July 27, 2010

Bryant: I gaze in sadness

On July 27, 1866, Frances Fairchild Bryant died at Cedarmere, sick for some time with "an obstruction of the bile, and water on the heart," according to the family physician. She was just under 70 years old. Her husband, the poet/journalist William Cullen Bryant was devastated, though her death was not unexpected. He wrote, "I think the wedded life of few men has been happier than mine" and referred to her as "my beloved wife and my loving companion for forty-five years and more." She was buried at Roslyn Cemetery the day after her death.

Bryant acknowledged that he always sought his wife's advice on each poem he wrote. "I found its success with the public to be precisely in proportion to the impression it made upon her." In fact, many of Bryant's works were directly inspired by his wife, including "October, 1866," a poem which described his Frances's chronic illness. That poem also served as the final chapter for a loose memoir Bryant wrote of his life; it has never been published. As Bryant wrote in the first paragraph:

What I write here is intended for my own eyes and those of my children... that it may revive in their minds a memory pleasant, though sad, of one who was most dear to them and who was, in all respects an example of goodness such as is rarely seen.

In the poem "October, 1866," Bryant first describes his wife's burial. In the fall, he returns to Roslyn Cemetery to visit Frances's grave; he brings her flowers and remembers their time together. Unable to stand being at Cedarmere alone, a month after the poem, in November 1866, he had to leave the country altogether for a time.

'Twas when the earth in summer glory lay,
  We bore thee to thy grave; a sudden cloud
Had shed its shower and passed, and every spray
  And tender herb with pearly moisture bowed...

Autumn is here; we cull his lingering flowers
  And bring them to the spot where thou art laid;
The late-born offspring of his balmier hours,
  Spared by the frost, upon thy grave to fade.

The sweet calm sunshine of October, now
  Warms the low spot; upon its grassy mould
The purple oak-leaf falls; the birchen bough
  Drops its bright spoil like arrow-heads of gold...

I gaze in sadness; it delights me not
  To look on beauty which thou canst not see;
And, wert thou by my side, the dreariest spot
  Were, oh, how far more beautiful to me!

*Information for this post was gleaned, in part, from Gilbert H. Muller's William Cullen Bryant: Author of America as well as Under Open Sky: Poets on William Cullen Bryant, edited by Nobert Krapf.

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