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William Cullen Bryant wrote “Thanatopsis” while he was just nineteen years old, circa 1813. It is his most well-known and enduring poem, frequently praised for its deft portrayal of and meditation on death. The combination of grammar, images, and diction creates a clear and understandable description of death.
The most significant issue Bryant tackles throughout the poem is death, although other themes include nature, harmony, and serenity. Thanatopsis, the title, is Greek for “a consideration of death.” The term is a combination of the Greek words “Thanatos,” which means “death,” and “opsis,” which means “view” or “sight.”
About the poet
American romantic poet William Cullen Bryant, who lived from November 3, 1794, to June 12, 1878, was also a writer and the longtime editor of the New York Evening Post. He was born in Massachusetts and began his professional life as a lawyer, but he also showed an early interest in poetry.
He quickly moved to New York and started working as an editor for many publications. He rose to prominence as one of the most important poets in early American literature and is known as one of the “fireside poets” because of his poetry’s accessibility and popularity.
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. When thoughts
In “Thanatopsis,” the speaker opens by explaining the bond certain individuals feel with the natural world. In a voice of joy, nature personified converses with them and floats into their more melancholy thoughts.
She attempts to lift his spirits by expressing her understanding of what he is going through. Nature is shown as a devoted female who is there for this man when he needs her, much like a wife or mother. Her presence has a kind and benign effect.
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight Over thy spirit, and sad images Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall, ,And breathless darkness, and the narrow house, Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;— Go forth, under the open sky, and list To Nature’s teachings, while from all around— Earth and her waters, and the depths of air— Comes a still voice—
‘Thanatopsis’s’ eighth line is broken in two and enjambed into line nine. The speaker tells how this individual is sickened by and consumed by ideas of death. The “shroud that will be wrapped around his body” and the “breathless darkness” of death and burial are two instances of imagery in the following sentences.
In line fifteen, the speaker offers to advise, advising the listener to turn to Nature’s lessons and pay attention to the soothing voice that emanates from the “waters” and “depths of air.”
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, And, lost each human trace, surrendering up Thine individual being, shalt thou go To mix for ever with the elements, To be a brother to the insensible rock And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
The poem “Thanatopsis” refers to the absence of light after death as it continues the topic of death. The earth will take what it gave back when the sun stops enveloping the listener’s vision as it travels across the sky.
The listener will lose their humanity, but they will also discover a new level of oneness with nature. The speaker’s description of how the oak will send its roots up to “pierce” the listener’s flesh after death in lines thirty and thirty-one is one of the greatest personification instances.
Yet not to thine 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. The hills Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales Stretching in pensive quietness between; The venerable woods—rivers that move In majesty, and the complaining brooks That make the meadows green; and, poured round all, Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,— Are but the solemn decorations all Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
Even though the listener is approaching death, where they will lose their humanity and their corpse will decompose into the ground, the speaker assures them that they won’t be alone. There will be a “magnificent” variety of people with you after death. The “patriarchs” from earlier eras, rulers, and “The power of the earth” will be waiting to welcome you. A single “might sepulchre” or tomb will house them all.
In these words from “Thanatopsis,” the speaker expresses optimism as well as how significant and precious that human tomb is. In its face, all else is merely ornamentation.
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.—Take the wings Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness, Or lose thyself in the continuous woods Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound, Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there: And millions in those solitudes, since first The flight of years began, have laid them down In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
The speaker keeps pointing out that the realm of darkness the reader is about to enter isn’t as gloomy or lonely as they would anticipate. More people than have ever walked the world are interred on the earth.
That they “slumber in” the earth’s “bosom” is a very comforting thought. This universe, which encompasses the whole globe, is ruled by the dead. Everyone “you” would want to be among the dead. A river called “Oregon” flows from the desert’s dunes. No one else rules there; it is the domain of the dead.
So shalt thou rest, 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 favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave Their mirth and their employments, and shall come And make their bed with thee. As the long train Of ages glide away, the sons of men, The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes In the full strength of years, matron and maid, The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man— Shall one by one be gathered to thy side, By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
The speaker keeps pointing out that the realm of darkness the reader is about to enter isn’t as gloomy or lonely as they would anticipate. More people than have ever walked the world are interred on the earth. That they “slumber in” the earth’s “bosom” is a very comforting thought.
This universe, which encompasses the whole globe, is ruled by the dead. Everyone “you” would want to be among the dead. A river called “Oregon” flows from the desert’s dunes. No one else rules there; it is the domain of the dead.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join The innumerable caravan, which moves To that mysterious realm, where each shall take His chamber in the silent halls of death, Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave, Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
The speaker of “Thanatopsis” advises the listener to live a life that is tolerant of death in the last lines of the poem. This is because of all they have just discussed. You don’t want to feel like you are being pulled there like a “dungeon” by it for the rest of your life.
You should feel content knowing that you will rest in the earth that nurtured you alongside all of humankind’s eras. The speaker comes to the conclusion that if you do live in this manner, death will occur gently. It will “wrap” you in blankets and put you to sleep so that you may have “pleasant dreams”.