Do you know the artists who influenced the artists who influenced you?
I live in a city now where many streets and public schools are named for 19th century New England literary worthies. My son’s grade school is Whittier school for example. And a few blocks over is a street I ride on to get to one of my favorite breakfast places, Bryant Avenue.
I can’t say William Cullen Bryant ever registered much with me as a poet. He was never Longfellow famous. My city has not only a Longfellow school, but several other streets and institutions named after Hiawatha or characters in Longfellow’s once ubiquitous poem. My father, even in his later years, could recite large portions of Longfellow poems. But Bryant is left, like Whittier too, in a state where his name is barely remembered and his work is unknown.
Coincidence of nomenclature aside, I would not have discovered “The Prairie”, this William Cullen Bryant poem, if not for an accident. Dave Moore, the musician and poet who often supplies keyboard parts, words, and is an alternative reading voice here, took a trip this summer to visit the large pre-Columbian mounds along the Mississippi river. He came back with tales and some writing about these remarkable large earthworks, some of which we have worked into musical pieces. Since I have not seen these great mounds, I had to search for words to borrow if I wanted to contribute words. Bang! It turns out that Bryant had just what I needed, and it was very good stuff.
To explain these mysterious mounds, Bryant had to take on suppositions borrowed from some 19th century mythologies. This is complex subject, worthy of long post in itself. In cutting his piece for length, I’ve excised most of that, leaving what I find is still vivid: what would these mounds have seemed like standing in the middle of unplowed frontier prairie, and what thoughts would have then flowed through this 19th Century New Englander as he beheld them?
Bryant is great at that. He channels a bit of Homer in his suppositions, mixed with a soaring American anthem. The strength of his writing here surprised me. Turns out, though I had forgotten and had not read Bryant; modern America’s great 19th century poetic grandfather Walt Whitman had read him, and he had picked up something.