November 30, 2011

Bryant and Dana: the stamp of your mind

The poet/novelist/critic Richard Henry Dana had written to William Cullen Bryant, praising his poem "The Tides." From his home in Roslyn, New York, Bryant wrote back on November 30, 1867:

I am glad that you can speak so well of my little poem, 'The Tides.' It was written in the mood in which I produce what seem to me my best verses; and I therefore was once quite disappointed when a friend told me that a person in whose judgment he seemed to have much reliance had told him that there was not much in it.

The poem, written in 1860, is about the relationship between the moon and the tides of a "restless Sea." It is a constant struggle for the tides as they reach to the moon: "Each wave springs upward, climbing toward the fair / Pure light that sits on high." Though the tide never reach their goal, they continue trying again day after day.

Both Dana and Bryant were greatly respected at this point in their careers, but they were also getting old (both were born in the previous century). Bryant reassured his friend that his life had been worthwhile: "I do not think that you ought to look, as you say, upon your life as a melancholy waste. You have impressed the stamp of your mind upon American literature, and have helped to make it what it is, and what it will yet be."

Yet, despite his reassurances, Bryant himself was equally despondent. He admitted that he had "little to say" about his life and only rarely ventured into the city. "I am in the main cheerful, but with some sad hours, and life to me has lost much of its flavor." Bryant also mentioned he was "trifling" with Homer (who he admits is not as perfect as critics say). In fact, in the following decade, Bryant would dedicate much of his time to translating both The Iliad and The Odyssey.

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