William Cullen Bryant struggled with his career before becoming a revered poet and influential editor of the New York Evening Post. As a young lawyer in Great Barrington, Mass., he hated his profession and wished he could have made a living as a poet.
That early struggle between pragmatism and poetry is reflected in quotations that survive. He could write such statements as, “Winning isn’t everything, but it beats anything in second place.” At the same time he penned these lyrical lines in To A Waterfowl:
Whither, midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?
Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly painted on the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.
William Cullen Bryant was born in the Berkshires, in Cummington, Mass., on Nov. 3, 1794, the son of Dr. Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell. He was a precocious child who loved poetry. In 1808, when he was just 14, he wrote a long poem satirizing President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807. His father, an ardent Federalist serving in the state Legislature, arranged to have it published as a pamphlet. It made young William Cullen Bryant a local celebrity, mostly because of his age.
He attended Williams College, but quit before graduating and studied law. Though he much preferred poetry, he resigned himself to the legal profession and practiced from 1816 to 1825 in Great Barrington. He served as justice of the peace, town clerk, tithing-man and hog reeve.
Yes, hog reeve. The town hog reeve dated to Colonial times; his duty was to round up stray hogs and take them to the town pound, as well as to appraise the damages caused by wandering swine.
He abandoned small-town life for New York City, in 1828 becoming editor of the Post. As editor, he supported organized labor, the rights of immigrants and religious minorities and the battle against slavery.
William Cullen Bryant died on June 12, 1878. His boyhood home, William Cullen Bryant Homestead, is now a museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark.