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William Cullen Bryant's "The Murdered Traveller"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

Introduction and Text of "The Murdered Traveller"

Consisting of nine rimed-stanzas, each with the rime-scheme ABAB, which remain consistent throughout, as does the rhythm and meter, "The Murdered Traveller" does not merely offer a murder mystery; it also contrasts the beauty of the natural landscape with the horror of a traveling man's murder.

The speaker in William Cullen Bryant's classic is a resident of the locale, probably a small village, who knows that the murdered man's body was found, and the speaker feels a natural melancholy infused with sympathy and empathy for the man and his family.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Murdered Traveller

When spring, to woods and wastes around,
Brought bloom and joy again,
The murdered traveller's bones were found,
Far down a narrow glen.

The fragrant birch above him hung
Her tassels in the sky;
And many a vernal blossom sprung,
And nodded careless by.

The red-bird warbled as he wrought
His hanging nest o'erhead,
And fearless, near the fatal spot,
Her young the partridge led.

But there was weeping far away;
And gentle eyes, for him,
With watching many an anxious day,
Were sorrowful and dim.

They little knew, who loved him so,
The fearful death he met,
When shouting o'er the desert snow,
Unarmed, and hard beset;

Nor how, when round the frosty pole
The northern dawn was red,
The mountain wolf and wildcat stole
To banquet on the dead;

Nor how, when strangers found the bones,
They dressed the hasty bier,
And marked his grave with nameless stones,
Unmoistened by a tear.

But long they looked, and feared, and wept,
Within his distant home;
And dreamed, and started as they slept,
For joy that he was come.

So long they looked; but never spied
His welcome step again,
Nor knew the fearful death he died
Far down that narrow glen.

Commentary

The speaker in this poem is dramatizing an unsolved murder mystery, as he muses about the family of the man whose bones are found "far down a narrow glen."

First Stanza: Introducing the Mystery

When spring, to woods and wastes around,
Brought bloom and joy again,
The murdered traveller's bones were found,
Far down a narrow glen.

In the first stanza, the speaker sets the scene for beauty: it was springtime, which had "[b]rought bloom and joy again." And in the midst of this beautiful and joyful season, someone discovered the "traveller's bones" "[f]ar down a narrow glen."

Second and Third Stanzas: Describing the Natural Beauty

The fragrant birch above him hung
Her tassels in the sky;
And many a vernal blossom sprung,
And nodded careless by.

The red-bird warbled as he wrought
His hanging nest o'erhead,
And fearless, near the fatal spot,
Her young the partridge led.

The speaker further describes the beautiful spring with its annual events: the tree under which the traveler was found was a "fragrant birch" whose leaves resembled "tassels in the sky." And a riot of blooming flowers enlivened the area with their color and fragrance.

In the third stanza, the speaker reports that a "red-bird warbled, as he wrought / His hanging nest o'erhead." And another bird, the partridge, "fearless, near the fatal spot" brought her babies.

Fourth Stanza: Speculating About the Loved Ones

But there was weeping far away;
And gentle eyes, for him,
With watching many an anxious day,
Were sorrowful and dim.

The fourth stanza finds the poem's speaker musing about the man's family: that they, no doubt, would be "weeping far away" and that they would be waiting impatiently and watching for their loved one to return from his journey.

The speaker can be certain that the man's loved ones were feeling "sorrowful" because of the speaker's ability to empathize with those who must be mourning. The speaker, of course, now knows that the man's family would not realize that they are mourning his death and not simply his absence.

Fifth Stanza: Continuing in Empathy

They little knew, who loved him so,
The fearful death he met,
When shouting o'er the desert snow,
Unarmed, and hard beset;

The speaker avers that the murdered man's loved ones did not know their loved one had died, as they continued to anticipate his return. But the speaker can imagine the "fearful death he met," probably crying out for his life. The traveler could not defend himself from his killer(s) because he was unarmed.

Sixth Stanza and Seventh Stanzas: What the Loved Ones Could not Know

Nor how, when round the frosty pole
The northern dawn was red,
The mountain wolf and wildcat stole
To banquet on the dead;

The speaker, although he knows little, knows more than the traveler's family does. They could not imagine as the speaker does how after the poor man was murdered, wild animals came to devour his flesh.

Also, they could not know that when their beloved's bones were found by the distant villagers, the remains were hastily prepared and placed in an unmarked grave without anyone there to cry for him.

Eight and Ninth Stanzas: They Are Still Waiting

Nor how, when strangers found the bones,
They dressed the hasty bier,
And marked his grave with nameless stones,
Unmoistened by a tear.

But long they looked, and feared, and wept,
Within his distant home;
And dreamed, and started as they slept,
For joy that he was come.

So long they looked; but never spied
His welcome step again,
Nor knew the fearful death he died
Far down that narrow glen.

The speaker confidently reports that the poor victim's family and friends continued to wait and watch and even dream about their loved one. And even in their sleep, they would surely startle awake at any sound thinking it might be him coming home.

But even though the speaker knows they will never stop waiting and watching and anticipating the loved one's return, he also knows that they "never spied / His welcome step again." And the speaker can truthfully assert that they will never know "the fearful death he died / Far down that narrow glen."

William Cullen Bryant

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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