The last time I thought about William Cullen Bryant was in 1982 when most of my friends were wandering around the hallways at Xavier High School sort of glassy-eyed and mumbling the last stanza of Thanatopsis.
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
“What did you do to them?” I asked my mother, who was also their English teacher.
“We’re studying Thanatopsis,” she said. “I asked them to memorize it.”
Most famous for that 82 -but who’s counting?-line poem, William Cullen Bryant also served as the editor of the New York Evening Post and, in that capacity, he became Central Park’s first advocate.
I learned this recently, following a blissful stroll through my favorite area of Manhattan. I love Central Park because I can stretch my legs there, clear my mind and walk the same paths millions of other people have taken for nearly 200 years.
Sometimes, even in Manhattan’s happy hubbub, you need a deep cleansing breath, which is exactly what that beautiful park offers.
I love Strawberry fields and the Belvedere Castle, Bethesda Fountain, the Loch and the Lake. I enjoy running around the Reservoir and checking out the seals in the Central Park Zoo. I like the sounds of Central Park too – the cheerful clip clop of the horse drawn carriages, the chatter of visiting tour groups, the hawk of the roasted nut booths and their lush, cinnamon smell.
In his 1834 editorial calling for the preservation of a Central Park, Bryant described the park’s “craggy eminences, and hollows, and a little stream runs through the midst.”
“We should be glad to see,” he wrote. “one place at least where the tides may be allowed to flow pure and the ancient brim of rocks which borders the waters left in its original picturesqueness and beauty.”
I think he would be quite thrilled to see his beloved park holding its own and offering a fresh, old world perspective in an increasingly high-tech world.
My deepest gratitude to him who in love nature holds communion with her visible forms.
(See there? I didn’t even have my mom for English and she still got that poem stuck in my head!)