The Poem Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant

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Thanatopsis is a poem written by William Cullen Bryant and consists of 82 lines focusing on the unity between humans and nature. Poets utilize several elements that seek to match the setting, the speaker, and the audience to ensure the message envisaged reaches the audience as intended. The choice of literary elements to employ depends on the themes, the setting, and the historical period among other factors. Bryant for example was interacting with poets working on nature and death during his time when writing the Thanatopsis poem hence its focus on a combination of nature, humanity and focused on bringing to the fore the nature of death. The author utilizes several literal elements in the poem aimed at ensuring the message reaches the audience. The essay provides an analysis of the literary elements employed in the poem to bring about the main themes.  

            Personification is one of the literary elements employed by Bryant and is evident in the beginning lines of the poem. On analyzing the first few lines we note that the author personifies nature as a force and a lady with a personality and ability to comfort. The author says, “To him who in the love of nature holds/ Communion with her visible forms, she speaks” (1-2) showing that not only nature is a woman but is in a position to hold communion with the person. In this case the author has not only given nature a voice but also ability to interact. In, “She has a voice of gladness, and a smile/ And eloquence of beauty, and she glides,” nature is presented as having a voice and is sensitive to our needs ready to help in times of trouble. The other instance of personification is evident in line 14 and 15 where the author states, “Go forth under the open sky, and list/ To Nature’s teachings” shows nature as a teacher.

            The author also uses metaphors in the poem to bring about the idea of death. In line 12, the author uses the narrow house as a metaphor for the grave following up with the words, “Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart” emphasizing the fear and agony that comes with thinking about death. The metaphor also serves to emphasize the scary nature of death. In lines 45 and 46, “The golden sun, / the planets, all the infinite host of heaven” is a metaphor offering a comparison of the sun and the planets to the world rulers. The other metaphor used in the poem is “the great tomb of man” serving to highlight the nature of the whole world as man’s tomb. The metaphor serves to emphasize that death occurs often and has been occurring with bodies laid to rest in the earth making it a sacred place.   

            Imagery is also used in the poem to bring about the idea of death for the audience with the first example in line 11, “Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,” serving to show a dark image of death. The authors focused his previous lines on the thoughts about death and sadness and the imagery serves to emphasize the occurrence of death. The lines, “And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain/ turns with his share, and treads upon” is an imagery of what comes upon man after the death. The author seeks to highlight that after death, we turn into dirt and the young boy digs it up the remains. The imagery clearly emphasizes that man turns into dust or clod of dirt after death.

            Symbolism is another literary device employed in the poem with the sun serving as a symbol of the power and beauty of life and nature. The sun signifies life and living. In line 18, “The all-beholding sun shall see no more” signifies death as the sun remains while the individual can no longer see it. The sun is also presented as ancient in line 38 “ancient as the sun” further highlighting the integral role of the sun in the universe. The sun is highlighted as “golden” in line 45 in the midst of death further highlighting its position as unchanging and eternal despite all occurrences below.

            The author also uses a simile in the poem to provide emphasis on the age of nature. “The hills/ Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun” is a simile that compares the age of the sun and the hills. The simile serves to emphasize the ancientness of nature that after death we become part.      

            Using the literary elements highlighted above, the author brings about aspects of death including its universality (Burns, 66). By stating that “Though shall lie down/ with patriarchs of the infant world- - with kings/ The powerful of the earth- the wise, the good,” the author seeks to show that death is universal affecting the young, old, king, ruled, the good among others. The author begins by focusing on an individual facing death and expands to others including the many people who have died regardless of their class and age. The poem further goes on to explain the role of death and brings out the fact that all human beings have to face death. The existence of death as a passage for all and a platform to return to nature is clearly evident in the poem and clearly highlighted from the utilization of the personification, symbols, metaphors, simile, and imagery. The poem also serves to show death as a good occurrence to unify one to nature (Selvi, 152).  

Works Cited

Bryant, William Cullen. "Thanatopsis."The North American Review (1821-1940) 201.710             (1915): 151.

Burns, Allan Douglas. Thematic guide to American poetry. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.

Selvi, Thamarai. "Thanatopsis and Prospice: A consolation in the face of the inevitable mortality         of all humans."International Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences, Vol. 3 (2),       September 2016, pg. 152-158.

November 24, 2023

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