THANATOPSIS: IF YOU DON’T KNOW LIFE, HOW WILL YOU KNOW DEATH?

I was relaxing in the evening recently when these words began running through my head:

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language;

I had read the poem, of course, as a boy, and in high school; but I don’t recall having a clear idea about its meaning. In fact this first sentence seemed to me rather complicated gibberish in those days, overdone “poetic” language. But obviously my mind was now suggesting that I revisit it and revise that youthful judgment, as indicated by presenting its opening lines to me suddenly in the still of night.

The poem is called Thanatopsis — a word borrowed from Greek thanatos, meaning “death,” with the suffix –opsis, meaning a view — so a thanatopsis is a “view of death.”

So here, dear reader, is a fresh look at that poem. Yes, its language is old-fashioned, but does it have anything to teach us? We shall see. I will deal with it part by part:


THANATOPSIS

by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language;

It means simply that Nature speaks in different ways to the person, who, loving Nature, goes into it and experiences it, looking at and appreciating all its visible forms — the trees and hills and rocks and streams, and all things that make up Nature. Bryant speaks of Nature as “she,” something of a tradition in which Nature was seen as feminine — “Mother Nature.” Nature gives birth to all forms, and so we often think of it as mother.

…for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware.

When one is cheerful (“gay” used to mean “cheery” in the days before Gay Liberation), Nature speaks with a glad voice, with a smile, and with the eloquence we feel in beautiful things. And when one is in a more gloomy mood, Nature is experienced as mild and gentle, with a healing effect on us that eases such gloomy thoughts before one even notices what is happening. People often like to go out into Nature when things worry or stress or trouble them, because it is felt to be healing.

When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;–

When one thinks of one’s inevitable death coming in the future, one’s “last bitter hour,” such thoughts are killing to the spirit, like a blight on growing crops. We imagine the suffering, and in Bryant’s time the shroud in which the dead body was clothed and the pall — the cloth over the coffin — and the darkness of death and the coffin — the “narrow house,” and one shudders in fear and grows “sick at heart” — very depressed, as we would say today. But, Bryant continues, when such thoughts come, do this:

Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around–
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air–
Comes a still voice.

Go outside, he tells us, and be under the open sky, and listen to the unspoken teachings of Nature, as all around you, from the ground — from the waters — from the air — there comes a voice that speaks in silence:

…Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.

In only what is, in the vast deeps of time, but a few days, the sun will not shine down upon you as it arcs repeatedly through the sky, because you will be dead and buried; and your image, your form, will no longer exist in the cold ground where it is laid with all the tears of a funeral, nor will it exist if you should drown at sea. Instead, everything will return to its basic elements; your body will decompose and become earth again; every trace of you as human will dissolve, and your individuality as a person will vanish as your body returns to earth to “mix forever with the elements.” It will become soil again, and what previously was “you” will be like the rock that feels nothing, or the insensitive clod of earth that the uneducated man at his plough turns up with the plough blade, then steps upon. The oak tree will spread out its roots as it grows into the earth that formerly was “you” as an individual person, drawing nourishment from it.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent.

But when you die, Bryant tells us, you will not be the first person to do so; you will not lay your body down alone, and the place where you lay down your body could not be a more magnificent bed on which to rest. Why?

Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world — with kings,
The powerful of the earth — the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.

When you die and are laid in the earth, you are placed there with the fathers of the young human race who lived thousands of years ago; you will lie down in the same earth with kings and with the great powerful men of the past, with the wise men and the good, with the beautiful, and with the aged and learned men of past ages — the earth, for all of you, becoming one vast and mighty tomb. What does this tomb look like? We already know:

The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, — the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods — rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,–
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man
.

The ancient hills, the valleys that like quietly between them, the ancient forests, the majestic rivers and the babbling brooks that water the meadows as they grow green, and the great grey and melancholy empty surface of the sea all serve as decorations for the “great tomb of man” — our Earth itself.

The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death

The golden sun and the planets that revolve about it, and all of the seemingly infinite stars of heaven shine down on the sad realms of death — our Earth — and they do so

Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.

All of those people alive today, Bryant says, are only a handful compared to all the great numbers of people that have died and sleep the sleep of death within the ground.

— Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings — yet the dead are there:

“Take the wings of morning” is a biblical reference — Psalm 139:9, which in its context is:

7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

Bryant, like most children at that time, was brought up knowing the Bible. It was the foremost piece of household literature, and all families had a “family Bible” to be read and pondered. So he says if one were to “take the wings of morning,” that is, to fly far across the earth like the dawn to distant places,

And if one were to

Pierce the Barcan wilderness,

In many printings this reads instead:

Take the wings
Of morning–and the Barcan desert pierce,

What is the Barcan Desert? It is a geographical reference that Bryant got from a famous event in the news when he was a boy of eleven. It was during the American war with the Barbary Pirates in Tripoli (now Libya) that in March of 1805, a General William Eaton, of the same valley in Massachusetts as Bryant, took a party of about 400 men from Alexandria in Egypt across some five to six hundred miles of desert to the west; “six private marines, twenty-five cannoneers, thirty-eight Greeks, and some Arab cavalry” as well as a rival pasha and his followers, with baggage carried on 107 camels. With this bizarre army he managed to come from behind on land in the fight against the Barbary Pirates, while the American fleet was in position to attack from the front. This first Barbary War — specifically the Battle of Derna that resulted from Eaton’s crossing and the accompanying marine assault — gave us the “shores of Tripoli” reference in the Marine Hymn. So Bryant used this remembered reference to the burning Desert of Barca or Barcan Desert as an example of a very remote and distant, empty place.

He also used one other geographical reference in his poem, again to indicate a remote and distant place. It too came from a well-known news event of Bryant’s youth. The Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the West was sent out by President Jefferson in 1804. The party passed through a vast and lonely wilderness, at one stage not seeing a single human for some four months of travel. They came to and floated down “The Great River of the West,” which in those days was called the Oregon. Today it is called the Columbia River. When the news of this expedition came out in 1807, Bryant was thirteen. In 1811, at the age of seventeen, he wrote Thanatopsis.

So now you know what this means:

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings — yet the dead are there:

"WHERE ROLLS THE OREGON"

“WHERE ROLLS THE OREGON”

“His own dashings” means the sound of the waters of the river, moving and dashing against the shore; Bryant is saying that one could even go to the vast and little known West of the continent, where the Columbia River rolls through great forests empty of the sounds of civilization, and even there the dead are buried. I live “where rolls the Oregon,” and there is a once well-known island in the river where it passes through the mountains of the Columbia Gorge, called Memaloose Island. Memaloose was Chinook Jargon — the native trade language — for “dead” It was an island of the dead, on which the native peoples of the Columbia placed the bodies of their departed — a place of silence and bleached bones in the midst of the river. So Bryant got that right.

You might wish to know that Bryant mentions the Oregon in another of his poems, The Prairies. In it are the lines

…The beaver builds
No longer by these streams, but far away,
On waters whose blue surface ne’er gave back
The white man’s face — among Missouri’s springs,
And pools whose issues swell the Oregon —
He rears his little Venice.

And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep — the dead reign there alone.

Millions of people, Bryant tells us, have died in those lonely places since time began, and that is a place where the dead reign alone — that is, the dead are more to be found than the living. Bryant, not knowing of all the tribes of the Columbia, was stretching things a bit again, but he wanted to emphasize the great loneliness and emptiness of the little-known far West.

So shalt thou rest — and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny.

Bryant tells us that we shall die just like those in the distant regions he has mentioned. And what if we die and no friend is there to witness it? Again the poet emphasizes, you won’t be alone in death, because everything that breathes has died or will die too.

And what will be the effect of our death, which we feel to be such a significant event?

The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom;

The people of cheerful and happy disposition will continue to be cheerful and happy and laughing, and the solemn “brood of care,” meaning “children of sorrow” — the people sad by disposition — will continue to plod sadly on through their lives, and each person will chase after the illusion he favors — some after money, some after power, some after romance, some after fame, and so on — all phantoms that appear only to vanish.

But what of these people, whether they are happy or sad, whom you leave behind on dying?

…yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee.

All of them will eventually have to leave behind their joy and their activities, and die and be buried in the earth just as you have been.

Bryant expands on just who it is that dies:

As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men–
The youth in life’s fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man–
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.

