Historian-William Cullen Bryant-Group B

“William Cullen Bryant stood among the most celebrated figures in the frieze of nineteenth-century America. The fame he won as a poet while in his youth remained with him as he entered his eighties; only Longfellow and Emerson were his rivals in popularity over the course of his life.”

Image of William Cullen Bryant:


In order to fully comprehend Bryant’s works, we must first recognize what major events were occurring during this time period. The following link: http://americasbesthistory.com/abhtimeline1810.html gives a brief timeline of the major events in American history during the time these works were written. The largest event to occur during this time span was the War of 1812. “In the War of 1812, the United States took on the greatest naval power in the world, Great Britain, in a conflict that would have an immense impact on the young country’s future. Causes of the war included British attempts to restrict U.S. trade, the Royal Navy’s impressment of American seamen and America’s desire to expand its territory. The United States suffered many costly defeats at the hands of British, Canadian and Native American troops over the course of the War of 1812, including the capture and burning of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., in August 1814. Nonetheless, American troops were able to repulse British invasions in New York, Baltimore and New Orleans, boosting national confidence and fostering a new spirit of patriotism. The ratification of the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815, ended the war but left many of the most contentious questions unresolved. Nonetheless, many in the United States celebrated the War of 1812 as a “second war of independence,” beginning an era of partisan agreement and national pride.” http://www.history.com/topics/war-of-1812
This war probably gave Bryant great pride in his country. This is shown in that he voiced his political opinions and was one of the first great American poets. Also, war ultimately brings death, and in this death one should feel proud for serving one’s country. This is a possible reason for his work “Thanatopsis.” In it he makes death seem calm and pleasant, even peaceful in a sense.


The two works written by William Cullen Bryant assigned in ethology were as followed: “Thanatopsis” (1817) and “To a Waterfowl” (1818). Born in 1794, Bryant was only in his early 20s when he wrote these. “Bryant’s most famous poem was “Thanatopsis.” What is known about its publication is that his father took some pages of verse from his son’s desk and submitted them, along with his own work, to the North American Review in 1817. The Review was edited by Edward Tyrrel Channing at the time and, upon receiving it, read the poem to his assistant, who immediately exclaimed, “That was never written on this side of the water!” Someone at the North American joined two of the son’s discrete fragments, gave the result the Greek-derived title Thanatopsis (meditation on death), mistakenly attributed it to the father, and published it. For all the errors, it was well-received, and soon Bryant was publishing poems with some regularity, including “To a Waterfowl” in 1821.”

Poetry reading of “Thanatopsis”:

Poetry reading of “To a Waterfowl”

In order to grasp how the historical context influenced the writing, we must try and better understand these two works. In William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” “the speaker tells us that nature can make pain less painful. It can even lighten our dark thoughts about death. He tells us that, when we start to worry about death, we should go outside and listen to the voice of nature. That voice reminds us that we will indeed vanish when we die and mix back into the earth. The voice of nature also tells us that when we die, we won’t be alone. Every person who has ever lived is in the ground (“the great tomb of man”) and everyone who is alive will be soon dead and in the ground too. This idea is meant to be comforting, and the poem ends by telling us to think of death like a happy, dream-filled sleep.”
Arguably mankind’s biggest fear is death. Bryant is telling us not to worry about death, but to instead be calm and happy. This lesson is still completely applicable to today. In his work “To a Waterfowl” he is sharing with us that “just as God guides the waterfowl to its summer home, so too He guides the speaker of the poem through life to his ultimate destination, heaven. In the end, one will be able to say about the speaker what the speaker says about the waterfowl: “the abyss of heaven / Hath swallowed up thy form” (lines 25-26). The poem is, in essence, a profession of faith in God.” http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides4/Waterfowl.html
This is what most clearly illustrates the effects of Bryant’s environment on his works. He grew up and lived in Massachusetts. During this time, this was the most devoutly religious region in the country. The prominent religion was Christianity. He had a very religious background. “The boy’s grandfather pressed a contrasting worldview on him. Western Massachusetts in that period generally eschewed the liberal religious ideas that fanned out from Boston; its dour orthodoxies looked to the more conservative Calvinism of New Haven and the Albany area of upstate New York. Ebenezer Snell, a deacon in the Congregationalist church, studied theological writers and was as intractable in his interpretation of scripture as in his rulings as a local magistrate. In prayer services he conducted for his family every morning and every evening, he made certain that religious precepts informed the Bryant children’s upbringing.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-cullen-bryant
This definitely contributed and had a great influence on the works of Bryant. His works were filled with religious meaning, values, and symbolism. Nowadays, the South is the most religious region in the country. In fact, it is nicknamed the “bible belt.” This all being said, Massachusetts is not considerably religious anymore. If William Cullen Bryant were to be alive and writing in that area today, he would probably have far less of a Christian influence upon his works. This, more than any, would be a major difference if he were writing today. Also, today he would be able to use modern technology to share his works online with everyone. This might have geared him into writing to a more broad audience and changed his writing style.

