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by William Cullen Bryant

Thanatopsis Theme of Death

Death is definitely the big idea in "Thanatopsis."  From the title to the last line, this is a poem all about dying.  It looks at the issue from a bunch of different angles.  It deals with death across all time and all over the world.  It talks about how it makes us feel, about how it is related to spirituality, and history and nature. Mostly it's purpose is to remind you that you are going to die, but death isn't something to be afraid of.

Questions About Death

  1. Do you recognize your own feelings in this poem?  Do you think fear of death is a universal human emotion?
  2. Why does the speaker steadily repeat his central idea about the earth being full of dead people?
  3. Did the poem change the way you feel about dying?  Do you think that’s what it’s supposed to do?
  4. What do you think was the single most memorable image of death in this poem?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The speaker’s steady focus on death makes the idea seem familiar; the repetition of the central theme takes away some of the fear the reader feels.

"Thanatopsis" gives concrete examples of the terror and the inevitability of death, without giving the reader any clear reason to feel better about it.

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