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Please explain William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanaptosis."

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udizzle5 | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted December 11, 2009 at 12:14 AM via web

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Please explain William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanaptosis."

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coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted December 11, 2009 at 1:07 AM (Answer #1)

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Thanatopsis means "a meditation on death" in Greek. The poet, William Cullen Bryant, was only seventeen when he wrote it, having been given a mistaken diagnosis of fatal disease. he took consolation from the fear that he might be dying from the idea that his body would be "recycled" and be again at one with nature. In this sense you could say that he was ahead of his time with green issues! The poem is reminiscent of Wordsworth's style, and was later revised to make it even more so. "Earth and her waters, and the depths of air" have the power to console, to uplift, to overjoy. Then the voice of Nature itself takes over in the poem from the poet's own voice - and we hear it talking directly to us. At the end it advises us to take comfort from the fact that our bodies will return to Nature when our time comes, like compost at the foot of a tree.

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lit24 | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted December 11, 2009 at 1:03 AM (Answer #2)

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William Cullen Bryant [1794-1878] poet, journalist and long time editor of  "New York Evening Post" wrote "Thanaptosis" most probably between 1811-13. It was published in the year 1817 in the "North American Review."

His father Peter Bryant sent for publication his son's verses along with his own work for publication to the "North American Review." An editor joined together some of William Cullen Bryant's verses and gave it the Greek title "Thanaptosis" and published it mistakenly attributing the poem to the father. 'Thanapotsis' means 'meditation on death.'

The following lines contain William Cullen Bryant's solution to the problem of death:

Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
Comes a still voice.

It is Nature and Nature alone that can save Man from the fear of death. It offers a peaceful and sedate view of death. The poet says that there is no need to be frightened of or feel depressed about death.  Every one has to die and when one dies he or she returns to the earth and becomes one with nature and thus continues to live on forever:

Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim

Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,

And, lost each human trace, surrendering up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go 

To mix forever with the elements,

The poem was written when William Cullen Bryant was only seventeen and when the editors first saw it they thought that it was a hoax! One of the editors praised the poem by saying, "That was never written on this side of the water [the Atlantic]. It is generally regarded as the first great poem in the history of American literature.

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