William Cullen Bryant, an American poet, born at Cummington, Hampshire co., Mass., Nov. 3,1794. His father, Peter Bryant, was a distinguished local physician, who had also travelled considerably, and devoted much time to the culture of his mind. He took unusual interest in the intellectual and moral development of his children, and was rewarded in the case of all of them, and particularly in that of William, with early evidence of their proficiency. The poet, in his beautiful" Hymn to Death," alludes feelingly to him in the lines beginning:
For he is in his grave, who taught my youth The art of verse, and in the bud of life Offered mo to the muses; which was no poetic exaggeration, but a literal truth. There are few instances of precocity more remarkable than that of Bryant. He communicated lines to the county gazette before he was ten years of age, and in his 14th year his friends caused to be printed two considerable poems, "The Embargo," a political satire, and "The Spanish Revolution." These passed to a second edition the next year (1809), and in the preface to that edition it was found necessary to certify the production of them by a person so young, in order to remove the skepticism of the public. In his 19th year he wrote "Thanatopsis," which still holds its place in general estimation as one of the most impressive poems in the language. He had in 1810 entered Williams college, where he was soon distinguished for his attainments in language and in polite literature. At the end of two years he took an honorable dismission, and engaged in the study of the law. Admitted to the bar in 1815, he commenced practice in Plainfield, and afterward removed to Great Barrington. He speedily rose to a high rank in the local and state courts; but his tastes inclined him rather to letters than to law.
In 1817 his poem "Thanatopsis" was published in the "North American Review," and introduced him to the acquaintance of Mr. Richard H. Dana, who was one of the club which then conducted the "Review." He contributed also several prose articles to that periodical. In 1821 he delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa society at Harvard college a didactic poem on "The Ages; " and in that year several of his poems were collected in a volume at Cambridge, and obtained for him immediate recognition as a writer of high merit. He removed to New York in 1825, and was engaged as an editor of the " New York Review," soon after merged in the "United States Review," to which he contributed several criticisms and poems. In 1826 he connected himself with the " Evening Post" newspaper, under the editorial control of William Coleman. At that time it was inclined to federalism, and Mr. Bryant sought to give it more and more a republican character. When he acquired an exclusive control of its columns, a few years later, he rendered it decidedly " democratic," taking ground in favor of freedom of trade and against all partial or class legislation.
From 1827 to 1830 Mr. Bryant was associated with Robert 0. Sands and Gulian C. Verplanck in the editorship of the " Talisman," a highly successful annual; and he contributed about the same time the tales of "Medfield" and "The Skeleton's Cave "to a book entitled " Tales of the Glauber Spa." In 1832 a complete edition of his poems was published in New York, and a copy of it reaching Washington Irving in England, he caused an edition to be printed there, with a laudatory preface. It was most generously reviewed by John Wilson in "Blackwood's Magazine," and from that time Mr. Bryant's reputation in Europe has stood as high as it does in his own country. Having associated William Leggett with himself in the management of the "Evening Post," he sailed with his family to Europe in the spring of 1834, and travelled through Prance, Italy, and Germany, enlarging his knowledge of the languages and literatures of the leading nations. His poems bear witness to his familiarity with the Spanish, Italian, German, and French languages, which he has continued to cultivate.
After returning to his native country, and resuming his professional labors for some years, he went again to Europe in 1845. In 1849 he made a third visit, and extended his journey into Egypt and Syria. The letters written to his journal during these wanderings were published in a book called " Letters of a Traveller," soon after his last return. But in the intervals of these foreign journeys he had by no means neglected his own country, and the same volume contains evidences of his sojourn in nearly all parts of the United States, from Maine to Florida, and of a trip also to the island of Cuba. About 1845 he purchased " an old-time mansion," embowered in vines and flowers, near the village of Roslyn, on Long Island, where he has since resided. In 1857 and 1858 he made another journey to Europe, writing letters to the "Evening Post," which were collected under the title of " Letters from Spain and other Countries." A new and complete edition of his poems was published in 1855, and in 1863 a small volume of new poems appeared under the title of " Thirty Poems." In 1864, on the completion of his 70th year, his birthday was celebrated by a festival at the Century club, nearly all the prominent literary men of the country being present, or sending complimentary letters, which, with the proceedings, were subsequently published in a volume.
He was for several years engaged on a translation of Homer into English blank verse. The "Iliad" appeared in 1870, and the " Odyssey" in 1871, and both were almost universally commended as the best English versions of the great epics. Mr. Bryant has been frequently called upon to pay public tributes to the memory of eminent Americans. On the death of the artist Thomas Cole, in 1848, he pronounced a funeral oration; in 1852 he delivered a discourse on the life and writings of James Fen-imore Cooper; and in 1860 he paid a similar tribute to his friend Washington Irving; he made an address on the life and achievements of S. F. B. Morse, on the occasion of the dedication of his statue in Central park, New York, in 1871, and addresses on Shakespeare and Scott on similar occasions in 1872. He is still engaged in the management of his newspaper. Of Bryant's various writings in prose, it has been said that they contain "no superfluous word, no empty or showy phrase," but are marked throughout by " pure, manly, straightforward, and vigorous English." His poems are characterized by extreme purity and elegance in the choice of words, a compact and vigorous diction, great delicacy of fancy and elevation of thought, and a genial yet solemn and religious philosophy.
As a minute observer of nature, he is almost without a rival among poets.