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by William Cullen Bryant

Thanatopsis Theme of Man and the Natural World

"Thanatopsis" is definitely a poem about death, but it’s also a nature poem. Human beings come and go, but nature is always there.  The hills and rivers are eternal, huge, and almost intimidating.  This isn’t Finding Nemo-style nature here.  No cute little fishies.  Just vast, powerful forces that swallow us up and keep right on moving.  Nature isn't all cold and indifferent, though. The poem starts out with the idea that nature is like a nurturing, caring woman who comforts us when we start to fear death.

Questions About Man and the Natural World

  1. Does nature seem comforting in this poem, or sort of cold and far away?
  2. Is there a difference between the way nature is portrayed at the beginning of the poem and at the end?
  3. Does that image of the oak roots on line 30 creep you out or make you feel better?
  4. Can you "see" the landscapes the speaker is talking about?  Do you get a vivid image or just a kind of general idea?
  5. Does it make you feel better to think that nature – the hills and valleys, the sun, the forests – will outlast you? Or does that make you feel worse?

Chew on This

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

The natural images in this poem are largely free of particular details.  This helps to maintain the poem’s overall focus on large ideas by avoiding distracting specifics.

The natural world is the ultimate source of comfort in this poem, taking away our pain by allowing us to see a world outside of our own misery.

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