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"Thanatopsis" is one of the earliest poems written by the nineteenth-century American poet William Cullen Bryant. Thanatopsis is a Greek word that means meditation on or contemplation of death, and the poem is an elegy that attempts to console humans, given that everyone eventually has to die.

The poem went through a number of revisions before reaching its final form. The first version was probably written between 1813 and 1815, when Bryant was still in his teens. It was published in the North American Review in September 1817, after Bryant's father showed it to the journal's editor without his son's knowledge. Bryant then revised the poem and it was published in his Poems in 1821.

As the best-known poem of one of the most significant early American writers, "Thanatopsis" is frequently anthologized. It can be found in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, seventh edition (2007), as well as in several reprints of Bryant's work, including Poems by William Cullen Bryant in the Michigan Historical Reprint Series (2005) published by the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library, and Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (2003) by Kessinger Publishing.

When first published, "Thanatopsis" marked a new beginning for American poetry, and Bryant went on to become one of the most celebrated poets of the century. Although most of his work is

little read now, "Thanatopsis" endures because of its sonorous blank verse and its dignified plea to humans not to fear death but to trust in the benevolence, continuity, and harmony of nature.


William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794, in Cummington, Massachusetts, to Peter, a physician and surgeon, and Sarah Snell Bryant. His father was a cultured, intellectual man who read and wrote poetry, and he encouraged the early literary efforts of his son. Bryant was a precocious boy, and when he was thirteen his first poems were published in the Hampshire Gazette. A year later, in 1808, Bryant's poem, The Embargo, or Sketches of the Times; A Satire, was published as a pamphlet. It was an attack on President Thomas Jefferson, stimulated by the political views of Bryant's father. The poem met with an enthusiastic reception, after which Bryant expanded it, and a second edition was published.

After studying with a private tutor, Bryant entered Williams College in 1810 but withdrew after one year. He decided to train for the law and joined the law office of a congressman in Bridgewater. In 1815, he was admitted to the bar, and from 1816 to 1825 he practiced law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was during this period that Bryant had his first literary successes. In 1817, his poem "Thanatopsis," which he had probably started writing in about 1815, was published in the North American Review.

In 1821, Bryant married Frances Fairchild. The same year, he was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard of College. He wrote the poem "The Ages," in honor of the occasion, and it was published with seven other poems, including a revised version of "Thanatopsis," in Poems (1821). Bryant was immediately recognized as a new poetic voice.

Several years later, Bryant decided to abandon the practice of law and enter journalism. In 1825, he moved to New York City, where he became editor of the New York Review. Two years later he joined the New York Evening Post, and in 1829 he became part owner and editor-in-chief, a position he held until his death.

As a political journalist, Bryant supported the Free Soil movement, which opposed the expansion of slavery, and he was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. During his years as a journalist, Bryant continued to publish poetry, and the appearance of his Poems in 1832 established his reputation as the leading American poet of the day. Other collections of Bryant's poetry include The Fountain and Other Poems (1842), The White-Footed Deer and Other Poems (1846), and Thirty Poems (1864).

Bryant also wrote Letters of a Traveler (1850) and Letters from the East (1869), which were accounts of his extensive travels in Europe and Latin America. In 1870, his translation of Homer's Iliad was published, followed two years later by his translation of the Odyssey.

In late May 1878, Bryant gave a speech in honor of the Italian patriot Joseph Mazzini in Central Park, New York. On the walk home he fell and suffered a concussion. He did not recover and died on June 12, 1878, at the age of eighty-four.


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,    20
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
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       25
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever 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    30
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
   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,   35
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
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;          40
The venerable woods—rivers that move
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                45
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
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         50
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
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:     55
And millions in those solitudes, since first
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         60
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
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   65
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men,
The youth in life's fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,   70
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.
   So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves              75
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
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,      80
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.


Lines 1-31

"Thanatopsis" begins by painting a verbal picture of the many different aspects of nature, which anyone who loves nature is able to discern. When a person is in a good mood, nature has a "voice of gladness," and appears in great beauty. When a person is feeling sad, nature can quickly alleviate that feeling. The poet then ventures some advice to his reader. He says that whenever people are disturbed by thoughts of their inevitable death, they should go out into nature and listen to nature's message, which it offers through earth, air, and water. In this "still voice," nature reminds humans that in a short while, they will no longer see the sun on its daily course. Their physical form will no longer exist, either in the ground where it is laid, or in the ocean. The earth that nourishes them will reclaim them. No trace of individuality will remain; all that is distinctive to the person will be mixed with the elements. The person's remains will be a "brother" to rocks and the earth that the farmer plows. The roots of the oak tree will spread around and pierce the human remains.

Lines 32-58

The poet now embarks on a consolation for the inevitability of death. He tells his reader that not only will he not go to his final "resting-place" alone but he could not wish for a more "magnificent" place to go. Lying in the earth he will be with all the illustrious dead who have ever lived, including kings, wise men, and seers from the past. Everyone lies in the same "mighty sepulchre." The poet then elaborates on what makes up this sepulchre: the ancient hills, the quiet valleys, the old woods, majestic rivers and "complaining brooks," and green meadows, as well as the ocean. All these natural phenomena are "solemn decorations" of the tomb of all humanity. In line 46, he expands the picture to include the sun, the planets, and the entire heavens, which throughout the ages look down upon this mass graveyard. Beginning at line 49, the poet explains that all the people who are currently living on the earth make up only a small fraction of those who have lived in the past and whose remains now lie in the earth. To illustrate his point, the poet then ranges far and wide: across the ocean to the Barcan desert (which is in Libya) and then westward to the Oregon River. In these solitary places, too, millions of the dead are present, having been buried there since the beginning of time.

Lines 59-82

Having explained the company his reader will keep in death, the poet now asks his reader to consider the possibility that his death may not be lamented or even noticed by anyone. Then the poet embarks on a consolation for that hypothetical situation. Even though life will continue as usual with some people happy and some unhappy and everyone chasing their particular dream in life, everyone will eventually die and "make their bed with thee." The poet then elaborates on this thought. As ages go by, everyone—the young, the middle-aged, the old, even babies—will go to their deaths and therefore lie next to the reader's remains, put there by others who will in their turn be laid in the earth.

Having established his consolations regarding the inevitability of death, in line 74 the poet offers his final advice to his reader: live in the light of that knowledge, and when the time for death comes, go willingly. Do not be like a slave who has to be driven by a whip to work in a quarry at night, but be uplifted and comforted like someone who is going to bed, wraps the bedding around him, and lies down to await "pleasant dreams."


  • The William Cullen Bryant Bicentennial Concert by the Long Island Composers Alliance includes a track titled "Thanatopsis," composed by Joseph Pehrson and performed by Akmal Parwez with Patricia Leland Rudoff on violin. It was released on CD on the Capstone label in 1995.


Overcoming Fear of Death

For a poem written in the early nineteenth century, in which Christian belief was the norm in the United States, this is an unusual elegy in the sense that it offers none of the traditional consolations to humans faced with their own certain mortality. In "Thanatopsis" there is no Christian afterlife in which the believer can expect to go to heaven and live forever with God. Nor is there any divine judgment in which the good are rewarded and the evil punished. The poet makes no mention of the human soul, and therefore offers no distinction between body and soul in the sense that the mortal body dies but the soul is eternal. In this poem, nothing that lives is eternal except the forms of nature. Everything goes to death after its brief time under the sun; the material world is all there is. Consolation, the strength and wisdom to overcome fear, exists in the knowledge that the prospect of utter extinction is not to be dreaded. The individual will certainly die, no trace of him or her remaining. "Surrendering up / Thine individual being" (lines 25-26) and mingling with the elements, each human will become "a brother to the insensible rock" (line 28). But this is a fate not to be mourned because being absorbed in the continuing beauty and grandeur of nature is the universal human lot. In death, humans are incorporated into nature's harmonious forms, which will endure over the years. What could be more satisfying, the poem argues, than lying with the illustrious dead of all former ages, in the "great tomb of man" (line 46)? According to this point of view, consciousness, self-awareness—the awareness of being "I"—the uniqueness of being human, as well as the uniqueness of the human ability to reason, are not qualities that are to be valued above all else. Humans are not superior to the rest of the creation in the sense that the fate of a human is the same as that of a dog, or a cow, or a monkey. Death makes no distinctions. Although survivors, as mentioned in the poem, may mourn the departed, the extinction of consciousness is not a disaster or a catastrophe. There is little reason to prefer consciousness over unconsciousness. Each has its appropriate time and place. In this way the poet seeks to overcome the fear of death and encourage a wise acceptance of it.


  • Select another poem that deals with death and write an essay in which you compare and contrast it with "Thanatopsis." Possible poems for comparison include "Scented Herbiage of My Breast" by Walt Whitman, "Prospice" by Robert Browning, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" by Dylan Thomas, or another poem of your choice.
  • Write a poem in which the central theme is death. It can be an elegy to a particular person or a general reflection about death. What is the speaker's attitude toward death? What consolation can be found in the absence of a loved person, or in the face of the inevitable mortality of all humans? You may use "Thanatopsis" for inspiration but feel free to present a different argument or approach.
  • "Thanatopsis" underwent substantial revision between its first publication in 1817 and its appearance in Bryant's Poems in 1821. Originally the poem was much shorter. In the revised version, Bryant added lines 1-17, as well as the last 15 and a half lines, beginning with "As the long train." Examine the poem with these revisions in mind, and write an essay in which you explain how the added lines alter or develop the theme of the poem. Is the final version more, or less, hopeful? Does it offer more consolation in the face of death? What sort of consolation? Is the consolation based on logical argument or feeling?
  • Many of the poems written by the so-called "graveyard" poets, including Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," are set in graveyards, and no doubt many of these poets visited graveyards for creative inspiration. Go to a local cemetery and read the inscriptions on the gravestones. Take note of those that contain uplifting sentiments, expressing hopes of an afterlife. Give a presentation to your class describing some of the epitaphs you saw and explaining some of the thoughts and feelings you had when walking in the cemetery.

