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