Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312
“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.
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1677
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.
The poem is divided into three main sections. It has been noted that, whether Bryant was consciously aware of doing so or not, he structured the poem in the traditional rhetorical form of the “plain style” sermon that had been brought by settlers to New England during colonial days. This style provided for a three-part division, the parts dealing, in turn, with doctrine, reasons, and uses. The first section (lines 1-30) provides the philosophical background, or “doctrine,” of the poem. Nature personified—that is, given human qualities, such as the ability to speak a language—is established as an authority to speak to humanity through its “still voice”: “To him who in the love of nature holds/ Communion with her visible forms, she speaks/ A various language.” The major problem to be resolved is that of coming to terms with the fact that everyone must eventually die. To relieve the fear that often accompanies thoughts of death, Nature can speak with a “various language.” These variations include a “voice of gladness,” a “smile and eloquence of beauty,” and a “gentle sympathy” that is soothing and healing, offering consolation that “steals away” the fear. The “voice” in the poem then submits that when thoughts of death and burial become overwhelming, one should “go forth, under the open sky” and listen to what Nature has to say.
The “doctrine” that the poem teaches is that death means a total loss of human evidence: “Surrendering up Thine individual being, shalt thou go/ To mix forever with the elements.” Some critics have criticized this passage as indicating that Bryant was not writing a Christian poem in which a faith in immortality and a hope of being eternally with God in heaven provides consolation. Actually, some people wrote letters of gratitude to Bryant for the consolation that the poem had given them; these people interpreted the poem as being a religious one.
The middle, or “reason,” section of the poem (lines 31-72) becomes something of a debate, providing justification for the reason people should not view death as an isolation that forever separates. It argues against the reasons humanity would give for not wanting to face death. The dead are not alone; rather, they may actually be in more distinguished company than they have been accustomed to in life:
Thou shalt lie downWith 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.
Furthermore, a return to Nature (that is, burial in the earth) means that all of the beauties of nature—the hills and vales, the “venerable woods” and “meadows green,” the majestic rivers, the “complaining brooks,” and even the “old ocean” itself—provide “solemn decorations” on “the great tomb of man” over which the sun never ceases to shine.
Another argument against the grave as consigning one to eternal isolation is that all the people living on the earth at a given time are but a “handful” compared to the number of the “slumbering” dead who are literally spread throughout the earth. It is just a matter of time until all will share the experience of death. Death should thus be thought of as something of a joyful reunion with those who have gone before.
To counter the possibility that an individual may die with no one taking note of the departure, with life going on gaily as if that person had never lived, Nature would say not to worry, for all of those still living on earth will one day come to the same end: “Yet all these shall leave/ Their mirth and their employments, and shall come/ And make their bed with thee.” No one is exempt: Young and old alike “shall one by one be gathered” to join those who have departed earlier.
Like the Puritan sermon, the final section of the poem (lines 73-81) is analogous to the “uses” or application of the truths of the earlier sections. It “teaches” that if one is to face death without fear, one must, in life, prepare to be able to look on death at least with equanimity if not with enthusiasm. That preparation consists of taking seriously the admonition to live in such a way that, when death comes, one does not experience it as a prisoner taken in the night to some “dungeon” or “narrow house”—a coffin—and lowered into a grave, with no hope of escape. Rather, with an “unfaltering trust,” one may compare going to the grave with preparing to lie down peacefully for a nap with the full expectation of having pleasant dreams.
In addition to using the Puritan sermon form innovatively, the poem reveals the use of a pattern of contrast, contradiction, and paradox in its development. For example, the intellectual and the emotional are juxtaposed to good effect. Impersonal references to details that suggest grief and loss are plentiful: “thoughts of the last bitter hour,” “sad images of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall.” However, there are unmistakably emotional undertones to these references.
Another example of this pattern in the poem is seen in the way the eternal, or permanent, aspect of nature is contrasted with the transient, or short-lived. The sun, the hills, the rivers, the forests, the ocean—elements that are perceived as timeless—are juxtaposed with references to the impermanence of humanity: “Earth, that nourished three, shall claim/ Thy growth, to be resolv’d to earth again.” Also seen in this passage is the paradox that, even as Nature consoles with her “voice of gladness” and comes to humanity “with a mild and healing sympathy,” it is “Earth, that nourished thee,” who comes to “claim thy growth.” The same Nature that is a consoler is thus also seen as Nature the enemy, who claims the lives of human beings. The graves of the dead, which become “one mighty sepulchre” and “the great tomb of man” that is decorated by all of the splendid beauty of nature, are also the “sad abodes of death” where “the oak shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.”
Yet another paradox is that the poem is simultaneously a lesson on dying and a lesson on living. In order to learn the lesson of dying well, it is necessary to learn how to live well, and in “Thanatopsis” this involves living with such a perspective that death is seen as a natural, not a fearful, conclusion to life.
By 1825, Bryant had formulated his theory about poetry, which he shared in his “Lectures on Poetry” produced in 1825 and 1826. He believed that the “great spring of poetry” is emotion and that the source of poetic inspiration is nature. To his credit, the connections that Bryant made between “things of the moral and of the natural worlds,” later known as the doctrine of analogies or correspondences, were made more than ten years before the theory would become a central tenet of American literary criticism.
It is important to realize that, in its day, both “Thanatopsis” and its writer played a central role in the formation of the character of a national literature. American politician and writer Richard Henry Dana, Jr., has been credited with commenting that “no one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses,” referring to Bryant and “Thanatopsis.” At that time, it was assumed that American poetry had not yet matured sufficiently to produce a poem that could so favorably be compared to the poems of well-established British poets such as Wordsworth. Another critic of Bryant’s era detected in “Thanatopsis” “the literature of the new nation, as distinct from colonial literature.” To the large extent that this appraisal was accurate, the poem has carved for itself a permanent place in American literary history.