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How Is Death Portrayed in the Poem 'Thanatopsis'?


"Thanatopsis" was written by William Cullen Bryant in 1811 and was first published in the "North American Review" in 1817. The themes in "Thanatopsis" center entirely on death, but the mood is somewhat cheerful and uplifting. Bryant doesn't look at death as something to fear. He views it as a natural, and unavoidable, part of human existence. The poem focuses on the importance nature plays in the role of death.

Cycle of Life

Death is portrayed as a normal, predictable part of human existence: "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." Death is part of the unforgiving and unchanging circle of life. It shows no partiality or preference. All must go the way of death, regardless of age, gender or position in life. All humans are part of that never-ending cycle that allows for both life and death, from "insensible rock" to the eventual return to the earth.

Oneness With Nature

Bryant uses nature to fully explore death. He gives nature human characteristics, such as voice, emotion, beauty and thoughts. These human traits help readers come to terms with the idea that everyone must eventually die. Instead of making death seem mystical, unknown and frightening, "Thanatopsis" encourages readers to see death as part of the natural realm. For example, Bryant says nature has a “voice of gladness" and an "eloquence of beauty." This oneness with nature appeases human insecurities and silences apprehensions. Viewing death through nature helps readers find solace.

Comfort Without Fear

The purpose of "Thanatopsis" is to help ease the emotional pain associated with death. Bryant doesn't want readers to worry and writes, "When thoughts 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." The poem is intended to help each person face his or her own death, without fear. He doesn't want readers to feel isolated and alone in death but wants them to find comfort knowing that every person will eventually go that same route. The poem ends by encouraging readers to think of death as "pleasant dreams."

The Big Picture

The author wants readers to understand and embrace the finality of death for all people across time. The poem was written early in America's history, before people had much of a national past. Bryant is sensitive to this and doesn't want Americans to feel lonely and isolated when death approaches. "Thanatopsis" doesn't just talk about a single, individual death, but mentions all the people who have died since the beginning of time: "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 sepulcher." Bryant wants readers to find comfort in knowing that they're part of a bigger plan that extends beyond their own death.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.

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