Study Guide

Thanatopsis

by William Cullen Bryant

Thanatopsis Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis” is considered to be the best of a number of poems he wrote on the subject of death. More noteworthy, however, is the fact that this poem established Bryant’s reputation as a poet. That is not to say, however, that the poet was an overnight success. The North American Review, the periodical in which the poem first appeared, had a small circulation. Furthermore, according to one of Bryant’s biographers, “Thanatopsis” was actually submitted to the publisher by the poet’s father, and, since it was printed anonymously, one editor thought that the poem had been written by Bryant’s father, Dr. Peter Bryant. Also, in the early nineteenth century, American readers were just beginning to develop an appreciation of the kind of Romanticism that the poem exhibits.

After his reputation was established, however, Bryant was sometimes called the “American Wordsworth” because, like the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth, he excelled in creating effective descriptions of nature. It is interesting to note that Bryant was acknowledged as the foremost poet in the United States even before his poems had been collected into a single volume; they had been published only singly in magazines and newspapers over a period of some fifteen years. One writer commented that Bryant had “been placed by common consent at the head of the list of American poets.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Bryant did not earn a living exclusively from writing poetry. Influential in civic and political affairs, he was a lawyer and, for more than fifty years, editor of the New York Evening Post. That such a busy man could produce a poem judged to be of such high quality was in itself an outstanding achievement.

“Thanatopsis” filled one of the needs of Bryant’s generation very well. Written during the early days of American nationhood, when there was not yet any real sense of a national past, the very size of the young country contributing to a sense of isolation, this poem provided reflections on topics that had real relevance to the citizenry: human mortality, the perception of death as separation, and the transience of life. “Thanatopsis” was thus sensitive to and in tune with the feelings of the times.

The poem is divided into three main sections. It has been noted that, whether Bryant was consciously aware of doing so or not, he structured the poem in the traditional rhetorical form of the “plain style” sermon that had been brought by settlers to New England during colonial days. This style provided for a three-part division, the parts dealing, in turn, with doctrine, reasons, and uses. The first section (lines 1-30) provides the philosophical background, or “doctrine,” of the poem. Nature personified—that is, given human qualities, such as the ability to speak a language—is established as an authority to speak to humanity through its “still voice”: “To him who in the love of nature holds/ Communion with her visible forms, she speaks/ A various language.” The major problem to be resolved is that of coming to terms with the fact that everyone must eventually die. To relieve the fear that often accompanies thoughts of death, Nature can speak with a “various language.” These variations include a “voice of gladness,” a “smile and eloquence of beauty,” and a “gentle sympathy” that is soothing and healing, offering consolation that “steals away” the fear. The “voice” in the poem then submits that when thoughts of death and burial become overwhelming, one should “go forth, under the open sky” and listen to what Nature has to say.

The “doctrine” that the poem teaches is that death means a total loss of human evidence: “Surrendering up Thine individual being, shalt thou go/ To mix forever with the elements.” Some critics have criticized this passage as indicating that Bryant was not writing a Christian poem in which a faith in immortality and a hope of being eternally with God in heaven provides consolation. Actually, some people wrote letters of...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)