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William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanatopsis" reminds me strongly of a beautiful passage by William Faulkner in his novel The Mansion. The mean, surly, bitter sharecropper Mink Snopes is lying on the bare earth dying after accomplishing his purpose of killing his relative Flem Snopes whom he blames for forcing him to serve thirty-eight years at the prison farm of Parchman in Mississippi.
But he could risk it, he even felt like giving it [the earth] a fair active chance just to show him, prove what it could do if it wanted to try. And in fact, as soon as he thought that, it seemed to him he could feel the Mink Snopes that had had to spend so much of his life just having unnecessary bother and trouble, beginning to creep, seep, flow easy as sleeping; he could almost watch it, following all the little grass blades and tiny roots, the little holes the worms made, down and down into the ground already full of the folks that had the trouble but were free now, so that it was just the ground and the dirt that had to bother and worry and anguish with the passions and hopes and skeers, the justice and the injustice and the griefs, leaving the folks themselves easy now, all mixed and jumbled up comfortable and easy so wouldn't nobody even know or even care who was which any more, himself among them, equal to any, good as any, brave as any, being inextricable from, anonymous with all of them: the beautiful, the splendid, the proud and the brave, right on up to the very top itself among the shining phantoms and dreams which are the milestones of the long human recording--Helen and the bishops, the kings and the unhomed angels, the scornful and graceless seraphim.
Bryant uses better English, but he says essentially the same thing when he says:
Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world,--with kings,
The powerful of the earth,--the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.
Probably most people think about death occasionally after they reach a certain age. Children are immortal because they don't realize they are mortal. Bryant's poem is not exactly "comforting" but he is probably making the best case he can for what we all have to accept whether we like it or not.
As we grow older we become more accustomed to the idea of death because we see relatives, friends, acquaintances, and famous people dying. The celebrities get write-ups in the newspapers and spots on television, and then they are consigned to oblivion. We have to reflect that we ourselves wouldn't really want to live forever. Not only would we become more and more decrepit, but life would become boring after a few hundred years.
Bryant's poem does not seem intended to comfort but to make the reader face the reality of death. His message seems to be summed up in a single sentence towards the end:
All that breathe
Shall share thy destiny.
Not only will you share the destiny of all the people who died before you, but all the people who come after you will have to share yours. Nature, according to Bryant's message, teaches us this lesson. We can be comforted, at least a little, by the fact that Nature herself is eternal. All that beauty will still be there after we are gone. The universe won't come crashing to an end just because our own consciousness blinks out. We aren't that important, and consequently our deaths aren't matters of great importance except to ourselves and, hopefully, to a few people who will shed a few tears for us.
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