Thanatopsis Questions and Answers
by William Cullen Bryant

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In "Thanatopsis," do you find this speaker's attitude toward death comforting or disturbing?   

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I do not find the speaker’s attitude either comforting or disturbing. It strikes me as being a “declamatory piece,” intended to be read or recited aloud. I would describe it as “impressive” or “effective.” It is sonorous and eloquent. The word “declamatory” is defined in my dictionary as “2. Pretentiouly rhetorical; bombastic.” No doubt it was popular for many years because some men enjoyed reading it aloud to their families, in the days before television when this sort of thing was commonplace, or reading it to theater audiences. The best way for the student to appreciate this poem, in my opinion, is to read it aloud with all the verbal orchestration it seems to call for.

Notice that most of the lines do not end with a full stop or even with a comma. The first comma that appears at the end of a line occurs after the word “pall” in line #11. This strongly suggests that the author is striving to create an impressive and even breathtaking flow of eloquence. There are also changes in imagery which seem to call for changes in tone. The experienced rhetorician would change his volume and pitch throughout the demanding reading. A striking example of this occurs at line #17, after Bryant advises the listener to go forth and list to Nature’s teachings, while from all around

Comes a still voice--Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
They image.

This introduction of a “still voice” is a signal from writer to orator to change his tone to resemble the still voice of Nature (like a cricket chirping in the woods perhaps). The hushed voice should continue until it reaches the sentence

All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.

And then the orator is plainly invited to fill his lungs and burst into

Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon [the Columbia River], and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings.

There are other places which call for a dramatic change in the tone of voice. One of these begins with “As the long train / Of ages glides away . . .” And the last nine lines, which stand separate from the rest of this resonant poem, seems to call for a loud, solemn, portentious reading which make it obvious that here at last is the grand finale. Notice that it is one long sentence which would require the reader to practice it a few times so as to be sure to know where it is allowable, and advisable, to take in a deep breath.

So live, that when thy 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,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

The comma that comes after “the silent halls of death,” provides a welcome opportunity for the orator to fill his lungs with oxygen before launching into the remaining lines. Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” is a “declamatory piece,” a tour de force comparable to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's “Ol’ Man River.”

It may not have been intended to be either comforting or disturbing but eloquent and impressive. That is how it affects me.

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