Childhood & Early Life
William Cullen Bryant was the second son born to Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell in Cummington, Massachusetts. His father was a doctor and a state legislator by profession.
Since an early age, he developed a keen interest in poetry, which propelled under his father’s tutelage. His first published poem was ‘The Embargo’ in 1808 which detailed a savage attack on President Thomas Jefferson.
The publication received positive response from both the critics and the public and became an instant sold out. People marvelled at the young age in which Bryant took to writing.
He studied at the Williams College and later took to studying law in Worthington and Bridgewater. It was in 1815 that he was admitted to the bar. It was after completing his studies that he took to regenerating his passion for poetry.
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He took a job as an attorney in the Plainfield, which was seven miles away from Cummington. He would walk to his office and back. It was during one of his walks that he noticed a single bird flying over the horizon. The sight touched his heart and inspired him so much so that he penned the poem, ‘To a Waterfowl’
The exact year as to when did he began to pen his most famous work, ‘Thanatopsis’ is highly speculated. Most people believe that it was around 1813 that he began composing the poem.
During the time of ‘Thanatopsis’ composition, his father submitted some pages of verse along with his own work, to the North American Review in 1817. The poem was so well received by the editors that it was published as a complete verse under the Greek title, ‘Thanatopsis’ or ‘Meditation on Death’. What’s more, mistakenly the poem was attributed to his father.
The success of ‘Thanatopsis’ led him to publish several of his works, including the poem ‘To a Waterfowl’ in 1821.
He did not give up on his legal career completely, as the income generated from literary works was not enough to sustain a living. As such, he continued to practice law until 1825 at the Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He also complemented his income by working at the town’s hog reeve.
Increasing love for poetry and an aversion towards the pettifoggery and absurd judgment being practiced in law led him to leave the legal profession.
Turning to a literary career, in 1825, he bagged the opportunity to take up the profile of an editor for the periodical, New York Review. Later on, he served with the United States Review and Literary Gazette.
Despite repeated attempts to revive the drowning status of the periodical, he failed and hence switched to take up the profile of an Assistant Editor with the New York Evening Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton. There, he served under William Coleman.
In about two years, i.e. 1828, he was promoted to the rank of Editor in Chief and a part owner of the New York Evening Post, a position he held until 1878. The paper not only brought him financial stability but acted as a domain for him to execute his political power in the city, state and nation.
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In addition to being a poet and journalist, he became an avid activist and supporter of organized labour. He voiced for the rights of workmen and defended their privileges and liberties. Furthermore, he protected the rights of religious minorities and the immigrants and spoke against corrupting practices of the bankers.
He received an invite to address the Harvard University Phi Beta Kappa Society at the school's August commencement. For the same, he spent months working on a panorama in verse of the history of civilization, titled ‘The Ages’.
‘The Ages’ led to the publication of a collection entitled, ‘Poems’ in 1832. It was following the publication of ‘Poems’ in the US and Britain that his career as a poet was established. He also gained recognition as America’s leading poet.
Later on, he edited the successful work, ‘Picturesque America’ which was published between 1872 and 1874. Compiled in a two volume set, it described the picturesque and scenic beauty of United States and Canada.
Towards the end of his career, he worked towards translating Homer’s works instead of penning his own poetry. He worked on Iliad and The Odyssey from 1871 to 1874.
Personal Life & Legacy
He tied the nuptial knot with Frances Fairchild in 1821.
He breathed his last in 1878. He died of complications resulting from an accidental fall suffered after participating in a Central Park ceremony honoring Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini. He was buried at the Roslyn Cemetery, in Roslyn Long Island, New York.
Posthumously, several parks, squares, schools and colleges were named in his honor.