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Bryant's Country Post by :shamcatcher Category :Essays Author :George William Curtis Date :November 2011 Read :3677

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Bryant's Country

The traveller in western Massachusetts, reaching some quiet village upon the hills, which seems to him singularly lonely and remote, often finds some little incident in its annals which connects it with the great world. Coming to Goshen, a solitary little town wholly unknown to most of our readers, he is conscious of the height, of the purity of the air, and the peacefulness of the wooded landscape, and far below, towards the east, he sees the undulating line of Holyoke, and on some fortunate day may catch the gleam of the placid Connecticut winding through broad meadows and between Tom and Holyoke to the Sound.

The little town itself is a grassy street, with a meeting-house and a hotel, which has a desolate air of mistaken enterprise declining into disappointment, with long anticipation of a crowd of summer pilgrims, who might well turn their steps hither, but who have never come. Beyond the village street upon the same plateau is the great Goshen reservoir, which lies hushed in grim repose over the town of Williamsburg, a few miles below, the town which was overwhelmed some years ago by the bursting of the Mill River dam. Such events are the tragedies of the hills, which become traditions told in the village store, and investing with dignity, as the years pass, the villagers who recall the direful day.

Among the traditions of Goshen is that of the passage of some of the soldiers of Burgoyne on their march from Saratoga to Cambridge. When the brilliant British general swept down Lake Champlain to the Hudson, capturing Ticonderoga as he came, it was feared in these hills that he would march triumphantly from Albany to Boston. There was a general rally of all able-bodied men to the rescue; and as they marched away from their fields ripe for the harvest the prospect was dismal, until the able-bodied women marched into the fields and gathered and housed the crops. The British invaders reached Goshen, indeed, on their march from Albany to Boston, but only as prisoners of war.

All this peaceful neighborhood was originally granted by the State to the heirs of soldiers in the early New England wars. Goshen and its neighbor Chesterfield, another city set upon a hill six or seven miles to the south, were grants to the descendants of soldiers in the Narragansett expedition of King Philip's war. From Goshen the Chesterfield meeting-house can be seen against the southern horizon, and the road lies through high pastures and lonely farms to the pleasant town. When you climb its hill and look around, you see a cluster of hospitable houses, around which the neatly kept grounds give an air of refinement to the whole village, which is steeped in rural tranquillity.

The broad hills slope westward towards the valley of the Westfield, and beyond lie the shaggy sides of the Cummington range. Chesterfield has its special tradition of Lafayette passing the night in its old tavern, on his way from Albany to Boston, in 1824. It is a characteristic representative of the hill towns, so still that the air seems drowsy as in Rip Van Winkle's village. But such tranquil towns, in which a moving figure is half spectral and almost a surprise, were the beginnings of the nation. From these sequestered springs the mighty river flows.

Chesterfield has not half the population that it counted seventy years ago. The whole town now reports scarcely seven hundred persons. Yet, with all the old spirit, it invited its neighbors in Hampshire County to come and dine on one of the loveliest of summer days this year. It was the annual festival of the Hill-side Agricultural Society, and fully a thousand people filled the friendly town. The feast was spread upon tables on a green space beside the old house in which Lafayette slept, and under a bower of leafy white birch boughs. The magnates of the county were all present, and it was whispered privately that there were private whisperings among eminent politicians, who, however, with the non-political, or the political of the wrong side, talked cheerfully of the charming day and the promising crops. Politics is the breath of our patriotic nostrils, and it was a stimulating thought that while we were listening to the humorous but well-merited praises of Strawberry Hill pork, some of our bland companions were saving their bacon in other ways; and while we dreamed of crisp sausages and savory ham, were contriving Senators and Councillors, and even a Governor himself.

The simple courtesy and universal intelligence were of the old New England, nor less so the composure and ease with which speaker after speaker mounted the bench on which he sat, and in what he said, and the way in which he said it, showed that he was a graduate of the town meeting. The pastor of Goshen, asked to speak of some of the more noted citizens of the neighboring towns, might well have occupied with so fruitful a text all the hours until sunset. But with exemplary discretion he mentioned but a few, and among them some that surprised a New-Yorker, who had not known, but might have guessed, that Gideon Lee, former Mayor of the city, and Luther Bradish, Lieutenant-Governor of the State, came from the little town upon the Cummington hills opposite, where Bryant studied law.

The whole region before us, indeed, was especially Bryant's. Upon the slope yonder he was born, and we could see the house in which as a boy he lived. "Thanatopsis" was the hymn of his meditations among those solitary woods. There, upon the nearer hill, high over Plainfield, where he wrote the poem the "Water-fowl," forever floating in the twilight heavens--

"Far through their rosy depths dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way."

We were looking upon the cradle of American literature. Here its first enduring poem was written. The poet himself never escaped the spell of the hills. The child was father of the man. Bryant in the city was always the grave and unchanged genius of New England. The city did not wear off the rusticity of his manner. His air was reserved and remote, and he was still wrapped in the seclusion of the hills. It is in such scenes and among such people on such a day that the power of these hills and their influence upon our national life and literature are perceived.

These hidden springs have overflowed the prairies of the West; and how much of the wealth and prosperity, the energy, industry, and enlightenment of New York have trickled down from them, you may hear, if you doubt, every year on Forefathers' Day at the New England dinner in New Amsterdam. As there is altogether too much glory to be adequately celebrated in one day, another has been added, to accommodate the Yankee city of Brooklyn, and it is not the fault of the sons of New England if on those two days the whole continent does not hear the melodious thunder of their eloquence proclaiming that New England always led, is leading still, and will lead forever, the triumphal procession of American progress.

Supported by such a history it is a natural boast. There is, however, one inexorable condition. To do what New England has done, New England must be what she has been.

(The end)
George William Curtis's essay: Bryant's Country

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