Nature as Nourishing Force

Before the poet develops the theme of death and extinction, he presents nature as a guide and teacher, a nourishing maternal force and a presence to which humans can turn when they are faced with disturbing thoughts about death. In order to receive this nourishing support, a person must be open to the messages that nature can impart; he or she must be able to hold "communion with her visible forms" (line 2), that is, to enter into a relationship with nature. If people are able to do this, nature's power to comfort will happen without any effort on the part of the individual. It manifests itself "ere he is aware" (line 8). Nature as a benevolent force is thus shown to be stronger than the human mind, with a power to influence it for the better. The "visible forms" that represent nature's teaching are extolled in lines about the beauty of the hills, woods, vales, rivers, brooks, oceans, and meadows. Nature's grandeur is evoked in "the infinite host of heaven" (line 47). These forms impress

themselves on the human senses and lead the individual to understand and accept that the earth is a desirable resting place for human beings when they die. Nature speaks its message, through its visible forms, in a "still voice" (line 17) that emanates from earth, water, and the air itself. In using the words "still voice," the poet alludes, or refers, to a well-known passage in the Old Testament, in which the prophet Elijah hears God's "still small voice" after the turmoil of wind, earthquake, and fire (1 Kings 19:12). But there is a difference in keeping with the non-religious perspective of the poet. In the Bible, the voice of God is not in the various phenomena of nature but is heard after those phenomena have passed. In contrast, in "Thanatopsis," the "still voice" is the voice not of a God external to nature, but that of nature itself.



An elegy is a formal and somber poem that either laments the death of a particular person or is a more general meditation on death. Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," a poem that Bryant was familiar with, is an example of the form. "Thanatopsis" fulfills the requirements of the elegy since it is a serious poem that meditates on the inevitability of death for every human being and attempts to seek some kind of consolation in the face of certain extinction.

Blank Verse

The poem is written in blank verse, which is unrhymed verse usually written in iambic pentameter, a line of five iambic feet. A foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Line 19, "the all-beholding sun shall see no more," and line 24, "Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again," are examples of regular iambic pentameter. However, the poet does not rigidly adhere to iambic pentameter, and most of the lines feature variations of one sort or another. These include the use of trochees, in which the iambic foot is reversed, a stressed syllable being followed by an unstressed one. An example occurs in the first foot of line 16: "Earth and her waters, and the depths of air," in which the word "earth" is stressed. The poet also employs spondees, in which both syllables of the foot are stressed, as in the first foot of line 39, which describes the hills as "rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun." Further variety is gained by use of the caesura, a pause often but not always in the middle of the line, indicated by a comma, semicolon, or period, as in line 46: "Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun." The poem also features many examples of enjambment, in which a unit of meaning (a phrase or a sentence) continues from one line to the next without punctuation, as in lines 8-9, "When thoughts / Of the last bitter hour come like a blight."


Personification is a figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are treated as if they have human attributes or feelings. In "Thanatopsis," nature is personified in the opening lines as possessing "a voice of gladness, and a smile" (line 4); nature also possesses a "mild / And healing sympathy" (lines 6-7) with which she leads people away from sad and depressing thoughts. The impression given is of nature as mother and caring nurse. Later in the poem, the poet uses a technique similar to personification, known as the pathetic fallacy. This occurs in his description of the "pensive quietness" of the valleys (line 40), the "complaining brooks" (line 42), and the "gray and melancholy" ocean (line 44), all of which present aspects of nature as if they contained human feelings. According to M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, the pathetic fallacy is simply a "less formally managed" version of personification.


Several similes bring out the contrast between fear of death and the calm acceptance of it that form part of the creative tension of the poem. A simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to something else, often by the use of the word "like" or "as." The fear of death is presented in the simile near the end of the poem, when the poet urges a person to go to death "not, like the quarry-slave at night, / Scourged to his dungeon" (lines 78-79). The simile that follows just two lines later, and which concludes the poem, expresses the opposite attitude of glad acceptance. A person is encouraged to approach death "Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams" (lines 81-82). The simile compares death to sleep, and is the third occasion when the poet uses this simile. The earlier references occur at lines 50-51, about "the tribes" that "slumber" in earth, and line 58, in which the dead lie down "in their last sleep."


Early American Literature

In 1790, the United States, a new nation, possessed few if any writers of distinction. The poets of the day looked to England for their literary models, especially to the neoclassical poetry of Alexander Pope. The most prominent American poets were the nine members of a group known as the Hartford Wits or the Connecticut Wits. The best known of these young writers from Connecticut were Joel Barlow (1754-1812); Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), who was the president of Yale University; and John Trumbull (1756-1843). Barlow is best remembered for his mock-epic poem, "The Hasty Pudding" (1796). The work of poet and journalist Philip Freneau (1752-1832) was also notable during this period. Although these poets did celebrate American independence and contrasted the bright future of the young country with European countries that labored under the weight of the past, they still lacked originality, deriving their literary inspiration from England. After the war of 1812-14, in which the United States defeated Britain and showed it was ready to assume a prominent international role, essays began appearing in American literary journals calling for the establishment of a genuine American literature. When Bryant published "Thanatopsis" in 1817 and then his first collection of poems in 1821, it was clear to many that a new voice in American literature had arrived. Bryant himself, in "Poetry's Relation to Our Age and Country," an essay published in 1825-26, forcefully argued against the pessimists who believed that conditions in the United States in the 1820s were not conducive to the production of great literature:

… All the materials of poetry exist in our own country, with all the ordinary encouragements and opportunities for making a successful use of them…. If … our poetry should finally fail of rivalling that of Europe, it will be because Genius sits idle in the midst of its treasures.

It was a similar story with the novel. Charles Brockden Brown is remembered for his Gothic novel, Wieland (1798), but it was only with the publication of James Fenimore Cooper's first important novel, The Spy, in 1821, that a new American note was sounded in that genre. Cooper is regarded as the first great American novelist. He went on to publish The Pioneers in 1823, which was the first of the famous "Leatherstocking" series, featuring the adventures of Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo (also known as Hawkeye, Deerslayer, and Leatherstocking). One of the best-known novels in that series, The Last of the Mohicans, was published in 1826. Two distinguished American writers, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, also began publishing in this decade. Poe's book of poems, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems appeared in 1829, and Hawthorne's anonymously published novel, Fanshawe, in 1828. By 1830, American literature was set for a new flowering of writers who could give full expression to the young nation's spirit. Many of those who would become the giants of American literature in the mid-nineteenth century were born during the exact period that Bryant was writing and revising "Thanatopsis": Henry David Thoreau in 1817, and James Russell Lowell, Henry Melville, and Walt Whitman, all in 1819.


  • 1820s: In the early work of Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and the prose writings of Washington Irving, the United States begins to establish its own literary culture.

    Today: The United States possesses a wide literary culture that represents many ethnicities and groups that were not permitted to be part of the literary landscape in the early nineteenth century. This new culture includes works by African American, Asian American, and Native American authors, as well as literature written by women.

  • 1820s: Life expectancy at birth in the United States is 39.5 years. This is comparable to life expectancy in the United Kingdom (40), France (37), and Germany (41), and higher than Spain (28), Russia (28), India (21), and the world average (26).

    Today: As cited in the World Factbook, the 2008 estimated life expectancy for the total population of the United States is 78.14 years. For men, the life expectancy is 75.29 years, and for women, 81.13 years.

  • 1820s: Most American writers of any note are concentrated in the original thirteen colonies. Literary circles are small, and many prominent writers know and socialize with one another. In 1825, James Fenimore Cooper founds the Bread and Cheese Club in New York, which includes poets Bryant and Fitz-Greene Halleck, and other writers, artists, and intellectuals. During this period, New York rivals the Philadelphia of Benjamin Franklin's time as a center for culture and creativity.

    Today: Although New York has long been the center of the American publishing world, American literary culture is widely dispersed. The age of electronic publishing offers the prospect of further decentralization and democratization of the production of literary works. Desktop publishing and such technologies as print on demand enables thousands of individuals and small publishers to make their books available to readers via the World Wide Web. Likewise, writers from across the country and the globe find literary communities online.

The British Graveyard Poets

In developing the themes of "Thanatopsis," Bryant was influenced by his reading of the eighteenth-century British "graveyard" poets. These were poets who wrote gloomy, melancholy poems about death, often set in graveyards. Sometimes employing the kind of imagery associated with the Gothic novel in their attempt to conjure up for the reader an atmosphere that would convey the horrors of death and the decay of the physical body. These poets are usually thought of as precursors of the British romantic movement. The best-known poem of the graveyard school is Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751). Other such poems include Robert Blair's "The Grave" (1743) and Edward Young's Night-Thoughts (1742). Other graveyard poets include Beilby Porteus, the bishop of London, especially his poem "Death" (1759); Henry Kirke White; Thomas Parnell; Thomas Percy; Thomas Warton; Mark Akenside; and James McPherson. Later in the eighteenth century, poets in France and Germany were writing graveyard poems, and in American literature, the graveyard school was represented by Philip Freneau's "The House of Night" (1779).

