Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bryant & Cole--Poetry & Painting

This painting is Cole's famous "Oxbow"--it depicts the Connecticut River Valley area. Landscape paintings don't necessarily have much in the way of narrative, but many scholars have highlighted the way the river takes the form of a question mark and, with it, seems to ask a question about American development on our attitude toward the landscape. What do you think Cole is saying here?
--Bryant's poem "The Prairies" is very much about the history of the native peoples who lived in Illinois previously. How does Bryant envision their history and how does his vision of the future settlement of the land by whites fit into that history?
--The poem is framed by Bryant's solitary experience of the empty prairie landscape. What is his perspective on the landscape? What does being alone out there mean to him? What do you think is the over-arching tone (happy, sad, or something else) to the poem?


  1. Bryant tells a very blunt story of the Illinois natives. Although he describes them in a respectful manner, he addresses them as an obsolete society. For example Bryant states,

    "In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
    From instruments of unremembered form,
    Gave the soft winds a voice"(1050).

    A large portion of the poem mirrors this idea that a once great culture lived here, but now, ceases to against. I feel that in the larger picture, he is trying to relate this to the vision of future settlement. I have the impression that he holds a somewhat weary anticipation. He sees the possibility that any settlement could suffer a forgotten existence and I think he is contemplating the point of this.

    -Tim Fischer

  2. Bryant seems to believe that the people who built the mounds were not the contemporary native Indians. I have read about this before, or maybe heard about it in a history class--the Europeans believed that the Indian peoples they were in contact with at the time were not advanced enough to build such monumental structures.

    Bryant suggests that the Indians wiped out the superior race of mound-builders, saying, “ The red man came--/The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,/ And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.” It seems like a pretty insulting notion; that Bryant and his contemporaries lauded the construction and ingenuity of the mound-builders, but refused to credit the current Native Americans (who were in fact responsible, or at least from the linage that was responsible). Its really pretty ironic, but seems to justify the white man’s presence in the land. After all if the current Indians toke the land, why shouldn’t white men take it from them? Maybe Byrant's conscious thought process was less malicious, but seem like that was the undercurrent at least.
    -Becca Zurbrick

  3. As far as American development and landscape goes, the question mark could be a symbol of the unsure attitude Americans have on developing these stretches of open land. It's something that Americans still struggle with today. People see wide open fields and think one of two things: they either think of how beautiful the landscape is and how they should preserve it, or they think of how much real estate or shopping malls they could put on it in order to make money. The question mark-shaped river could be a representation of the confusion Americans face between the option of saving the open land we have left and developing it to make a profit. Another interesting part of the painting is that the viewer can see what appears to be a rainstorm creeping in at the top left corner of the frame. The storm could be a symbol of that possibility of developing the landscape and destroying it to build something profitable. The approaching rainstorm is like a foreshadowing effect, showing that in the future, Americans will make the choice to begin developing and building on areas of open landscape.

  4. With "The Prairies", Bryant may be initially exemplifying the immaculacy of nature and civilization for the natives, to introduce a powerful juxtaposition. What we first see as a matrimonial state of nature, becomes forced onto an 'artificial' stage. The inevitable swarm of bees that approaches in the distance signifies the steadfast arrival of the white man, an unrelenting growth.

    Though, it's the image of man's "better nature" which may center the importance of the poem, as it moves toward the real intentions of a man who's 'yielded himself to die'. Perhaps lines 77-79 suggest a certain awareness of conscious suffering, and man's ability to recognize such as a blessing. What Bryant may ultimately conclude is man's only understood success (be it natural or artificial) is the ability he takes as a privilege, to free himself from the tarry of self-doubt.