The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

“Thanatopsis” is partly an elegy and partly a meditative poem on death, written in elegantly flowing (not end-stopped) blank verse, echoing the style of Wordsworth and earlier eighteenth century poets in England. Bryant’s language is generally elevated, sometimes to the point of slipping into ornate poetic diction (“rude swain,” meaning the “clumsy shepherd”). The use of the archaic “thy” and “thou” is part of the sustained effort to achieve a seriousness of tone to fit the gravest of subjects, human mortality. Besides Bryant’s use of geographical allusions, to the “Barcan desert” (in Libya) and the Columbia River (in America, “Where rolls the Oregon”), there is a pervasive use of pathetic fallacy in having a personified Nature directly address and console a human being for the last two-thirds of the poem.

In verse, Bryant had a heritage of eighteenth century expression in the British graveyard school of poets and, later, in the Romantic school, especially in Wordsworth’s nature poetry, both of which are in evidence in the style of “Thanatopsis.” Since his early teens, Bryant had been reading the melancholy and morally edifying meditations (often in blank verse) of the graveyard school of Robert Blair, (The Grave, 1743), Thomas Gray (“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”), Edward Young (The Complaint: Or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, 17421745), and others in Great Britain....

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(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Brodwin, Stanley, and Michael D’Innocenzo. William Cullen Bryant and His America: Centennial Conference Proceedings, 1878-1978. New York: AMS Press, 1983. Provides a broad background against which to study “Thanatopsis.” One chapter focuses on the role that Bryant and this poem play in the development of American literature. Helpful bibliography.

Brown, Charles Henry. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. Addresses early influences on William Cullen Bryant and his concept of death. Discusses the confusion over the authorship of “Thanatopsis” and traces the evolution of the poem to its final form. Illustrations include an autograph manuscript of “Thanotopsis.”

Godwin, Parke. A Biography of William Cullen Bryant. Vol. 1. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967. Bryant’s son-in-law discusses the events that led to the publication of “Thanatopsis.” Puts the writing of this and other poetry in the context of his life in general.

McLean, Albert F., Jr. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Twayne, 1964. While “Thanatopsis” is mentioned throughout this volume, chapter 3, “The Poem of Death,” focuses on “Thanatopsis” in particular. Structure, tone, intent, and uses of language in the poem are discussed thoroughly. A chronology of Bryant’s life is included.

Peckham, H. H. Gotham Yankee: A Biography of William Cullen Bryant. New York: Russell and Russell, 1971. Addresses Bryant’s attitudes toward life and death so as to put the poem “Thanatopsis” in context. Compares this poem with other poems about death, especially Robert Blair’s “The Grave.”