Bryant studied the work of many of the British graveyard poets. Charles H. Brown, in his biography William Cullen Bryant, cites an autobiographical fragment by Bryant in which the poet states that he was inspired to write "Thanatopsis" after reading Young, Blair, and White. Brown points out that the thought and language of "Thanatopsis" shows a particular debt to Blair's "The Grave." However, the graveyard poets did not always dwell on death alone. Often they developed a theme of immortality or at least a hope for an afterlife (as in Gray's elegy) that is not present in "Thanatopsis."


When Bryant's father submitted his son's poem, "Thanatopsis" to the North American Review, one member of the editorial board, Richard Henry Dana, declared after he read it, "That was never written on this side of the water" (quoted in William Cullen Bryant by Charles H. Brown). Dana could not believe that an American poet could have written such lines. When the poem was reprinted in Bryant's Poems (1821), it reached a wider audience that was similarly impressed. A review in a New York journal, the American, praised Bryant's poems for "their exquisite taste, taste, their keen relish for the beauties of nature, their magnificent imagery, and their pure and majestic morality" (quoted in Brown). When Bryant's book was published in England a year later as Specimens of the American Poets, it included a note about the lines of "Thanatopsis" that "there are few pieces, in the works of even the very first of our living poets, which exceed them in sublimity and compass of poetical thought" (quoted in William Ellery Leonard's "Bryant and the Minor Poets" in The Cambridge History of American Literature). During the nineteenth century Bryant's poetry continued to be held in high regard. "Thanatopsis" was regarded by many as a religious poem, although some Christian writers objected to it because it offered no hope of immortality. Bryant's reputation as a poet declined after his death until he was considered no more than a minor poet. Leonard's verdict on Bryant was that "he is not one of the world's master-poets, because he was not pre-eminently endowed with intellectual intensity and imaginative concentration."

Although Bryant's poetry continues to occupy only a minor place in the literary canon, many modern critics agree that the publication of "Thanatopsis" marked the beginning of a true American literature, in contrast to literature that derived from the nation's colonial past. Because of this the poem still attracts commentary from contemporary literary critics. In the History of American Literature (1983), Marshall Walker argues that although the influence of Gray, Young, Cowper, and Thomson influenced the feeling and language of the poem, "he absence of God and the injunction to live by the dictates of nature indicate a more than incipient romanticism." Frank Gado argues in his essay "The Eternal Flow of Things," published in William Cullen Bryant: An American Voice, that "Thanatopsis" is not in fact similar in theme to Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," a poem with which it is often compared. Whereas the elegy is a "lament for unfulfilled lives," "Thanatopsis," in contrast, "celebrates the nothingness of death. Precisely because it is nothing, death makes it imperative to live, to exploit and enjoy life's possibilities unafraid, accountable only to our own consciences."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he examines some of Bryant's sources for "Thanatopsis" and how Bryant adapted these sources to fit his own vision.

William Cullen Bryant is one of those venerable poets from the distant past who have an established and honored place in literary history but are little read in the twenty-first century. As Bryant's solemn face gazes out from formal nineteenth-century photographs, the textbooks inform us that in those long-gone days he helped to usher in the dawn of an authentic American literature. A giant in his own age, he looms not so large in ours. In his day he was thought to be superior to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other poets of the mid-century, but almost no one would maintain such a view in the twenty-first century. His poem "Thanatopsis," however, is one of the few exceptions to the obscurity into which his work has fallen. Regarded as his greatest poem, and written in what Albert F. McLean (in his biography William Cullen Bryant) calls Bryant's "voice of eloquent reverie," it still has its admirers, and it has even supplied the name for a contemporary heavy-rock band based in Chicago.


  • After "Thanatopsis," Bryant's best-remembered poem is probably "The Prairies" (1832), a 124-line blank verse reflection he wrote after seeing the Great Plains for the first time, having visited his brother in southern Illinois. "The Prairies" is an optimistic poem, at once a celebration of nature and of the promise inherent in the young American nation. The poem can be found in the seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (2007).
  • The Denial of Death (1973) by Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Becker investigates why humans find it so difficult to acknowledge their own mortality. He outlines a new view of the nature of humanity that involves a fresh approach to life and living. The book has relevance for a poet such as Bryant, who had a strong need to come to terms with death. A paperback edition was published by Free Press in 1997.
  • Like Bryant, Walt Whitman was a poet who wrote extensively and passionately about death in poems such as "O Captain My Captain," "Song of Myself," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Whitman self-published his poetry in a single complete volume, Leaves of Grass, which he continuously revised and reprinted. His final edition was published in 1892, the year he died. Whitman's The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy, appears in the Penguin Classics series (2005).
  • Seventeenth-century English poet John Donne's sonnet, "Death Be Not Proud" (written c. 1610), the last in his sequence of "Holy Sonnets," is an examination of death that takes the terror out of it. Death is not as dreadful as people think it is, and will ultimately be conquered. The poem can be found in John Donne's Poetry (Norton Critical Edition) edited by Donald R. Dickson (2006), and many other editions and anthologies.
  • "Adonais," by English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is a pastoral elegy written in 1821, following the death of the poet John Keats. Expressing Shelley's long interest in Platonism, it envisions the dead poet attaining a kind of immortality by being incorporated into the one spirit that permeates all nature. The poem can be found in almost any edition of Shelley's works, including Shelley: Poems, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets (1993).

"Thanatopsis," with its secular orientation and its refusal to take comfort in religion, is not quite the sort of poem one might have expected the young Bryant to write since he was raised in a pious home under the influence of his grandfather's strict Calvinism, although his father's more liberal views and love of poetry provided a counterweight to the stern religious training. It was because of his father's library that Bryant was able to educate himself in the English poetic tradition. He was especially drawn to the eighteenth-century "graveyard" poets, but when he came to write "Thanatopsis" in the same vein, he was not inclined to offer his readers the customary type of consolation. Robert Blair's "The Grave," for example, which Bryant certainly read, is a very long poem about death that culminates in the conquest of death by Christ. Death can be accepted only with the promise that it will be overcome. Similarly, Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," a meditation on the transience of life, offers an epitaph written on the gravestone stating that the man whose death the poet has been discussing now rests with God, having found his eternal friend, which was all he would have wished for. This is what makes Gray's elegy, although it has a poetic power that has made it the best-remembered of the graveyard poems, conventional in its conclusions. It is a pious poem. Conventional Christian piety, however, is far from the mind of the author of "Thanatopsis," and he subverts the thought in Gray's poem in small and large details. For example, whereas in the final stanzas of Gray's elegy, the speaker offers the possibility that a man's absence might be noticed by an old man who has closely observed him in life, "Thanatopsis" moves to its conclusion by asking "what if thou withdraw / In silence from the living, and no friend / Take note of thy departure?" (lines 59-61), making the prospect of death apparently even more gloomy and painful. The conclusion offers no transcendental friend as heavenly recompense for the sufferings man may have endured in his earthly life.

Other than the graveyard poets, one of the main influences on "Thanatopsis" was the English romantic poet William Wordsworth. Bryant read Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798 by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; there was a copy of this book in the library of Bryant's father. Richard Henry Dana recalls Bryant telling him that when he started reading Lyrical Ballads, "a thousand springs seemed to gush up at once into his heart, and the face of Nature, of a sudden, to change into a strange freshness and life" (quoted in Brown). A seminal work in literary history, Lyrical Ballads included many poems that would have caught the attention of the young poet in Massachusetts, particularly Wordsworth's meditations on the death of a young girl, Lucy, who is presented as being incorporated into the forms of nature, and the poem" The Tables Turned," in which the speaker implores his interlocutor to allow nature to be his teacher, just as Bryant presents nature as a wise teacher in "Thanatopsis." In addition, the stately, majestic blank verse lines in which the poet of "Thanatopsis" admiringly presents all the varied phenomena of nature surely owes much to the blank verse of "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," also in Lyrical Ballads and one of Wordsworth's most famous poems, in which he worships nature as nurse and moral guide to man. Like Wordsworth, Bryant in "Thanatopsis" advocates an "unfaltering trust" (line 80) in nature, a phrase that would fit easily into "Tintern Abbey" (see, for example, line 133) and is quite in harmony with its theme. It is to Wordsworth that Bryant owes at least part of his fulsome celebration of nature in "Thanatopsis"—not only its beauty but the succor it offers to those who are feeling the burden of life. As McLean points out, in his attitude toward nature, Bryant reverses the usual "contempt of orthodox Protestantism for things of this world."

As with the graveyard poets, Bryant follows his poetic influences only to a certain degree. In "Tintern Abbey" and many other poems, notably The Prelude, Wordsworth presents a kind of pantheism, in which the inner essence of man's mind is identified as part of the great mind of nature; the soul of man is, in a sense, the soul of the universe also, and it is this that gives man, in Wordsworth's view, the ability to commune with nature. Nature puts man in touch with the deepest aspects of himself, the infinite nature of his own mind. Bryant will have none of this. Just as he refuses the orthodox theism of the graveyard school, he declines to take up the pantheism inherent not only in Wordsworth but in many other romantic poets. He is prepared to look death in the eye, so to speak, without reaching for a religious, or other transcendental creed, to comfort him.

Interestingly, in other poems by Bryant that deal with death, he adopts a far more traditional Christian position. In "Hymn to Death," written in 1820, about the same time as "Thanatopsis," he praises death because it avenges those who have been wronged and destroys the oppressors, a moral perspective absent from "Thanatopsis." Moreover, while he was in the process of writing "Hymn to Death," his father, Peter Bryant, died, and Bryant concluded his poem with these thoroughly orthodox Christian lines about the certainty of the resurrection of the body:

Rest, in the bosom of God, till the brief sleep
Of death is over, and a happier life
Shall dawn to waken thine insensible dust.

Such a conclusion is far from the dignified acceptance of the irrevocable extinction of the individual that is the central theme of "Thanatopsis," a theme that Bryant develops relentlessly over eighty-two lines in which he employs all his poetic resources to convince his reader of the truth and wisdom of his assertions. The poem appeals to both reason (what is the point in fearing or resisting the inevitable?) and to feeling (receptiveness to the beauty of nature and its message of harmony and continuity in the face of the transience of all life). If the poem is read aloud, it is hard for the listener to resist the grand sweep of the blank verse, which resonates with a calm maturity that makes one forget that it was written by a poet still in his teenage years. At an age when most young people are still discovering and learning how to assert their own individuality and make their way in the world, here is a poet who appeals to his readers to transcend the smallness of the individual personality in an awareness of the wider whole and the inevitable end of things, who hints that the grand hopes and desires that people spend their lives pursuing may be mere illusions ("each one as before will chase / His favorite phantom," [lines 64-65]), and counsels them to live ("So live, that when thy summons comes," [line 74]) in the light of this sobering but invaluable knowledge. It is an achievement that has justly preserved the name of William Cullen Bryant for each new generation of poetry readers for nearly two hundred years.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Thanatopsis," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Robert A. Ferguson

In the following excerpt, Ferguson examines what it meant for Bryant to write nature poetry such as "Thanatopsis" in what was still the American frontier wilderness.

Our first leading poet William Cullen Bryant was a young and rather angry lawyer in Western Massachusetts just after the War of 1812. He wrote verse for another fifty years, but most of his important poems were finished before he decided, in 1825, to try journalism in New York City. These facts, while minimal, mark the creative context of a poet who has been victimized by more false impressions than any counterpart in American literature. Inflated by literary nationalists in his own day, and dismissed as a mere precursor by later generations, Bryant survives, if at all, as one of the bearded schoolroom bards—"the dear old poet" once toasted jocularly by Hawthorne, Melville, and Holmes on a picnic in the Berkshires. Observers looking beyond the stereotype have been drawn to the complications in the later career. For Bryant also served for forty-three years as editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post, leaving critics with an absorbing problem: how reconcile the idle dreamer who shuns worldly strife in poems like "Green River" with the self-made millionaire, the political commentator, the eager campaigner advising Abraham Lincoln on cabinet appointments. Whittier and Emerson were certain that the newspaperman's "daily twaddle" and penchant for the "thistles and teazles of politics" undermined both his virtue and his creativity. Friends countered by isolating the high-mindedness of the poet in a separation of functions. "Not even the shadow of his business must fall upon the consecrated haunts of his muse," claimed John Bigelow in a defense of his business partner. The ensuing debate created the "chaste and tidy envelop of the Man of Letters" that scholars have recently corrected by documenting Bryant's involvements. But the very premises of modern reactions have kept attention upon the public figure of mid-century. We need to concentrate upon the true poet of thirty years before—the more elusive Bryant who wrote "Thanatopsis" and "To A Waterfowl" when James Monroe was president.

Missing is a firm sense of the creative framework available to Bryant between 1814 and 1825. What kind of poet was it possible to be in Federalist New England during The Era of Good Feeling? We know that Bryant was influenced by Alison's Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste and Wordsworth's critical essays and Lyrical Ballads. But how did Alison's associationist views and aesthetic principles translate within early Republican circles? What did it mean to read Wordsworth and write nature poetry in what was still a frontier wilderness? Answers may suggest an intrinsic context for the poet, but they are not easy to formulate. The generalizations placing Bryant between the neoclassical and romantic impulses of Europe reveal little about his situation in America, and we are only beginning to understand the responsiveness of Bryant and other early American intellectuals to Scottish moralists like Alison. Bryant also faced a different natural setting from that of the English Romantics. In fact, he committed himself to both the difference and the importance of locality and context. "Let me counsel you," he advised his brother John, "to draw your images, in describing Nature, from what you observe around you…. The skylark is an English bird, and an American who has never visited Europe has no right to be in raptures about it."…

The poet's masterpiece "Thanatopsis" depends upon the context we have traced, and the influence is crucial because Bryant wrote a poem quite different from the one modern readers have found. In spite of prevailing interpretations, "Thanatopsis" is not a dialogue between the persona of the poet and a voice in Nature. Even the earliest proponent of a shift in speakers within the poem, Carl Van Doren in 1915, was bothered by seeming inconsistency in Nature's point of view, and every hypothesis since then has presented its own problems. Are there many voices in "Thanatopsis" or only two? Has the poet returned in a concluding section or does dialogue lapse into monologue? Is exchange finally unequal because man cannot hope to reach Nature's philosophical level or because of Bryant's own uncertain craftsmanship? Scholarly debate will prove endless because discussion is based upon a faulty premise and upon too much attention given to the supposed poet of Nature. There is only one speaking voice in "Thanatopsis"—that of the poet guiding his reader through a train of related mental associations toward sublime emotion and a sense of unified calm.

The extraordinary tonal uniformity of "Thanatopsis"—always a problem for those seeking an exchange—offers intuitive support for a unified voice. One can also look to Albert McLean's brilliant insight that the structure of the poem parallels the tripartite division of doctrine, reasons, uses in Puritan sermonology. For in sharing the structure, the rhetorical tone, and the directive, didactic thrust of a sermon, "Thanatopsis" must function within genre as a formal discourse of instruction and not as dialogue. Everything about Bryant's background substantiates this conclusion. Like most early republicans, he preferred oratory as a literary form, and his poems rely heavily upon the sustained eloquence of pulpit and platform.

If the initial section of "Thanatopsis" corresponds to the doctrine of a sermon, Bryant's text is clearly Alison's Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste.

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
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
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—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice.—

William Hudson has shown how Bryant relied upon Alison's belief in a healing principle of Nature and how the poet may have been influenced in this passage by Alison's description of autumnal decay and melancholy. In addition, Alison wrote frequently of the "expression" of Nature's general form, and he gave Bryant his central premise: "the gaiety of Nature alone, is beautiful to the cheerful man; its melancholy, to the man of sadness."

The Alisonian aesthetics behind this statement also furnished Bryant with a methodology for "Thanatopsis" that makes dialogue between man and his external world extremely unlikely. In Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste Nature either reflects man's moods or awakens him to an internal process of moral emotion, but it is incapable of intellectual exchange. "Matter in itself is unfitted to produce any kind of emotion," explained Alison the sensationalist. Mind, on the other hand, held a sway that is hard to reconcile with Nature's apparent dominance within "Thanatopsis" in all theories of a dialogue. "Our minds," wrote Alison, "instead of being governed by the character of external objects, are enabled to bestow upon them a character which does not belong to them." Nature is a catalyst at the beginning of mental process; it is "fitted to awaken us to moral emotion; to lead us, when once the key of our imagination is struck, to trains of fascinating and of endless imagery."

This train of inward images and emotions is what we find in "Thanatopsis." In an earlier introduction dating from 1815, Bryant had placed his poem within the "better genius" of a poet who "would thus commune" through a series of mental images. The subsequent personification of Nature in the final version eliminates this device, but a reading shows that point of view always remains in the thought of an observer. Nature in "Thanatopsis" speaks only to one who first "holds/ Communion with her visible forms" in an approximation of Alisonian sensation and perception. The language of Nature appears "various" because it mirrors changes in human emotion and works within the mind of man ("she glides into his darker musings"). In consequence, the still voice of the poem requires an ear already listening to Nature's teachings; it comes "from all around—Earth and her waters, and the depths of air" or through a conscious appreciation of Nature's comprehensive design. Even the noun "Communion"—foregrounded in line two in a striking variation upon the verb form of 1815—confirms Bryant's focus upon individual mind facing mystery. In Calvinist New England the very concept of the Sacrament bespoke mental preparation and introspective analysis of emotion. Bryant was fully aware of the literary tradition in sacramental meditations that turned private religious devotion into poetic experience.

Unity of mind and voice are significant because they point toward the actual strategy of Bryant's masterpiece. "Thanatopsis" is not an exchange between a poet of the woods and his source of inspiration but rather a deliberate movement away from Nature by an American in search of other controls. We already have examined Bryant's apprehensions regarding the natural world; here Nature actually becomes the source of terror that Edmund Burke called the ruling principle of the sublime. Read in isolation, the short second section of the poem is a dark vision of Nature's role in the destruction of man.

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,
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
To mix for ever 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.

In associationist terms, Bryant is creating the simple, unified emotion—in this case fear—that the ensuing train of mental association and sublime emotion will depend upon. Structurally, we have moved from philosophical assertion to the emotional center of "Thanatopsis"; from the thought of fear—"when thoughts of the last bitter hour come"—to horrifying violation—"pierce thy mould." Bryant's blank verse is usually filled with monosyllabic vocabulary. But in these last three lines only three words are minimally longer in a relentless march for masculine rhythms that helps to snuff out all personality. From such devastation there can be no recovery in Nature.

Instead, the solutions of the last two sections of Bryant's poem come from the world of man. Organic decay and individual mortality in Nature are replaced by a reassuring commonality in human life. Death becomes a social experience: "all that breathe/ Will share thy destiny." In a typical reach for dimension, Bryant also uses cosmic size both to create sublime effect and to insure an anthropocentric universe. Nature's forms "are but the solemn decorations all/ Of the great tomb of man," while sun and stars shine down as mourners upon the "one mighty sepulchre" that is earth. Even more important, enveloping Nature is soon saturated in metaphoric language from the human condition. The dying recline and sleep on couches in Nature's resting place of chambers and silent halls. Patriarchs, kings, tribes, and caravans fill the forests in a society of the unseen dead. The poet allows his reader an Alisonian control over this world of mental associations. "Pierced" in section two, we are now encouraged to "pierce the Barcan wilderness." The result is indeed the hoped-for calm emphasized by the Scottish moralist:

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.

Lost on modern readers, these comforts are peculiarly interesting in light of the anxieties and concerns we have seen in the early republican. Bryant solves many problems at once in "Thanatopsis." For one thing, the vast reaches of the western wilderness are suddenly populated with a living dead that bring form and even decorum to Nature. The Oregon River —"in the continuous woods/ Where rolls the Oregon"—was a favorite symbol of uncharted frontier for Americans in the first third of the nineteenth century. When Bryant announces "yet the dead are there," he implies a previous human reach and control that will inevitably come again. There is also a striking democracy in Bryant's society of the dead that owes much to republican instincts. The dead kings and patriarchs of the New World are the anachronisms of forgotten and lesser civilizations. But lying now in equality alongside matrons, maids, and speechless babes, they strangely prefigure and now corroborate the republican values of a more progressive era within "the long train of ages."

The very stillness of social vision in "Thanatopsis" is a final, implicit source of comfort to a poet who frequently complained of the turbulent American society and faced an unwelcome vocational decision within it. Writing "Thanatopsis" in the fall of 1815 just before beginning legal practice in Massachusetts, Bryant was confronting the same "employments" that seem trivial and cause loss of perspective in his poem("each one as before will chase/ His favorite phantom"). He frequently formed his descriptions of vocational difficulties from slave imagery, and the last lines of "Thanatopsis" should be understood as an attempt to rise above such narrow, worldly cares.

So live, that …
Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave.

The problem Bryant wrestled with all of his life was to serve one's community while retaining the saving perspective of the true poet in touch with both Nature and society.

Believing in civic involvement, the man of letters still expected the poet to function above the world. "Thanatopsis" not only revolves around this conviction, it is the ultimate portrayal of the balance Bryant tried to achieve. In this sense, movement from a preoccupation with "the narrow house" or coffin of section one to celebration of earth's mighty sepulchre in section three represents a resolution to accept the world. As the social forms of man circumscribe Nature in "Thanatopsis" they lend philosophical support to the speaker's decision. Bryant's final injunction, "So live," is the declaration of this acceptance, and it encompasses citizen and lawyer as well as poet. Nevertheless, the "unfaltering trust" on which emotional resolution depends is the higher achievement of the poet alone. In "Thanatopsis" trust wins over fear through aesthetic experience and artistic control. Eventual calm builds legitimately out of craft and vision. Here, in the demonstrated prowess of the poet, is Bryant's highest moment. No American poet, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe, would reach any higher for a generation to come.

Source: Robert A. Ferguson, "William Cullen Bryant: The Creative Context of the Poet," in New England Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 4, December 1980, pp. 431-63.

Albert F. McLean Jr.

In the following essay, McLean discusses the influence of New England and the Puritan plain style on Bryant's "Thanatopsis."

While "Thanatopsis" (1817, 1821) has received appreciative glances from literary historians, who view it as a convenient transitional piece between deism and romanticism, and from moralists, who consider it a "broad and noble consolation for death," there is hardly a whisper to indicate that this poem stands within an indigenous literary and intellectual tradition. Too often we have concentrated upon William Cullen Bryant's extreme youth when he composed the poem and thus have lapsed into an assumption that "Thanatopsis" is merely a superior imitation of Wordsworth and the graveyard poets. A somewhat broader perspective, however, reveals that Bryant drew heavily upon his New England environment for both the form of his work and its basic rationality. His debt to the Puritan plain style puts "Thanatopsis" in a new light that offers much to both historians and moralists.

The basic simplicity and orderliness of the plain style are well illustrated by the formal structure of "Thanatopsis," with its three stanzas of blank verse, each dealing with a particular approach to the problem of death. But this tripartite structure had its specific analogue in the leading literary form of the plain style, the sermon. Here the three divisions followed the logical pattern of doctrine, reasons, and uses, a rigid sequence that had persisted into nineteenth-century Protestantism in spite of the inroads of evangelical preaching and humanistic eloquence. We need not assume that Bryant consciously adapted this form to verse; in fact, circumstances indicate that he stumbled into it quite unconsciously. The sermon, however, was a traditional and habitual way of thought for the New England mind, a mental process which combined the universal truth of doctrine with its application to everyday life, and accomplished this through the mediating function of the "reason."

From Bryant's numerous revisions of the poem it seems clear that the sermon form was not superimposed upon the verse, but grew organically from problems inherent in the material. These revisions cover nearly a decade and indicate the poet's dissatisfaction with both the opening and the conclusion of the work, both before and after its publication in the North American Review of 1817. Five lines that he doggedly retained through each stage of the rewriting appear to have contained the source of his difficulty and, eventually, the seeds for the poem's subsequent growth. These five lines speculate on the disintegration of the human body:

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 for ever with the elements….

The implicit problem here is the philosophic one for which both Calvinism and deism had offered their solutions: "If the individual forms upon which human experience is based dissolve into mere substance, what order of reality is there beyond substance?" Bryant, like the generation of Emerson, sought a mediating position between the blunt supernaturalism of Calvinism and the commitments of the deists to impersonal, natural law. In order for the poet to make sense to himself and to his times, he had somehow to articulate the assumptions upon which his consolations for death were to be based. No solution to the problem appears in his revisions until after 1817, and the consolations had to rest on the uneasy assumption that a greater reality of some sort existed in which the dead were not "alone," some greater context than that of the "human trace" and "individual being."

Bryant's own recognition of this problem is evident in his hesitant handling of the poem's opening lines. Originally the text was conceived of as an emanation from the poet himself:

It was his better genius that was wont
To steal upon the bard what time his steps
Sought the repose of nature….

This unsatisfactory narrative device was first omitted from the version printed in the North American Review, but then restored to the manuscript on which Bryant worked during the period 1818-1820. In his final reworking of the material on his visit to Cambridge in 1821 he dropped the "better genius" completely and personified Nature so that she might speak to Man. Obviously he had labored to find a "voice" which would give immediacy and dramatic unity to the poem but which would avoid the pitfalls of subjectivity. The voice of genius was highly suspect even when Emerson was to proclaim its authority and the theme was too lofty to be handled by a mere mortal. Nature, of course, provided a "voice" that was universal and detached, that could speak of man's destruction without bias or fear. Bryant's final choice of Nature indicates his appreciation of the breadth of his theme and the necessity of firmly grounding his message on universal truths rather than on personal rationalizations.

This personification of Nature had another result. Carl Van Doren has noted that Nature speaks in two separate states and lacks "full consistency." While teaching a doctrine of hard truth, she also ministers to man in a maternal role. Bryant drew upon the rhetoric of sentimental verse, especially for the "sustained and soothed" of the concluding stanza, in order to soften his stoic message. But this use of contemporary idiom merely qualifies, and does not seem to alter, the basic rationality of "Thanatopsis."

With this adoption of the "voice" of Nature as a dramatic frame, the poem grew organically toward the wider areas of thought suggested by the disintegration of "individual being." In the first three lines we find Bryant's observation that the "visible forms" of nature are unstable:

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language….

This emphasis upon the temporal and transient qualities of the visual experience is repeated in references, not only to "form" (lines 20 and 36), but also to "image" (lines 10 and 22) and to "phantom" (line 64). The concluding statement of the poem that man should approach the grave as one who "lies down to pleasant dreams" strikes the final ironic chord of Bryant's skepticism regarding things seen.

Quite simply, Bryant had by 1821 worked his way back to the roots of his thought about death. His introduction could state the doctrine, vaguely platonic, upon which the rest of the poem would be based: that beyond the deceptive and transient "forms" of the natural order lay a realm of truth known to man only through the exercise of his intuition. This intuition was not the creative faculty of Emerson's "poet," but a passive, receptive channel through which could flow the wisdom of universal truth. And it is not to Emerson's "transparent eyeball" that nature will reveal itself, for it is the ear that must

Go forth, 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's distrust of "forms" seems to have led him close to the bias of Thoreau and Poe, who felt that the ear is a more reliable instrument than the eye in the quest for spiritual truth.

Just as Bryant worked his way toward a statement of philosophical doctrine in the beginning of the poem, so did his further thought lead him to formulate the practical application, the uses, latent in this view of life and death. His concluding statement in the earlier versions had been little more than a summary of the consolations:

Thus shalt thou rest—and what tho' thou shd'st steal
Unheeded from the living and no one
Take note that thou art gone—they too must share
In this dread pause of being.

But with the spiritual context into which his personification of Nature led him, the revised version could enjoin the individual to "live" so that he might face death "sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust." Thus the rational mind, heir to the seventeenth-century divine, would turn from idle speculation about the human plight, not only heavenward in search of doctrine, but eventually earthward in pursuit of the good life.

Although the evidence suggests that Bryant's use of the sermon form was an organic development of his own thought, it is surprising how closely he followed traditional usage. The transitions, for example, are characteristically abrupt. The doctrine, while it is not a biblical quotation, goes to the substitute authority that the deists had recognized—Nature. And the didactic conclusion, although it is less strenuous than most pulpit exhortations, does follow the familiar contrast between the injunction and the sanction: the misery of the slave "scourged to his dungeon," as opposed to the Socratic dignity of the

one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

But it is the second stanza, the equivalent of the reasons, that demonstrates the forensic skill of a Puritan scholar. The entire stanza can be considered a rebuttal of the two major objections that the individual consciousness might raise to the natural destruction of his form. Since Bryant had started his law studies as early as 1811, these were probably responsible for the careful, systematic presentation of his argument.

