announcement

Become a Contributor

A Brief Summary and Analysis of W.C. Bryant's 'Thanatopsis'

Summary and Analysis of W.C. Bryant's Thanatopsis
The poem - Thanatopsis written by W.C. Bryant is about his perspective on death which is quite comforting as well as interesting, unlike other death poetry.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
Did You Know?
Thanatopsis was originally published in September 1817, and later republished in 1821.
William Cullen Bryant was a teenager when he wrote this poem. The composition reflects how heavily he was influenced by 'Graveyard Poetry'. He had a unique perspective on death, one that did not advocate Christian views and beliefs about heaven and hell. Instead, he saw death as a way of reuniting with nature.
The first version was originally published on September 1817, in a magazine called The North American Review. At that time W. C. Bryant wasn't aware that his father had found some pages of his poems and had sent them to the magazine. The original version was much shorter than the later version. He added more verses to it when it was republished in the year 1821. His writing skills gave him a promising career as a newspaper editor.
Thanatopsis
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 (5)
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images (10)
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-(15)
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air-
Comes a still voice-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, (20)
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 (25)
To mix forever 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. (30)
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, (35)
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 (40)
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, (45)
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 (50)
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 (55)
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep-the dead reign there alone.
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 (60)
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 (65)
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- (70)
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take (75)
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 (80)
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

- William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
Line-by-line Analysis
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


The first few lines of the poem, the poet speaks of someone who holds a close bond with nature. The poet has personified nature and he believes that she (nature) communicates only to a person who is one with her. She reciprocates his feelings. In his happy moments she speaks in a glad voice (his gayer hours - she has a voice of gladness, and a smile), and in those moments she is soothing and beautiful (eloquence of beauty).
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images


In his moments of brooding and when he's feeling depressed, she is sympathetic and comforting. She takes away his pain (sharpness). In these lines, the poet shifts his attention from the random nature enthusiast and directly speaks to the reader of the poem. He slowly shifts his attention to the morbid topic of death.

Take a look at the word blight. It's a plant disease, which is caused due to fungi and mildew, that slowly rots away the exterior and works its way in. Remember this imagery.

In other words he says, the thought of death plagues your mind in the same way as blight does to a plant.
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-


The poet talks about the feelings related to death along with the imagery linked to it. He speaks of the sharp pain you feel inside while talking of death. He also mentions the things related to burial like shroud and pall. Shroud is a cloth that is used to wrap a dead body and pall is the cloth that is used to cover the coffin. Moreover, he speaks of the claustrophobic feeling of being inside a coffin and a grave (breathless darkness, and the narrow house). These words make us see from the point of view of the dead body, that's buried.

He deflates the intensity of this ghoulish topic by jumping back to nature again. He asks the reader to go back to nature as if nudging you to find solace in nature, in both ways as a distraction as well as final destination. He also in a way reminds us that nature is constantly teaching us about living and dying.
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air-
Comes a still voice-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,


Here begins another set of imagery listing all the places you will not be able to see after death. You won't be on land (earth) that nourished you. You will be the one nourishing and feeding it instead. Here, he makes a light reference to ashes to ashes, dust to dust. philosophy.

He says upon your death, you will seize to exist and so will your relationship with the other. You won't even be related to yourself (soul and body will part). You will no longer be the body, hence you lose your individual self. In other words you stop being a person after death. Cold ground, pale form laid, with many tears are all symbolism for death and being buried in a grave. Tears here mean tears that people will shed on your demise as well as memories of you and those related to you.
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


Nature calms and soothes you with earth, water, and wind. She reminds you that there's still time for your final sleep. The things you'll leave behind will continue yet again. You will not be able to see your reflection in the ocean water. You will return to the earth that once nourished you, she will (claim) take back what she gave you, as you dissolve (decay and turn into soil) into her. Just like other man before you. Your life/ individuality/ existence will die out.
To mix forever 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.


Bryant begins by telling you that you will amalgamate with the elements of nature. He continues by saying that you will be equivalent to a rock and the sluggis clod - means lifeless chunk of dirt. And some rude swain (is a poetic slang word equivalent to dude) will do his part of walking over you, (literally not figuratively).

The oak tree that will grow on top of you will dig its roots through the mould (your body). This is Byrant's way of reminding us that you are walking on someone and eventually someone will walk over you.
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,


This is where he tries to make this subject a little comforting. He says you will not reach your final resting place alone. After all that happens to your body, you will head to the magnificent couch adorned by the 'dead and gone' of the past.

You will be one with the famous and important male leaders who died before you (patriarchs) - who were powerful, wise, and good. This means the royal and wise men who died before you have turned into soil. Thus all are finally united in the face of death.
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 other words, he says that your body will turn into soil and be one with the tombs of the past, thus describing this Earth as one giant grave.

