Study Guide

Thanatopsis

By William Cullen Bryant

Thanatopsis Introduction

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.

What is Thanatopsis About and Why Should I Care?

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:

Thanatopsis Resources

Audio

Recorded Reading of "Thanatopsis"
Here’s a good reading of the poem with just the kind of classy, slightly English accent that does it for us.

Videos

"Thanatopsis" Short Film
A weird/cool piece of 1960s experimental film, apparently inspired by the poem.  We think it really does resonate with Bryant’s mood.

Thanatopsis in ASL
This is awesome.  All of the poem is done in American Sign Language.  Definitely worth a look.  Even for those who don’t sign, this interpretation is really cool.

Photos and Pics

"Kindred Spirits" by Asher B. Durand
This famous painting by a member of the Hudson River School shows Bryant standing with his friend, the painter Thomas Cole.  Both Cole and Bryant were famous for depicting American landscapes like the one featured in the painting.

Author as an Old Man
A photo of the author shortly after winning the blue ribbon in a contest for "Bushiest Beard in New York."  OK, that didn’t happen, but we bet he would have nailed it if it there was a competition.

Historical Documents

First Printing of "Thanatopsis"
Here’s a scan of the first published version of "Thanatopsis," in the September 1817 issue of The North American Review.  It’s a pretty different poem from the one we read today, and a good reminder of how poems evolve over time.  (You have to scroll through a few pages to read the whole thing). 

Websites

Long Bio of William Cullen Bryant
The Poetry Foundation has a long (we mean it) and really informative biography of Bryant.  Plus there are references to other sources if you really catch Bryant Fever ™! (Yeah, we don’t think that one’s going to catch on…)

How Many Humans Have Ever Lived on Earth?
Ever wonder how many people have ever lived and died on earth?  Well, it turns out to be a complicated, but pretty fascinating question…