To the first objection, represented by the harrowing loneliness of the "narrow house," Nature promises that man shall not "retire alone." Not only are there many persons from the past to share the sepulchre, but death is the fate of men everywhere in the present, and even future generations—

Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
Death, far from being lonely, is essentially communal when seen in an historical perspective.

The second objection to the acceptance of death on natural terms is the loss of dignity that a gentleman and humanist might feel being

… a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon.

Here again Nature answers dialectically. The persons who have gone before are men of virtue and station, "patriarchs," "kings," "the powerful," "the wise, the good, fair forms, and hoary seers." Even more than this, all the physical forms in nature lend beauty and dignity to the grave. The earth, sea, and planets

Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man.

And the final consolation is that earthly "mirth" and "employments" are but "favorite phantoms," and so fulfillment in life, the wise man knows, is mere illusion.

It is this intellectual content, above all technical proficiency and sentimental appeal, that makes "Thanatopsis" strong and meaningful. And it is intellectual motivation, rather than any mechanical similarity to the sermon form, that puts William Cullen Bryant within the tradition of American Puritanism.

Source: Albert F. McLean Jr., "Bryant's ‘Thanatopsis’: A Sermon in Stone," in American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, January 1960, pp. 474-79.

Tremaine McDowell

In the following essay, McDowell discusses the impact of "Thanatopsis" on Bryant's literary career.

Early in October of 1816, William Cullen Bryant then twenty-two years of age, arrived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to undertake the practice of law. During his first years in that profession, he produced but little poetry. In vain did his former comrade, Jacob Porter, exhort the young barrister:

"Such merits in thy poems shine,
Such beauties grace thy matchless line;
To spread thy fame, then, ne'er decline,
But court the muses,
And a bright breathing chaplet twine
Sans all excuses."

During the last months of 1816, Bryant apparently wrote no verse. In 1817 and 1818, he composed two uninspired odes for the Berkshire Agricultural Society, translated "Love's Power," and revised his translation of a fragment from Simonides and his paraphrase of David's lament for Jonathan. Only twice was Bryant touched by the divine fire—in 1818 when he wrote "The Burial Place," and in 1819 when he composed "Green River."

Despite moments of disgust with the law, Bryant, from 1816 to 1821, was in reality debating the abandonment of verse. Unwilling to injure his professional prospects by any extraneous activities, he discussed the problem in 1817 with his former tutor in the law, the Honorable William Baylies. The latter, naturally enough, was all practicality: "It is not surprising," he wrote Bryant, "that you should meet difficulty in breaking off all connection with the Muse, as your love has ever met so favorable a return. I do not however condemn your resolution—Poetry is, a commodity, I know, not suited to the American market—it will neither help a man to wealth or office." That Bryant was indeed able to adhere to his resolution and avoid the muse, has already been indicated. He would perhaps have succeeded in entirely stifling his genius had not stimulus from The North American Review and its editors eventually counteracted the advice of materialistic friends. Bryant's relations with the Review from 1816 to 1821, therefore, form an exceedingly important episode in his literary biography.

Prior to one of his departures for Bridgewater, where he was studying law, Bryant in 1814 or 1815 set in motion a train of momentous events, by placing in his father's desk, for his father's eye, a small sheaf of manuscript poems. Among these was the fragmentary "Thanatopsis," composed in 1811. Dr. Peter Bryant found the manuscripts while Cullen, as he was known to the family, was still in Bridgewater. "Thanatopsis" and a second poem Peter Bryant took across the valley to Worthington for the inspection of his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Howe. "We were greatly delighted with them," Mrs. Howe later recalled, "and so was his father and he enjoyed our commendation of them very much." In all truth, Dr. Bryant was more than delighted; carrying "Thanatopsis" to a neighbor in Cummington, he exclaimed, with tears running down his face: "Oh! read that; it is Cullen's." That moment, to the father's mind, was undoubtedly full recompense for the years of care which he had expended on his son's training in verse.

While the poem was still in Dr. Bryant's hands, Edward T. Channing, Richard Henry Dana, Jared Sparks, Willard Phillips, and a group of their associates took over from William Tudor the control of The North American Review. Late in May, 1817, Peter Bryant went up to Boston for his only term as state senator. From the city, he wrote Cullen in June that their mutual friend, Willard Phillips, desired him to contribute something to the new magazine. "I wish," the Doctor added, "if you have leisure, you would comply, as it might be the means of introducing you to notice in the capital. Those who contribute are generally known to the literati in and about Boston." Since the son made no reply, Peter Bryant determined to act on his own initiative. He had in his possession in Boston five of Cullen's poems, among them being "Thanatopsis"—three in the boy's handwriting and two transcribed by the Doctor from the much-revised originals. These he carried to the residence of Phillips; since the latter was absent, the manuscripts were left for his inspection. Phillips submitted them to Channing, who found them excellent. He, in turn, read them to Dana, when the latter one day came into Boston from Cambridge. Dana, much excited, interrupted the reading of "Thanatopsis" with an exclamation which, from him, was supreme praise: "That was never written on this side of the water!" Despite the belief that Bryant derived his title either from Kirke White's "Thanatos" or from the Greek, the poem in reality reached Boston untitled; the word "Thanatopsis" was now coined among the editors of the Review.

Sparks did not see the poems for some time, for, in September, he was much distressed because no poetry save inferior stuff was available for the current issue. Phillips, however, reassured him; and when The North American Review for September came from the press, five of the seven poems which it contained were by Cullen Bryant. These were a translation from Horace, an imitation of the same author, four stanzas on death erroneously printed as a portion of "Thanatopsis," "Thanatopsis" itself, and "A Fragment." Such are the facts, as far as they can now be ascertained, of the much debated publication of Bryant's most famous poem.

Various circumstances led the editors of the Review to assume that "Thanatopsis" was the work of Peter Bryant. First of all, the latter had left the poems at the home of Phillips, with his name but no word concerning their authorship. Again, "Thanatopsis" and the accompanying stanzas on death were found in the Doctor's autograph, while the remaining poems were in another hand. The issue was further clouded by the fact that Peter Bryant's note prefacing the translation from Horace contained no specific reference to his son's authorship of that piece. Finally, if Dana doubted whether "Thanatopsis" could have been composed by any American, his disbelief would have been increased rather than lessened had he been asked to accept as author the son rather than the father. Cullen Bryant learned of this misunderstanding in December, when Phillips wrote him as follows: "Your ‘Fragment’ was exceedingly liked here; among others Mr. Channing spoke very highly of it. All the judges here say your fragment and your Father's Thanatopsis are among the very best poetry that has been published in this country." Dr. Bryant in February, 1818, informed Cullen that he had "set Phillips right" as to the authorship of the poem. Channing, however, was still laboring under the same misapprehension in March, 1819, when, in writing to the son, he expressed the hope that the Review might have "more pieces from you & your father." As for Dana, his incredulity had taken him to the senate chamber to inspect Peter Bryant. The Doctor, he discovered, had "a finely marked and highly intellectual-looking head … But with all my examination I could not discover ‘Thanatopsis’ in it." Eventually persuaded by the misinformed majority that Peter Bryant had indeed composed the poem, he remained ignorant of the true identity of the writer until 1821, when he spoke to Cullen Bryant of the excellence of his father's "Thanatopsis." Cullen corrected him, and they enjoyed, according to Dana, a hearty laugh over the latter's "physiognomical perplexity." However, the anonymity of all work printed in the Review and this resultant confusion of identity made it impossible that any immediate personal recognition should come from Boston to the author of "Thanatopsis."

"Thanatopsis," handicapped by the inferior lines prefixed to it, caused no furore in the literary world at large. Although the leading spirits among the group who supported the Review were indeed enthusiastic, none of the newspapers to which Bryant contributed reprinted his new verses, and apparently they passed unnoticed in New York. The general public, in fact, had no idea that a great poem had been produced on this side the Atlantic. As Dana later observed, such compositions were in that day too "high metaphysical" for the "ordinaries."

Although Cullen Bryant was gratified by recognition from Boston, he did not at once resume the writing of poetry. However, he became an active supporter of The North American Review. At Great Barrington, he was instrumental in the organization of a literary club; and in October, 1817, he forwarded to Phillips a subscription to the Review in the name of the new society. The financial resources of the magazine were apparently meager, for instead of supplying a complimentary copy to this substantial contributor, Phillips wrote: "As for pay, let your father when he comes down in the winter pay two dollars and a half which will be the price of this volume." Nearly a year later, however, Edward Channing informed Bryant concerning the current subscription notice: "With this you have no concern. I wish you to accept a copy of each no. & I will see that it is regularly forwarded." That Bryant himself was forced to control personal expenditures as carefully as did Phillips the exchequer of the Review, appeared in 1819 when he wrote Channing to this effect:

"I return you one of the Numbers for December. I supposed, when I received it, that it was sent to me by some mistake, and I ought to have returned it before. It is true that I subscribed for the work at first, in behalf of a Literary association—but that association came to nothing before I received my first Number—so I was left to take it on my own account."

Fortunately, no false pride constrained the struggling young lawyer from emulating his mother's frugality.

More significant, and in the end highly fruitful, was the interest now manifested in the poet by the editors of The North American. In his letter of December 2, 1817, Phillips begged, on behalf of the Review, that Bryant would "encourage it by writing for it." The latter responded through his father, to whom he wrote on January 8, 1818:

"I have sent you a correct copy of my version of ‘The Fragment of Simonides,’ and another little poem which I wrote while at Bridgewater, which you may get inserted if you please in that work. I would contribute something in prose if I knew on what subject to write."

