A Forest Hymn | Study Guide

William Cullen Bryant

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A Forest Hymn | Quotes


The groves were God's first temples.


The narrator sets the mood with this opening line. He sees God's work in Nature and recalls a time when there were no churches and people worshipped in the forest.


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?


The narrator wonders why mankind gave up worshipping out of doors and wonders what part of mankind's spirituality has been lost because of it.


As now they stand, massy, and tall, and dark, Fit shrine for humble worshipper to hold Communion with his Maker.


Trees figure as a strong symbol and image of the might and holy aspect of God within the poem. Trees are mentioned the most in comparison to other natural objects presented in the poem. They are depicted as spiritual elements created by God. The towering trees offer instruction about renewal and the life cycle and man's part in it. It is a lesson about communion and communication that is never ceasing.


No fantastic carvings show The boast of our vain race to change the form Of thy fair works.


None of man's artistic or architectural achievements match the grandeur of the forest. Any attempts are vain and pointless compared to the majesty and beauty of nature.


Thou art in the soft winds That run along the summit of these trees In music.


The voice of God and the music of this woodland cathedral is the wind blowing through the trees. This establishes the presence of God in the woods and embodies the concept of the forest as a place of worship. The voice of God is heard in the wind suggesting true communion is possible if man takes the time to be still and listen. In this aspect God's voice is always there if one takes the time to be aware of it. This connection to God is possible when surrounded by nature.


Here is continual worship;—nature, here, In the tranquility that thou dost love, Enjoys thy presence.


God can be found in Nature. The words "continual worship" are significant because they suggest that nature is always in a state of communication and connection with God. When mankind chooses to see himself as separate from nature, he closes down that constant communion. This state of communion produces tranquility and peace. The narrator says it is an achievement man has yet to learn.


This mighty oak— By whose immovable stem I stand and seem Almost annihilated—not a prince


Standing next to a centuries-old oak tree, the narrator is humbled. Mankind needs to regain some perspective regarding his place in the world. The narrator suggests that people need to set aside their pride and be humbled. This is possible when standing next to a centuries-old oak. Its sheer height and size dwarf the narrator standing next to it.


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.


The narrator states that simply observing a flower can prove to someone that God exists. Its complexity and beauty are too ordered to be random. From a simple flower one can see the soul of the universe and the nature of God.


In silence, round me—the perpetual work Of thy creation, finished, yet renewed Forever.


The mortality of mankind is the main focus of this line. There is the promise of continued existence in the birth, death, and renewal of plants and animals in the forest. This existence continues even when dead. The narrator suggests that the powerful cycle of birth, life, and death are one cycle, not three separate ones. The power of this cycle is evidence for God.


Life mocks the idle hate Of his arch-enemy Death—yea, seats himself Upon the tyrant's throne—the sepulcher, And of the triumphs of his ghastly foe Makes his own nourishment. For he came forth From thine own bosom, and shall have no end.


The narrator considers that without life, death could not exist. Of the two, life is the greater power. Death's place in the cycle is established as last compared to birth and life. This never-ending cycle is also proof of God's power.


There have been holy men who hid themselves Deep in the woody wilderness, and gave Their lives to thought and prayer, till they outlived The generation born with them, nor seemed Less aged than the hoary trees and rocks Around them;—and there have been holy men Who deemed it were not well to pass life thus.


The narrator offers examples of those people who entered into seclusion in the woods and lived longer lives. The opposite perspective on this way of life is also offered. Neither excess is favorable, and finding a balance between the two is the state of grace everyone should aspire to.


But let me often to these solitudes Retire, and in thy presence reassure My feeble virtue.


The narrator indicates a willingness and commitment to coming to the woods to spend time with God. He suggests that in the woods all the worries of the outside world melt away, and he can truly worship.


... who forgets not, at the sight Of these tremendous tokens of thy power, His pride, and lays his strifes and follies by?


When confronted with the destructive forces of nature caused by God, people quickly rid themselves of their pride. It is in times like these that everyday worries seem less significant and are placed into a proper perspective.


Oh, from these sterner aspects of thy face Spare me and mine, nor let us need the wrath Of the mad unchained elements to teach Who rules them.


The narrator is asking God to spare him and his family from all manner of natural disasters such as fire and floods. He promises to keep foolish pride in check and to always keep his place in the universe in perspective.


Be it ours to meditate, In these calm shades, thy milder majesty, And to the beautiful order of thy works Learn to conform the order of our lives.


As a final lyric in this "hymn" the narrator makes a promise to God that if God will spare his family from the terrible perils in the world, the narrator will not forget the lessons of the woods. He also offers to return to the forest. When he cannot return to the forest, he will carry the lessons in his heart. The narrator vows to use the lessons of the forest to create a better life that is acceptable and in communion with God's plan.

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