What is the central theme in William Cullen Bryant’s “To the Fringed Gentian”?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem "To the Fringed Gentian" by William Cullen Bryant consists of five four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter. The lines are rhymed as couplets, i.e. each stanza is rhymed AABB. 

Although the overt subject of the poem appears, in the first four stanzas, simply to be the beauty of the flower, it gradually moves from simple description to more philosophical and religious reflection. The poet notes that the fringed gentian is unusual in that it blooms in late autumn, when the world is colder and most vegetation is dying off, as "The aged year is near his end."

Bryant, himself a member of the Unitarian Church, in the last stanza of the poem reflects on human aging and mortality, seeing the gentian's quiet beauty at the year's end as something he hopes he can emulate. He imagines that the "eye" of the flower is serenely gazing up to heaven, and in the final stanza wishes that hope of heaven will blossom in his own heart as he approaches death:

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.
Thus the major theme of the poem is that of hope of heaven giving serenity in the face of human mortality.
lprono eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem central theme is expressed through the final metaphor, elaborated in the last two stanzas, which likens the late blossoming of the fringed gentian towards the end of the year, a concept that is developed in the first three stanzas, to the serene and peaceful attidute that the poet hopes he will have when his own end (death) comes. The poet directly addresses the fringed gentian commenting that when "the aged year is near his end"

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye 
Look through its fringes to the sky,

The poet wishes that

    . . . thus when I shall see 
    The hour of death draw near to me, 
    Hope, blossoming within my heart, 
    May look to heaven as I depart.

The promise of heaven, blossoming like a fringed gentian late in the life of the poet, should make him look upon death with a peaceful state of mind. 

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