To the two poems was added, either by Cullen or by his father, "To a Waterfowl." As had been the case with Bryant's first contributions to the Review, these three poems were now taken to Boston by Dr. Bryant in person and there delivered to Phillips. Duly approved and admired by the editors, they formed the entire poetical contents of the Review for March, 1818. Cullen Bryant had again scored something of an anonymous triumph, but he still lacked public recognition.

In February, 1818, while Peter Bryant was still in Boston, Phillips addressed to him a note, suggesting that Brown's Essay on American Poetry "is a very good subject for Cullen." Phillips, after requesting that the son review the book for the June issue of The North American, added: "Let him, if he has the means, give a short history of and criticism of our poetry." Allen's and Eliot's biographical dictionaries Phillips suggested as reference books. When Dr. Bryant forwarded the note to Great Barrington, his son replied that he would attempt a review if he could procure a copy of the essay. "Luckily," Bryant wrote later, "I found the volume in this neighborhood, and escaped throwing away my money on it. It is poor stuff." The vigilant Phillips, hearing nothing in the interim from the Bryants, wrote the son on April 2 concerning the review: "I hope you consented to undertake it. We should like to have it for July." When Cullen on the fourteenth agreed to furnish the desired article, the indefatigable Phillips promptly wrote again, urging that the manuscript be in his hands at the earliest moment possible. The editor's diligence was at length rewarded; and "An Essay on American Poetry" appeared in the Review for July, 1818.

Bryant made careful preparation for the writing of this, his first prose contribution to what was, despite its limited circulation, the leading American journal of that day. He took stock of his own knowledge of American poetry; and he visited the homestead at Cummington to consult his father and his father's library. In the essay which he at last produced, Bryant made short work of Solyman Brown of Litchfield and his poems. The "Essay," a versified survey of classical and modern poetry and criticism, he riddled with unsparing sarcasm. The fugitive poems and notes which followed, he rendered absurd by the quotation of damning excerpts. And finally, Bryant succinctly disposed of the unhappy author: "Mr. Brown," he concluded, "has fallen into a great mistake in thinking himself qualified to write a book." The boy who had penned "The Embargo" a decade earlier had, as a young lawyer, lost none of his asperity.

The comments on poetry in America with which Bryant prefaced his extermination of Solyman Brown were, in reality, of more import than was the latter's entire volume. Bryant first of all protested against both the "unmerited contumely" which had been meted out to American literature by critics abroad, and also "the swaggering and pompous pretensions" of patriotic eulogists at home. With excellent judgment, he appealed for a new standard among authors and critics alike:

"The poetical adventurer should be taught that it is only the productions of genius, taste, and diligence that can find favour at the bar of criticism—that his writings are not to be applauded merely because they are written by an American, and are not decidedly bad; and that he must produce some more satisfactory evidence of his claim to celebrity than an extract from the parish register."

In estimating his predecessors in verse, Bryant revealed his own ideas of what constituted true poetry. In his opinion, Trumbull lacked scrupulousness in diction; Dwight was artificial and mechanical; Barlow belied his early promise by deteriorating into verbosity and meretricious decoration. Paine, possessing remarkable force and exuberance of imagination, wandered off into conceits and the false sublime. "He was a fine, but misguided genius," was Bryant's conclusion. In contrast to the defects which marred the work of these men, the reviewer enthusiastically commended the poetical virtues of William Cliffton, singling out for praise the purity of his diction and the variety of his imagery, his delicacy and polish, his faithfulness to nature and to human emotions, and the elegance of his fancy. Taken as a whole, the essay indicated that such a writer as Cliffton was, in Bryant's mind, America's nearest approximation to the ideal poet.

Impressed by Bryant's ability, Edward Channing now addressed to him two letters, both calculated to delight an unknown young barrister. In September, 1818, Channing expressed the thanks of the proprietors of the Review for his essay on American poetry. "I doubt not," Channing went on to say, "you have heard in many ways of the great pleasure which our readers have received from that & your earlier communications to the work." To remove the impression that any American literary journal must inevitably be uneven in quality and short in life, he appealed to Bryant for further aid: "Excuse me then, when I ask you to spare a little time from your profession, & give it to us." Either a review or an essay would be very welcome; as for poetry, the editors were finding it difficult to secure enough good verse to maintain a department. As Bryant realized, this was praise indeed; and he lost no time in replying.

"I am much gratified [he wrote] with the favourable reception that my contribution to the North American Review has met with …—as well as with the obliging manner in which it has been communicated to me, and feel myself happy if I may be esteemed to have done anything for the literature of my country."

As for further contributions, he had been unable to complete an essay on which he was working; he enclosed, however, another of the poems written before he entered the law; namely, "The Yellow Violet." Not long thereafter, it appears that Bryant forwarded to the Review an essay, "On the Happy Temperament"—probably the composition with which he was busy in September.

Bryant received in the following March a second letter from Channing, now editor-in-chief of The North American. The poet, it developed, had set so high a standard with his own contributions that the Review could no longer maintain a section of verse. "Unless you will supply more," Channing explained, "or set some other poet to work who will be worthy of your company, I fear our poetical department must be given up." He asked permission to keep "The Yellow Violet" and secure its publication elsewhere. Channing continued in a most flattering vein, urging Bryant to abandon anonymity and to come before the public with a volume of verse:

"A poet stands in no need of hints or instructions; but may I not ask you, if we may not expect a volume from you in spite of your profession? … If I had any right or wish to commend you—in your own hearing—I should have urged your obligation to write by comparing you with greater men than we can boast of. Excuse me, if I have interfered with what belongs only to yourself, & charitably ascribe it to my sense of your merits, & my wish to see our home genius more active in the good cause."

Channing then asked for a review of Paulding's The Backwoodsman and an original essay for The North American, and stated that two complimentary copies of the magazine were now being sent to Great Barrington. In concluding, Channing very properly apologized for his verbosity. On receipt of this second eulogy, Bryant was all but overwhelmed. Replying, he admitted his disconcertment:

"To commendations so flattering as you are pleased to bestow on me, coming from such a quarter, I hardly know what to say. Had you seen more of those attempts of mine concerning which you express yourself so favorably, your opinion would perhaps have been different."

As for publishing, Bryant was equally modest:

"I may perhaps, some time or other, venture a little collection of poetry in print,—for I do not write much—and should it be favorably received, it may give me courage to do something more."

The project of publishing thus became firmly rooted in the poet's mind.

Bryant's second prose contribution to the Review appeared in the following June; namely, his essay, "On the Happy Temperament." Just as his review of Brown's volume contained Bryant's critical credo, so this essay contained certain essential tenets of his mature philosophy of life. He was careful to point out that he ever desired "to promote innocent and well-timed cheerfulness;" never did he wish "to throw the slightest shade over those weak and wintry glimpses of happiness which are sometimes permitted to find their way to this earth." And yet, there is truly little opportunity for rational joy unless one closes his eyes to the inequalities and evils of society, to the mental and physical suffering about him, and to the continual severing of the ties of friendship and love. The knowledge that his own father was soon to die was evidently in Bryant's mind: "But hard and bitter," he said, "is the trial when we see those whom we love drawn toward the grave by the irresistible progress of disease and decay." This decorous lawyer who now set himself down as an enemy of joviality was a far different person from the young student who had patronized Worthington grogshops and frequented Bridgewater balls. "In short," this new Bryant austerely declared, "the melancholy feelings … are the parents of almost all our virtues. The temperament of unbroken cheerfulness is the temperament of insensibility." Fortunately, the young gentleman was not always thus dominated by the contemporary cult of tearfulness.

In 1819, James T. Hillhouse published a poetic drama, Percy's Masque; in October of the following year, Bryant reviewed the play in The North American. Although there is no evidence that the Berkshire lawyer had as yet seen a formal stage production, he commented with assurance on the dilemma of the dramatist, caught between the practical demands of theatrical effectiveness and the abstract standards of artistic excellence. Bryant's sole venture in the drama, a farce entitled The Heroes, completed two years later, was a failure; his poems, likewise, were usually more successful when he spoke in his own person than when he attempted dramatic monologues. What the intensely concentric Bryant lacked was in this review succinctly outlined in his own characterization of the ideal dramatist:

"But the dramatist must, so to speak, put off his identity, and put on the characters which he describes. He must bring before him the personages of his plot, and see their faces and hear their voices in his retirement; he must do more; he must enter into their bosoms, he must feel with their hearts and speak with their lips. Now, it is obvious, all this demands great versatility of talent, as well as a state of strong and peculiar mental excitement."

As for Percy's Masque, it was commended for the characteristics which at the moment seemed to Bryant to be essential; namely, simplicity of plot, consistency in characterization, and restraint in diction.

A somewhat puzzling paper, "On the Use of Trisyllabic feet in Iambic Verse" concluded, in September, 1821, the series of essays which Bryant contributed during this period to The North American Review. From this essay, it is possible to deduce little save the obvious inference that Bryant was interested in the technique of his avocation.

The North American Review had now published, in the course of nine issues, a total of four says and eight poems from Bryant's pen. Superficially, this signified that the young gentleman had been given an opportunity to publish "Thanatopsis" and to air his opinions on poetry and on life. In reality, the results were of the utmost moment to his career as a poet. First of all, Bryant was stimulated to resume composition, producing in 1820 a group of poems addressed to Miss Fanny Fairchild, represented by "Oh Fairest of the Rural Maids"; five contributions to a Unitarian hymnal; "Hymn to Death"; and "A Winter Piece"; and in 1821, "The West Wind"; "A Walk at Sunset"; and "The Ages". Secondly, the official approval of the literati of Boston came in April of 1821, in the form of a letter from William J. Spooner, informing Bryant that he had been unanimously chosen to deliver the annual poem before the next meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard University. Finally, a printer having been secured while Bryant was in Cambridge for the Harvard commencement, this notice appeared in The Columbian Centinel for September 12, 1821:


POEMS by William Cullen Bryant, including a Poem delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society—just published, and for sale at

GREENLEAF'S Statinary Store,

No. 4, Court-Street.—Price 31 cents.

