Tomas and represents the destiny of all that

Tomas Sielaff Alvarez

Text Analysis

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Aleksandra Boss

WS 2017/2018

William Cullen Bryant: “Thanatopsis”


Death and all its obscurity seemed to be a recurring idea
for William Cullen Bryant. In his young years, the American Poet wrote “Thanatopsis”,
which was published in the North American Review in 1817 and after a revision
published again in 1822, that had the meaning of meditation on or contemplation
of death and is also an elegy that tries to give humans comfort as everyone
will eventually die. This message of comfort is conveyed and effectively
transmitted with strong symbolism of nature, a blank verse, preaching speaker
and the peaceful setting.

“Thanatopsis” already begins with the idea of how
nature has the ability to make us feel well. According to the speaker it can
make our darkest thoughts about death be somewhat lighter. The speaker mentions
how the voice of nature can make us worry less about death making us remember
that we will disappear when we die and go back into the soil. This voice
comforts us further by reminding us that when death occurs to us we will not be
alone as “the great tomb of man” (Line 46) also holds everyone else that has ever
lived and represents the destiny of all that are still living. This idea of community
is supposed to be calming and in the end of the poem we are supposed to imagine
death as a joyful dream.

Considering that nature is mentioned so often it symbolizes
a powerful symbol used by Bryant in “Thanatopsis”. Considering that “nature” is
also feminized in the poem, “She has a voice of gladness (…)”, it becomes
possible to say that this symbol goes beyond an flora and fauna and is a person
that is there to assist us whenever we feel scared about the fact of dying
(Line 4 and 5). Personifying nature as a woman becomes a very useful stylistic
devise for Bryant as it makes this idea most likely more relatable to the
audience, and maybe also more comforting. In our society stereotypes are taught
where women are denominated as sympathetic and friendly, maybe similar to the
concept we know of “Mother Nature”. Also, it is this “still voice” that appears
on Line 17 that tells the reader the rest that happens in the poem and is the
last time when nature is explicitly mentioned in the poem.

The meter is also another important aspect of a poem and
in the case of “Thanatopsis” it is not any different. Bryant wrote his poem in
an Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter or Blank Verse. What this means is that each line
in his poem has five feet and the poetic foot is made up of two syllables: “To him | who in | the love | of Na|ture holds”(Line 1). Those feet can be iambic and this rhythmic pattern
has an unstressed syllable that is followed by a stressed one. An Iambic
Pentameter is famous in English poetry and was most commonly used by William
Shakespeare. Arguably not a very effective way of writing a poem because even
though it gives the author more freedom with the blank verse in how he wants to
express himself at the same time it also very much represents a challenge to consistently
maintain the iambic pentameter throughout the novel. A possible effect that the
iambic pentameter has on the reader is that it still makes the blank verse
somewhat poetic and adds a rhythm to this less structured kind of verse. Considering
the rhythm, it is also important to mention how the Bryant uses enjambment to
influence the cadence of his poem. By inserting, for example, commas in the
middle of the verse, “(…) And healing sympathy, that steals away (…)”, he is
able to separate thoughts and begin others as a pause is created in the middle (Line

            Another important aspect to note is
the speaker in the poem because it directly influences the spiritual side
involved in the text. Even though the text might not be strictly religious the
voice of the poem most definitely has similarities to the voice of a preacher
giving a sermon. It is his job to determine how you are feeling and this
speaker does clearly that in, sometimes, scary ways telling you that you are
going to die. On the other hand however he says that everything is going to
work out just fine. Connected to that there is the setting of the poem which is
not tied to one specific place or situation. The reader just gets a loose
feeling of serenity connected to a complete perspective of the world going
through “deserts and valleys” and occasionally some spikes of realism when
death is described, “Yet a few days, and thee/The all-beholding sun shall see
no more/In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,” (38-42) (17-20).

Concluding, Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”
is an obscurely hopeful poem trying to depict death as its main theme from a
naturalistic perspective. He uses a strong personification of nature to depict “her”
as person that gives us hope of death not being negative but a happy dream. As
aiding tolls he has the meter that gives the poem cadence and the speaker and the
setting that help influence the tone of the poem. In the end it seems that Bryant
wants to give the reader a perspective that rises above our everyday worries,
making us see the bigger picture of life and death.














Meyer, Michael. English and American
Literatures. 4th Edition: Francke, 2011.

Shmoop Editorial Team.
“Thanatopsis.” Shmoop.
Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 23 Jan. 2018.

William Cullen. “Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant.” Poetry Foundation,
Poetry Foundation,