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- Adventures in the French Trade: Fragments Toward a Life | Jeffrey Mehlman
As an erudite American, he had immersed himself in the ancients, a classical nurture reflected in his admiration for Alexander Pope and the other eighteenth-century British paragons of the Augustan style in poetry. Bryant also wrote verse, and if his derivative efforts fell short of distinction, they were nonetheless well-turned.
When his precocious son began stringing couplets, Dr. Bryant took delighted notice. Although he held the boy to a high standard and was quick to derogate his exercises as doggerel, Cullen accepted his father as an expert mentor and took satisfaction in being treated as an equal.
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By the age of thirteen, he was seen as a prodigy. The Northampton Hampshire Gazette had published several of his poems, including a fifty-four line exhortation to his schoolmates he had drafted three years earlier. Ironically, an immediate fame beyond his imaginings awaited. Once again, he served as an extension of his father. At no time prior to the Civil War was the Union so threatened with dissolution. Bryant proudly urged his son to extend his efforts, and when the legislator returned to Boston after the holiday recess, he circulated the poem among his Federalist friends—including a poet of minor reputation who joined the father in editing and polishing the work.
A second edition—in which the lines of the first swelled to , and, with the addition of other poems, its pages tripled—was published at the start of Even an outstanding talent for poetry provided no livelihood, especially in America; a profession, however, would ensure his son the economic stability to permit development of his literary interests.
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And so, five days after his fourteenth birthday, Cullen traveled fifty miles to board with his uncle, a clergyman who was to tutor him in Latin. The young man made swift progress. The pace and range of his studies were not exclusively a function of his aptitude: Dr. The collegiate venture, however, did not survive the year. Obtaining an honorable withdrawal, he retreated to Cummington for another period of intense solitary study, this time aimed at admission to Yale that fall as a junior. But then hopes for Yale faded.
Convinced he lacked the requisite eloquence and confident manner, Cullen was reluctant to accept a fate that condemned him to drudgery. Although he left for Worthington, six miles from home, to begin to learn the law a month after turning seventeen, his longing for Yale persisted. A letter to a friend records his distress: it speaks of farming or a trade, possibly even blacksmithing—an implausible option given spells of pulmonary weakness and his recurrent headaches—as preferable to the law should he not realize his wish to resume under-graduate studies in New Haven the next term.
Even so, he was too much the product of his caste to ignore practical exigency: before the end of the school year, he committed himself to a legal career and strove to relegate literature to an ancillary role in his life. This shift in attention was not altogether unhappy.
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Although Cullen had proved himself an assiduous scholar, he had much left to master as a young adult trying to determine his place in the world—and his two and a half years at Worthington may have been more instructive than college. If he only rarely excused himself from the rigor of poring over the black letter pages of Littleton and Coke to write verse, it is also clear that he more freely closed his books to enjoy himself.
Close friends noted his growing maturity. When he concluded his training having characteristically squeezed the usual five years to four , he was admitted to the bar in August A three-month respite in Cummington followed; then, within view of the front porch on which he had played as a child, he set up his law office in decidedly rural Plainfield. In fact, such poetic glories as he feared would smother under the workaday routine were in gestation.
The prodigy who had written The Embargo and imitated the Classical writers was a skillful mimic of a mechanical concept of verse. Beginning in , however, a surge of wholly new influences changed his understanding of poetry. Chief among these was Lyrical Ballads. His father had brought a copy home from Boston, perhaps because, as a devoted student of poetry, he felt obliged to acquaint himself with this boldly different address to its art and subject matter.
Peter Bryant was not much impressed, but to his son, it was a revelation. His mentor there, catching him scrutinizing Lyrical Ballads , warned against repetition of the offense, and Bryant, fearful of being sent away, steeled himself to obedience for a year. A vow of abstinence for the sake of the law, however, only stoked his desire to test his powers within the new possibilities Wordsworth had shown. During the same period, Bryant also fell under the sway of the so-called Graveyard Poets. Henry Kirke White, virtually forgotten today, had a brief moment of great renown, though less for the merit of his lugubrious verse than for the controversy sparked by an attack on it in The Monthly Review and its defense by Robert Southey; White presently achieved martyrdom by dying, at the age of twenty, in Bryant no doubt felt an affinity with the ill-starred young Scotsman who had eluded his doom as a lawyer only to perish, it was said, from too assiduous dedication to study.
Typhus, or a typhus-like illness, besieged the Worthington area that year.
Several friends were stricken, but the suffering and death of a particular young woman plunged him into melancholy. In April, his best childhood friend had coaxed Bryant into supplying a poem for his wedding, even though it meant breaking his pledge to abstain from writing verse while studying law. The next month, his grandfather Snell, still vigorous despite his advanced years, was found cold in his bed. The thought that all his youthful ambition for fame was destined to wither in the dismal light of small town litigation and deed registration resonated in this encounter with emptiness.
For a youth jarred by unexpected bereavements, the notion of a universe without God as a moral arbiter or of life without a manifest ultimate purpose was perturbing. Had his intended profession inspired ambition, he might have welcomed its challenges as a means of escape from dejection, but law offered him nothing more than the prospect of a living, burdened by wearying triviality. Instead, he turned once again to writing poetry, both to work through his discomfiture and to compensate for it. The new Bryant, very much of his time, reflected the aesthetics and preoccupation with nature of the Romantics, coupled with the philosophical orientation of the Graveyard Poets.
Once he had counted on his facility as the key to winning fame; now he wrote seeking clarity for himself. Indeed, a forested area at the edge of Williamstown was long known as Thanatopsis Wood because the poem had supposedly been begun at that spot. But neither the recollection nor the legend is supported by evidence. A third conjecture would advance it to some unknown month as late as , when he appears to have been in a creative flurry.
Whichever date one might prefer, however, the poem attests that its author was engaged in a daring effort to stare into the abyss and courageously pronounce his creed. The fact that the poem then lay unfinished for some years before its publication has occasionally been interpreted as a sign that Bryant was entering a long period of unresolved religious crisis, but the idea that a poet would transcribe a philosophical problem in carefully wrought meter only to suspend composition until he solved the problem is implausible on its face.
Obviously, Bryant was reexamining his religious beliefs, but there is nothing tentative about the perception his poem describes. During his eight months in Plainfield, Bryant evidently seized the opportunity to resume writing, refashioning his ideas and refining new aesthetic strategies in the process. Some of his very best poems emerged from this time. Even so, these were private delights, not steps in a literary career directed toward public acclaim. Indeed, he was careful to screen his poetic activities, lest the local inhabitants think he entertained lofty notions about himself or lacked a proper seriousness.
Conscious of the need to adapt to the demands of the role he was determined to play successfully, he fought to overcome his inhibitions in public speaking and to cultivate the trust of potential clients. This strain to develop a facade that was untrue to his personal reality only heightened his sense of alienation. But though the community changed, his inner struggle did not abate. What would not come to him naturally, he tried to conquer through will. In letters, he repeatedly resolved to defeat a tendency toward indolence and to focus on his legal work.
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Bryant was acceding to his evident fate, but with obvious distaste. Responding to an inquiry from his former employer in Bridgewater, he confessed,.
Page 1 H-France Review Vol. 11
Alas, Sir, the Muse was my first love and the remains of that passion which not rooted out yet chilled into extinction will always I fear cause me to look coldly on the severe beauties of Themis. Yet I tame myself to its labors as well as I can, and have endeavoured to discharge with punctuality and attention such of the duties of my profession as I was capable of performing. Upon the whole I have every cause to be satisfied with my situation. And to qualify as a husband, he knew, would require paying less attention to the Muse.
Bryant seized the initiative. Taking some drafts Cullen had left behind in his desk and rewriting two others in his own hand, he submitted them to Willard Phillips, a friend of long standing from Cummington and an editor of the North American.
Adventures in the French Trade: Fragments Toward a Life | Jeffrey Mehlman
The debut of this new voice, however, was clouded by confusion. Because the poems submitted were in two different handwritings, the editors assumed for many months following their September publication that they were the work of two different poets: father and son. Seeing that one group of poems bore titles while the rest, in Dr.
Certainly no hurrahs arose such as had greeted The Embargo ; indeed, his debut in the Hampshire Gazette at the age of thirteen had caused more stir. But the approbation of the Boston literati would matter far more in the long run than a quickening of popular appeal. In February, Phillips, now engaged as Bryant's agent, suggested that he review a book by Solyman Brown as an excuse to produce a critical history of American poets and poetry, thereby establishing himself as the pre-eminent authority on the subject. Greatly aided by both his father's counsel and his collection, the twenty-three-year-old did not disappoint.
The essay served not only as a cornerstone of our literary history but also as a thoughtful, temperate exordium to the many arguments for American literary nationalism about to erupt. Meanwhile, Bryant had almost suspended writing poetry of his own. Preoccupation with the conduct of his law office may not have been the only impediment. Death once again weighed on his mind—perhaps because he was enduring another period of poor health and his father was fast losing ground to consumption.
More than a father, he had been a close companion and his most esteemed mentor; although his death had been foreseen for more than a year, Bryant deeply felt the loss. Once his father dies, however, grief causes the argument to collapse. During the same months of the poem's composition, Bryant contributed five hymns to the Unitarian Society of Massachusetts for its new hymnal. Though still a nominal Congregationalist—who, moreover, continued to pay his tithe—he had rejected the core of Christian dogma, but these verses, while no more traditional than the Unitarian church, show him edging toward accommodation with conventional belief.
Their correspondence regarding this matter initiated a close friendship that would last for the rest of their lives. Bryant sent four poems to the short-lived journal. That interest would soon become compelling. In the spring, Bryant's boosters from the North American had persuaded Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society to invite him to read at the August commencement incidentally informing him, to his surprise, of his election to membership four years earlier.