May 26, 2011

Bryant: a horror of illustrations

By 1854, William Cullen Bryant had been well-established as a poet for several decades. A publishing house in England offered to produce a complete collection of his poetry — with illustrations. A large illustrated book like this carried a high price tag, and Bryant worried it would not sell well. He wrote to his friend (fellow poet/editor) Richard Henry Dana on May 26, 1854:

As to my poems with illustrations; that is an idea of my bookseller. There is I suppose, a class of readers — at least of book-buyers, who like things of that kind; but the first thing which my bookseller... has promised to do, is to get out a neat edition of my poems in two volumes without illustrations. The illustrated edition is a subsequent affair, and though I have as great a horror of illustrations as you have, they will I hope hurt nobody. I am not even sure that I will look at them myself.

Included in the collection were many of Bryant's most famous poems. Many focus on nature and natural scenes, including "To the Fringed Gentian":

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven's own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest,

Thou waitest late and com'st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.

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