Do you ever find yourself thinking about death? Have you ever felt your spine tingle when you walked past a graveyard, just thinking about all those bodies lying in the ground? Those are exactly the kinds of thoughts that William Cullen Bryant had when he wrote "Thanatopsis."
Bryant was a young guy at the time he wrote this poem, maybe as young as 17. He was having dark thoughts, because, well, that’s what poetry-obsessed teenagers do (trust us, we here at Shmoop have some experience with this). Young William Bryant was a fan of a group of English writers called "The Graveyard Poets" who wrote all about death and decay. (Think of this as basically the 19th-century version of listening to Cure albums all day.). It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. Bryant was also getting to know the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, whose love of nature had a pretty clear influence on this poem. That mix of calm nature poetry and dramatic thoughts of death helped to make "Thanatopsis" what it is.
"Thanatopsis" was originally published without Bryant’s knowledge. His father found some of his son’s poems and sent them to a magazine called The North American Review without telling him about it. The first version of "Thanatopsis" appeared in that magazine in the September 1817 issue. The original poem was shorter, covering only what we now consider to be lines 17-66. The poem was a hit, and it was republished, with an added introduction and conclusion, in Bryant’s Poems, which came out in 1821. Bryant wrote more poems (and had a long career as a newspaper editor), but this early, relatively short poem will always be remembered as his masterpiece.
We hate to break it to you, dear Shmooper, but we have some bad news: you are going to die.
Hey, don't get mad at us. We're just passing on the message from William Cullen Bryant. He really wants you to know that your days are limited. His poem "Thanatopsis" is all about death –your death. (OK, fine, ours too.) You do care about your death, don't you?
The good news is that Bryant doesn't think you should be afraid of dying. It's worth reading "Thanatopsis" to soothe your fears. And lots of other artists agree with Bryant. So while you're at it, be sure to check out these songs, poems, and books: