November 3, 2010

Birthday parties for William Cullen Bryant


In rural Cummington, Massachusetts, William Cullen Bryant was born in a log cabin on November 3, 1794. Shortly after the family settled into a home atop a hill overlooking the Westfield River valley. Bryant's first job required him to walk to the next town every morning. On one of those walks, he saw the bird that inspired his one of his earliest recognized poems, "To a Waterfowl." Bryant later settled in New York state and edited several newspapers, including the New York Evening Post.

Bryant's 70th birthday was met with a gala event, thrown by the Century Club (he was a founding member). It drew the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Read Lowell's poem to Bryant here; Whittier's is here.

Bryant died in 1878 at the age of 83 but the appreciation of his poetry continued. Three decades after the above birthday party, several celebrated what would have been his 100th birthday in 1894. Held near the family homestead (which Bryant himself later purchased for himself) in Cummington, attendees included Parke Godwin (Bryant's biographer and a poet himself), Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Dudley Warner, and Julia Ward Howe. Howe apparently read the same poem for both the 70th and 100th birthday celebrations:

The age its latest decade shows,
The wondrous autumn near its close,
Revealing in its fateful span,
Unwonted ways of good to man.

Imprisoned vapor speeds its course,
Flies, quick with life th' electric force,
Nature's daemonic mysteries
Are angels now that win and please.

But dearer far to human ken,
The record of illustrious men,
The gifts conveyed in measures wrought
Of noble purpose and high thought.

Above the wild industrial din,
The race an hundred goals to win,
The gathered wealth, the rifled mine,
Still sounds the poet's song divine...

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