William Cullen Bryant (November 3, 1794-June 12, 1878), US poet

Bryant was one of the greatest 19th century American poets, best remembered for his mediation on death, nature, and spirituality, "Thanatopsis".

Born in Cummington, MA of Puritan stock, he was the son of a country doctor and politician and a woman who was a descendant of John Alden of Plymouth Colony. Incidentally, he was born on the same day as me and Adam Ant. In her diary, his mother 'celebrated' his birth:

"M 3. Stormy. Wind N.E. Churned -- unwell. Seven at Night a Son Born."

As a baby, Bryant was sickly. He also had a large head, which his learned father attempted to shrink by dunking his head in ice water each morning. (Perhaps those two things were connected somehow, doctor.) As he grew up, his father forced him to work in the fields and take long constitutionals to build up his strength. Apparently it worked, and on those long walks Bryant began his lifelong communion with nature.

His early life was dominated by the stern discipline of his father and his domineering grandfather, Ebenezer Snell. Academically, he prospered, however. He exhausted the large library of his father and was sent, at age 13, into the care of his uncle, a clergyman, to learn Latin and later to a school to learn Greek. At 16, he entered Williams College as a sophomore, but he soon left Williams unimpressed and expecting to start Yale the next fall. His father, though no pauper, was unable to finance his classical education so Bryant abandoned thoughts of writing poetry and became a lawyer instead, a profession he suffered through from 1818 to 1825.

Poetry was the thing, though, even from his childhood. At a precocious thirteen, he penned a poem called "The Embargo" (1808). Heavily influenced by his father's politics, of course, it called for the resignation of President Thomas Jefferson, and proud papa got it published in the Hampshire Gazette. His father would also be instrumental in making his son a professional poet. He was acquainted with the publisher of the North American Review, who asked Dr. Bryant for a contribution from his son. Scrounging around papers his son had left behind, the doctor discovered "Thanatopsis" (written years earlier when Bryant was 17) and was moved to tears, despite the poem's embracing of pantheism and Unitarianism and rejection of Puritanism and its dogma. Without Bryant's knowledge, the doctor had it published in the Review in September 1817. Richard Henry Dana initially remarked to the publisher that the poem must be a hoax because "no one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses" (especially a boy of 17). "Thanatopsis" was an instant success and made Bryant famous, and thus a uniquely American poetic voice was born. His reputation was cemented with the publication of, in 1821, his first slim volume of poetry.

In 1825, Bryant moved to New York and gleefully abandoned his legal career (though he would return to it very briefly a few years later). He became editor of a series of publications, most notably serving as the editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post from 1829 to his death, 49 years. He was a champion of liberal causes like the anti-slavery movement and trade unions and became active in politics as a member of the Free Soil movement and later a founder of the Republican party and a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln.

Bryant, of course, still wrote poetry, eventually publishing a dozen volumes, and was an active translator who tackled both the Iliad and the Odyssey. As an American literary figure, he was of immense importance, as he was the first poet of the first rank to be accepted on both sides of the pond during his lifetime. His was an American voice and he, like many other American artists, strove for an American culture that was native to the soil and not imported from abroad and imitative of Britain and Europe. (see his "To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe")

Bryant was active in the civil life of New York City. He was instrumental in the founding of both Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At age 84, he delivered a speech in Central Park at the unveiling of the statue of Giuseppe Mazzini there. He tripped leaving the podium and sustained a concussion, which led to his death.