The Poet of Wodenethe
November 3, 1794
Today is the birthday of the American Romantic poet and nature-lover William Cullen Bryant.
As a young man, William became an attorney. His first job was in Plainfield, Massachusetts - a town seven miles away from his home. In 1815, William was walking to work one day in December when he spied a lone bird flying on the horizon. The image moved him so much that William wrote his poem called To a Waterfowl.
William Cullen Bryant is a favorite poet among gardeners.
Here’s an excerpt from a little poem by William called A Winter Piece:
The bleak November winds, and smote the woods,
And the brown fields were herbless, and the shades,
That met above the merry rivulet,
Were spoiled, I sought, I loved them still,—they seemed
Like old companions in adversity.
When he was alive, William Cullen Bryant visited Wodenethe - the 20-acre estate overlooking the Hudson River purchased and sculpted by Henry Winthrop Sargent. Sargent’s naming of Wodenethe was a marriage of two old Saxon terms Woden (pronounced Woe-den) and ethe, which stands for woody promontory ( promontory ), of high land that juts out into the sea or a large lake; a headland. Sargent turned Wodenethe into a personal arboretum, where he artfully used trees to frame the Hudson's incredible views. One reviewer said it was,
“a bijou full of interest for the lover of rural beauty; abounding in rare trees, shrubs, and plants, as well as vases, and objects of rural embellishment of all kinds.”
William Cullen Bryant loved Wodenethe, and he was particularly charmed by an illusion that Sargent had created on the property. Sargent had created the view from inside his house to look like the lawn extended out to the Hudson, creating the illusion of a sharp dropoff - almost like the lawn ran out to the edge of a cliff. To help pull this off, Sargent would send his young son Winthrop out onto the lawn with a fishing pole where he would pretend to fish off the edge of a nonexistent cliff. On one occasion, a lady visitor commented on how SHE wouldn't let her own children play so close to that dropoff. In reality, Winthrop was sitting a good mile away from the water's edge - quite safe on the flat earth of the lawn nestled among the trees. Sargent's masterful vista created an artful and beautiful illusion - a trick that he even pulled on his good friend William Cullen Bryant.
Wodenethe so moved William he wrote his poem “A Scene on the Banks of the Hudson.” Here’s an excerpt:
All, save this little nook of land,
Circled with trees on which I stand;
All, save that line of hills which lie
Suspended in the mimic sky,—
Seems a blue void, above, below,
Through which the white clouds come and go;
And from the green world's farthest steep,
I gaze into the airy deep
Loveliest of lovely things are they,
On earth, that soonest pass away.
The rose that lives its little hour
Is prized beyond the sculptured flower.