William Cullen Bryant: Biography & Poetry

Instructor: Beth Kulik

Beth has taught high school English for 7 years. She has a master's degree in Education Leadership.

In the lesson, we'll discuss a brief biography of the American poet, William Cullen Bryant. He was a poet during the Era of Romanticism in American literature. We'll also read and analyze his most famous poem, 'Thanatopsis.' This lesson will conclude with a short, five-question multiple-choice quiz.

William Cullen Bryant: Brief Bio


William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), a descendant of passengers on the Mayflower, was born and raised in Massachusetts.

He had a strong interest in poetry from a very young age and published his first poem 'The Embargo' in 1808, at just 13 years old. The poem attacked President Thomas Jefferson and displayed strong Federalist political views; it received much recognition, though, and sold out rather quickly. Bryant did not write much poetry after that until he left college following his freshman year with a rejuvenated passion for poetry.

Bryant learned quickly that poetry was not a financially profitable profession, and so he practiced law as a means for secondary income. He did not enjoy it, though, and quit in 1825. He then went on to become an editor for numerous works, most notably The New York Evening Post.

In 1878, Bryant died from injuries sustained in a fall, but his legacy lives on, most famously thanks to Bryant Park in New York City, which was named after him.

Poetry Analysis: 'Thanatopsis'

'Thanatopsis' is often referred to as Bryant's most famous poem. Bryant wrote it in 1811, but it was not published until 1817. Then, four years later, he added the final ten lines to the poem.

The poem is clearly a piece from the Era of Romanticism; this is not only because of the date of its inception, but also because it follows the strict principles of Romanticism, which included a strong emphasis on imagination, individualism and a love of nature.

Please read the following poem twice. The first time you read it, simply read it for the content. The second time you read through the poem, try to determine what message the speaker is trying to convey, and how it incorporates the principles of Romanticism.


To him who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language; 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 gentle sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. 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;--

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--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 resolv'd to earth again;

And, lost each human trace, surrend'ring up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go

To mix forever with the elements,

To be a brother to th' 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 mould.

Yet not to thy eternal resting place

Shalt thou retire alone--nor couldst thou wish

Couch more magnificent. 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.--The hills

Rock-ribb'd and ancient as the sun,--the vales

Stretching in pensive quietness between;

The vernal woods--rivers that move

In majesty, and the complaining brooks

That make the meadows green; and pour'd round all,

Old ocean's grey and melancholy waste,--

Are but the solemn decorations all

Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,

The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,

Are shining on the sad abodes of death,

Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread

The globe are but a handful to the tribes

That slumber in its bosom.--Take the wings

Of morning--and the Barcan desert pierce,

Or lost thyself in the continuous woods

Where rolls the Oregan, and hears no sound,

Save his own dashings--yet--the dead are there,

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.--

So shalt thou rest--and what if thou shalt fall

Unnoticed by the living--and no friend

Take note of thy departure? All that breathe

Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh,

When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care

Plod on, and each one as before will chase

His favourite phantom; yet all these shall leave

Their mirth and their employments, and shall come,

And make their bed with thee. As the long train

Of ages glide away, the sons of men,

The youth in life's green spring, and he who goes

In the full strength of years, matron, and maid,

The bow'd with age, the infant in the smiles

And beauty of its innocent age cut off,--

Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,

By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, that moves

To the pale realms of shade, 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 sustain'd and sooth'd

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.'

Now that you've read through the poem, what do you think was the speaker's message? Did you feel like he was speaking directly to you or that he was 'preaching to the choir'? Bryant did not necessarily intend for this to be a spiritual poem, or for people to feel like he was preaching to them and telling them what to think, but the poem has often been read and analyzed as being one where the poet is doing just that. It is important for him (the speaker) to make you (the readers) believe what he wants you to believe. What do you think that is, in this case? In order to help you determine this, it may be helpful to know the title's meaning. It comes from the Greek words thanatos and opsis, which translate directly to 'death' and 'sight'. In other words, the poem's title means 'meditation upon death.' Now what do you think the speaker was saying to you? You're right! The speaker is preaching to his readers the importance of understanding that yes, death is imminent, but that it is all right because we all die and everything will still end up okay.

You were also asked to identify the essential elements of the Era of Romanticism in this poem. We will not go through and identify all of the instances where Bryant's love of nature is present because this is evident in almost every line; he was very descriptive in his writing and detailed all elements of nature which should be clear to anyone who reads through this poem.

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