What does the author say Nature does during happy times in "Thanatopsis"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Cullen Bryant has little to say about what Nature does for people in their happy times. He only devotes a few lines to this subject, as follows:

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

When a man is in a cheerful mood, Nature seems to harmonize with that mood. He sees and appreciates the beauty of the sky, the trees, the flowers, the birds and little animals. Bryant seems to be starting off with a token mention of the beauty of Nature, with the intention of providing a contrast to the main topic of his sombre poem, which is about death. Right after the words "and eloquence of beauty" and in the same line, the poet adroitly introduces his thesis with the words

and she glides
Into his darker musings with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.

Bryant himself "glides" into his own darker musings about death. The word "thanatopsis" means meditations on death.

"Thanatopsis" is strongly reminiscent of the speech of Claudio, who is in a prison cell awaiting execution in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This speech may have inspired Bryant's melancholy poem.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.         (Act 3, Scene 1)

The remembrance of the happy times spent in nature are, ironically, among the things that make the reality of death so terrible. That may have been partially Bryant's intention in beginning with several lines about humanity's "gayer hours" and their harmony with the beauty of nature. Bryant's poem is rather unique in dealing with such a morbid topic without offering much in the way of consolation except that everybody dies sooner or later.

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.

William Wordsworth, literature's preeminent nature lover and nature poet, paints a melancholy picture of nature in his "Ode: On Intimations of Immortality," but he consoles himself with the thought that he hasn't completely lost contact with nature and can still find some of the wonderous beauty he used to find in her as a child.

The innocent brightness of a newborn day
Is lovely yet.


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