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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

Thanatopsis (1817) by William Cullen Bryant is rife with figurative language and complicated syntax, and these rigorous elements contribute to the poem's beauty. First, the poet says:

To him who in the love of Nature holds/Communion with her visible forms, she speaks A various language;/for his gayer hours/ She has a voice of gladness, and a smile/ And eloquence of beauty, and she glides/ Into his darker musings, with a mild/ And healing sympathy, that steals away/ Their sharpness, ere he is aware. [1-7]

The first eight lines are a single sentence. Here, Bryant is is saying that nature is a source of visible beauty for those who regard it, but nature also is a source of healing that buoys us up when we are in a bad mood. He continues:

Yet a few days, and thee/ The all-beholding sun shall see no more/ In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,/ Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,/ Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist/ Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim/ Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again; . . . [17-23]

The poet suggests that, in the grand scheme of time, death is but just days away.

Next, Bryant states:

Yet not to thy eternal resting place/ Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish/ Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down/ With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,/ The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,/ Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,/ All in one mighty sepulchre. [31-37]

Just after reminding us that death is imminent, the poet retracts the harshness of the previous several lines by explaining that death is a common phenomenon. We should be encouraged by the fact that not only does everyone suffer death, but even those who occupy a higher station than us suffer death. In this way, dying allows us to keep the company of kings. Later, he writes:

The golden sun,/ The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,/ Are shining on the sad abodes of death,/ Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread/ The globe are but a handful to the tribes/ That slumber in its bosom. [45-48]

The poet pushes his argument concerning the commonality of death still further by inviting us to consider how many are dead as compared to the number of those living. The poet gives his audience a new perspective on death that his pragmatic, if a bit harsh. He continues:

. . . and what if thou withdraw/ In silence from the living, and no friend/ Take note of thy departure? All that breathe/ Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh/ When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care/ Plod on, and each one as before will chase/ His favourite phantom; . . . [58-63]

Here, the poet anticipates the rejoinder of one questioning what will be his fate should he die with no one watching? To this, the poet avers that one's fate will be just the same regardless of whether he or she has an elaborate funeral or dies unnoticed; the happy will continue to laugh and the workaholics will continue to work. He concludes with a common metaphor:

. . . approach thy grave,/ Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch/ About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams [79-81]

Death as the long sleep is a metaphor dating back to antiquity (appearing as early as Homer's epics). Here, the poet abandons his pragmatic (if insensitive) arguments from reason to encourage his audience to face death with a calm resolve.

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