The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

“Thanatopsis” is a meditative poem of eighty-two lines, granting consolation for human mortality through mankind’s unity with nature. The poem whose title in Greek means “a meditation on death,” was written in William Cullen Bryant’s seventeenth year in shorter form; it was frequently revised before its first appearance in North American Review in September, 1817, and was enlarged so as to include a new Wordsworthian opening (lines 117) and an extended, vaguely religious conclusion (lines 6681) for its publication in Poems, 1821.

The poem opens with a reminder that a personified Nature exists in sympathy with human beings and can heighten a person’s joy or soothe a person’s sorrow (lines 18). This opening is highly reminiscent of the language, style, and subject matter of William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), especially “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” which enunciates a more pantheistically oriented nature philosophy in a comparably elegiac strain, particularly at the close.

The speaker of “Thanatopsis” then exhorts anyone overcome with morbid thoughts of human mortality to venture into Nature for the sake of uplifting lessons to be derived from the elements of air, earth, and water (“Earth and her waters, and the depths of air”) that constitute the universe (lines 917). Nature then begins to speak, and does so for the remainder of the poem, directly addressing...

(The entire section is 456 words.)