Bryant’s audience was, more often than not, the people of Massachusetts. Understanding their daily life might shed light on his style and its formation. “In the 1810s, urban areas are growing, but an estimated 93 percent of the population is still rural. Likewise, despite the beginnings of a textile industry and additional cottage industries, most families still work together as self-sufficient units to produce almost everything they consume-food, clothing, tools, and furniture. The little that they don’t produce, they typically obtain in trade; purchases are uncommon, especially in rural areas. Mumps and measles, whooping cough, diarrhea, cholera, scurf, croup, and scarlet fever are common and very serious childhood diseases. Our “average” family10 of the 1810s lives on 75 acres of mostly cleared farmland in central Massachusetts. They grow corn, flax, oats, barley, clover, and vegetables, raise hogs, and keep one cow. They have several fruit trees and are grafting and planting more. The structures on their farm consist of a house, a small barn, a hog pen, a shed, and an outhouse situated at a distance from the house. Most of the family’s relatively few possessions are in full view, since closets and storage space have not yet become a necessary part of the home. The younger family members engage in numerous leisure activities. They “make their own fun,” as opposed to paying for enter- tainment. Family members and friends play cards, go berry picking, play ball, play musical instruments like the violin, make puppets and put on shows, go for walks and visit people, and go to horse races and an occasional exhibition. Sleigh riding and ice-skating are favorites in winter. The family often combines work with socializing in the form of quilting bees, husking “frolics,” and barn raisings. They pool their energy with neighbors and friends to com- plete projects that would take one family alone an enormous amount of time.The church is another important organizing center of social activity. Not only does it bring the family together with friends and neighbors to reflect on serious themes, but it also provides an occasion to catch up on the news and enjoy singing.” http://www.economicadventure.org/pdfs/ml1810.pdf
As far as tasks are concerned, the whole family helped out. The family picked flax and used a spinning wheel to make them into clothes. One of the daughters usually churned butter as a task. And the rest, from farming to cooking and cleaning, made up the tasks of this hard working generation. This rural atmosphere attributes to Bryant’s works. For instance, in both “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl” great emphasis is placed on nature. This was because people were always outside and observant of nature during this time. Sadly, we now spend most of our time inside, rather than outside, due to the luxuries of today.

Early 1800s farmhouse:


Spinning wheel:


During this time period, many were avid readers. This was one of the few forms of entertainment. They had no T.V., Internet, and radio like today.
“Some famous books published during the early 1800s include:
1800 Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth
1801 Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
1805 The Lay of the last minstrel by Walter Scott
1807 Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb
1808 Marmion by Walter Scott
1809 Calebs in search of a wife by Hannah More
1811 Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
1812 first 2 cantos of Childe harold by Byron
1813 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Queen mab by Percy Byshe Shelley
1814 Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Waverley by Walter Scott
The Excursion by William Wordsworth
1815 Guy Mannering by Walter Scott
1816 Emma by Jane Austen
Christabel and Other Poems by Coleridge
Headlong hall by thomas Love Peacock
1817 Manfred by Byron
1818 Persuasion and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Heart of Midlothian by Walter Scott
Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
1819 Lamia and Other Poem by Keats
Prometheus Unbound by Shelley
1821 Kenilworth by Walter Scott
Adonais by Shelley
Life in London by Pierce Egan
1822 Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincy
1823 Essays on Elia by Charles Lamb
Redgauntlet by Walter Scott
1825 first edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys
1826 the Spirit of the Age by William Hazlitt
Vivian Grey by Benjamin Disraeli
Woodstock by Walter Scott
1827 The Shepherd’s Calendar by john Clare
The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by Walter Scott
Life of Napoleon by William Hazlitt
1830 Poems, Chiefly Lyrical by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Rural Rides by William Cobbett”

William Cullen Bryant was our ” first American writer of verse to win international acclaim.” http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/Bryant/brybio.html
Learning about and having knowledge of his background plays an integral role in understanding the works of Bryant. Understanding the lifestyle and likes of the people during this time also factors in. I enjoyed taking on the historian’s role and hope it helps shed a new light on the works of William Cullen Bryant.


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