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What makes William Cullen Bryants' "Thanatopsis" special and/or important?

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janetbarnes | Student, College Freshman | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 12, 2009 at 5:42 AM via web

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What makes William Cullen Bryants' "Thanatopsis" special and/or important?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted March 20, 2014 at 8:34 PM (Answer #2)

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     To him who in the love of Nature holds   
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   
A various language; for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy, that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts   
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight   
Over thy spirit, and sad images   
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,   
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,   
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—   
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—
                                
"Thanatopsis" is a declamatory piece par excellence. It is full of Wordsworthian and Emersonian homilies, but it is interesting because it is a fine poem for reciting aloud. What is most interesting is Bryant's allowance for the fact that the reader, if reading aloud, has to take breaths and can only do so appropriately at certain places, not necessarily at the ends of the ends of the iambic-pentameter lines. In the fragment of the poem quoted above, it seems apparent that the first breath is allowed for at the end of these words:
 
To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, (deep breath) she speaks
A various language;
 
The last three words end with a semicolon, suggesting that here is an invitation for the reader to take another deep breath and then go on with
 
for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, 
 
Here the comma lets the reader not only take in another breath but to open his or her mouth in preparation for saying the word "and" in the following:
 
and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy,
 
Another comma tells the reader to take another breath, and the word "that" is a perfect occasion because the reader has to open his mouth to say it.
 
that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. 
 
Now Bryant presents us with a generous period, a full stop, in which to take a really deep breath and get ready for the next burst of eloquence. And so on.
 
You cannot, especially as a young person, appreciate this old warhorse of a poem without having a little fun with it. And the way to have fun with it is to read it aloud, with expression, maybe a little melodramatically, and becoming aware of how adroitly Bryant has allowed for the fact that we humans have to breathe from time to time. It also gives us a better awareness and understanding of the purpose of commas, semicolons, and periods. We should not only read Shakespeare and poetry aloud, but we should read our own compositions aloud and see how they sound as well as what they mean.
 
When composers write for wind instruments or for vocalists, they have to allow for the fact that breathing is of the utmost importance. Good examples are to be found in Mozart's beautiful concertos for French Horn (Kochel 412, 417, 447, 495) and in the famous chorus to the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 12, 2009 at 8:28 AM (Answer #1)

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Bryant's poem is fairly important because of what it attempted to do and the location of where it was being done.  As an American poet, "Thanatopsis" is reminiscent of the British Romantic poems in both form and theme.  The opening of the poem is like Wordsworth, with an elaborate and profound appeal to nature and a sense of the natural world being the seat of all understanding.  The themes of death, the democracy element of mortality, and the idea of embracing the notion of dying as part of a larger cycle of life that envelops all living things are very Romantic in nature.  The fact that an American poet was experimenting with these themes and in the form he does was uniquely distinctive.  It showed the strength of American poets and that there was a level of collaboration and healthy competition that could be undertaken with British poets.  While Cullen does write about American themes, the notion of writing about death, maturation, and nature was radical because such a triad of topics were ones undertaken by British writers.  For Cullen to do that proved that American intellectual thought possessed merit and validity in the bazaar of world ideas.

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