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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 375

"Thanatopsis" is a poem written by American romantic poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant. The exact date and time of the poem’s first publication are unknown, and many analysts make various assumptions and speculations to this very day. According to some literary scholars and theorists, however, the poem was written and published between 1811 and 1816.

The main source for this claim was one of Bryant’s friends, who stated that Bryant wrote the poem when he was a teenager, in the summer of 1811, presumably when he was seventeen years old. Unfortunately, even Bryant himself couldn’t exactly remember when he wrote the poem. After his father published some parts of the verse without Bryant’s knowledge, Bryant wrote several other poems and reedited “Thanatopsis,” and published them all together in 1821, in a poetry collection simply titled Poems.

As the title suggests, “Thanatopsis” explores the meaning of death, but also the meaning of life, nature, happiness, identity, reincarnation, and the passage of time. The title is of Greek origin and comes from the words “thanatos,” which means "death," and “opsis,” which means "view or sight"; thus, a literal translation of the “Thanatopsis” would be “a view of death.” However, the majority of literary analysts assert that “a contemplation of death” is a much more suitable translation than the literal one.

The poem is written in iambic pentameter, or in blank verse, which was a very popular literary technique used by many renaissance and romantic English writers (such as Shakespeare), and has no rhyme.

In “Thanatopsis” Bryant personifies Nature and presents it as a woman. He suggests that people should listen to their natural instincts and their emotions, and rely on nature to help them and guide them through life. He states that death is a natural process and that it is a part of life itself, and that all human beings should bravely and fearlessly embrace it. Essentially, Bryant tries to convince us that death is not a terrifying or painful notion and experience, but rather a mysterious and solicitous phenomenon, that provides a way for us to return to Mother Nature. Thus, Bryant writes:

Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again . . .

You can find the full poem here.

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