Thanatopsis By William Cullen Bryant: Summary & Analysis Video

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  • 0:01 Introduction to 'Thanatopsis'
  • 0:37 Overview
  • 1:12 Structure
  • 2:10 Theme
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Greaver

Jim has a master's degree in secondary Education and has taught English from middle school level to college.

In this lesson, we will be considering a poem by William Cullen Bryant entitled 'Thanatopsis.' We will summarize the poem and analyze it for meaning and context, and then you will take a short quiz to test your knowledge.

Introduction to 'Thanatopsis'

William Cullen Bryant was a poet who lived and wrote during what is known as the era of Romanticism. Romanticism involved nature, individualism, emotions, and the imagination. Bryant wrote this poem in the early 1800s, most likely in 1813 or shortly thereafter, when there was a great deal of poetry being written about mortality (the poets writing such works were known as Graveyard Poets). He was struggling with his own religious beliefs around this time and that, coupled with his love of nature, was likely the inspiration for 'Thanatopsis.'


'Thanatopsis' is written as an encouragement for mankind. The title is composed of two words: 'thanatos,' which means 'death,' and 'opsis,' which means 'view,' so 'Thanatopsis' actually means 'a view of death.' The poem is just that, a view of death; in this case, from the viewpoint of optimism.

The poet tells us we should consider what nature has to say about death and dying and then proceeds to discuss how death is experienced by everyone, regardless of status, and should therefore be seen as something to be embraced rather than feared. Let's look a bit deeper.


Here we'll look at the structure of 'Thanatopsis' as well as the major theme of the poem: life and death. Included are some passages from the poem to illustrate the important elements.

'Thanatopsis' is written in blank verse, which means it is iambic pentameter, but has no end rhyming. Iambic pentameter is simply the rhythm of the poem. As you read the poem, you could think of the rhythm as flowing like a wave, with ups and downs. The ups are where you would emphasize the word or syllable and the downs would be de-emphasized. It might look like this:

To him who in the love of Nature holds

The bold portions are the ups and would be emphasized. Musically, it would sound like this: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

You will also notice that the last word in each line doesn't rhyme with the other end-words. This is the main aspect of blank verse; it is poetry that doesn't rhyme!


The theme of 'Thanatopsis' is life and death. The poem is divided into three main sections. The first section is what you might call the introduction. It introduces the idea that nature has answers for life's musings, including those of death. In the middle of the first section, Nature herself takes over and begins speaking. She tells you that you will one day die, like everyone else who has ever lived.

And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements....

In the second section, Nature then describes death and all the reasons why you shouldn't fear it. She reminds you that everyone who has gone to the grave before you (and everyone who will go there after you) is there and shares in your rest, and that it doesn't matter how rich or poor, great or small, people were in life; they'll be six feet under, just like you!

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