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  • A Poet of the Land: William Cullen Bryant and Moundbuilder Ecology
  • John Hay (bio)

Indeed, the whole country reminds me perpetually of one that has been carefully cultivated by a civilized people, who had been suddenly removed from the earth, with all the works of their hands, and the land given again into nature’s keeping.

—Margaret Fuller

“Ye have no history,” declares the poet to a massive oak in William Cullen Bryant’s late work “Among the Trees.” Bryant seems to claim that the long-lived tree transcends the transience of mundane human affairs, its individual antiquity suggesting the permanence of a tranquil and beneficent nature. The oak itself is a symbol of calm perpetuity:

       An unremembered Past Broods, like a presence, mid the long gray boughs Of this old tree, which has outlived so long The flitting generations of mankind.

These verses conclude with the poet planting a tree of his own and hoping that those who will view it in its mature growth will live in a “nobler age than ours.” 1 Given its year of publication, 1869, the poem may be understood as a turn [End Page 475] toward an apolitical nature after the horrors of the Civil War, a turn hopefully suggesting that Americans could be reconciled and unified in a shared vision of the beauties of a national environment. Indeed, readers of the time could have found a theme of escape into nature running throughout Bryant’s works over a long-spanning career, going back to the poet’s 1817 appeal to the “venerable woods” in his first major success, “Thanatopsis” (22).

These same readers might have also recalled Bryant’s more recent poem “The Planting of the Apple-Tree,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1864.2 Here Bryant similarly looks to an old apple-tree and imagines children asking who planted it. They receive the following response:

   A poet of the land was he, Born in the rude but good old times; ’Tis said he made some quaint old rhymes,    On planting the apple-tree.


Bryant has been labeled a “fireside poet” for his popular, accessible, family-friendly verses, but he is best regarded as a self-styled “poet of the land.” The phrase is cleverly ironic, alluding as it does to both nature and nation. Bryant first made a name for himself in the 1820s by composing poems and essays that celebrated natural beauties unique to the North American continent. Taking part in a nationalist literary project, an attempt to found a home-grown American literature distinct from its British counterpart, Bryant promoted native natural vistas, singing of yellow violets and waterfowls rather than of primroses and nightingales. He accomplished on the page what his friend Thomas Cole did on the canvas; upon his death in 1878, his New York Times obituary mourned the passing of “our great landscapist in verse.”3 Bryant thus developed a reputation as the “author of America” (as his most recent biographer titles him), a reputation built on his celebration not only of the nation but of the land itself.4 [End Page 476]

Yet Bryant’s vision of the land would not remain a mere abstraction of national splendor. While his earlier work appreciates nature as a static force, the beauty and permanence of which transcends the fickle qualities of human affairs, his later writings offer both warnings about humankind’s deleterious effects on the environment and pleas for conservation. Deforestation, he came to believe, was a significant threat to the sustainability of life on American soil. By the end of his career, Bryant had become engaged in a project of environmental advocacy wherein his appeals to nature were not simply nationalistic but ecological; he had become as much a poet of trees as a poet of America. And furthermore, as “The Planting of the Apple-Tree” reveals, Bryant came to consider the act of planting a tree—of shaping the landscape—as much a poetic feat as the penning of a few lines of verse.

This shift in Bryant’s attitude toward nature has gone overlooked by scholars and critics—an oversight no doubt partially due to the reduced esteem in which Bryant...


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pp. 475-511
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