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WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT
[The poems from Bryant are printed by the kind permission of Messrs. D. Appleton & Co., the authorized publishers of his works.]
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
1 This, the first great poem written in America, was published in the North American Review for September, 1817, vol. v, pp. 338-340. Bryant's father had found it, together with the Fragment,' later known as Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,' among other papers in a desk; and had immediately taken it to Boston and shown it to his friend Willard Phillips, one of the editors of the North American Review. When Phillips read the poem to his fellow editors, one of them, Richard H. Dana, exclaimed, Ah, Phillips, you have been imposed upon; no one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses; and though soon persuaded that the verses really were by an American, the editors still believed that 'Thanatopsis ' must have been written by the young poet's father. Phillips says in a letter to Bryant, December, 1817: "Your "Fragment" was exceedingly liked here. All the best judges say that it and your father's "Thanatopsis" are the very best poetry that has been published in this country.'
As originally printed in the North American Review, the poem began with what is now line 17, -Yet a few days, and ended with lines 65 and 66,
And make their bed with thee.
It was preceded by four stanzas of four lines each, which did not properly belong to the poem, but had been found with it. The beginning and ending of the poem as it now stands were first given in the volume of poems published by Bryant in 1821.
See Mr. Godwin's account of the origin of the poem, in his Life of Bryant, vol. i, pp. 97-101; and of its first publication, pp. 148-155.
Ere russet fields their green resume,
Of all her train, the hands of Spring
Beside the snow-bank's edges cold.
Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip, Has bathed thee in his own bright hue, And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.
Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
Oft, in the sunless April day,
Thy early smile has stayed my walk; But midst the gorgeous blooms of May, I passed thee on thy humble stalk.
1 Figures at the left, in italics, give the date of writing; those at the right, in roman, the date of publication. For Bryant's poems the dates are taken from Godwin's standard edition of the Poetical Works.
Mr. Godwin states in his note to Thanatopsis' that the poem was written in the summer of 1811, which would make Bryant only sixteen years old at the time not seventeen, as Mr. Godwin himself elsewhere say Bryant's own account of the matter is given in a lette of 1855, which Mr. Godwin quotes: I cannot give you any information of the occasion which suggested to my mind the idea of my poem "Thanatopsis." It was written when I was seventeen or eighteen years old - I have not now at hand the memorandums [sic] which would enable me to be precise and I believe it was composed in my solitary rambles in the woods.'
Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems
Existence, than the winged plunderer
And the old and ponderous trunks of pros
That lead from knoll to knoll a causey rude
Or bridge the sunken brook, and their dark
With all their earth upon them, twisting high,
Breathe fixed tranquillity. The rivulet Sends forth glad sounds, and tripping o'er its bed
Of pebbly sands, or leaping down the rocks, Seems, with continuous laughter, to rejoice In its own being. Softly tread the marge, Lest from her midway perch thou scare the
That dips her bill in water.1 The cool wind, That stirs the stream in play, shall come to thee,
Like one that loves thee nor will let thee pass
Ungreeted, and shall give its light embrace.
TO A WATERFOWL 2 WHITHER, midst falling dew, While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou
Thy solitary way?
Vainly the fowler's eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Seek'st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
1 The poem, as first published in the North American Review for September, 1817, under the title 'A Fragment,' ended at this point. The last lines were added in the first edition of the Poems, in 1821.
2 On the origin of this poem, see Godwin's Life of Bryant, vol. i, pp. 143, 144. Hartley Coleridge once called it the best short poem in the English language; and Matthew Arnold was inclined to agree with his judgment. See an account of the incident in Bigelow's Life of Bryant, note to pp. 42, 43.