Edgar Allan Poe Reviews the Poetry of William Cullen Bryant
Excerpted from Edgar Allan Poe’s April 1846 lengthy analysis of the publication of The Complete Poetical Works of W. C. Bryant, the following review appeared in Godey's Lady's Book magazine. Though Poe is largely remembered today for his poetry and short stories, he was well known in his own time as an editor and critic. It is interesting to note that while they were contemporaries, pursuing similar careers, there is no record of correspondence from Bryant (1794-1878) to Poe (1809-1849) in the six volume set of Bryant’s letters (The Letters of William Cullen Bryant, Fordham University Press, 1977.) There is however, a mention in a September 14, 1846 letter from Bryant to his wife Frances, of having seen “Mr. Poe’s mother-in-law [Mrs. Clemm], who says her son-in-law is crazy, his wife dying, and the whole family starving.”
In addition, there is also an editorial note (Letters Vol. 2 p. 469) which states that Poe and Bryant “had become acquainted as early as 1837-38 when they were near-neighbors on a quiet Greenwich Village street, the Bryants living at 12 Carmine Street and the Poes, with Mrs. Clemm, at number 13 ½.” The note goes on to say that “Bryant, like other of Poe’s literary acquaintances, was one of her [Mrs. Clemm’s] sources of aid” during Poe’s financial difficulties. Although Poe was often a harsh critic of other poets, particularly Longfellow, his high regard for Bryant is clearly evident in this review of Bryant’s poetry. The full text of the review can be found in the book Sketches, criticisms, plagiarists, and the literati by Edgar Allan Poe, published by D.M. Maclellan, 1908 and online at: http://www.eapoe.org/people/bryantwc.htm#criticism
Mr. Bryant's position in the poetical world is, perhaps, better settled than that of any American. There is less difference of opinion about his rank; but, as usual, the agreement is more decided in private literary circles than in what appears to be the public expression of sentiment as gleaned from the press…. But although it may be said, in general, that Mr. Bryant's position is comparatively well settled, still for some time past there has been a growing tendency to under-estimate him. The new licentious "schools" of poetry — I do not now speak of the transcendentalists, who are the merest nobodies, fatiguing even themselves — but the Tennysonian and Barrettian schools, having, in their rashness of spirit, much in accordance with the whole spirit of the age, thrown into the shade necessarily all that seems akin to the conservatism of half a century ago. The conventionalities, even the most justifiable decora of composition, are regarded, per se, with a suspicious eye. When I say per se, I mean that, from finding them so long in connection with conservatism of thought, we have come at last to dislike them, not merely as the outward visible signs of that conservatism, but as things evil in themselves. It is very clear that those accuracies and elegancies of style, and of general manner, which in the time of Pope were considered as primâ facie and indispensable indications of genius, are now conversely regarded. How few are willing to admit the possibility of reconciling genius with artistic skill! Yet this reconciliation is not only possible, but an absolute necessity. It is a mere prejudice which has hitherto prevented the union, by studiously insisting upon a natural repulsion which not only does not exist, but which is at war with all the analogies of nature. The greatest poems will not be written until this prejudice is annihilated; and I mean to express a very exalted opinion of Mr. Bryant when I say that his works in time to come will do much towards the annihilation.
I have never disbelieved in the perfect consistency, and even congeniality, of the highest genius and the profoundest art; but in the case of the author of "The Ages," I have fallen into the general error of undervaluing his poetic ability on account of the mere "elegances and accuracies" to which allusion has already been made. I confess that, with an absolute abstraction from all personal feelings, and with the most sincere intention to do justice, I was at one period beguiled into this popular error; there can be no difficulty, therefore, on my part, in excusing the inadvertence in others. It will never do to claim for Bryant a genius of the loftiest order, but there has been latterly, since the days of Mr. Longfellow and Mr. Lowell, a growing disposition to deny him genius in any respect. He is now commonly spoken of as "a man of high poetical talent, very ` correct ,' with a warm appreciation of the beauty of nature and great descriptive powers, but rather too much of the old-school manner of Cowper, Goldsmith and Young." This is the truth, but not the whole truth. Mr. Bryant has genius, and that of a marked character, but it has been overlooked by modern schools, because deficient in those externals which have become in a measure symbolical of those schools.
