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Thanatopsis

Thanatopsis

by William Cullen Bryant

The Grave/Tomb

Symbol Analysis

Since "Thanatopsis" is a poem about death, it’s probably not that surprising that images of graves and tombs and coffins are all over the place. One of the major ideas that holds this poem together is the contrast between the freedom and the open space of nature and the confinement of the grave. When the speaker mentions the grave in this poem, he’s usually talking about a scary, dark, unhappy place. By the end, though, he helps us to see why it might not be so bad after all.

  • Line 12: Here the grave is referred to as "the narrow house." We think that’s a metaphor for a coffin. Plus it’s a great way of communicating what’s scary about death. Doesn’t it make you feel a little claustrophobic just reading about it? If we’re going to feel uplifted at the end of the poem, we have to go through the scary stuff first.
  • Line 45: This might be the central metaphor of the whole poem. The idea is that the whole world, the globe itself, is "the great tomb of man." It’s sort of gross, in a way, to think about the whole world being stuffed with millions or billions of dead bodies. Bryant finds a way of making it sound sort of noble and solemn and beautiful, though. In a way, the fact that there are so many bodies in there makes the earth into a sacred place.
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