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William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant



The author of Thanatopsis’ was born at Cum

mington, a village among the hills of western Massachusetts, on November 3, 1794. Through his father, Doctor Peter Bryant, a physician, he traced his ancestry to Stephen Bryant, an early settler at Duxbury; through his mother, Sarah Snell, he had a triple claim'to 'Mayflower' origin.

Doctor Bryant was a many-sided man. He collected books, read poetry (Horace was his favorite), wrote satirical verse, was a musician and something of a mechanic. He was an ardent Federalist, a member of the Massachusetts legislature for sev

G. W. Curtis : The Life, Character, and Writings of William Cullen Bryant, Commemorative Address before the New York Historical Society, 1878.

Parke Godwin: A Biography of William Cullen Bryant, 1883.

John Bigelow: William Cullen Bryant, · American Men of Letters,' 1890.

W. A. Bradley : William Cullen Bryant, • English Men of Letters,' 1905.

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eral terms, and then of the senate. He possessed in high degree the art of imparting knowledge. Medical students thought themselves fortunate in being allowed to study under his direction. Doctor Bryant's father and grandfather were both physicians, and he hoped that his second-born (who was named in honor of the Scottish practitioner, William Cullen) would follow in the ancestral footsteps.

Bryant began to make verses in his eighth year. At ten he wrote an 'address' in heroic couplets, which


newspaper print. The boy used to pray that he might write verses which would endure. A political satire, The Embargo or Sketches of the Times, 'by a youth of thirteen,' if not in the nature of evidence that the prayer had been answered, so delighted Doctor Bryant that he printed it in a pamphlet (1808). A second issue containing additional poems was brought out the next year. To this the author put his name.

Bryant was taught Greek by his uncle, the Reverend Thomas Snellof Brookfield, and mathematics by the Reverend Moses Hallock of Plainfield. He entered the Sophomore class at Williams College in October, 1810, and left the following May. He was to have spent the two succeeding years at Yale, but the plan had to be abandoned for want of money. Some time during the summer of 1811 ‘Thanatopsis' was written in its first form and laid aside.

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The poet began reading law with Judge Samuel Howe of Worthington, who once reproached his pupil for giving to Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads time that belonged to Blackstone and Chitty.' He continued his studies under William Baylies of Bridgewater, was admitted to the bar at Plymouth in August, 1815, practised awhile at Plainfield, and then removed to Great Barrington. The lines 'To a Waterfowl' were written the night of the young lawyer's arrival in Plainfield.

He made progress in his profession and was called to argue cases at New Haven and before the supreme court at Boston. The intervals of legal business were given to poetry. Bryant's father urged him to contribute to the new North ‘American Review and Miscellaneous Journal,' the editor of which was an old friend. The young lawyer-poet seeming indifferent to the suggestion, Doctor Bryant carried with him to Boston two pieces he had unearthed among his son's papers, namely, “Thanatopsis' in its first form, and A "Fragment' now called 'Inscription at the En'trance of a Wood.' Both were printed in the Review' for September, 1817. Other poems followed, together with three prose essays (on ‘American Poetry,'on ‘The Happy Temperament,' and on the use of 'Trisyllabic Feet in lambic Verse'). He also contributed poems to “The 'Idle Man, Richard Henry Dana's magazine, and the United States Literary Gazette.'

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