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William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

Grew up in calvinst home—rejected upbringing—ended with a compromise of


Unitarianism after going to the other extreme of (humanism?). This middle compromise
is also seen in political matters: Federalist>>Democrat>>Republican
1st American poet to win international recognition
Best known during his lifetime as the editor of the New York Evening Post
Transitional poet—combined neoclassical restraint (form) with romantic themes

Transitional life—
Politics: Federalist—Democrat (eventually Republican)
Religion: Calvinist—Deist—Unitarian
Literature: Classicist—Romanticist

Influential as a poet and a literary critic (delivered lectures and wrote reviews in order to
encourage development of American literature)
Studied law—wrote first poem at age 9
Compared with William Wordsworth—Father of British Romanticism
Themes tend to emphasize nature, death, and the past—presents nature as a moral teacher
(poems rarely stop with a natural scene but go on to point our some moral or truth
for the reader)
Often incorporates religious ideas—reflects both Puritan and Deistic traditions of the 17th
and 18th centuries
“To a Waterfowl”—seemingly orthodox Puritan view that God providentially
guides a man through life
“Thanatopsis”—pagan resignation to death and denies the fact of an afterlife

“Thanatopsis”—meditation on death
body of poem written in 1811—Bryant was 16
lacked the first 17 lines and the last 15
when he added these lines later, he identified the message of the poem as coming
from Nature
Written in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter
Caesura—pause in the middle of a line
Enjambment—line continues from one to the next without pause or stop
A rationalized response to the problem of death—no mention of God or the
afterlife
“The rhetoric of the poem is comforting and the sonorous language soothing, but
the argument in no way proves the hope of pleasant dreams nor promises an
awakening.”—Jane Eberwein
Commentary
1.15 Nature, still small voice comes to speak
20.30 1st: body will decompose, dust to dust. Yet comfort for those who
love nature
2nd: we all will die, death is the great equalizer, will be with great
men, in the great tomb of men
line 59 if we die alone they die also
Conclusion: so make the most of now, think of death as going to sleep
Body of poem is designed like an argument; 4 paragraphs, first is
the introduction, last the conclusion, and the middle is the body.

“To a Waterfowl”
almost classic in its simplicity
an apostrophe to a waterfowl flying off into the evening sky
written in Bryant’s youth—21 years old (a time of decision in his own life)
Christians should be careful not to accept or condemn a writer on the basis of just
one short work unless that work can be shown to be representative of the author’s
entire body of work.