William Cullen Bryant (1794- 1878)

William Cullen Bryant (1794- 1878)


According to Poe, Bryant’s “poetic reputation, both at home and abroad, is greater than that of any other American.”


  • Initially a Puritan. (His graduation poem expressed religious views of orthodox Puritanism)
  • 1825: Left New England for New York. Discarded his
  1. Federalist convictions to become a Jeffersonian Democrat
  2. Literary neoclassicism to become a romantic


Romantic characteristics of Bryant’s poetry

  • Nature Poet:
  1. Uses the vast panorama/landscape to show the immensity of nature and the insignificance of man
  2. Uses the American natural scene to convey his philosophical views/ideas
  • Primitivism: advocates outdoor worship
  • Preference for themes of death, the past, and freedom
  • Emphasis on individual feeling and imagination
  • Poetry divorced from the hurly-burly of everyday existence
  • Uses free verse/rules that departed from neoclassicism




  • His most famous poem; written when he was 17
  • Word Thanatopsis means “a view of death.”

The question is “why a youth of 17 will write on such a subject—a view of Death.”

The best way to answer this question is to consider the ideas developed in the poem’s various parts.

Lines 1-8:  Opens with what Bryant calls nature’s “various language”:

  • Gladness
  • Beauty
  • Sympathy
  • Consolation

Lines 9-17:  The poet suggests what one should do when s/he is oppressed by thoughts of death.

Lines 17-57: Nature offers comfort to the person facing death.

Lines 58-72:  Dying unmourned is not important, according to the speaker of the poem

Lines 73-81:  What is important is becoming one with nature


In “Thanatopsis,” Bryant uses archaic words, such as thee, thou, list, and couldst.  These archaic words enhance the moral tone and the seriousness of the poem.


“To A Waterfowl”

Celebrates Divine Providence – God cares even for the affairs/life of a Waterfowl! (See stanza 4)


Concluding Thoughts and Questions


What “lesson” does the Waterfowl impress on the heart of the poem’s speaker/poet? (See last two stanzas)


Do you find the ideas expressed in “Thanatopsis” consoling or disturbing?  Explain your answer.


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