“Thanatopsis” means “views on” or “vision of” death in Greek, which alludes to the poem’s content. The poet begins by describing nature, specifically saying that those who enjoy nature will appreciate its diversity. Nature, too, can be a balm or source of sympathy for those who are depressed at the prospect of death.
The speaker encourages his audience not to fear death, as he will be restored to the earth from which he sprung. He will be surrounded by rocks and soil. Essentially, the poet encourages the speaker not to fear death, as death returns us to nature, which we know (from our experience living) to be lovely and variegated.
Furthermore, the speaker reminds us that no one dies alone; we will be accompanied by every living person who has gone before us. After all, the number of people who are dead are much greater than even all of those on earth.
The speaker reinforces that, by returning to earth, the dead become part of the soil and therefore part of the living wilderness. Even if one dies alone, he will share in the fate of everyone who passed before him when he becomes part of the earth again.
The speaker encourages the audience to continue to live his life to the fullest, enjoying the things that make him happy; however, he should not be surprised when death (whose arrival is impossible to predict) should come for him. The speaker enjoins his audience not to face death with reluctance (as a slave going to a quarry), but rather to shore up his trust in death and face it with the peace of mind of one lying down to rest. The metaphor of death as sleep is a common one, and the poet uses this to remind us that we should not fear death but embrace welcome it as a natural process.
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.
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