William Cullen Bryant (1794—1878) was one of the foremost American poets and public intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Through his poetry he brought the influence of the English romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth to American verse — finding inspiration in the natural world around him. He is also known for his hymn writing, and for having translated both The Iliad and The Odyssey.
At first he earned his living as a lawyer, until he made the transition to journalism. He became very influential politically as the editor of the New York Evening Post — supporting such causes as abolition under Lincoln, and the establishing of New York’s Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately his newspaper work limited his poetic output. William Cullen Bryant was a mentor to Walt Whitman, and was a great encouragement to the blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby when she was still in school.
In his early poem “Thanatopsis”, Bryant seemed to have forsaken the hope of eternal life. As time progressed — as demonstrated in numerous poems such as “A Forest Hymn” — his views grew more and more consistent with Christian theology.
To a Waterfowl
Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
--While glow the heavens with the last steps of day
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
--Thy solitary way?
Vainly the fowler's eye
--Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong
As, darkly painted on the crimson sky,
--Thy figure floats along.
Seek'st thou the plashy brink
--Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sing
--On the chafed ocean side?
There is a Power whose care
--Teaches thy way along that pathless coast—
The desert and illimitable air—
--Lone wandering, but not lost.
All day thy wings have fanned,
--At that far height, the cold, thin atmosphere,
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
--Though the dark night is near.
And soon that toil shall end;
--Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
--Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest.
Thou'rt gone, the abyss of heaven
--Hath swallowed up thy form; yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
--And shall not soon depart.
He who, from zone to zone,
--Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
--Will lead my steps aright.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca