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What Wordsworth did for English poetry, in bringing back the taste for nature, as the counterpart of humanitya world to be interpreted not by the outward eyes, but by the soul — Bryant did for America. One who knew them both, as I did, could not fail to observe the strong resemblance in character and feeling, with the marked difference between them on which I will not dwell. Both were reserved, unsmiling, austere, or irresponsive men in aspect; not at home in cities or in crowds, not easy of access, or dependent on companionship; never fully themselves except when alone with nature. They coveted solitude, for it gave them uninterrupted intercourse with that beautiful, companionable, tender, unintrusive world, which is to ordinary souls, dull, common, familiar, but to them was ever new, ever mysterious, ever delightful and instructive.
Few know how small a part intercourse with nature, for itself alone,- not for what it teaches, but for what it is, a revelation of divine beauty and wisdom and goodness,— had even a half century ago for the common mind. Wordsworth in England, Bryant in America, awoke this sleeping capacity, and by their tender and awed sense of the spiritual meaning conveyed in nature's consummate beauties and harmonies, gave almost a new sense to our generation.
Before their day we had praises of the seasons and passages of poetry in which cataracts, sunsets, rainbows and garden flowers were faithfully described; but nature as a whole, as a presence, the very garment of God, was almost unheeded and unknown. When we consider what Bryant's poems — read in the public schools in happy selection - have done to form the taste and feed the sentiment of two generations, we shall begin to estimate the value of his influence.
And when we recall in all his writings not a thought or,
feeling that is not pure, uplifting, and reverent, we can partly measure the gratitude we owe to a benefactor whose genius has consecrated the woods, and fields, and brooks and wayside flowers, in a way intelligible to plainer minds, and yet above the criticism of the most fastidious and cultivated.
But if fortunate in passing his early life in the country and forming his taste and his style in communion with nature, and with a few good books and a few earnest and sincere people, he was equally fortunate in being driven by a love of independence into the study of the law and a ten years' practice in a considerable town in western Massachusetts, and then drawn to this city where he drifted into the only form of public life wholly suited to his capacities — the editorial profession.
It was no accident that made Bryant a politician and an editor. Sympathy with individual men and women was not his strong point; but sympathy with our common humanity was in him a religious passion. He had a constitutional love of freedom and an intense sentiment of justice, and they constituted together his political creed and policy. He believed in freedom; and this made him a friend of the oppressed, an enemy of slavery, a foe to special and class legislation, an advocate of free trade, a natural Democrat, though born and reared in a federal community that looked with suspicion upon extensions of the suffrage and upon the growth of local and State rights.
But his love of freedom was too genuine to allow him to condone the faults even of his own party, when freedom's friends were found on the other side. He could bear, he did bear the odium of his unpopular conviction, when what was called the best society in New York was of another opinion
and belonged to another party — and he could bear with equal fortitude the ignominy of lacking party fidelity, when his patriotic spirit felt that his old political friends were less faithful than they should be to freedom and union.
The editorial profession enabled his shy and somewhat unsocial nature to work at arm's length for the good of humanity and the country; and I can conceive of no other calling in life that would have economized his temperament and faculties so fully in the public service. His literary skill, his industry, his humane philosophy, his sentiments of justice, his patriotism, his love of freedom, here found full scope. without straining and tasking his personal sympathies, which lacked the readiness, the tact, and the geniality that in some men make direct contact with their fellow creatures an increase of power and of influence.
What an editor he made you all know. None could long doubt the honesty, the conscientiousness, the elevation and purity of his convictions or his utterances. Who believes he ever swerved a line, for the sake of popularity or pelf, from what he felt to be right and true? That he escaped all prostitution of his pen, or his conscience, in his exposed and tempted calling, we all admiringly confess. And what moderation, candor, and courage he carried into his editorial work. Purity of thought, elegance and simplicity of style, exquisite taste and high morality characterized all he wrote. He rebuked the headlong spirit of party, sensational extravagances of expression, even the use of new-fangled phrases and un-English words. He could see and acknowledge the merits of those from whom he widely differed, while unbecoming personalities found no harbor in his columns. Young men and women never found anything to corrupt their tasto or their morals in his paper, and families could safely lay the
“Evening Post” upon the table where their children and their guests might take it up.
Uncompromising in what his convictions commanded, and never evading the frankest expression of his real opinion, however unpopular, he was felt to be above mere partisanship, and so had a decided influence with men of all political preferences. His prose was in its way as good as his poetry, and has aided greatly to correct the taste for swollen, gaudy and pretentious writing in the public press. He was not alone in this respect, for none can fail to recall the services in this direction of Charles King and Horace Greeley, not to name less conspicuous instances. But Bryant's poetic fame gave peculiar authority to his editorial example, and made his style specially helpful and instructive.
That he should have succeeded in keeping the poetic temperament and the tastes and pursuits of a poet fully alive under the active and incessant pressure of his journalistic labors,— making his bread and his immediate influence as a citizen and a leader of public sentiment by editorial work while he “built the lofty rhyme” for the gratification of his genius and for the sake of beauty and art, without one glance at immediate suffrages or rewards, — if not a solitary, is at least a perfect example of the union in one man of the power to work with nearly equal success in two planes where what he did in one did not contradict or conflict with what he did in the other, while they were not mingled or confounded. Nobody detects the editor, the politician, the man of business, in Bryant's poetry, and few feel the poet in his editorial writings; but the man of conscience, of humanity, of justice and truth, of purity and honor, appears equally in both.
This is somewhat the more remarkable, because affluence,
versatility, and humor are not characteristic of his genius. It is staid, earnest, profoundly truthful and pure, lofty and perfectly genuine; but not mercurial, vivacious, protean and brilliant. Like the Jordan that leaps into being full, strong, crystal-pure, but swells little in its deep bed all its course to its sea, admitting few tributaries and putting out no branches, Bryant's genius sprang complete into public notice when he was still in his teens; it retained its character for sixty years almost unchanged, and its latest products are marked with the essential qualities that gave him his first success. Never, perhaps, was there an instance of such precocity in point of wisdom and maturity as that which marked “Thanatopsis," written at eighteen, or of such persistency in judgment, force, and melody as that exhibited in his last public ode, written at 83, on occasion of Washington's last birthday. Between these two bounds lies one even path, high, finished, faultless, in which comes a succession of poems always meditative, always steeped in love and knowledge of nature, always pure and melodious, always stamped with his sign-manual, a flawless taste and gem-like purity — but never much aside from the line and direction that marked the first outburst and last flow of his genius.
Happy the man that knows his own powers — their limits and their aptitudes — and who confines himself rigidly within the banks of his own peculiar inspiration. Bryant was too genuine, too real a lover of nature, too legitimate a child of the muse, ever to strain his own gift. He never made verses, but allowed his verse to flow, inspired by keen observation and hearty enjoyment of nature, watching only that it flowed smoothly and without turbulence or turbidness, which his consummate art enabled him perfectly to accomplish.
Never, perhaps, was a natural gift more successfully