Interpretation of the Main Idea in William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis

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Death and all its obscurity seemed to be a recurring idea for William Cullen Bryant. In his young years, the American Poet wrote “Thanatopsis”, which was published in the North American Review in 1817 and after a revision published again in 1822, that had the meaning of meditation on or contemplation of death and is also an elegy that tries to give humans comfort as everyone will eventually die. This message of comfort is conveyed and effectively transmitted with strong symbolism of nature, a blank verse, preaching speaker and the peaceful setting.

“Thanatopsis” already begins with the idea of how nature has the ability to make us feel well. According to the speaker it can make our darkest thoughts about death be somewhat lighter. The speaker mentions how the voice of nature can make us worry less about death making us remember that we will disappear when we die and go back into the soil. This voice comforts us further by reminding us that when death occurs to us we will not be alone as “the great tomb of man” (Line 46) also holds everyone else that has ever lived and represents the destiny of all that are still living. This idea of community is supposed to be calming and in the end of the poem we are supposed to imagine death as a joyful dream.

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Considering that nature is mentioned so often it symbolizes a powerful symbol used by Bryant in “Thanatopsis”. Considering that “nature” is also feminized in the poem, “She has a voice of gladness (…)”, it becomes possible to say that this symbol goes beyond an flora and fauna and is a person that is there to assist us whenever we feel scared about the fact of dying (Line 4 and 5). Personifying nature as a woman becomes a very useful stylistic devise for Bryant as it makes this idea most likely more relatable to the audience, and maybe also more comforting. In our society stereotypes are taught where women are denominated as sympathetic and friendly, maybe similar to the concept we know of “Mother Nature”. Also, it is this “still voice” that appears on Line 17 that tells the reader the rest that happens in the poem and is the last time when nature is explicitly mentioned in the poem.

The meter is also another important aspect of a poem and in the case of “Thanatopsis” it is not any different. Bryant wrote his poem in an Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter or Blank Verse. What this means is that each line in his poem has five feet and the poetic foot is made up of two syllables: “To him | who in | the love | of Na|ture holds”(Line 1). Those feet can be iambic and this rhythmic pattern has an unstressed syllable that is followed by a stressed one. An Iambic Pentameter is famous in English poetry and was most commonly used by William Shakespeare. Arguably not a very effective way of writing a poem because even though it gives the author more freedom with the blank verse in how he wants to express himself at the same time it also very much represents a challenge to consistently maintain the iambic pentameter throughout the novel. A possible effect that the iambic pentameter has on the reader is that it still makes the blank verse somewhat poetic and adds a rhythm to this less structured kind of verse. Considering the rhythm, it is also important to mention how the Bryant uses enjambment to influence the cadence of his poem. By inserting, for example, commas in the middle of the verse, “(…) And healing sympathy, that steals away (…)”, he is able to separate thoughts and begin others as a pause is created in the middle (Line 7).

Another important aspect to note is the speaker in the poem because it directly influences the spiritual side involved in the text. Even though the text might not be strictly religious the voice of the poem most definitely has similarities to the voice of a preacher giving a sermon. It is his job to determine how you are feeling and this speaker does clearly that in, sometimes, scary ways telling you that you are going to die. On the other hand however he says that everything is going to work out just fine. Connected to that there is the setting of the poem which is not tied to one specific place or situation. The reader just gets a loose feeling of serenity connected to a complete perspective of the world going through “deserts and valleys” and occasionally some spikes of realism when death is described, “Yet a few days, and thee/The all-beholding sun shall see no more/In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,” (38-42) (17-20).

Concluding, Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” is an obscurely hopeful poem trying to depict death as its main theme from a naturalistic perspective. He uses a strong personification of nature to depict “her” as person that gives us hope of death not being negative but a happy dream. As aiding tolls he has the meter that gives the poem cadence and the speaker and the setting that help influence the tone of the poem. In the end it seems that Bryant wants to give the reader a perspective that rises above our everyday worries, making us see the bigger picture of life and death.

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