‘Consumption‘ by William Cullen Bryant is a Shakespearean sonnet that can be divided, through phrasing, meter, and rhyme, into three quatrains (sets of four lines), and one ending couplet (set of two lines). The quatrains and couplet rhyme in the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the upcoming death of the person to whom this poem is spoken. She is soon “for the grave,” and there is nothing she can do about it. He knows that her death is not far off because of the light shining in her eyes. It is so bright he knows there’s no way it can continue for long. No one can maintain that level of brightness.
He continues on to tell her, hoping to make her see the hopelessness of her situation, and turn her to God, that there is no medicine either from the fields or minerals, that can save her. She will be better off if she commits herself to God’s hands at this point. There are also those around her that are in a perpetual state of anxiety over her life. To these family and friends existence is a constant “plague. “
The speaker’s tone softens when he turns to describe how she will depart for heaven. It will not be harsh, painful, or, in any way, disturbing. God and “Death” will take her as a bud is broken from a branch by the wind.
In the final lines, he asks her to “Gently” close her eyes and remember that God will see him, and all those who care about her, reunited in heaven.
Analysis of Consumption
Ay, thou art for the grave; thy glances shine
Too brightly to shine long; another Spring
Shall deck her for men’s eyes—but not for thine—
Sealed in a sleep which knows no wakening.
Before the reader even begins the first stanza of ‘Consumption,’ one should have an idea of what it is going to be about. The title “Consumption,” the colloquial name for what is most likely tuberculosis, informs the reader that this poem is going to be about death. This is a disease that the poet is intimately familiar with as tuberculosis, or TB, was quite more prevent in the 1700s and 1800s than it is now.
The reader’s presumption that the poem is going to be about death is confirmed in the first line as the speaker addresses his listener. This person, to whom the entire poem is spoken, or dedicated, is deathly ill. She is, as the speaker says, “for the grave.” There is nothing she can do to remedy this fact. The coarse way that this line, and those that immediately follow, are spoken, makes it seem as if the narrator is desperately trying to make her see that there is no hope. She needs to accept her fate and turn to God.
He says that the light in her eyes is so bright, it will soon go out, she cannot maintain this kind of life eternally. She will not know “another Spring” as others will. It is not for her. When the next spring season comes along she will be “Sealed in a sleep which knows no wakening,” she will surely be dead.
The fields for thee have no medicinal leaf,
And the vexed ore no mineral of power;
And they who love thee wait in anxious grief
Till the slow plague shall bring the final hour.
In a continual effort to confirm to her, and perhaps himself, that there is no hope of recovery, he mentions “The fields” that could have held medicines. Her case is too advanced for the “medicinal leaf” to help her in any way. Additionally, there is no “mineral power” gained from the mixing of powders that could cure her.
While she is suffering from this illness those who love her are also in pain. They are waiting “in anxious grief” until the “final hour” of her life.
Glide softly to thy rest then; Death should come
Gently, to one of gentle mould like thee,
As light winds wandering through groves of bloom
Detach the delicate blossom from the tree.
In the third quatrain of ‘Consumption,’ after speaking coarsely to her in the previous lines the speaker changes his tone. He tells her she should not fear death or worry about the “rest” she is going to. “Death” will come “gently” and guide her into the next life. There is no possibility that she will be treated harshly or unfairly because of her own intrinsic gentleness.
He compares her parting to the next life to the separation of a “bloom” from a tree. The wind sweeps it off without struggle or pain. So too will be her death.
Close thy sweet eyes, calmly, and without pain;
And we will trust in God to see thee yet again.
In the final rhyming couple of this piece the speaker attempts to help his ill listener find peace in her final moments. He tells her that it is okay for her to rest now, that the best course of action is to “Close” her “sweet eyes,” and let God in. God, he says, will take “thee” to death “without pain.”
He believes, or at least espouses to believe for her sake, that God will allow them, meaning the narrator and those close to him, to see her again in heaven. She is consoling her by reminding her that there is a life after this. He is once more saying that there should only be calm at the end as one enters death.
About William Cullen Bryant
William Cullen Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts in November of 1794. He was the descendant of Puritan immigrants and after being unable to attend Yale as he wanted, he studied law at Worthington and Bridgwater. He was admitted to the bar at the age of 21 and he would work as an attorney for an unhappy ten years. He married Francis Fairchild at 26 and after moving to New York, became the editor of the Evening Post in 1827. He would eventually become part owner and editor-in-chief.
Bryant began writing at a young age when he demanded the resignation of President Jefferson in his piece, “Embargo.” At 27 years old he was able to establish himself as a poet with the publication of Poems. The two works for which he is most well known, are “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl.”