Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant

‘Thanatopsis’ was written around 1813 when Bryant was a very young man, around nineteen. It is his most famous and enduring poem, often cited for its skillful depiction and contemplation of death. The syntax, imagery, and diction all work together to describe death in a clear and relatable way.

Throughout the poem, Bryant explores death as the most important theme, but others include nature, unity, and peace. The title, “Thanatopsis,” means “a consideration of death”. The word is derived from the Greek “thanatos” meaning “death” and “opsis” meaning “view” or “sight”. 

Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant

 

Summary of Thanatopsis

Thanatopsis’ by William Cullen Bryant speaks on the nature of death and how one should accept the inevitability of its coming and therefore live peacefully.

Throughout the lines of this fairly long poem, Bryant speaker talks directly to a listener who has professed fear of dying. He spends time describing the long history of death and the many wise and important men and women who already reside there. You, the speaker says, will rest alongside them at peace with the world. The earth, which once nurtured you, will reclaim your body. The speaker explains how the world of the dead vastly outnumbers the world of the living and that it is better to live accepting death rather than fighting against it. This is the only way to enter into death well. 

 

Themes in Thanatopsis

The themes in ‘Thanatopsis’ are clear from the first few lines. The poet is interested in exploring death first, and nature, spirituality, and the unity of the human condition, second. The latter, the connection we all share due to our common humanity, is seen through the poet’s use of the second-person narrative perspective. He addresses the listener as “you,” “thy” or “thee”. This brings the reader into the poem, allowing them to consider their own views on death and places themselves in the nurturing ground and alongside the buried kings and wise people.

Death is a unifier, but so too is nature. It is there throughout life, nourishing and nurturing humanity. But, after it’s one’s time to die, the body is returned to the earth and the roots and soil take back what belonged to them the whole time. The poet lays out a way of thinking about death that is optimistic and uplifting. The tone of the poem shifts as the speaker delves deeper into what his ideas of death are and what one should expect from it. At first, it is something menacing–something to be fought. But, by the end, death is depicted as something peaceful, a place where all human beings end up.

 

Structure of Thanatopsis

Thanatopsis’ by William Cullen Bryant is an eighty-two line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific pattern of rhyme but there are numerous examples of blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter. This means that the lines in question contain five sets of two beats, the first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. A perfect example of iambic pentameter appears in the first line of the poem. This starts out the poem in a steady, well-formed manner, making it clear to the reader that this is the pattern that most of the lines are going to follow. 

While this structure is fairly steadily maintained throughout the poem but there are a few moments in which the iambs become trochees. The stressed syllable is first and the unstressed second. A good example of this can be seen in line thirty. 

 

Literary Devices in Thanatopsis

Bryant makes use of several literary devices in ‘Thanatopsis’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, enjambment, caesura, and simile. When one is considering the structure that this poem takes, it is very important to take a look at the instances of enjambment and caesura. The first, enjambment, occurs when one line runs into the next without end-punctuation. The transition between the second and third lines of the poem is a good example. 

Caesura is seen when lines are split with punctuation, creating pauses in the middle of lines. For instance, line three which reads “A various language; for his gayer hours” or line twenty-three: “Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim”.

Alliteration is a common device used in poems in order to increase the rhyme and even the rhyme present in lines. For example, “gladness” and “glides” in lines four and five as well as “Scourged,” “sustained,” and “soothed” in line seventy-nine. 

Similes are also scattered throughout ‘Thanatopsis’. One good example is found in the following lines: “Of the last bitter hour come like a blight / Over thy spirit” Here, the speaker is comparing thoughts of death to a sickness that damages one’s spirit.

 

Analysis of Thanatopsis 

Lines 1-8 

     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 the first lines of ‘Thanatopsis’, the speaker begins describing the connection that some, “he,” can have to nature. This person experiences their emotions reflected in the world around them. When “she,” (Nature personified) speaks to him, it is in a “voice of gladness”. Nature smiles upon this person with beauty and glides “Into his darker musings”. 

This refers to nature’s ability to improve further the happier moments of life and make lighter the darker moments. She comes with a “healing sympathy”. She expresses her understanding of what he’s going through and tries to improve his mood. Through this continued personified, nature is depicted as a nurturing woman. Someone, like a wife or mother, who is there for this man when he needs them. The speaker adds that nature comes and heals this man before “he is aware” that she is there at all. Her presence acts benevolently and charitably. 

