Skip to main content

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts to Dr. Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell on November 3rd, 1794. He grew up in a family dynamic filled with friction; Peter Bryant made a bad business investment causing him to lose all of their money and forcing them to move back in with Sarah's parents. This friction never really subsided, and at age twenty-two William left home to attend Williams College, but left after one year. He had recounted since that his childhood was not full of happy memories, he often spent his time in social isolation and this is perhaps what fostered his romantic sensibilities in his verse.

He wrote the first draft of his most famous poem, "Thanatopsis", in 1811. "Thanatopsis", literally meaning view of death, is an anti-Christian, stoical view of death. The poem was published in 1817 and again in its final version - most recognizable today - in 1821. The works of British poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge also influenced Bryant, and European romanticism can be seen in his poetry. An example of this romanticized element can be seen in "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood", where love of the splendor of nature is captured and remained throughout his career. In 1826, he became assistant editor of the liberal New York Evening Post, and in 1829 he became editor-in-chief serving in this capacity for the next 50 years.

A close friend of Thomas Cole, Bryant is depicted in Asher B. Durand's Kindred Spirits painting in the Catskill Mountains. By painting Cole and Bryant together in Kindred Spirits, Durand created a visual record of the relationship between the art and literary circles of the early nineteenth century, as well as their common beliefs toward the American landscape and nature. Bryant was very important to the life of New Yorkers with his liberal espousing of causes during his tenure at the New York Evening Post. When he died in 1878, it is said that eulogies were offered in a number not seen since the death of Washington Irving. His poetry was written with feeling being the most important element; he said, "The most beautiful poetry is that which takes the strongest hold of the feelings...," William Cullen Bryant became one of the most influential and popular figures of the mid-19th-century.


Sources: