William Cullen Bryant had a long and distinguished career as an editor, orator, and poet, but he is now remembered mostly for only two poems: “To A Waterfowl” and his eloquent meditation on death, “Thanatopsis.”
Born November 3, 1794, in a log cabin near Cummington, Massachusetts, to a doctor and his wife, both of whom traced their ancestries to the Mayflower, William developed an interest in poetry at an early age. He published poems when he was thirteen and was working on “Thanatopsis” by the time he was seventeen. He attended Williams College for one year, where he complained in a satirical verse the “pale-faced, moping students crawl / Like spectral monuments of woe.” He hoped to transfer to Yale, but family finances necessitated his apprenticeship at a law firm instead. He was admitted to the bar in 1815 and began a lackluster legal career, which lasted until 1825, when desire for the literary life impelled a move to New York City with his wife and daughter.
Bryant was fortunate to have connections, and he quickly landed the job of editor of the New-York Review, a literary journal. Then he became the assistant to the editor of the New-York Evening Post, a daily newspaper that had been founded by Alexander Hamilton. An unexpected turn of events just two years later—the editor fell ill owing to a stroke brought on by a duel—elevated Bryant to editor-in-chief of the paper, a post he held for the next half century. He became a noted liberal voice in support of Andrew Jackson, organized labor, immigrants, minorities, tighter banking regulation, prison reform, and the abolition of slavery—and in opposition to the annexation of Texas.
He also became a widely respected poet, much of his work influenced by a group known as the “Graveyard Poets,” who included Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, and William Cowper, noted for their gloomy emphasis on mortality. This interest in death, along with Bryant’s Unitarian religious views, developed in his youth when he broke from the Calvinist teachings of the Congregational church in which he was raised, are reflected in “Thanatopsis.” In it, he writes:
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice—
Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon.
All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Of his own departure from life, Bryant said, “If I am worthy, I
would wish for sudden death, with no interregnum between I
cease to exercise reason and I cease to exist.” But he expected
to be around for quite a long time. Just days before his death at
the age of eighty-three, he told a friend that he planned to live into his nineties. When asked on what he based that belief, he replied, “It is all summed up in one word—moderation. As you know, I am a moderate eater and drinker, and moderate in my work, as well as in my pleasures, and I believe the best way to preserve the physical and mental faculties is to keep them employed. Don’t allow them to rust.”
Alas, all that moderation came to naught. On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 29, 1878, Bryant delivered an address at the dedication of a bust of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini in New York’s Central Park. Bryant’s friend James Grant Wilson described his appearance on the podium: “a majestic man with his snow-white hair and flowing beard, his small, keen but gentle blue eyes, his light but firm lithe figure standing so erect and apparently with undiminished vigor, enunciating with such distinctness.” But Wilson went on to say that Bryant hesitated frequently during his speech and lost his place in his notes on several occasions.
Following the ceremony Wilson and his little daughter accompanied Bryant as they walked to Wilson’s home nearby. Wilson later recalled, “As we approached my house, about four o’clock, Mr. Bryant was… cheerfully conversing…as we walked up arm in arm, and all entered the vestibule. Disengaging my arm, I took a step in advance to open the inner door, and during those few seconds, without the slightest warning of any kind, the venerable poet, while my back was turned, dropped my daughter’s hand and fell suddenly backward through the open outer door, striking his head on the steps. I turned just in time to see the silvered head striking the stone, and, springing to his side, hastily raised him up. He was unconscious, and I supposed that he was dead.”
Ice water was applied to his head and Bryant was carried inside and laid on a sofa, still unconscious. In a few minutes he sat up, and drank a goblet of iced sherry, then said, “Where am I? I do not feel at all well. Oh, my head, my poor head.” After a while, Wilson accompanied Bryant to his own house, leaving him in the care of his niece, and then went to summon Bryant’s personal physician, Dr. John Gray.
Dr. Gray recounted: “I sent for Dr. Carnochan, the surgeon. He could find no injury to the skull, and therefore thought there was a chance of recovery. Mr. Bryant, during the first few days, would get up and walk about the library or sit in his favorite chair. He would occasionally say something about diet and air. When his daughter arrived from Atlantic City, where she had been for her health, she thought her father recognized her. It is uncertain how far he recognized her or any of his friends.
“On the eighth day after the fall, hemorrhage took place in the brain, resulting in paralysis, technically called hemiplegia, and extending down the right side of the body. After this he was most of the time comatose. He was unable to speak and when he attempted to swallow, food lodged in his larynx and choked him. He was greatly troubled with phlegm, and could not clear his throat. There was only that one attack of hemorrhage of the brain, and that was due to what is called traumatic inflammation.”
Bryant died on June 12, two weeks after his fall, at the age of eighty-three. It is possible that an undiagnosed stroke caused his fall and the subsequent brain damage resulting in his death.
A memorial service was held on June 14 at All Souls’ (Unitarian) Church on Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) at 20th Street. He was buried in Roslyn Cemetery in Nassau County, Long Island, where he had a summer home. Bryant Park, adjacent to the New York Public Library, was named in his honor in 1884.