"Go Not, Like The Quarry-slave At Night"
Context: The well-known 1821 version of "Thanatopsis" is a revision and expansion of a poem written in Bryant's seventeenth year but not published until 1817. The title, meaning "a view of death," was supplied by the editor who published the 1817 version. This earlier poem began, "Yet a few days, and thee,/ The all-beholding sun, shall see no more . . ." (lines 17-18 of the 1821 version) and ended, "And make their bed with thee!"–(line 66 of the 1821 version). The opening lines which Bryant added in 1821 are Wordsworthian in the poet's view of Nature, but the phrasing of much of the poem is marked by eighteenth century "poetic diction" resembling that in the poems of the "graveyard" poets–Edward Young, Robert Blair, and Thomas Gray–whom Bryant had read and enjoyed in youth. In "Thanatopsis" Bryant says to the reader who may now and then muse on the fact that he will someday die: when such thoughts come, listen to the still, comforting voice of Nature. Nature says to man: in a brief time earth, that nourished you, will receive your body which will then be no more than "the insensible rock" or a clod of earth a farmer plows through. Oak roots will "pierce thy mould." Yet when you die you will not rest alone but with the infinite number of others who have lain down in "one mighty sepulchre." Hills, vales, rivers, brooks, ocean–these "Are but the solemn decorations all/ Of the great tomb of man." For ages the heavenly bodies have shone on "the sad abodes of death." Those men who live now "are but a handful" to those who are dead. You shall rest as they do. Though your own passing may be unnoted, "All that breathe/ Will share thy destiny." Through the ages to come you will be joined by infants, youths, men, and women in "the full strength of years," and old people who "Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,/ By those, who in their turn shall follow them." In his later life Bryant was to believe in a personal immortality of the soul and a rejoining of those separated on earth by death. But in "Thanatopsis" there is no hint of this belief. Through the voice of Nature, Bryant counsels man: live so that when death approaches, you will face it not in fear but in the faith that no harm will come to you afterward. Regard death as only an untroubled, but eternal, sleep. This advice is found in the noble lines which close the poem:
So live, that when thy summons comes to joinThe innumerable caravan, which movesTo that mysterious realm, where each shall takeHis chamber in the silent halls of death,Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothedBy an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,Like one who wraps the drapery of his couchAbout him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.