Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
ANCIENT AND MODERN LITERATURE.
WHEN Truth in classic majesty appear'd,
And Greece on high the dome of Science rear'd,
Patience and Perseverance, Care and Pain,
Alone the steep, the rough ascent could gain:
None but the great the sun-clad summit found;
The weak were baffled, and the strong were crown'd.
The tardy transcript's high-wrought page confined
To one pursuit the undivided mind.Page 66
No venal critic fattened on the trade,
Books for delight, and not for sale were made;
Then shone superior in the realms of thought,
The chief who govern'd, and the sage who taught;
The drama then with deathless bays was wreath'd,
The statue quicken'd, and the canvass breathed.
The poet, then, with unresisted art,
Sway'd every impulse of the captive heart.
Touch'd with a beam of Heaven's creative mind,
His spirit kindled, and his taste refined:
Incessant toil inform'd his rising youth;
Thought grew to thought, and truth attracted truth,
Till, all complete, his perfect soul display'd
Some bloom of genius that could never fade.
So the sage oak, to Nature's mandate true,
Advanced but slow, and strengthen'd as he grew!
But when at length (full many a season o'er)
His head the blossoms of high promise bore;
When steadfast were his roots, and sound his heart,
He bade oblivion and decay depart;
And, storm and time defying, still remains
The never-dying glory of the plains.
Then, if some thoughtless Bavius dared appear,
Short was his date, and limited his sphere;
He could but please the changeling mob a day,
Then, like his noxious labours, pass away:
So, near a forest tall, some worthless flower
Enjoys the triumphs of its gaudy hour,
Scatters its little poison through the skies,
Then droops its empty, hated head, and dies.
Still, as from famed Ilyssus' classic shore,
To Mincius' banks the Muse her laurel bore,
The sacred plant to hands divine was given,
And deathless Maro nursed the boon of Heaven.
Exalted bard! to hear thy gentler voice,
The valleys listen, and their swains rejoice;
But when, on some wild mountain's awful form,
We hear thy spirit chanting to the storm,Page 67
Of battling chiefs, and armies laid in gore,
We rage, we sigh, we wonder and adore.
Thus Rome with Greece in rival splendour shone,
But claim'd immortal satire for her own:
While Horace pierced full oft the wanton breast
With sportive censure and resistless jest;
And that Etrurian, whose indignant lay
Thy kindred genius15 can so well display,
With many a well-aimed thought and pointed line,
Drove the bold villain from his black design.
For as those mighty masters of the lyre,
With temper'd dignity or quenchless ire,
Through all the various paths of science trod,
Their school was Nature, and their teacher God.
Nor did the Muse decline, till o'er her head
The savage tempest of the North was spread
Till arm'd with desolation's bolt it came,
And wrapp'd her temple in funereal flame.
But soon the Arts once more a dawn diffuse,
And Petrarch hail'd it with his morning muse;
Boccace and Dante join'd the choral lay,
And Arno glisten'd with returning day.
Thus Science rose; and, all her troubles pass'd,
She hoped a steady, tranquil reign at last;
But Faustus came: (indulge the painful thought),
Were not his countless volumes deafly bought;
For, while to every clime and class they flew,
Their worth diminish'd as their numbers grew.
Some pressman, rich in Homer's wealthy page,
Could give ten epics to one wondering age;
A single thought supplied the great design,
And clouds of Iliads spread from every line.
Nor Homer's glowing page, nor Virgil's fire,
Could one lone breast with equal flame inspire;Page 68
But, lost in books, irregular and wild,
The poet wonder'd, and the critic smiled:
The friendly smile a bulkier work repays;
For fools will print, while greater fools will praise.