Co-opting the Sacred: William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.”

Co-opting the Sacred: William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.”

Co-opting the Sacred: William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.”

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William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” begins disarmingly by personifying Nature as a woman who “holds communion” (Bryant, lines 1-2) with those who love her, speaking to them with smiles and sympathy.  From the very beginning of this poem, Bryant capitalizes the name of Nature, giving her the same visual treatment as other works would accord the names of God. This is not coincidental, for despite its gentle beginning, the poem detours quickly to become a subtly heretical elegy.  In this work the author describes Nature herself speaking out in defiance of traditional Judeo-Christian ideas of the afterlife, substituting a theology in which the conglomerating dead join in eternal communion with the earth.  Bryant’s overall theme, then, is a pantheistic one — he celebrates the union of the dead with sympathetic Nature, and sees in this union a reason for hope and peace.

            At the beginning, “Thanatopsis” is penned in the third person, describing the way that Nature interacts with “Him” who loves her.  Nature responds in one way to the lover’s gladness, and to his sadness in another way.  Around line 9, when Nature is shown responding to musings about death, the poet switches from third person the second person voice.  This shift heralds an imminent change from nature-poem to elegiac verse.  By line 14, it is quite clear that this is no longer a passive description of what Nature might say — instead, Nature herself speaks out, as the audience is commanded (in the imperative voice) “Go forth….and list[en] to Nature’s teachings.”  These teachings are described as a “still voice” in line 17; from the mid-line dash onwards, the poem appears to be entirely composed in the voice of Nature herself, addressed to the “you” to whose darker musings She responds.

From the moment that Nature is described as a “still voice,” the poem contains subtle but clearly cogent biblical references in which the role of God in the human afterlife is usurped by the forces of Nature or of the dead (which, by line 23, have become “resolved to earth again”). The “still voice” here in line 17 is a clear reference to I Kings 19, in which the Prophet Elijah sees several forces of Nature: a whirlwind, an earthquake and a brush fire.  For each force, the scripture repeats that the Lord God is not within these forces. Finally, Elijah hears a “still small voice” which is the voice of God. (King James Bible, I Kings 19:12)  By describing Nature as speaking in a “still voice,” the poet co-opts that moment when God becomes biblically distinct from Nature, implying that Nature is present not only in the wind and the earth, but also in the voice of enlightenment.  By itself, this single similarity might not be enough to argue that the poem is subverting scriptural ideas.  However, Bryant follows this with other direct quotes (or misquotes) from scripture. Starting on line 50 he writes:

                                   — Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods

Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,

Aave his own dashings, — yet the dead are there.   (Bryant, lines 50-54)

Though it fits very well into Bryant’s general imagery, the memorable phrase “take the wings of morning” is not originally his.  This is in fact a direct quote from Psalms 139, the famous biblical hymn which speaks of God’s omnipresence: “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou [God] art there.  If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there.  If I take the wings of morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there….” (King James Bible, Psalm 139:8-10)  Comparing these two citations, one can see clear similarities in the sentiments of each piece.  Both share a sense of trying to lose one’s self in nature and finding that a spark of the divine is omnipresent.  Yet instead of the Biblical discovery of the God in every place, Bryant substitutes the discovery of the dead in every place.  The words “Thou art there” for the Psalmist may refer to God — but for Bryant they refer to the dead. Though one might expect otherwise, this discovery is found to be a thing of hope, rather than a thing of dread.

            Further displaying this alteration of Judeo-Christian concepts, one can see how Bryant takes the Biblical idea expressed in Genesis 3:19 “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” and reworks it to his own ends, writing in lines 22-23: “Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim thy growth, to be resolved to earth again.”  From this point, on, however, Bryant blatantly diverges from the biblical ideas of the afterlife.  He sets this sort of re-integration against the duality of heaven and hell, suggesting that death holds the same fate for all, who will lie together “all in one mighty sepulcher.” (Bryant, line 37)  In his work, the same Nature who first appeared as an anthropomorphic female spirit, full of vagaries and whispered words, is here revealed as being composed of the dead.  Bryant describes the dead as being “forever with the elements, to be brother to the insensible rock… the oak shall send his roots abroad, and pierce [their] mould.” (27-30)  These images of the dead becoming earth, and then re-growing as the great trees, speak more of rebirth rather than the simple justice of heaven and hell.  It also creates a very pantheistic cosmogony, in which all human spirits eventually merge and join with the universe, to become a single speaking, smiling force of Nature.

            Bryant’s blank verse method lends itself to his pantheistic message.  Rather than being constrained by a strictly ordered rhyming pattern, the iambic pentameter is driven by internal sound devices such as assonance, off-rhyming, and alliteration. Take, for example, these early lines:

                                   …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 hours come like a blight

Over thy spirit and sad images. (5-10)

In addition to the well-executed iambic pentameter, note the carefully paired alliterations within most of the lines.  The sound of “musings” necessitates the use of “mild,” just as the sibilant “sympathy” is partnered with “steals” and “sharpness.”  (The latter S is actually on the next line, which not only has the alliterative pair of “their” and “thoughts” but also the internal rhyme of “ere” and “aware.”)  Likewise, “bitter” is paired with “blight,” just as “spirit” partners with “sad,” and so forth.  Not every line in the poem has such clear word-pairs driving its internal alliteration; other sound devices are used as well.  For example in these specific lines, there are also assonant end-rhymes between “glides,” “mild” and “blight.”  However, such rhymes are not consistent throughout the poem.  While both assonance and alliteration are heavily used throughout the work (occasionally but not consistently at the end of lines), there do not appear to be any forced end-rhyme patterns.  The abandonment of end-line rhyme, in favor of universal sound devices woven throughout the poem, is in some ways a parallel act to abandoning the pre-defined afterlives of religion, in favor of the idea of the universal dead being integrated into every rock and tree in all of Nature.  There is very little that feels artificial in this poem; its beauty springs from the natural interplay of word sounds, and the instinctively iambic rhythm of speech.

            “Thanatopsis” is a very successful poem in that every feature of its creation works together towards its ultimate purpose of creating a beautiful and essentially non-morbid contemplation of the interplay of death and life.  It manages to challenge Judeo-Christian ideas of the afterlife without defying the essential hope that there is nothing to be feared in death.  While it defies the idea of heaven (or hell), the deeply felt beauty of the after-death state is in this poem “sustained and soothed by unfaltering trust…” (79) in the value of becoming one with Nature.  In many ways, the quotations from the Bible, and the Psalmic quality of the poem itself, may be seen not only as a subtle challenge to traditional ideas but also as a way of co-opting the peace and hope found within the old scriptures.  This is not a protest poem, though it does stand contrary to traditional faiths and traditional rhyme schemes.  It is above all an elegiac lyric of hope and faith in the communion of humanity (dead and living alike) with the green and glorious rhythm of Nature.

Works Cited

Bryant, William Cullen.  “Thanatopsis.”  Yale Book of American Verse.  Ed. Thomas R. Loundsbury.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1912., 1999. 27  February 2009. ;;

King James Bible.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


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