schoolhouse was built of logs, but pedagogy in those days meant severe discipline, and the three R's were ground into the very fiber of his being. He was industrious and meditative. His natural habit of seclusion was fostered by the presence and influence, in the family, of his mother's father, Ebenezer Snell, an aweinspiring patriarch, who frowned on all frivolity in the children. Grandfather Snell was a magistrate, under whose administration Bryant remembered seeing forty lashes inflicted upon a young fellow of eighteen for theft. A bundle of birchen twigs hung beside the chimney of the old log house, as an indispensable part of the kitchen furniture, and as a warning to evil-doers; and such rods boys often had to gather for their own castigation. But there were also books. Bryant traced back his poetical gift to his great-grandfather, Doctor Howard, who had opportunely left a large part of his library to his descendants. The boy devoured "The Pilgrim's Progress" and "Robinson Crusoe." Pope, Gray, and Goldsmith were his father's possessions, and these served to mitigate the influence of Anne Bradstreet and other New England poetasters.

EDUCATIONAL INFLUENCES

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We must not forget the educational influence of the times. Though Bryant was born in 1794, when the war of the Revolution was over, the survivors of that war were still in evidence, and stories of the Boston Tea-party and of Bunker Hill, of Saratoga and Valley Forge, were the chief entertainments of the fireside. There was no theater or circus, but the militia-muster, the husking-bee, the apple-paring, the barn-raising, and the maple-sugar camp furnished healthful excitement to the young folk of the community. The love of country flourished side by side with the love of nature. The pulpit of that day dealt only with great themes. Heaven and hell were realities that gave light and shade to daily life. Men's thoughts of the outward world and of civil government were interpenetrated by their thoughts of God and of immortality. The poetry of that age must needs be a serious poetry. But the material was there. The beauty and grandeur of nature, patriotic pride and boundless hope for the country's future, gratitude to God for freedom and faith in God's guidance of the individual and of the State-what nobler sources of poetic inspiration were ever found in any land?

Bryant was a natural linguist. At sixteen months, he knew all the letters of the alphabet. At the age of fourteen he began Latin with his uncle, Rev. Dr. Thomas Snell, of Brookfield, and in eighteen months he had read enough Latin to fit him for admission to college at an advanced standing. At fifteen he began Greek with Rev. Moses Hallock, of Plainfield, and in two months he had read through the whole Greek Testament. This finished his preparatory studies, and

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LACK OF COLLEGE TRAINING

at sixteen years of age he entered the sophomore class of Williams College. But shyness of nature and straitness of finance limited his stay to seven months. He left college indeed with the hope of finishing his course at Yale. This his father's means did not permit. He contented himself with a year of the classics and the mathematics with his father at home. It was no bad substitute for college training, and Williams College shortly afterward gave him his degree. To the end of his days Bryant recognized his indebtedness to his father. The father must have perceived his son's bent toward literature, for we read of no more effort to make him a physician. Doctor Bryant was himself inclined to the making of verses, and classical study had taught him correctness and compression. These qualities of style the father communicated to the son. In after years the poet, mourning his father's death, wrote touchingly:

For he is in his grave who taught my youth
The art of verse, and in the bud of life
Offered me to the Muses.

That year at home, under parental tutelage, with freedom to roam the woods and meditate upon their lessons, was a great year for Bryant, for it witnessed the dawn of his poetical ambition. His mind and heart were awakening, and he himself tells us:

I cannot forget with what fervid devotion

I worshiped the visions of verse and of fame;
Each gaze at the glories of earth, sky, and ocean,
To my kindled emotions, was wind over flame.

2" Hymn to Death."

66 SONGS OF THE MOCKING-BIRD "

Till I felt the dark power o'er my reveries stealing,
From the gloom of the thicket that over me hung,
And the thoughts that awoke, in that rapture of feeling,
Were formed into verse as they rose to my tongue.3

In his later years he gives his matured conception of his calling in the verses entitled "The Poet," and shows us that poetic inspiration does not exclude careful elaboration:

Deem not the framing of a deathless lay

The pastime of a drowsy summer day.

And in the poem named "A Lifetime," he dutifully connects the growth of his own mind with the teaching of his father:

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He murmurs his own rude verses
As he roams the woods alone;
And again I gaze with wonder,
His eyes are so like my own.

I see him next in his chamber,
Where he sits him down to write
The rhymes he framed in his ramble,
And he cons them with delight.

A kindly figure enters,

A man of middle age,

And points to a line just written,

And 'tis blotted from the page.

Bryant's earliest productions, however, were only songs of the mocking-bird," and showed no signs of originality. All the more wonderful it is, that in his eighteenth year he was the author of "Thanatopsis,”

"I Cannot Forget."

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