Anonymity was done with; Bryant had unequivocally presented himself before the public as a poet—in his own person before a Cambridge audience and in his pamphlet, Poems, before the world.

The good offices of The North American Review and of its editors had been exercised at a crucial period in Bryant's life. Making themselves felt when the poet had all but disappeared in the lawyer, Channing and Sparks, Phillips and Dana quickened Bryant's flagging interest in letters, then turned his mind toward publication, and at last inspired him to renewed creative activity. It was these four gentlemen, likewise, who secured for Bryant the honor of appearing at Harvard; and it was they, again, who saw his volume through the press and directed its sale, in the rôle of modern publishers. Bryant never forgot this indebtedness. Channing and Sparks were his life-long friends; and Dana became his only intimate and confidant. Of Phillips, Bryant in 1873 wrote as follows:

"The publication of the poems which you mention, through his agency, was properly my introduction to the literary world, and led to my coming out with the little volume which you and he and Channing encouraged me to publish, and which he so kindly reviewed in the ‘North American.’ To me he was particularly kind—unconsciously so, as it seemed; it was apparently a kindness which he could not help."

This "distant voice of kindness" from the staff of the Review, by keeping the youth Bryant within the field of belles lettres during the critical period from 1816 to 1821, made it certain that, during the half-century which followed, the man Bryant would never again consider desertion of the muse.

Source: Tremaine McDowell, "Bryant and The North American Review," in American Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1929, pp. 14-26.

John William Scholl

In the following essay, Scholl addresses the historical significance of the setting of "Thanatopsis."

Take the wings
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.
William Cullen Bryant, "Thanatopsis."

The Barcan wilderness and the Oregon are the only place-names used in the whole poem. Readers may have frequently asked themselves why just these particular places should have occurred to the poet's mind, when he wished to symbolize the whole world as a sepulcher of the dead.

The explanation is to be found in the current and local interest which two events had for the poet.

Bryant was born in Cummington in the northwestern part of Hampshire county, Mass., and was educated there and later at Williams College in the northwestern corner of Berkshire county. His chief reading, aside from his father's well-stocked library, was the Hampshire Gazette. His outlook on the world was therefore much colored by Connecticut valley happenings.

In this same valley, in Hampden county, town of Brimfield, lived Gen. William Eaton. He had been a soldier with Mad Anthony Wayne in Ohio, and on resigning his military commission in 1798 was appointed Consul to Tunis. He was engaged there in difficult and tedious negotiations with the Bey, to prevent him from harassing unprotected American commerce in the Mediterranean. In June, 1803, he returned to the United States. As war had broken out with Tripoli because of piracy upon our commerce, Eaton was sent back June, 1804, as Naval Agent of the United States, accompanying our fleet of five vessels under command of Com. Barron. In the fall of 1805 Gen. Eaton landed in Alexandria. Here he learned that Hamet Pasha, the rightful sovereign of Tripoli, than deposed and in exile, was in upper Egypt. Wishing to get into communication with the Pasha, he proceeded with three men by Nile-boat to Cairo. Here he employed a skillful young fellow, a sort of Proteus, named Eugene Leitensdorfer, to bring Hamet to the American station. This man, accompanied by an attendant and two dromedaries, penetrated the desert, traveling night and day, feeding the animals balls of meal and eggs, reached safely the Mameluke camp, and brought the Pasha and 150 retainers back with him.

In March, 1805, Gen. Eaton started with his little army from Alexandria. It consisted of six private marines, twenty-five cannoneers, thirty-eight Greeks, and some Arab cavalry, besides the Pasha's party, in all about 400 men. The baggage was carried on 107 camels. This strange army was now to march into the interior and cooperate from the rear with the American fleet which was to attack from the front. With the greatest hardship, Eaton's motley company traversed the desert of Barca for 600 miles, facing the double danger of starvation and mutiny among such a mixed and undisciplined body of soldiery. They made the trip in nineteen days, in itself a remarkable feat, and helped the fleet as planned. On March 27 a two-hour battle against odds of ten to one ended in the capture of the city of Derne, and led soon after to a treaty with the thoroughly frightened reigning Pasha of Tripoli.

In November, 1805, Gen. Eaton returned to the United States, and was received with fêtes in his honor. The press was everywhere filled with laudatory notices of his Barcan enterprise and bravery. Massachusetts voted him a gift of 10,000 acres of land as a recognition of his services.

Bryant (b. 1794) was at that time an intelligent lad of eleven years enjoying the advantages of an unusual home. When we remember that Jefferson's "Embargo" in 1808 was the object of a lengthy satirical polemic in verse in the poet's fourteenth year, we should not be surprised at the lad's interest in national movements at so early an age. He was deeply impressed by the events themselves, and particularly by the local celebrations of that march through the desert of Barca.

The other allusion is possibly more familiar. The Oregon was the name first given to the Columbia river, whose mouth had been discovered and entered a few miles by Capt. Gray. After the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, President Jefferson dreamed of the possibility of ascending the newly-acquired Missouri river to its source, which might lie somewhere near the source of that other magnificent western river, whose greatness was apparent from its size and its current at the mouth. He secured a grant of funds for the expedition and sent his own private secretary, Capt. Lewis, as leader, to try to make the dream come true. The expedition was made in 1804-6. Several circumstances caused this event to take hold of the American imagination with great intensity; the magnitude and daring of the enterprise, its significance as a feature of American empire-building, its commercial importance in opening up a field for successful American rivalry with the British and Russians in the profitable fur trade with China, etc. When the details of the voyage became known, about 1807, the regions traversed stood out in the popular fancy as the "Great Lone Land," a place where the party had traveled four long months without seeing a single human being not of their own party.

Bryant, aged thirteen, must have been carried away like the rest of Americans with the remarkable world-romance of the voyage and the new region.

"Thanatopsis" was written in 1811. It is no wonder then that Barca and Oregon became concrete symbols of East and West, and both of uninhabited wastes which death might be supposed to spare—but does not.

Source: John William Scholl, "On the Two Place-Names in ‘Thanatopsis,’" in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 8, December 1913, pp. 247-49.


Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. 129.

Brown, Charles H., William Cullen Bryant, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971, pp. 39, 79, 103.

Bryant, William Cullen, "Thanatopsis," in The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant, edited by Parke Godwin, Vol. 1, D. Appleton, 1883, pp. 15-20.

———, "Hymn to Death," in The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant, edited by Parke Godwin, Vol. 1, D. Appleton, 1883, pp. 51-52.

———,"Poetry and Its Relationship to Our Age and Our Country," in William Cullen Bryant: An American Voice, edited by Frank Gado, Antoca, 2006, p. 140.

Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, s.v. "United States," (accessed August 13, 2008).

"The First Book of the Kings," 19:12, in The Holy Bible, revised standard edition, Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 385.

Gado, Frank, "The Eternal Flow of Things," in William Cullen Bryant: An American Voice, edited by Frank Gado, Antoca, 2006, p. 180.

Gray, Thomas, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by M. H. Abrams, 5th ed., Vol. 1, W. W. Norton, 1986, pp. 2480-83.

Leonard, William Ellery, "Bryant and the Minor Poets," in The Cambridge History of English Literature, edited by William Peterfield Trent, John Erskine, Stuart P. Sherman, and Carl van Doren, Volume 1, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1917, pp. 265, 275.

McLean, Albert F., William Cullen Bryant, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 59, updated edition, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 52, 122.

Steckel, Richard, "A History of the Standard of Living in the United States," in EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples, July 22, 2002,—2002.pdf (accessed August 11, 2008).

Thrall, William Flint, and Addison Hibbard, A Handbook to Literature, revised and enlarged by C. Hugh Holman, Odyssey Press, 1960.

Walker, Marshall, History of American Literature, St. James Press, 1983, p. 46.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, Methuen, 1968.


Barney, William, ed., A Companion to 19th-Century America, Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.

This is a collection of twenty-four essays written for the general reader. Taken as a whole, the essays present an overview of major social, political, economic, and cultural developments in the United States in the nineteenth century.

Krapf, Norbert, ed., Under Open Sky: Poets on William Cullen Bryant, Fordham University Press, 1986.

This is a collection of eleven short essays and fourteen poems, all by contemporary American poets, discussing and reflecting on the poetry of Bryant. Two of the poems, by Philip Appleman and Linda Pastan, were directly inspired by "Thanatopsis."

Muller, Gilbert H., William Cullen Bryant: Author of America, State University of New York Press, 2008.

This is a new biography of Bryant that shows the full extent of his influence on the cultural life of nineteenth-century America. Muller draws on previously unpublished letters as well as Bryant's extensive journalism for the New York Evening Post to create a vivid portrait of Bryant's life and times.

Rio-Jelliffe, R., "‘Thanatopsis’ and the Development of American Literature," in William Cullen Bryant and His America: Centennial Conference Proceedings 1878-1978, edited by Stanley Brodwin, Michael D'Innocenzo, and Joseph G. Astman, AMS Press, 1983, pp. 133-54.

Rio-Jelliffe discusses Bryant's theory of poetry and suggests that he is a precursor of the romantic movement in the United States. She examines the structure and language of "Thanatopsis," finding complexities such as contradiction and paradox.