Thursday, November 3, 2011

William Cullen Bryant

American journalist, editor, and poet William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794, twenty-three years after Walter Scott.  His most famous poem is “Thanatopsis”, written when he was just 17.  Bryant enjoyed 83 years of life, passing in 1878, which enabled him to participate in the Scott Centenary celebration (100th anniversary of Scott’s birth) in New York.  Bryant delivered the address at the unveiling of the Scott Statue in New York's Central Park, (November 2, 1872).  His address is below (from Bryant's "Prose Writings") .

The Scottish residents of this city, whose public spirit and reverence for genius have moved them to present to the people of New York the statue of their countryman which has just now been unveiled to the public gaze, have honored me with a request that I should so far take part in these ceremonies as to speak a few words concerning the great poet and novelist, of whose renown they are so justly proud.

As I look round on this assembly I perceive few persons of my own age—few who can remember, as I can, the rising and setting of this brilliant luminary of modern literature. I well recollect the time when Scott, then thirty-four years of age, gave to the world his " Lay of the Last Minstrel," the first of his works which awakened the enthusiastic admiration that afterward attended all he wrote. In that poem the spirit of the old Scottish ballads—the most beautiful of their class— lived again. In it we had all their fire, their rapid narrative, their unlabored graces, their pathos, animating a story to which he had given a certain epic breadth and unity. We read with scarcely less delight his poem of " Marmion," and soon afterward the youths and maidens of our country hung with rapture over the pages of his " Lady of the Lake." I need not enumerate his other poems, but this I will say of them all, that no other metrical narratives in our language seem to me to possess an equal power of enchaining the attention of the reader, and carrying him on from incident to incident with such entire freedom from weariness. These works, printed in cheap editions, were dispersed all over our country; they found their way to almost every fireside, and their popularity raised up, both here and in Great Britain, a multitude of imitators now forgotten.

This power over the mind of the reader was soon to be exemplified in a more remarkable manner, and when, at the age of forty-three, Scott gave to the world, without any indication of its authorship, his romance of " Waverley," all perceived that a new era in the literature of fiction had begun. "Here," they said, "is a genius of a new order. What wealth of materials, what free mastery in moulding them into shape, what invention, humor, pathos, vivid portraiture of character—nothing overcharged or exaggerated, yet all distinct, spirited, and lifelike! Are we not," they asked, " to have other works by the same hand?"

The desire thus expressed was soon gratified. The expected romances came forth with a rapidity which amazed their readers. Some, it is true, ascribed them to Scott as the only man who could write them. "It cannot be," said others; "Scott is occupied with writing histories and poems, and editing work after work which require great labor and research; he has no time for writing romances like these." So he went on, throwing off these remarkable works as if the writing of them had been but a pastime, and fairly bombarding the world with romances from his mysterious covert. It was like what in the neighborhood of this city we see on a fine evening of the Fourth of July, when rocket after rocket rises from the distant horizon and bursts in the air, throwing off to right and left jets of flame and fireballs of every brilliant hue, yet whose are the hands that launch them we know not. So we read and wondered, and lost ourselves in conjectures as to the author who ministered to our delight; and, when at length, at a public dinner in the year 1827, Scott avowed himself to be the sole author of the "Waverley Novels," the interest which we felt at this disclosure was hardly less than that with which we heard of the issue of the great battle of Waterloo.

I have seen a design by some artist in which Scott is shown surrounded by the personages whom in his poems and romances he called into being. They formed a vast crowd, face beyond face, each with its characteristic expression—a multitude so great that it reminded me of the throng—the cloud I may call it—of cherubim which in certain pictures on the walls of European churches surround the Virgin Mother. For forty years has Scott lain in his grave, and now his countrymen place in this park an image of the noble brow, so fortunately copied by the artist, beneath which the personages of his imagination grew into being. Shall we say grew, as if they sprang up spontaneously in his mind, like plants from a fruitful soil, while his fingers guided the pen that noted down their words and recorded their acts? Or should we imagine the faculties of his mind to have busied themselves at his bidding in the chambers of that active brain, and gradually to have moulded the characters of his wonderful fictions to their perfect form? At all events, let us say that He who breathed the breath of life into the frame of which a copy is before us, imparted with that breath a portion of his own creative power.
And now, as the statue of Scott is set up in this beautiful park, which a few years since possessed no human associations historical or poetic connected with its shades, its lawns, its rocks, and its waters, these grounds become peopled with new memories. Henceforth the silent earth at this spot will be eloquent of old traditions, the airs that stir the branches of the trees will whisper of feats of chivalry to the visitor. All that vast crowd of ideal personages created by the imagination of Scott will enter with his sculptured effigy and remain—Fergus and Flora Maclvor, Meg Merrilies and Dirk Hatteraik, the Antiquary and his Sister, and Edie Ochiltree, Rob Roy and Helen Macgregor, and Baillie Jarvie and Dandie Dinmont, and Diana Vernon and Old Mortality—but the night would be upon us before I could go through the muster-roll of this great army. They will pass in endless procession around the statue of him in whose prolific brain they had their birth, until the language which we speak shall perish, and the spot on which we stand shall be again a woodland wilderness.

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