As the long sequence of ages passes, all “sons of men” — all humans — will die; it does not matter whether they are youths in the springtime of life, or the mature person at the peak of vigor, or mother, or unmarried girl, or infant too young to speak, or the old man with gray hair, one by one they will all join you in death, buried by those who eventually will die themselves and be buried.

And now Bryant comes to the point of all of this talk of the earth being one huge tomb and everyone, past, present and future, dying:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

He tells us that now, knowing that life is brief and death is the common fate of humans and inevitable, we should live our lives in trust of that power which governs all things — Nature. When our time to die nears, when we too join that long line of those passing into death, everyone taking his own resting place in tombs and cemeteries and earth — in “the silent halls of death” — we should be careful how we die. As Confucius said, if we do not know life, how can we know death?

And how we die, Bryant indicates, will depend on how we have lived. If we live a life of trust in Nature and what the people of his time would have called “Divine Providence,” then when we go to our deaths we will not go like the poor slaves who spend their days digging rock in quarries, whipped to their resting places by cruel taskmasters, but instead we shall go peacefully, being a part of the natural process of things — of Nature — and trusting in that unfalteringly, we shall go to our deaths as peacefully and serenely as someone who wraps the covers of his bed around him and lies down to restful sleep and pleasant dreams. This is a very Transcendentalist view that would have been endorsed by Henry David Thoreau, though of course the poem itself was written shortly before the Transcendental movement, and is akin to the notions of “Nature and of Nature’s God” found in the Deism of the late 1700s and early 1800s. It is also tinged with the Roman stoicism that would have been known to young men educated in the classics in Bryant’s time.

Though he worded it all masterfully, in my opinion the youthful Bryant spent so much of the poem telling us of death and emptiness that his final point — that we are just to peacefully trust in Providence/Nature — rather suffers by comparison. Perhaps that is due to his youth and inexperience, but also to the fact, as we shall see, that the point of the poem was tacked on later.

Nonetheless, we must remember that in his time young people had experienced far more of the hard side of life than many of us today. Death was ever-present and far more obvious than it is now. Many children died before their fifteenth year. Sickness and plague came without warning, and formal medicine was so primitive that, as Daniel Scott Smith wrote, “In this epoch, going to the doctor was, if not irrelevant, a positive mistake.” Memorial pictures, showing someone grieving over a decorative tomb, were a common form of popular art. And often the young exposed to such things develop a tendency toward gloom, which, as we can see, Bryant was trying to offset by his advice to just “trust and fear not.” There is likely a considerable amount of whistling in the dark in his words — a conscious effort to convince himself as well as others — but his basic point is valid nonetheless.

In any case, Thanatopsis eventually became immensely popular, and was well-known both in Britain and in America. It became a milestone in American poetry, because there was a general belief at the time that American poets were inevitably inferior to British writers. Bryant’s grandiose language and serious theme was just the ticket to change that perception.

You will notice the archaic “thee” and “thy” language Bryant uses. He was, of course, brought up on the Elizabethan English of the Bible and of Shakespeare, and in his day ordinary “you” and “your” language was considered precisely that — too ordinary for the elevated subject of poetry. So poets continued to pepper their verses with bits of Elizabethan English vocabulary and grammar long after it had died out in common speech. You will also likely notice the influence of Wordsworth and his nature poetry on Bryant, including the notion of the dead being insensate as rocks and clods, as in Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

And you will see the influence of such English verse as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Though Bryant is said to have written Thanatopsis in 1811 (some say shortly thereafter), it was first published in 1817, though not in the form we have it in today. The beginning of the poem — about the first 16-17 verses — were added later; the middle lines were originally spoken by the poet, but later changed to Nature speaking; and about the last 16 concluding lines — in which Bryant makes his stoic point about living in a manner that enables one to die serenely — were also added later.

It all began when Bryant’s father saw some verses written by his teenage son and eventually sent a copy off (as parents will do) to the literary magazine North American Review. That was the beginning of the poem as we know it today, and of Bryant’s position in the history of American poetry. When the poem appeared in print in 1817, it was only two years after the Review — the first American literary journal — was begun.

David

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One Response to THANATOPSIS: IF YOU DON’T KNOW LIFE, HOW WILL YOU KNOW DEATH?

  1. Ash says:

    A fascinating poem & amp; history! Putting the language to one side, the poem’s message feels very modern.

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