Thanatopsis

The poem, “Thanatopsis,” written by William Cullen Bryant, is a wonderful literary
work which explores the often controversial questions of death. William Cullen Bryant
wrote Thanatopsis when he was seventeen years of age. Thanatopsis was written in blank
verse. Within his well written lines Bryant attempts to show the relationship between
death’s eternal questions and the ongoing cycle of nature and life. Upon concluding the
poem many readers are able to reaffirm their faith of an afterlife, while others are left
aimlessly pondering this strange possibility.He uses strong words to describe the feelings
and visions one sees when they are in their last hours and even after they have passed
away. The author makes death seem like something that should not be feared and should
almost be looked forward to. He then goes on to show how one should really feel when
Thanatopsis tells about how when one dies the grave becomes an endless world,
how the deceased become one with the earth, the trees, and everything that is great within
the earth, and how when one dies they do not die alone. Throughout the poem Bryant
creates images which connect death and sleep. In fact, once the reader gets halfway
through the poem they discover that Bryant uses these words almost interchangeably. In
the second stanza he writes, “All that tread the globe are but a handful to the tribes that
slumber in its bosom.” Instead of referring to death he uses the word “slumber.” These
connections continue in a number of places. Other examples include lines 57 and 66. In
line 57 he writes, “In their last sleep the dead reign there alone,” and in line 66, referring to
death and burial, Bryant writes, “And make their bed with thee.” This connection between
death and sleep creates a metaphor which adds depth and meaning to the poem.
By using this strange metaphor Bryant wishes to suggest his faith in an afterlife.
While examining the differences and similarities of death and sleep the reader is left with
some very thought provoking questions. The answers to these questions reassure some
readers while confusing others. Sleep is a time of rest. It allows preparation for the next
day or event, and by relating this definition to death Bryant gives new insight on one’s fate
“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
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”.

Bryant is taking what can be considered the stereotype of what death and dying feels like
and putting it in some strong words. He continues to say, as he does in the rest of the
poem, that one’s eternal resting place could never have been thought of as such a
wonderful place that one could love so much. In a way he describes it to be a huge couch
which when you lay down upon it you just melt in and never feel like getting up, by saying
“nor couldst thou wish couch more magnificent”. The way he describes the resting place
sounds exactly like the stereotype that has also been formed of what heaven is like, a
wonderful place where you sleep in the clouds and are joined with all of the people and
When identifying sleep with death Bryant gives death many characteristics of
slumber. People generally wake from sleep, and Bryant expands this occurrence to death.
Death could simply be a time of rest that retires the bodies’ of earthly beings, and allows
the soul to wake and continue on in the afterlife. In lines 50 and 51 Bryant writes, “Take
the wings of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness.” The wings in this statement
symbolize a spiritual, angelic being, and the morning suggests a time of waking. After
waking, the angelic being breaks through the confinement of the human grave, which
compares to the Barcan wilderness, and continues its existence elsewhere. These lines
show Bryant’s belief in an afterlife. After reflective meditation in the wilderness Bryant
comes to terms with death. He knows death is a conclusion to the material world, but in
this conclusion is a type of rebirth. Bryant believes death prepares the soul for its next
journey. With this belief he is put at ease.

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I think the author’s opinion of death is that it should be a happy and relaxing
experience. He tries to show that when dying instead of feeling deep sorrow and pain you
will become embraced by mother nature and her calmness and it will be a soothing
experience rather than a painful and devastating experience. In addition, I realize death,
along with being the end of life, is an end to all earthly traits. The afterlife begins following
death, and cannot contain earthly characteristics. Therefore, it is not logical for me to
attempt the understanding of an afterlife. Even if it exists it is still impossible for me, as a
living person, to understand. After reading this poem and seeing such strong words I can
understand how dying could be a pleasant experience, rather than going along with most
of stereotypes of how death really is.
“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 forever with the elements, to be a brother to the insensible rock and to the
In saying this, the author is trying to say that when one has fully embraced death, instead
of staying in a small grave in the ground, the deceased will become one with the earth.
Even in showing how death is wonderful he uses such powerful, descriptive words.
Becoming a part of the earth and befriending all the elements sounds like a dream come
true the way he puts it. It almost seems as if this is how Bryant perceives heaven or the .

The poem, “Thanatopsis,” written by William Cullen Bryant, is a wonderful literary work which explores the often controversial questions of death. Within his well written lines Bryant attempts to show the relationship between death’s eternal questions and the ongoing cycle of nature and life. Upon concluding the poem many readers are able to reaffirm their faith of an afterlife, while others are left aimlessly pondering this strange possibility.
Throughout the poem Bryant creates images which connect death and sleep. In fact, once the reader gets halfway through the poem they discover that Bryant uses these words almost interchangeably. In the second stanza he writes, “All that tread the globe are but a handful to the tribes that slumber in its bosom.” Instead of referring to death he uses the word “slumber.” These connections continue in a number of places. Other examples include lines 57 and 66. In line 57 he writes, “In their last sleep the dead reign there alone,” and in line 66, referring to death and burial, Bryant writes, “And make their bed with thee.” This connection between death and sleep creates an intriguing metaphor which adds depth and meaning to the poem.
By using this strange metaphor I believe Bryant wishes to suggest his faith in an afterlife. While examining the differences and similarities of death and sleep the reader is left with some very thought provoking questions. The answers to these questions reassure some readers while confusing others. Sleep is a time of rest. It allows preparation for the next day or event, and by relating this definition to death Bryant gives new insight on one’s fate after earthly existence. When identifying sleep with death Bryant gives death many characteristics of slumber. People generally wake from sleep, and Bryant expands this occurrence to death. Death could simply be a time of rest that retires the bodies’ of earthly beings, and allows the soul to wake. Upon waking the soul is freed, and enters a new plane of existence. This idea of a spiritual awakening is demonstrated in “Thanatopsis.” In lines 50 and 51 Bryant writes, “Take the wings of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness.” To me, the wings in this statement symbolize a spiritual, angelic being, and the morning suggests a time of waking. After waking, the angelic being breaks through the confinement of the human grave, and continues its existence elsewhere. In my opinion these lines indicate Bryant’s belief in an afterlife.
After reflective meditation in the wilderness Bryant comes to terms with death. He knows death is a conclusion to the material world, but in this conclusion is a type of rebirth. Bryant believes death prepares the soul for its next journey. With this belief he is put at ease, but I cannot say the same for myself. I am truly confused about the subject. It is a source of great frustration for me. I, like many people, talk about the possibility of an afterlife, but it seems rather pointless. I spend countless hours pondering a question that shall never be answered in this lifetime. In addition, I realize death, along with being the end of the earthly life, is an end to all earthly traits. The afterlife begins following death, and cannot contain earthly characteristics. Therefore, it is illogical for me to attempt the comprehension of an afterlife. Even if it exists it is still impossible for me, as a living person, to understand or fathom.
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