Saturday, November 3, 2012

Two poets who rivaled the powerful

Lucan, William Cullen Bryant
It is the birthday of two poets, one who lived in ancient Rome and the other who lived in 19th century America. Both did their best to rile the Powers That Be with their poetry.

Lucan (39 AD) was a close friend of the emperor Nero but at some point had a falling out with the tyrannical ruler. It is not clear what led to the feud but scholars think that a poem On the Burning of the City, in which Lucan wrote of "unspeakable flames of the criminal tyrant roamed the heights of Remus" might have contributed to the rift.

In any case, historians tell us that Lucan became part of a conspiracy against the emperor and when his treachery was discovered he committed suicide at the age of 25. He slit open a vein and lay bleeding to death, recalling a poem he had written about a wounded soldier who similarly lay dying. He died reciting his poem.

William Cullen Bryant (1794) was never a close friend of President Thomas Jefferson, and, at the age of 13 published a brutally critical poem, The Embargo, which satirized Jeffersonian democracy. The young Bryant was an Alexander Hamilton Federalist.

Bryant lived considerably longer than Lucan, and didn't commit suicide, politics having become a bit more civilized. Bryant served as editor of the New York Evening Post for 50 years, and remained active in politics, supported Andrew Jackson, and became an advocate of the New Soil Party, forerunner of the Republican Party.

Bryant was once known as America's leading poet. His most well known poem is Thanatopsis (1817), which is translated from the Greek as "Meditation Upon Death." He died at age 83 from complications from a fall in New York's Central Park.

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