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William Cullen Bryant (1794---1878). Thanatopsis To a Waterfowl. William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). William Cullen Bryant's estate in NY. William Cullen Bryant's Homestead. I. A brief biography.

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william cullen bryant 1794 1878

William Cullen Bryant (1794---1878)

Thanatopsis

To a Waterfowl

i a brief biography
I. A brief biography
  • William Cullen Bryant was an American Romantic poet and journalist. 1) Born in Cummington, Massachusetts
  • 2) Educated at Williams College, he went on to study law at Worthington and Bridgewater and was admitted to the bar in 1815. Bryant worked as a lawyer in Northampton, Plainfield, and Great Barrington until 1825 when he married and moved to New York City and worked for the New York Review and then the New York Evening Post.
i a brief biography1
I. A brief biography
  • At first an associate editor, he became editor in 1829 and remained in that post until his death.
  • 3) As the driving force of this liberal and literate paper, he was strongly anti-slavery; a founder of the Republican Party.
  • 4) In 1860, Bryant founded New York Medical College.
  • 5) In his later years, Bryant focused on translating and analyzing Ancient Greek and Latin works, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer.
ii major works
II. Major works
  • Thanatopsis
  • To a Waterfowl
  • Translated works:
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer
iii thanatopsis
III. Thanatopsis
  • Thanatopsis, written by William Cullen Bryant at the age of 17, is considered to be a masterpiece of American poetry. The title is from the Greek thanatos ("death") and the suffix -opsis (literally, "sight"); it has often been translated as "Meditation upon Death." Due to the unusual quality of the verse and Bryant's age when first published in 1890 by the North American Review, Richard Henry Dana, then associate editor at the Review, initially doubted its authenticity, saying to another editor, "No one, on this side of the Atlantic, is capable of writing such verses." Although the bulk of the poem was written at age 16, Bryant added the introductory and concluding lines 10 years later in 1821.
iii thanatopsis1
III. Thanatopsis
  • Bryant first wrote this poem when he was about 17, after reading the British "graveyard poets" (e.g. Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and Robert Blair, "The Grave") and William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. In particular, there are parallels to Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems,especially "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal":
iii thanatopsis2
A slumber did my spirit seal;I had no human fears:She seemed a thing that could not feelThe touch of earthly years.

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.

III. Thanatopsis
iii thanatopsis3
III. Thanatopsis
  • This poem offers a democratic reconciliation with death as the great equalizer and a recognition that the “still voice” of God is embodied in all processes of nature. During a busy life as a lawyer and editor of the New York Evening Post, Bryant wrote accomplished, elegant, and romantic descriptions of a nature suffused with spirit.
  • Thanatopsis remains one of the most widely referenced pieces of American verse, and is included in a collection called The 100 Best Poems of all Time edited by Leslie Pockell.
iii thanatopsis4
III. Thanatopsis
  • 2. Detailed analysis
  • The title Bryant chose for this poem is rather fitting, being that "thanatopsis" is the contemplation of death. He begins by telling the reader that if one is in communion with Nature, then she will give him a message. This message will tell him how to live his life, and it will be unique to everyone else who is in communion with Nature. By receiving this message, he is somewhat connected to everyone in the world who has also received a message.
iii thanatopsis5
III. Thanatopsis
  • Anyone who is in tune with Nature will be comforted (by Nature), and each one will be different from the last person. Later in the first stanza, the poet advises that if one is down and are fear-ridden, he should go out and enjoy Nature, who will cause him to realize happiness, because in the end, all will join Nature in its beauty through Death.
iii thanatopsis6
III. Thanatopsis
  • The second stanza speaks of the comfort one may hope for in death. It refers to death as a "couch" that is greater than any other, and it claims that one will not lie in death alone. The poem reminds the reader that through death all will be forever connected with the greatest men of all time around the world. It then describes how Nature is beautiful with "The hills/ Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun..." etc. Then it portrays even the duller parts of the world (Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste") as decoration of man's final resting place. The end of the second stanza ensures the reader that the dead alone reign supreme in Nature.
iii thanatopsis7
III. Thanatopsis
  • The third and fourth stanzas are much shorter, but carry the overall message:The third stanza warns the reader that if he does not live a full and happy life, no one will notice when he is gone. They will all live life as if nothing happened. But to avoid depicting death as a bad thing, Bryant then re-ensures his audience that even if one's death goes unnoticed, all who lived that did or did not notice the person's death, will soon join that person regardless, for all are joined in death.
iii thanatopsis8
III. Thanatopsis
  • The fourth stanza is intended to end the poem on a hopeful note, and its purpose is also to drive home the strongest point in the poem: If one lives life to its fullest, he may embrace death with comfort and pleasure. He may die peacefully.This poem had three main points it wished to make, the final one being the most important:1) Live life fully in order to die well and comfortably.2) In death, all are joined with Nature and with each other for eternity.3) This comfort and togetherness in death may only be obtained through death.
iii thanatopsis9
III. Thanatopsis
  • 3. Questions for discussion
  • After reading the poem, consider the following questions.
  • What Greek words were combined to make the title? How do the meanings of these words contribute to the meaning of the poem?
  • ---Thanatos (death) Opsis (seeing).The title presents the poem as a way of seeing death.
  • Define the following words; consider the context of the poem: shroud, pall, narrow house, and sepulcher. How do these words and their meanings impact the meaning of the poem?
iii thanatopsis10
III. Thanatopsis
  • ---All of these words are associated with death and burial. This furthers the idea of the poem presenting a way of looking at death.
  • Is this a poem about life or is this a poem about death? Explain your answer. Answers will vary and should be supported from text.
  • The tone of this poem shifts. What is the tone in the first part of the poem? When does the tone shift? What is the tone after the shift?
  • ---The tone in the first part of the poem is forbidding, stern, final and then shifts to one of comfort.
iii thanatopsis11
III. Thanatopsis
  • Thanatopsis is an elegy. What is an elegy? What are the conventions of an elegy? What elements of Thanatopsis meet those conventions?
  • ---An elegy must move from grief to comfort, must shift from melancholy and mournful to soothing and comforting. The poem says we will not be alone when we die, etc
iii thanatopsis12
III. Thanatopsis
  • This poem was written early in the nineteenth century. The type of landscape art during this time period favored sweeping panoramas, wild vistas, untamed landscapes, and views of the sky. Look at Thanatopsis as a visual description of a painting. What elements of the poem are like a painting? What images are created in the poem? What landscape is created? Look at all of the descriptions of nature, etc.
iii thanatopsis13
III. Thanatopsis
  • Thanatopsis is a poem that can be interpreted in several ways.
  • How is this poem an example of a historical piece?
  • ---It represents part of the view of the time period.
  • How is this a Romantic poem?
  • ---The speaker hears the voice of nature, turns to nature for comfort. It presents a William Wordsworth’s nature. The recurring theme of death seems to be quite constant throughout the genre of Romanticism. Bryant attempts to make death a comfortable feeling, referring to the word couch as something you can simply curl up and feel good in.
iii thanatopsis14
III. Thanatopsis
  • How is this a Calvinist poem?
  • ---Look at the poem as religious counsel. Many elements of Calvinistic beliefs are present.
iv to a waterfowl
IV. To a Waterfowl
  • To a Waterfowl is a poem by William Cullen Bryant that was first published in 1821. Matthew Arnold, the eminent English critic and poet, called it the “most perfect poem in the language”.The reason that Bryant chooses a waterfowl of all animals to write about is because of a special encounter he had on the way from Cummington to Plainfield,Massachusetts, in December 1815.
iv to a waterfowl1
IV. To a Waterfowl
  • It seems that Bryant was walking along and noticed that the waterfowl was flying around overhead and that he too seemed to be on a journey alone; then Bryant began to think that he himself was not alone. He realized that the waterfowl seemed alone also, but he too was being guided by some higher being and they both would find their way.
iv to a waterfowl2
IV. To a Waterfowl
  • Bryant's poem begins with a waterfowl in flight and a hunter below. The bird's instinct allows it to fly to safety. In spite of the danger, hardships and temptations on the way, the bird continues its flight to its destination. As the speaker watches the bird, he ponders the mysteries of migration. Bryant parallels the bird's instinct to a "Power." Even though humans have no real instinct to guide them to safety, there is a "Power" or God that will guide them to safety.
iv to a waterfowl3
IV. To a Waterfowl
  • In the last paragraph of the poem Bryant seems to be comparing our life with God to that of a waterfowl. He says: "He who from zone to zone, Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight, In the long way that I must tread alone, Will lead my steps aright." He is saying that throughout our life wherever we go God is going to be with us guiding us down the right path. And in times when we think we must go alone, he too will be with us then. He never leaves us long enough for us to fall, just long enough for us to learn from what we do.
iv to a waterfowl4
IV. To a Waterfowl
  • Questions for discussion:
  • 1) Can we interpret the poem in any other way? For example, can the “Power of care” and the “He” in the poem mean anything else?
  • 2) What can we learn from the waterfowl’s flight?