Looking at nature, death, and immortality with a famous poet – McDonough Voice

Posted: July 17, 2020 at 8:46 pm

In the nineteenth century, poetry was immensely popular, a deeply revered art form, and one of the most highly regarded American poets was William Cullen Bryant. Among other things, school children across America read and recited his poems "Thanatopsis" and "To a Waterfowl"widely regarded as classics. Although he was from Massachusetts and lived most of his adult life in New York, he was also familiar with central Illinois and had family members that he visited in Jacksonville and, later, Princeton. So, a few of his poems relate to our state.

But I have also noted, over the years, that poems by him appeared now and again in the "Macomb Journal." His focus on coping with death was clearly one theme that engaged many readers, but in fact, there was controversy over whether he accepted the traditional Christian belief in immortalityand that provides a glimpse into the mindset of people during his era.

Bryant was born in 1794 at Cummington, Massachusetts, and he started publishing poetry in periodicals while in his early teens. His first small book, titled "Poems" (1821), appeared two centuries ago, when he was 17. He eventually moved to New York, where he edited the "New York Evening Post" from 1829 until his death in 1878and became a revered American poet.

In 1832 he came west to visit brothers who lived in Jacksonville, and with one of them he rode to Springfield and then north along the Illinois River. That experience provided inspiration for "The Prairies," a poem that celebrated our states most famous topographical characteristic and was often reprinted in newspapers and books. In it, he not only views the Illinois wilderness in mythic terms, as an Edenic garden of dazzling beauty, but also meditates on the mysterious "mound builders"who had lived here centuries earlier but had "vanished from the earth."

Bryant visited on other occasions and wrote Illinois-inspired poems called "The Painted Cup" and "The Hunter of the Prairies." The latter associates freedom with the prairie landscape and presents the white hunter as a kind of American Adam, united with the unspoiled wilderness.

Later, after Lincolns assassination, Bryant wrote a notable tribute poem, "Abraham Lincoln," which was read to the throng of mourners in New York City on April 24, 1865. He declares that the great mans "proudest monument shall be/ The broken fetters of the slave."

But his most famous poem was, and still is, "Thanatopsis" (which means, "meditation on death"). It appeared in the "North American Review" in 1817, when the poet was in his early 20s. As that reveals, the theme of death was already important to young Bryant, and it remained so throughout his life. Influenced by British Romantic poets, he often wrote to commune with nature and the divine spirit that lay beneath it all. In a poem called "The Death of the Flowers," for example, he links human mortality to the cycles of the natural year, and in yet another often-reprinted poem, "A Forest Hymn," he declares that wooded areas were "Gods first temples," and they are still a "Fit shrine for a humble worshipper to hold/ Communion with his maker."

Raised in an old New England family, Bryant was aware of the frightening Calvinistic view of death taught by the Pilgrims, which emphasized the Judgment and everlasting punishment for sinners, so he sought a more positive relationship to God by appreciating His creation and understanding humanitys relationship to it. Thats why he says, in "Thanatopsis,"

"When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad [death] images

Of stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house

[i.e., the dark, narrow grave]

Make thee shudder, and grow sick at heart,

Go forth under the open sky, and listen

To Natures teachings. . . ."

And he asserts that death is a reaffirmation of our interconnection with everything else, not a condition of ultimate separation. For after all, at death each of us will "mix forever with the elements," and beyond that, we will join with all other past humans, who now lay within the earth, "the great tomb of man." And remember, he says, that all who are living "will share thy destiny," for the old and the young "Shall one by one be gathered to thy side." So, death should not be approached with fear, as he indicates at the close of his famous poem:

"So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, that moves

To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon; but sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave. . . ."

Bryant does not specifically refer to God in the poem, but after all, the creator of everything is the one who inspires the "trust" that he mentions. Nevertheless, some Christian readers felt that the noted poem did not affirm immortality like it should have. For that reason, someone wrote a poem called "Vision of Immortality," labeling it as a "sequel to Thanatopsis," and signed Bryants name to it, and that was printed in a great many American newspapers. Of course, it is a kind of "Hymn to Immortality," talking about how the dead shall awaken to "the dawn of the immortal day." Among the periodicals that carried it, in 1852, not realizing that Bryant never actually wrote it, was Macombs first newspaper, the "McDonough Independent."

Of course, that reveals how much the 19th-century mind was focused on affirming the afterlife. And in a sense, while "Thanatopsis" remained very popular, that issue continued. In fact, after Bryant died on June 12, 1878, the "Macomb Journal" carried a front-page article in which noted preacher Henry Ward Beecher criticized "Thanatopsis" as "pagan poetry." But on June 27 the "Journal" editors also printed a little-known poem of Bryants titled "The Two Travelers," in which a person who is heading toward death affirms that he "Shall sleep, to rise, refreshed and strong/ In the bright day that yet will dawn." So, the editors wanted to reassure Macomb readers that the great poet, who had a lasting impact, did affirm immortality.

And it was such a huge public concern that, on July 4, 1878, the "Journal" reprinted an article from "Harpers Weekly" titled "He Believed in Immortality." It quotes an 1876 letter from Bryant to one of his readers, which declares, "I believe in the everlasting life of the soul." And he also affirms "the life to come of those who are dear to us here." So, it was reassuring.

It would be impossible today for any American poet to create such a stir, but in the death-haunted, poetry-loving, overwhelmingly Christian 19th century, whatever a beloved poet thought about such a key aspect of religious belief was obviously a matter of deep concern.

Writer and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the "McDonough County Voice." Research assistance was provided by WIU archivist Kathy Nichols.

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Looking at nature, death, and immortality with a famous poet - McDonough Voice

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