He abruptly goes back to nature and describes the hills, the sun, the woods and the brooks. He addresses the woods and other such elements as venerable since they have been present for a very long time and deserve to be respected. He also brings your attention to the rivers too, who have been present from the beginning of time and are still moving and flowing. It sort of mocks the mortality of everything around and boasts its immortality.
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,


He says that the many elements of Earth adorn the vast human grave with its beauty. The poet refers to the forever murmuring brook (that seems to be complaining) which means it's constantly flowing. It waters the green meadows and further meets the vast ocean. He refers to the ocean where the waste from various channels is plunged since ages. He is also comparing the sea to death.
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


These lines could be a reference to planets and stars and also a hint to The Bible (Luke 2:13) where he talks about a heavenly host which means an army of angels. He believes that these celestial immortals are looking down upon the earth and it's people as mere mortals, all awaiting death.

The continuous circle of life and death, seems to be a story of ages, repetitive and going on forever. Those that are alive are only a handful in comparison to those who are buried and gone, or dying, or getting buried. All are slowly but surely moving towards death (slumber in its bosom).
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


Now the poet takes you on another flight of imagery, from the deserts to the Oregon i.e. from Africa to America, where the only sound that echoes is the sound of your own feet. And yet you cannot escape death.

I guess here he wishes to say, no matter where you are on the face of this earth death is inevitable. He explains that you won't be the only one who has died in this vast and faraway place (solitude). In fact, there are many who have gone before you, since the beginning of time (solitudes). Even if the place seems deserted and lonely many have died there before you. So you are never really lonely.
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep-the dead reign there alone.
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


The circle of life and death has been going on forever and will continue so till the end of time. You too shall rest just like those before and after you.

The poet doesn't want you to be afraid of death. He wants you to think about it calmly. And believes you will realize how well even death fits into life. This confirms that there are no exceptions to this rule of life and death. And all will meet their maker (nature) eventually.
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


Everything that breathes now will share the same fate of death. Those whose time isn't up yet will keep living while those who are meant to perish will. Happy people will keep laughing while the sad will keep brooding. All these people will continue their way the same way that they have been doing so far. Chasing their own way, doing their own thing while the cycle of life and death carries on. And yet all will perish sooner or later.
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-


As for those who are left behind will eventually join you. Even those who are born long after you will meet the same fate sooner or later. The young man, the gray-haired old man, the innocent baby, the maid and the older woman - all will reach the same destination, they will not be favored or saved. For ages this story of death has continued.
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take


One by one, slowly but surely all will be by your side. So seize life's every joyous moment and enjoy life while you are alive until you join the many millions that are dead or approaching death. Eventually everyone will join the mystical world where people are reunited, and everyone owns his own room in the silent enclosure of death.
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.


And as you prod closer and closer to death, he says that you should not go unwillingly or feel forced, like a slave being whipped to enter a dungeon. You should have trust that what is happening is for the best and accept it peacefully and gracefully.

Finally he ends the poem with an image that provides solace even in the thought of death. He says that we should be prepared to die like we are entering into a safe, cozy place and getting ready for a serene sleep.
Summary
Thanatopsis is a poem that talks about dealing with the inevitable reality of death and dying. It starts by mentioning all the healing qualities of nature and its ability to make us feel better. Nature works like a beacon and enlightens our perception about death. He believes that in nature you find calm and peace which vanquishes the fear, worry, and misconception about death. Nature constantly reminds that the destiny of our mortal coils is to return to earth and nature again.
Nature is a constant reminder to us that life and death are a natural process and nothing is above and beyond that. All who lived, are living, and those who will, are destined to return. This is meant to comfort the reader because nature is trying to explain that we are not going into the unknown. As a matter of fact we are just returning to where we came from. Death is merely a dream and a happy place, not something to be worried about or feared.
Theme
The poem is about death and dying. It looks at death under different spotlights, viz. human emotions, spiritual, historical, and finally that it is a natural phenomenon. It mainly centers around the mortality of man and it tries to remove the fear of death.

The poet personifies nature as a nurturing woman, this is to tone down the intensity of the subject. He reminds us that we are a part of nature that come and go like the tide. However, nature is the only thing that's constant and eternal.
Bryant talks about someone on deathbed, and reminds us of all those who have come and gone prior to our existence, right from the beginning. He talks about dying - a subject that's generally considered dark and sad, in a positive light so as to calm and comfort us.

Interestingly, death is not portrayed under any religion, but under spirituality, which runs parallel to the main topic of death. However, it does not explain the destination of our souls, but only of our bodies.
Rhythm
The poem has an Iambic Pentameter, which means each line goes something like, da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. For example, To him who in the love of Nature holds Communion with her visible forms, she speaks A various language; for his gayer hours.

The poem thus explains the divine connection between life and death and its close association with nature. It emphasizes the importance of living life on your own terms for all that it's worth without being afraid of death.