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.
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.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, William Cullen Bryant, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009