A Forest Hymn | Study Guide

William Cullen Bryant

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A Forest Hymn | Themes


Bryant focuses on the pure communion that nature has with God. Themes of the divine in nature, man's mortality, and the dual nature of both God and nature are offered as proof of the pureness of the natural world and the corruption of man. This corruption is only redeemed by a return to nature.

God in Nature

Bryant was an avid naturalist and believed that Nature offered man a constant source for personal growth. He believed that when man chose to distance himself from Nature and its lessons, mankind suffered. Many cities during Bryant's time had become very industrialized. The yearning to return to clean air, fresh water, and unspoiled green spaces was a common sentiment among poets. Bryant viewed America's unspoiled landscapes as a part of its character and culture. To lose these green spaces and connections to Nature was to lose the soul of the nation.

The romantic notion of God as loving and accepting is in direct contrast to the religion Bryant grew up with as a child. The God he was introduced to at an early age was a fearful God who must be obeyed in the strictest of terms. In this poem Bryant embraces the belief system of the Romantics and Unitarians. In these movements God is seen as a guiding figure. This figure speaks most often and eloquently through nature. He sees the "fair ranks of trees./They, in thy sun/Budded, and shook their green leaves in thy breeze/And shot towards heaven" as proof of God's power and the sacredness of the natural world. God in nature is the predominant theme in this poem and makes an appearance throughout. Additional examples of this are in Stanza One—"Ah, why should we, in the world's riper years, neglect/God's ancient sanctuaries, and adore/Only among the crowd, and under roofs," and Stanza Three with "My heart is awed within me when I think/Of the great miracle that still goes on/In silence, round me." With this statement he suggests the evidence for God is all around him in Nature. "The fresh moist ground, are all instinct with thee/Here is continual worship;—Nature, here" (Stanza Two).

Man's Mortality

A common thread running through many of Bryant's works is the idea of mortality. This theme is particularly evident in "A Forest Hymn." The narrator states that compared to the trees and other elements in nature, man's life is quite short. Even in this cycle of birth, life, and death, God can be found. This sacred cycle is often overlooked by those who live in cities. He states that "Written on thy works I read/The lesson of thy own eternity./Lo! all grow old and die—but see again/How on the faltering footsteps of decay/Youth presses,—ever-gay and beautiful youth/In all its beautiful forms" (Stanza Three). In accepting this cycle, man's mortality is changed. Even if the body dies, it becomes one again with the natural world. It remains a part of this sacred cycle.

The narrator continues with this thought and states that death cannot exist without life: "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." Life is a greater power than death.

The narrator recalls the legends of holy men who chose to live alone in the woods and that they "outlived/The generation born with them, nor seemed/Less aged than the hoary trees and rocks/Around them." The supportive and nurturing side of nature is shown through this line and suggests that man may live a longer life by returning more often to nature.

The Dual Nature of God

Bryant often liked to compare and contrast two opposing aspects to make his point. A good example of this is in Stanza Four where he compares the nurturing and forgiving nature of God with the terrible wrath offered to those who have forgotten Him.

"But let me often to these solitudes

Retire, and in thy presence reassure

My feeble virtue. Here its enemies,

The passions, at thy plainer footsteps shrink

And tremble and are still." (Stanza 4, li 99-102)

This shows the nurturing aspect of nature. Contrasted with:

"Oh, God! when thou

Dost scare the world with tempests, set on fire

The heavens with falling thunderbolts, or fill,

With all the waters of the firmament,

The swift dark whirlwind that uproots the woods

And drowns the villages" (Stanza 4, li 103-107)

The dual nature of God is also reflected in nature. Both are nurturing, but both can also destroy. Bryant sees these opposing forces apparent in God and Nature as necessary to bring balance to the world.

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