Transcendentalist Death in Bryant’s Thanatopsis
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William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis is a romantic, democratic and triumphant picture of death. The poem portrays death more as a metaphysical and ontological phenomenon than a material and empirical one. Bryant’s meditation moves away from the decay of the corporeal (the imperfect) to highlight the rebirth of the spiritual (the perfect). For Bryant, death is not synonymous with disintegration and degeneration. As Nature’s mechanism, death signifies the re-integration of a lesser but no less valuable being to the greater whole, “the mighty sepulcher” (line 37). Here the Romantic strain in Bryant is visible: “…Earth that nourished thee shall claim/ Thy growth to be resolved to earth again/ …To mix forever with the elements/ To be a brother to the insensible rock” (22-28).
The demise of the body is not an end, or better yet, the end but only a transitional phase. Death is a rite of passage to another form of life; a higher, if not the highest level of existence. Bryant’s depiction of death is also paradoxical. The poet is able to “kill” death by making it inseparable with immortality (something reminiscent of Donne’s classic lament: “Death thou shall die!”).
The afterlife, meanwhile, he sees as a reflection of the natural world in its consummate state. The domain of the dead is immune to change and decay, ills that plague the world of the living: “The planets, all the infinite host of heaven/ Are shining on the sad abode of death/ Through the still lapse of ages…” (46-48). That the other-world is idyllic and ideal owes to its proximity with Nature, literally and metaphorically.
Paradoxically, the death of the individual does not severe his or her ties with the collective: “…and what if thou withdraw/ In silence from the living and no friend/ take note of thy departure” (58-60). The inevitability and necessity of mortality prove are consoling, assuring the dead that “…all that breathe/ Will share thy destiny” (60-61). Bryant imagines an other-world “society” peopled “With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings/ The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good” (34-35), a potent manifestation of death as the great leveler.
The extinction of the individual self coincides with the dissolution of the superficial, imperfect and worldly personality—that is, the I detached from Nature. The individual becomes faceless—a return to the primal state. Such condition is not analogous with oblivion and non-existence. The dead may have “…lost each human trace, surrendering up/ Thine individual being” (24-25). But his or her presence and essence as intertwined with Nature remain: “…yet the dead are there/ … In sleep –the dead reigns there alone” (54-57).
Bryant’s view of death is considerably divorced from the rigid Calvinist and Puritan credo. What surfaces in his poem is the Transcendentalist spirit, what critic Darrel Abel (1963) calls the “Romantic-Puritan renascence” (p. 2). Bryant’s depiction of death is akin to modern theology in that it challenges and loosens petrified religious values, for instance, the doctrine of the Elect.
Death bears a promise of salvation for all: “Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night/ Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed/ …Like one wraps the drapery of his couch/
About him and lie down to pleasant dreams” (77-81). Prospects of inevitable doom disappear. As with other Transcendentalist work, Bryant’s breakaway philosophical take “combined the idea of power and glory to be liberated in common individuals…” (Abel, 1963, p. 1).
Bryant privileges the individual’s inherent beauty, “moral capability” gives way to “moral depravity” (Abel, 1963, p. 2). The Omnipotent in the form of Nature is made more accessible to the individual. More importantly, Bryant has done away with the image of the unforgiving and unique God, placing in its stead a pluralistic and tolerant Creator.
Abel, D. (1963). American literature: literature of the Atlantic culture (Vol. 2). New York:
Barron’s Educational Series.
Bryant, W. C. (1998). Thanatopsis. In P. Lauter et al (Eds.), Heath anthology of American
literature: early nineteenth century: 1800-1865 (pp. 2672-2674). Massachusetts: D. C Heath.