Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Apart from its brief introduction, “Thanatopsis” consists of Nature’s meditation on the universality of death as the destiny of the human family, as Nature tries to console a humankind obsessed with mortality. Let the fearful individual be tranquil, resigned, and courageous before the grave, Nature says, as if death were an invitation to sleep and dream at peace.

Although the poem reverberates with Wordsworthian echoes (particularly in the opening seventeen lines), Bryant’s attitude toward nature and its religious aspects is less pantheistic than Wordsworth’s; it is more noncommittal in its religious message. Bryant was reared in a Calvinist environment, but as he grew older his beliefs became less fundamental and more aligned with the more progressive nineteenth century views that no longer saw the afterlife in terms of a Puritan heaven or hell. If it seems not especially comforting to think of oneself decomposing and returning to nature after death, it may nevertheless be an improvement over the idea of eternal damnation in the flames of hell. “Thanatopsis” possesses a Calvinist earnestness that, having outlived Bryant’s commitment to a particular doctrine, is applied to the consolation of Nature.

Nature speaks as a comforting teacher, noting truths about the ultimate oneness of Nature and man, yet Nature’s words may or may not be truly comforting for anyone genuinely and deeply disturbed by the finality of death. A person may take heart in the facts that one’s body is part of a universal cycle of life and death and that the beauty of nature will continue—and will beautify one’s grave—but modern readers often find these resolutions unsatisfactory.