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.
‘‘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.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, William Cullen Bryant, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘Thanatopsis,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.