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