November 4, 2013

Bryant on Scott: brilliant luminary

William Cullen Bryant was busy in the fall of 1872. His day job as editor-in-chief of the New-York Evening Post was hectic amidst a presidential election, he was steadily working on a translation of Homer, and was editing a book on the unique scenery of the United States called Picturesque America. Still, when he was invited to give a speech on the dedication of a statue of Walter Scott at New York City's Central Park, he accepted.

His address, given on November 4, 1872, as the statue by Scottish artist John Steell was unveiled, honored the Americans of Scottish descent who had led the efforts to honor their countryman author. Bryant, after all, was old enough to remember Scott before his death in 1832. He remembered that "this brilliant luminary of modern literature" first drew attention for his ballad "Lay of the Last Minstrel." His work, the poet said, was infused with the traditions of Scotland: "In it we had all their fire, their rapid narrative, their unlabored graces, their pathos, animating a story to which he had given a certain epic breadth and unity." He goes on:

No other metrical narratives in our language seem to me to possess an equal power of enchaining the attention of the reader, and carrying him on from incident to incident with such entire freedom from weariness.

Bryant offered specific praise on several of Scott's works, and even the author's choice to print inexpensive editions which allowed his work to circulate more widely. His "Waverley" novels too, Bryant claimed, began a new era in literature. Those works were written in such rapid succession, he recalled, that they were similar to the fireworks shot off on the Fourth of July in the United States. He continued the metaphor, describing how each volume rose from the horizon and burst with a brilliant hue. Bryant was especially pleased that his statue should grace Central Park, which had only recently become a designed public space. He pictured the spirit of Scott's wandering about the park, a veritable army protecting the statue. Bryant concludes:

And now, as the statue of Scott is set up in this beautiful park, which a few years since possessed no human associations historical or poetic connected with its shades, its lawns, its rocks, and its waters, these grounds become peopled with new memories. Henceforth the silent earth at this spot will be eloquent of old traditions, the airs that stir the branches of the trees will whisper of feats of chivalry to the visitor. All that vast crowd of ideal personages created by the imagination of Scott will enter with his sculptured effigy and remain... They will pass in endless procession around the statue of him in whose prolific brain they had their birth, until the language which we speak shall perish, and the spot on which we stand shall be again a woodland wilderness.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting how the language on such occasions varies from century to century, but the tone is always the same. I don't know if that's good or bad....