A Forest Hymn | Study Guide

William Cullen Bryant

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic
MLA

Bibliography

Course Hero. "A Forest Hymn Study Guide." Course Hero. 10 July 2020. Web. 14 Aug. 2022. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Forest-Hymn/>.

In text

(Course Hero)

APA

Bibliography

Course Hero. (2020, July 10). A Forest Hymn Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Forest-Hymn/

In text

(Course Hero, 2020)

Chicago

Bibliography

Course Hero. "A Forest Hymn Study Guide." July 10, 2020. Accessed August 14, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Forest-Hymn/.

Footnote

Course Hero, "A Forest Hymn Study Guide," July 10, 2020, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Forest-Hymn/.

A Forest Hymn | Plot Summary & Analysis

Share
Share

Summary

A Forest Hymn Overview

In the poem the narrator finds himself walking in the woods. He describes the holiness of nature, proclaiming that "The groves were God's first temples." Before man learned to build great architectural wonders, the cathedrals were the branching arms and soaring heights of the trees. He states that it would have been easy to worship in such a place, surrounded by the might of the trees and the sound of the wind to offer perspective. Mankind is weak and frail compared to nature. The narrator wonders why "Should we, in the world's riper years, neglect/God's ancient sanctuaries, and adore/Only among the crowd and under roofs/That our frail hands have raised?" It is at this moment the narrator kneels and offers a hymn to God from the woods. In his prayerful "hymn" the narrator reflects that whether man chooses to acknowledge it or not, nature is in continual worship. Because of this God is always to be found in the woods. Birth, death, and resurrection are evidenced in the forest as a testimony to the very nature of God. The narrator is saddened by man's lack of concern or attention to God. This lack of concern is evident in the cities where man is protected from the elements that once plagued him. It is with occasional fire, storm, and flood that God manages to get man's attention. The narrator asks God to spare him and his family from such terrible circumstances and promises to carry the "milder majesty" of the "calm shades" of the woods inside his heart forever.

Stanza 1

The narrator is walking in the woods and is awestruck by the majesty and beauty of his surroundings. He begins soul searching and wonders if mankind has not lost something by worshiping only within cathedrals and churches made by human hands. Why has man given up the act of worshiping God in a natural surrounding? Have humans lost something by doing so? The poet is inspired to offer a prayer in the form of a "hymn."

Stanza 2

The narrator examines at length what it must be like to be God and create such stunning beauty in nature. "Thou didst look down/Upon the naked earth, and, forthwith, rose/All these fair ranks of trees." The trees and the mossy ground are better than the decorative elements "of human pomp or pride" in the churches of man and that no "fantastic carvings show/The boast of our vain race to change the form/Of thy fair works." The music of the woodland cathedral is the wind and birdsong, which is music no church can match. It is in the beauty of nature that mankind witnesses the perfection of God. The soul of the universe can be seen in a simple flower if one takes the time to look. If a person takes time to observe the lessons of nature, "An emanation of the indwelling Life/A visible token of the upholding Love/That are the soul of this wide universe" is revealed.

Stanza 3

The narrator is humbled by the power and majesty of nature. His heart is "awed within me when I think/Of the great miracle that still goes on,/In silence, round me—the perpetual work/Of thy creation." The lessons of birth, death, and renewal are all around him. These lessons are made evident by God. The narrator warns that ignoring the short timespan man has on the earth by wasting it is the surest way to mock the gift of life God has given mankind.

Stanza 4

Holy men who chose to live alone in the woods seem to live longer lives. The narrator states "there have been holy men/Who deemed it were not well to pass life thus," meaning people hold differing opinions regarding seclusion. He suggests that either extreme is unfavorable. The narrator assures the reader that one can enjoy God in both ways. People must make a point of returning to the forest on occasion to witness the power of God and to remember mankind's role as the caretaker on the earth. The narrator apologizes for mankind's pride that attempts to lessen God's power and might. He understands that the floods, illnesses, fires, and terrible storms often remind man who is greater. The narrator asks that "God Spare me and mine, nor let us need the wrath/Of the mad unchained elements to teach/Who rules them." He prays that he and his family be allowed to worship the awesome nature of God within the shaded groves of the forests and carry that lesson throughout their lives.

Analysis

Romanticism

Romanticism as both a style and movement focused on inner reflection, imagination, and emotions. Natural elements, beauty, and an idealization of rural life are often at its core. "A Forest Hymn" is one of many poems written by Bryant in this style. It was a goal of his to create a uniquely American style of Romanticism. Many of these elements exist in the poem. In European Romanticism there is a focus on the Greek countryside or nightingales. Bryant instead draws upon the common language of rural America. He also involves the birds found locally and speaks of the plants and trees of New England.

Romanticism rejects structure and champions personal freedom. In the first lines of the poem, this is made evident with the line "The groves were God's first temples." Later lines within Stanza One repeat this rejection of man-made structures and rules—"Ah, why/Should we, in the world's riper years, neglect/God's ancient sanctuaries, and adore/Only among the crowd, and under roofs/That our frail hands have raised?"

Nature in Romanticism is revered as a teacher. "A Forest Hymn" embraces this concept with "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 wide universe." In the simple structure of a flower, one can learn to see the soul of the universe. In Stanza Three he suggests that nature is a teacher with "Written on thy works I read/The lesson of thy own eternity." The forest offers a person the chance to understand their own internal landscape.

Recurring Imagery

Certain elements are repeated within "A Forest Hymn." One of the most prevalent images is that of trees. Their majesty and soaring heights are used to represent the power of God and the small stature of man in comparison. This is most notable in Stanza One, lines 10-15: "And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven/Mingled their mossy boughs, and from the sound/Of the invisible breath that swayed at once/All their green tops, stole over him, and bowed/His spirit with the thought of boundless power/And inaccessible majesty." In Stanza Two Bryant repeats this image of trees as towering reminders of God's power. "Father, thy hand/Hath reared these venerable columns, thou/Didst weave this verdant roof." (li 24-25). In lines 33-35, he suggests trees are as fit a shrine for worship as any man has made. "As now they stand, massy, and tall, and dark/Fit shrine for humble worshipper to hold/Communion with his Maker." Standing next to the centuries-old oak trees the poet feels insignificant. "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 Two, li 55-58).

Trees are not the only natural elements reflecting God's power. Flowers are considered an art form within the poem and Bryant submits that taking the time to observe a flower allows a person to see the soul of the universe. "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." He suggests that the sheer elegance of a bloom is proof of a higher power. The precise and ordered elegance of the universe proves there is a God.

Soil is an image that recurs with great frequency. The poet suggests that "from the inmost darkness of the place/Comes, scarcely felt; the barky trunks, the ground/The fresh moist ground, are all instinct with thee. Here is continual worship"(Stanza Two, li 43-45). He suggests mankind understand the lesson of death, birth, and renewal. From the foundation of the soil comes life, and without it nothing grows or lives.

Rhyme Scheme

The poem is considered an unrhymed poem called blank verse. Blank verse is utilized by Bryant because it most naturally mimics the spoken word. He also employs enjambment to achieve the same mood and tone. Enjambment is a technique allowing one line to end without a pause, running right into the next.

"Let me, at least/Here, in the shadow of this aged wood/Offer one hymn—thrice happy if it find/Acceptance in His ear."

"A Forest Hymn" is written using Iambic Pentameter. This means there are 10 syllables in each line. This can be seen in the first line in the poem: "The Groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned" Within this line unstressed syllables are immediately followed by stressed ones. There are exactly 10 syllables to the line.

"The Groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned"

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about A Forest Hymn? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!