William Cullen Bryant's Search to Understand Death

By , Battle Ground, WA
Have you ever considered thinking in a way that embraces life and all of its mysteries? American Romantics did, and it is a life full of finding beauty in nature’s simplest elements. In “Thanatopsis,” William Cullen Bryant discusses the natural world using an extremely in-depth perception of the many elements which contribute to it. Instead of imagining some type of false reality, Bryant chose to “contemplate the natural world until dull reality fell away to reveal underlying beauty and truth.” (“American Romanticism,” 144). By showcasing a trust in unspoiled nature, finding wisdom in the past and beauty in the supernatural realm, celebrating the worth of the individual, and using nature to discover a higher spirituality, “Thanatopsis” illustrates many important techniques for poetry common to American Romanticism during the 1800s.

The way in which Bryant first approaches death is by seeking trust in Nature’s unspoiled beauty, an idea commonly approached in American Romanticism. Throughout the first two stanzas of the poem, William Cullen Bryant discusses this beauty as an unrefined, but reliable, power. He claims that when we die, “Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim/ Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again” (Bryant 23-24). Bryant continues on with this theme in the next lines by describing the specifics of this process, how we will “be a brother to the insensible rock” (Bryant 27). This elaborates on how Bryant uses a common idea in American Romanticism to see death as a conjoining of Nature and humans, which leads him to embrace death by finding trust in Nature’s unspoiled beauty.

Bryant’s second point finds wisdom and comfort in the past, an idea often found in American Romanticism. In the third stanza of “Thanatopsis,” Bryant states, “Yet not to thine eternal resting place/ Shalt thou retire alone” (Bryant 31-32). In these lines, Bryant is telling us that when we die, we will not be alone. In fact, an opportunity arises for us to learn from “patriarchs of the infant world -- with kings, the powerful of the earth -- the wise, the good, fair forms, and hoary seers of ancient past” (Bryant 35-36). In other words, we will find wisdom by joining the multitude of noble people who have already learned from life’s lessons, and moved on. Bryant’s main point in this stanza is to illustrate how we are not alone in death, but that it actually provides us with an opportunity to find wisdom and comfort.
In the third stanza of the poem, Bryant begins to find beauty in the often terrifying world of the supernatural realm. He begins by stating how even when we die, we still remain together in “one mighty sepulcher.” (Bryant 37) Bryant continues to elaborate on this in the next lines, which describe“the hills/ Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, -- the vales/ Stretching in pensive quietness.” (Bryant 37-39) This displays the beauty in death that Bryant is able to find through nature. Throughout the next stanza, he displays how we conjoin with Nature, and flow with it “where rolls the Oregon.” (Bryant 53) This demonstrates how an often feared world of death can be interpreted as a beautiful realm, where we can become enveloped by nature.

One of the most important points from American Romanticism that Bryant introduces during “Thanatopsis” is honoring his worth as an individual. Bryant introduces this topic by first stating, “What if thou withdraw/...and no friend/ Take note of thy departure?” (Bryant 58-60) Here, Bryant is addressing a common worry among humans; namely, what does everybody think of us? However, he continues on to describe how we should not be conscientious about the fact that “the gay will laugh when thou art gone.” (Bryant 61-62) But that we should find comfort because all will soon come “make their bed with thee.” (Bryant 66) In the end, Bryant is telling us not to worry about what others will think of us when we pass. This assures him in his self-worth, and allows him to almost be comforted by his own death.
During the end of the poem, Bryant discusses his fifth and final point; he can trust in Nature to lead him to a higher spiritual development. Instead of looking towards a specific religion, Bryant discusses nature almost as a type of god. It provides him with a place to be after death; namely, joined together with the earth’s many elements, and among the people of its ancient civilizations. In some of the closing lines of “Thanatopsis,” Bryant states: “Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night/ Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed.” (Bryant 77-78) Here he is telling us not to resist death, but to welcome its calling and go “By an unfaltering trust” (Bryant 79) to our graves, falling into Nature’s welcoming embrace.

In summary, “Thanatopsis” is William Cullen Bryant’s elaboration on his journey to understanding death and its many fearful components by utilizing many techniques common to American Romanticism. He first seeks Nature’s unspoiled beauty to calm him, and then begins to find consolation in death by reasoning that he will finally lay with many wise people from the past. Bryant finds ultimate beauty in the supernatural realm, and continues on to reassure himself by honoring his worth as an individual. Finally, Bryant trusts in Nature to lead him to a place of higher spirituality. Overall, “Thanatopsis” demonstrates how to not only think in the way that Romantics did, but use this thought process to discover many of life’s mysteries.





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