Dr. Griswold, in summing up his comments on Bryant, has the following significant objections. "His genius is not versatile; he has related no history; he has not sung of the passion of love; he has not described artificial life. Still the tenderness and feeling in `The Death of the Flowers,' `Rizpah,' `The Indian Girl's Lament,' and other pieces, show that he might have excelled in delineations of the gentler passions had he made them his study."
Now, in describing no artificial life, in relating no history, in not singing the passion of love, the poet has merely shown himself the profound artist, has merely evinced a proper consciousness that such are not the legitimate themes of poetry. That they are not, I have repeatedly shown, or attempted to show, and to go over the demonstration now would be foreign to the gossiping and desultory nature of the present article. What Dr. Griswold means by "the gentler passions" is, I presume, not very clear to himself; but it is possible that he employs the phrase in consequence of the gentle, unpassionate emotion induced by the poems of which he quotes the titles. It is precisely this "unpassionate emotion" which is the limit of the true poetical art. Passion proper and poesy are discordant. Poetry, in elevating, tranquilizes the soul. With the heart it has nothing to do….
The editor of "The Poets and Poetry of America" thinks the literary precocity of Bryant remarkable. "There are few recorded more remarkable," he says. The first edition of "The Embargo" was in 1808 , and the poet was born in 1794 ; he was more than thirteen, then, when the satire was printed — although it is reported to have been written a year earlier…. A satire is, of course, no poem. I have known boys of an earlier age do better things, although the case is rare. All depends upon the course of education. Bryant's father "was familiar with the best English literature, and perceiving in his son indications of superior genius, attended carefully to his instruction, taught him the art of composition, and guided his literary taste." This being understood, the marvel of such verse as I have quoted ceases at once, even admitting it to be thoroughly the boy's own work; but it is difficult to make any such admission. The father must have suggested, revised, retouched….
"Thanatopsis" is the poem by which its author is best known, but is by no means his best poem. It owes the extent of its celebrity to its nearly absolute freedom from defect, in the ordinary understanding of the term. I mean to say that its negative merit recommends it to the public attention. It is a thoughtful, well phrased, well constructed, well versified poem. The concluding thought is exceedingly noble, and has done wonders for the success of the whole composition. "The Waterfowl" is very beautiful, but like "Thanatopsis," owes a great deal to its completeness and pointed termination. "Oh, Fairest of the Rural Maids!" will strike every poet as the truest poem written by Bryant. It is richly ideal….
He is now fifty-two years of age. In height, he is, perhaps, five feet nine. His frame is rather robust. His features are large but thin. His countenance is sallow, nearly bloodless. His eyes are piercing gray, deep set, with large projecting eyebrows. His mouth is wide and massive, the expression of the smile hard, cold — even sardonic. The forehead is broad, with prominent organs of ideality; a good deal bald; the hair thin and grayish, as are also the whiskers, which he wears in a simple style. His bearing is quite distinguished, full of the aristocracy of intellect. In general, he looks in better health than before his last visit to England. He seems active — physically and morally — energetic. His dress is plain to the extreme of simplicity, although of late there is a certain degree of Anglicism about it.
In character no man stands more loftily than Bryant. The peculiarly melancholy expression of his countenance has caused him to be accused of harshness, or coldness of heart. Never was there a greater mistake. His soul is charity itself, in all respects generous and noble. His manners are undoubtedly reserved. Of late days he has nearly, if not altogether abandoned literary pursuits, although still editing, with unabated vigour, "The New York Evening Post." He is married, (Mrs. Bryant still living,) has two daughters, (one of them Mrs. Parke Godwin,) and is residing for the present at Vice-Chancelor McCown's, near the junction of Warren and Church streets. — I have thought that these brief personal details of one of the most justly celebrated men in America, might not prove uninteresting to some of the readers of "The Lady's Book."
A version of this article by former LHC Archivist Myrna Sloam was originally published in the January/February 2011 Bryant Library Newsletter.