A Forest Hymn | Study Guide

William Cullen Bryant

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A Forest Hymn | Context


Historical Changes and Innovations

The time in history in which William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) lived was typified by many changes and innovations. Bryant was born when the first U.S. president, George Washington, was in office (1789–97). It was also a time of political upheaval, including the Civil War (1861–65) where Bryant watched the country go to war with itself. Even after the Civil War, many of the states were still in their infancy or did not yet exist. There were many innovations and scientific discoveries, including the battery, ultraviolet radiation, the first steam-powered locomotive, and electrical lighting.

Many current events that are reflected in his works stem from new technological innovations and emerging philosophies such as transcendentalism. During this time transportation and communication had vastly improved with the advent of the steam engine and the telephone. Industrialization seemed to further remove man from nature. This distancing was something Bryant recognized in the outcry among transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau. The first lines of "A Forest Hymn" are an example of this.

As a young man, Bryant rejected the religious beliefs of his grandfather. Bryant embraced the Unitarianism ideology which emphasizes the connection of man to nature. A reverence for all life is prevalent in his work as a result. His work often focuses on death and dying. Two deaths profoundly changed his life. His sister, Sarah Snell Bryant "Sally" died of consumption in 1824. The death of his father was of even greater impact. Peter Bryant had been his son's biggest supporter and longtime mentor.

"A Forest Hymn" was the last poem Bryant wrote before he left the countryside and moved to New York City. Many scholars have suggested it is his personal tribute to a land that had inspired him. It was against this backdrop of natural beauty, industrialization, and deep personal loss that Bryant developed his style and talent.

The Holiness of Nature

Bryant has often been considered a transcendentalist. This is due to the prevalence of both nature and self-reflection in his writing. Transcendentalists regard nature as an entity capable of offering insight to mankind and believe that a person should follow their own inner calling. By doing this a person "transcends'' his or her own base nature. "A Forest Hymn" is a good example of nature poetry. In this style the poet takes a natural scene and reveals something about the human condition, spirit, or experience. Lines 64-69 offer insight into the sacred essence of the natural world and contrast this spirit with industrialized society. "That delicate forest flower/With scented breath and look so like a smile/Seems, as it issues from the shapeless mould/An emanation of the indwelling Life/A visible token of the upholding Love/That are the soul of this great universe."

Pastoral themes focus on a return to nature, regard nature as a teacher, and view the rural countryside as superior to the industrialized cities. Pastoral poems share some common premises including the corruptive influence of the city and the contrasting purity of life attained when living in the countryside. These beliefs are advocated in "A Forest Hymn." Many of the world's cities had become industrialized in Bryant's time and a resurgence of longing for green spaces and nature was a common theme.

A New American Literary Form

One reason Bryant embraced the pastoral philosophy was that he wanted to establish a uniquely American style and culture. America could not claim a long artistic tradition but it offered unspoiled landscapes unlike those of industrialized Europe. A rise in patriotism in America paved the way for the development of the American Romantic literary form. Bryant stated this personal directive in an 1826 lecture to the New York Athenaeum Society. He said that poetic structures of the past should only serve the poet "as guides to his own originality."

Calvinism and The Brevity of Life

In the conservative Calvinist doctrine of Bryant's youth, God is depicted as a God to be feared and obeyed. Dying without reconciliation in the Calvinist faith meant going to eternal damnation. In "A Forest Hymn" Bryant alludes to this ideology by conveying how small a person really is in comparison to the long lives of trees. "Grandeur, strength, and grace/Are here to speak of thee. This mighty oak/By whose immovable stem I stand and seem/Almost annihilated—not a prince" (Stanza 2, li 53-56).

Calvinists tend to focus on the short time human beings live. Bryant also espouses the belief that nature acts both as a nurturing force as well as a destructive force at God's direction. The last lines of "A Forest Hymn" are a declaration of this principle. "O, from these sterner aspects of thy face/Spare me and mine, nor let us need the wrath/Of the mad, unchainèd elements to teach/Who rules them." (Stanza 4, li 113-116).

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