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Gardens of the Desert

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the great American poet, William Cullen Bryant visited his brother John in Princeton, Illinois, in 1832, he brought both his left brain and his right brain along. The result was some poetry and some profit, a very unusual combination, as your poet friends will tell you.

You know the right-brain Bryant; didn't you have to memorize ten lines of "Thanatopsis" in 5th grade? "So live that when thy final summons comes to join the innumerable caravan, which moves to that mysterious realm where each shall take his chamber in the silent halls of death..."

Touring the Illinois prairie with his brother John in 1832, Bryant found life, and it led to one of his best, most romantic poems. "These are the gardens of the Desert," he wrote in that poem, "The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful, for which the speech of England has no name." The prairie reminded Bryant of the ocean: "My heart swells, while the dilated sight takes in the encircling vastness."

Bryant went on to imagine that a great civilized race the equal of Greece and Rome must have once lived here before the Indians came and drove them away. Now, there was only the hum of insects, the flight of birds above waves of grasses and flowers.

While all this was going on in the poet's mind, let's sneak over and watch the left brain at work. John Bryant had already been joined by several brothers in 1832; they were all busy laying out the town of Princeton, in which they owned many lots.

The Black Hawk War, just over when to poet came for his visit, had opened up all of northern Illinois to settlement. Immigrants were already streaming west. Land speculation seemed like a sure thing. Buy one month and sell for double a few weeks later.

And so, while the right brain wrote about the gardens of the desert, the left brain began buying and selling parcels of that garden. Bryant's romantic poem published late in 1832 created a myth of the prairie as Eden and fueled the desire of easterners for prairie lands.

Eventually, William Cullen Bryant bought and sold at least 2,300 acres of lots and plots in and around Princeton, making a tidy profit on all but 280 acres, answering all those people who think poetry can't be useful.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.