Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, 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.

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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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

“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 person oppressed by human mortality with a reminder that while the body will dissolve in the grave, one’s identity will be lost in its commingling with the elements (lines 1730). Nature proceeds to utter three consolations aimed as assuaging a person’s fears. First, let this person note that in his dissolution he lies with the best, the brightest, the most beauteous, and the bravest in the democracy of death, all in a single encompassing crypt that is the universe. Hence, death graces everyone with a most noble company.

The second consolation for mortality is Nature’s emphasis on the fact that the grave is one with physical nature. The third and most extended consolation involves Nature’s observation that an individual’s death merges with the mortality of the entire human race anywhere in time, anywhere in place, and, therefore, merely fulfills the universal human destiny (lines 4873). Let the person facing death flow with the natural order of things and not kick at the traces or envy the living. The living may be carefree or sad, but in the end they share the same mortal fate: “All that breathe/ Will share thy destiny.”

Nature concludes the poem by exhorting the person fearing imminent death to face up to his mortal destiny with tranquillity, courage, and trust in the natural order of things, preparing for death as though it were a peaceful sleep in the offing.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

“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. Such poems, either by their Anglican orthodoxy or by their undoctrinaire piety, may have tempered the harsh Calvinism instilled in Bryant as a boy in backwoods Massachusetts. The poet’s father, Dr. Peter Bryant, was an ardent naturalist and walker in the woods who fed the boy’s love of New England nature. Then, too, Bryant, the American nature poet, later remembered reading Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads at the age of sixteen, when “a thousand springs seemed to gush up at once into my heart, and the face of nature, of a sudden, to change into a strange freshness.”

All these influences came together in the composition of “Thanatopsis.” The poem won for Bryant immediate acknowledgment upon its first appearance in 1817. The country’s response demonstrated that he was providing what it needed at a time of national self-consciousness about the scarcity of talented poets—a loftiness of diction and metrical sound (that seemed Wordsworthian in its domestication of the Miltonic style), a way of making American landscapes seem as worthy of celebration as Old World scenes, and a moral stance that blended cosmic vagueness with didactic earnestness.

What he preached as essential in his lecture “On the Nature of Poetry” (1825) he practiced himself for a welcoming American audience hungry for a native expression of Romantic emotion and an appreciation of nature: “The most beautiful poetry is that which takes the strongest hold of the feelings, and, if it is really the most beautiful, then it is poetry in the highest sense. But poetry not only addresses the passions and the imagination; it appeals to the understanding also.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237

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.”

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