Poetry of William Cullen Bryant
“The Planting of the Apple-Tree”
Did you know that William Cullen Bryant, a 19th century poet (and Schoolhouse Poet like John Greenleaf Whittier) planted over 800 apple trees on his farm property? While the orchard is no longer active, you can still visit the poet’s homestead in Cummington, MA. A property of The Trustees, The William Cullen Bryant Homestead is open for house tours and other activities in the fall.
While visiting the property, take a look at the scenic Hilltown views of the Westfield River Valley, take a picnic lunch (don’t forget your freshly picked apples!) and read Bryant’s poem “The Planting of an Apple-Tree.”
The poem’s various stanzas walk through the passage of time, starting with the planting of the apple tree and ending with the apple tree in its old age, as well as the poet who planted it. The tree is more than just the bearer of fruit, but as Bryant nostalgically mentions, is a tree that represents childhood, home, and identity. It provides shade on hot days, perfumes the air with the fragrance of springtime, and offers a resting place for playing children in the summer. The apple reminds the poet of New England’s seasonality and the apple-tree represents a unique American spirit beginning to blossom in the mid-19th century.
Reread the following stanza:
“The fruitage of this apple-tree
Winds and our flag of stripe and star
Shall bear to coasts that lie afar,
Where men shall wonder at the view,
And ask in what fair groves they grew;
And sojourners beyond the sea
Shall think of childhood’s careless day
And long, long hours of summer play,
In the shade of the apple-tree.”
The lines “winds and our flag of stripe and star/Shall bear to coast that lie afar,” refer to the American flag and how the apple is similar – representing an American identity synonymous with the stripes and stars. The subsequent line, “Where men shall wonder at the view,/And ask in what fair groves the grew;” highlights the foreigners curiosity of this wondrous fruit and the desire to know what land they come from. By adding this line, Bryant emphasizes how the American spirit and cultural identity that is becoming established in the 19th century, is now recognized through the land that cultivates the apple. The wilderness of the woods and pastoral country fields of the New England landscape were considered emblematic of a young American spirit that Bryant, in his poem, explains as being seen abroad through the presentation of the apple: a symbol of the land that produced it and its natural surroundings.
Finally, in this particular stanza, the last few verses “And sojourners beyond the sea/ Shall think of childhood’s careless day/And long, long hours of summer play,/In the shade of the apple-tree” again speak to the connection Bryant has established between the apple of the idea of “home” as felt by American travelers abroad. When they think of their homeland, their nationhood, they fondly recall childhood memories playing under the apple tree.
The last stanza of the poem, refers to Bryant the poet himself. It almost foreshadows the present as you can still visit his homestead where the poet planted apple trees. A few old trees in the orchard still remain and the story of the poet is still told through the house’s history.
Fun fact: (Did you know that Bryant translated The Iliad while in Cummington, MA?)
Excerpt from Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts (Seasons: Sept/Oct), a downloadable bimonthly publication produced by Hilltown Families that sheds light on embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.