Thanatopsis and The Bible
In William Cullen Bryant s early nineteenth century poem Thanatopsis, a collage of imagery and ideas surround a central theme of the cycle of life. Within this poem lies a story of great wonder and hope. The story is that of the afterlife in which Bryant conveys a lot of the same ideas of a majestic and heavenly paradise that are present in the Christian Bible. Since Bryant was schooled heavily in theology, is Thanatopsis based on the ideas that the Christian Bible holds of the afterlife?
Bryant immediately introduces his notion of spiritual unity among humans and nature in the first line of the poem.
To him 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 (Line 1).
From this opening line of the poem the reader is aware of Bryant s use of metaphorical language to describe the bond in which nature holds with man. According to the first book of Genesis, God created all of nature and delegated some of his authority over it to the human race. He gave humans the promise of protection and forgiveness in return for the service of watching over his creation. This is what Bryant affirms to be the Communion in which man holds with nature. Since nature is the circumstance for human existence, humans see it as glorious as well as comforting in times of trouble. No matter how lonely, or desolate a human soul can get, nature is still part of man. This is a very strong correlation to the Christian Bible, however it is not the only one that Bryant mentions in Thanatopsis.
Bryant goes on to describe and almost tell the reader of the story not to fear the final moments of life for all that is and was created Will share thy destiny. (Line 61) Like The Bible, Bryant describes the afterlife as a glorious heaven where The rivers that move in majesty (lines 40-41) are but the solemn decorations all of the great tomb of man. (Lines 44-45) He is telling the reader not to fear death because there is a better place where everything in nature will return and be reborn. This theme is stated by Bryant throughout the poem and is identical to the teachings of the Christian Bible. This theme can be related back to the beginning of Thanatopsis where Bryant describes the unity of nature and man. These two themes are framework of Bryant s grand theme that everything that God has created will become one in the afterlife, therefore everything is one during existence.
Bryant asserts that all the creations of the earth will mix forever with the elements (Line 26) , and new creations will send his roots abroad and pierce thy mould (Line30) from their resting places. This alludes to the circle of life which is described by the Bible to be the dead rising and living life eternally in heaven. Bryant is simply using metaphors and figurative language of returning to the earth and rising to heaven to describe the beliefs and concepts of the Bible. Even though there is enough proof to uphold this theory, one could argue that Thanatopsis has nothing to do with the Bible.
Thanatopsis could possibly be Bryant s take on the cycle of life. Bryant could be trying to explain to himself or another person where a person goes when they die. Bryant tries to dissuade one of fearing death throughout the poem. He describes the glorious afterworld in a way that would make a man most afraid of death, embrace it with open arms. However Bryant does not describe post death status in Thanatopsis. All we know from Bryant s view is that the afterlife is glorious, so maybe he is not referring to the same heaven as the Bible does. He could be praising the brilliance of life and death and the organisms that take part in the cycle. Or maybe Thanatopsis is a therapeutic work for Bryant himself. Maybe this is a reflection of hope that Bryant used to overcome his own fear of death.
Whatever point of view the reader construes out of this work, the theme is the same. The evidence that Bryant based Thanatopsis on the theological teachings of death and resurrection, found in the Bible, is apparent throughout the poem. The ideas that have stood the test of time are still living in another form of literature, Thanatopsis. Perhaps this was Bryant s intention. To create an everlasting work that would convey the ideas of Christian theology, and teach readers across the globe about the death, resurrection, and a glorious afterlife.