William Cullen Bryant was a romantic poet, journalist, and famous editor of the New York Evening Post. Despite his New England roots, Bryant was a dedicated New Yorker who was behind the creation of Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New York Medical College. Bryant Park, named in his honor, holds a statue of him on the Upper Terrace overlooking the Lawn.
As a poet, much of Bryant’s work was centered on nature and religion, which in turn led to a preoccupation with the natural process of death. Some of his poems are optimistic, talking about the peaceful nature of leaving the Earth. However, others are unyielding in their observation of life lost in a cold and unforgiving manner – the anonymity and unimportance of a life devoid of context to a mere passerby.
In his poem “The Murdered Traveller”, Bryant explores these two juxtaposing themes:
“No how, when strangers found the bones,/ They dressed the hasty bier,/ And marked his grave with nameless stones,/ Unmoistened by a tear.
But long they looked, and feared, and wept,/ Within his distant home;/ And dreamed, and started as they slept,/ For joy that he was come.
So long they looked; but never spied/ His welcome step again, No knew the fearful death he died far down that narrow glen.”
Bryant played on human nature’s inherent fear of being forgotten - the fear of being left behind in such a haphazard way, the ones you care for having no concept of your condition while those you have no relationship with determine your resting place. Though we all strive to create a legacy and something we may be fondly remembered for, it is all for naught when the world intervenes. The lack of control we have under the façade of mastery directly contradicts humanity’s security in its own, effected state.
Some other notably dark poems Bryant penned are “Two Graves”, which explores the cruelties of the afterlife for the good because they are spirited away to an unfamiliar place, “Consumption”, which is essentially a narrative of a girl’s death from the plague, and “Mutation”, which explains how remorse and pain is vital for the world’s progress.
When you're in the park this autumn, take a moment to reflect on the austerity of our namesake's work. Check back soon for another spooky historical look at the Park.