William Cullen Bryant

(November 3, 1794 – June 12, 1878 / Boston)

Thanatopsis


To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;--
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
Comes a still voice. Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world -- with kings,
The powerful of the earth -- the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, -- the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods -- rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom. -- Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings -- yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep -- the dead reign there alone.

So shalt thou rest -- and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men--
The youth in life's fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Submitted: Sunday, May 13, 2001
Edited: Sunday, May 13, 2001

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Comments about this poem (Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant )

  • Rookie Alissa Howell (4/20/2013 7:32:00 AM)

    I first read this poem when I was a student in high school, and I have loved it ever since. It taught me that death is a part of life and should not be feared. So many have passed before us, and we will simply join them. It is not the end, as your body becomes part of nature and simply transforms into something else. (Report) Reply

  • Rookie Alexis Wright (1/21/2013 2:28:00 PM)

    This poem gives hope to the reader.(@michael bullington) It gives hope to the one who has lost or is losing someone to death, to the one who is afraid of death. It tells them that death is not the end. And it tells them that they will not be alone.
    Thou shalt lie down
    With patriarchs of the infant world - with kings,
    The powerful of the earth - the wise, the good,
    Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
    All in one mighty sepulchre. (Report) Reply

  • Rookie Bill Cushing (3/3/2010 1:51:00 AM)

    I have always found this piece offers the reader two ways to approach his/her own death ('when that time comes to join that innumerable caravan') and then lets the reader decide. This explains why some find the piece inspiring while others see it as depressing.

    I also think that argument can be made that Bryant introduced modern poetry to the United States in this piece (yes, even before Whitman) while also becoming the 'father' of the Transcendentalist movement. (Report) Reply

  • Rookie G Mattson (11/7/2009 2:14:00 PM)

    It's a shame that you really don't get it, Michael. You poor, poor soul. (Report) Reply

  • Rookie Michael Bullington (7/31/2008 12:46:00 PM)

    This is written by a man who has no hope beyond the grave. Poor, poor soul indeed. Eloquent, but utterly hopeless. And to think that this is regarded as his great work! (Report) Reply

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