 

Lines 9-17 

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— 

The eighth line of ‘Thanatopsis’ is split in the middle. “When thoughts” starts a new sentence that is then enjambed into line nine. The speaker now brings the poem to its main theme, death. He describes how this person at times turns to think about the “bitter hour” of death. This comes “like a blight” (a good example of a simile) over his “spirit”. Thoughts of death consume this person. It acts as a disease, making this person ill. They go into great detail as they dwell on the inevitable. 

The next lines contain examples of imagery, ones that tap in various senses. He thinks about the “breathless darkness” of death and burial as well as the “shroud” that will be wrapped around his body and grows “sick at heart”. These dark, claustrophobic images are easily accessible because of the universality of death.

The speaker gives a piece of advice in line fifteen. He tells the listener, to go to “Nature’s teachings” and listen to the calming voice that comes out of the “waters” and the “depths of air”. 

 

Lines 18-31

                                       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.   

Line eighteen of ‘Thanatopsis’ continues the theme of death. These lines are dark, alluding to the absence of light after death. The sun will no longer embrace “Thy image” on his course through the sky. His light won’t penetrate the ground where one is buried or into the ocean. Your face, the speaker says, will be lost forever to the light. 

Other changes will come over your world as well, the speaker adds. The “Earth” which once allowed the listener to grow and flourish, will “claim / Thy growth” and take back everything that it gave. The listener’s body will be used to nourish the earth in return. Once dead, your humanity will be lost. “Each human trace” will vanish and that “Individual being” will be consumed by the elements of the earth. 

The darkness of being lost to the light is improved in the following lines. It’s not all bad. Once dead, you will be the “brother to the rock” and “to the sluggish clod” or lumps of dirt which are turned by farmers. There is a new unity with nature that the listener will experience. Not all of it is beautiful but it is all-natural and inevitable. One of the best examples of personification is in lines thirty and thirty one when the speaker describes how the “oak” will “send” his roots up to “pierce” your body after death. 

 

Lines 32-46

     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,

The speaker tells the listener that although they’re headed into death where they’ll lose their humanity and their body will decay into the earth, they won’t be alone. There will be a “magnificent” array of figures in death with you. The “patriarchs” from ages past, kings, and “The power of the earth” will be there to greet you. They are all going to be residing in one “might sepulchre” or tomb. 

Also optimistically, the speaker describes in these lines of ‘Thanatopsis’ how important and wonderful that human tomb is. Everything else is only decoration in the face of it. 

 

Lines 47-58 

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 continues to remind the reader that the world of darkness they’re going to be entering into isn’t as dark or lonely as they might expect. There are ages of humanity buried in the earth, far more than ever walked the earth. They “slumber in” the “bosom” of the earth, a very pleasant image. The dead rule this world, one which stretches over the whole of the world. The dead are everyone “you” would want to be. From the dunes of the desert to the river of “Oregon”. It is the world of the dead, no one else reigns there. 

 

Lines 59-73

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.

In just this way, you too shall rest. It doesn’t really matter in the end, the speaker says, how, where, or when you die. Everyone meets the same fate so the listener should not worry over dying alone or being un-missed. “All that breathe / Will share thy destiny”. These are meant as words of comfort in the face of the unknowable. 

When you are dead, the speaker says, the happy will continue to be so as well the depressed continue to be sad. There’s nothing that can change this and one should not attempt to do so. The world of the living is filled with illusions of death, religious explanations, and otherwise. Those who enjoy those illusions will continue to engage with them but in the end, they too shall come and “make their bed with thee”. As time progresses, all of these people from “The speechless babe” to the wise man and woman will be taken into death. They shall be “gathered to thy side” just as everyone else after them will be. 

 

Lines 74-82

     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.

In the final lines of ‘Thanatopsis,’ the speaker tells the listener that in the face of everything they’ve just talked about that he should live in a way that is accepting of death. You don’t want to be burdened by it all of your life and then feel dragged there as if to a “dungeon”. You should be fulfilled by faith that you will rest with the ages of humankind in the ground that nurtured you. If you do live this way, the speaker concludes, then death will come peacefully. It will “wrap” you up as if in blankets and lay you done to “pleasant dreams”. 

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