One of the first indications that William Cullen Bryant would become an American poet to be reckoned with occurred when Bryant was barely into his teenage years. “The Embargo” was not just a work of verse that revealed the early promise of a young poet, it was satire in the vein of John Dryden about no less an esteemed figure in America’s short history than Thomas Jefferson. Admittedly, the anti-Jeffersonian dimension of “The Embargo” was almost entirely influenced by the staunch perspective of young William’s father, but the poetic artistry belonged entirely to the son.
Considering his advanced age—Bryant was 83 when he died—one might suspect that quite a bit of time passed between that precocious display of poetic craftsmanship at the tender age of 13 and his most revered work. One would be mistaken in that assumption however. A mere five years after “The Embargo” came the poem for which Bryant would establish his reputation even had little of substance followed during the next six-and-a-half decades. “Thanatopsis” is by far the most anthologized of William Cullen Bryant’s poetic output and its stature among American verse is made all the more impressive by virtue of its composition at an age when most young men are only just learning how to interpret the poetry of others. That Bryant proved capable of interpreting the poetry of the British masters that inspired him like Wordsworth and Alexander Pope is irrefutable.
Bryant never quite received the respect as a poet that his greatest admirers felt he deserve. Among those admirers were Edgar Allan Poe, who held Bryant in the highest esteem. Part of this lack of due may be the result of Bryant refusing to actively promote his own work. The legacy especially of those poems collected in his 1821 volume Poems can be seen in the work of Transcendentalists like Emerson, however, and though his verse could cover everything from the paintings of Thomas Cole to the death of Abraham Lincoln, his exaltation of nature and the natural beauty which saw all around him on nearly every American poet to follow in his wake cannot be denied.