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For other uses, see Thanatopsis (disambiguation).

"Thanatopsis" is a poem by the American poet William Cullen Bryant.


A painting of William Cullen Bryant from 1878

William Cullen Bryant was born in 1794 in Cummington, Massachusetts. Bryant grew up in a Puritan home with his father, Peter Bryant, a prominent doctor. William Cullen Bryant's early education came from his father.[1] In his early life Bryant would spend a great deal of time in the woods surrounding his family's New England home, and read of the extensive personal library his father had.[2] Bryant's first published poem was "The Embargo; or, Sketches of the Times", a satirical work concerning Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807. It was released in a Boston newspaper in 1808. In 1810 Bryant was forced to leave Williams College for lack of money. Instead of a formal education, he started studying law, and began learning an eclectic mix of poetry, such as the works of as Isaac Watts and Henry Kirke White, and verses like William Cowper's "The Task" and Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene".[3]

When and where Bryant wrote "Thanatopsis" is unclear, and Bryant himself could not remember when he wrote the verse.[4] According to Parke Godwin, Bryant's friend, Bryant wrote the poem when he was seventeen years old in mid-1811, just after he had left Williams College.[5] In History of American Literature, two dates are stated for the authoring of "Thanatopsis", 1811 and 1816.[6] Bryant's inspiration for "Thanatopsis" came after reading William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads,[7] as well as Robert Blair's "The Grave", Beilby Porteus's "Death" and Kirke White's "Time".[8] After Bryant had left Cummington to begin his law studies, his father discovered a manuscript in Bryant's desk drawer,[9] that contained "Thanatopsis" and a fragment of a poem, which would be published under the title "The Fragment", and later titled "An Inscription upon the Entrance to a Wood".[5] He sent the two poems to the editors at the North American Review, where they were published in September 1817.[4]


Critical reception[edit]

Due to the unusual quality of the verse and Bryant's age, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., 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."

"Thanatopsis" remains a milestone in American literary history.[citation needed] It was republished in 1821 as the lead poem of Thanatopsis and Other Poems, which was considered by many to be the first major book of American poetry. Nevertheless, over five years, it earned Bryant only $14.92.[10] Poet and literary critic Thomas Holley Chivers, who often accused other writers of stealing poems, said that the only thing Bryant "ever wrote that may be called Poetry is 'Thanatopsis,' which he stole line for line from the Spanish."[11]

Appearances in popular culture[edit]

Advertisement for 1922 screening of Bryant's "Thanatopsis" at the Modern and Beacon cinemas, Boston; part of Great American Authors film series

In The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, Clarice Starling reveals to Hannibal Lecter one detail of her father's last days in a hospital: an elderly neighbour reading to him the last lines of "Thanatopsis." In Sinclair Lewis' novel Main Street, the women's study club of Gopher Prairie is the Thanatopsis club.

The experimental band Thanatopsis was named after this poem. The band's first album, Thanatopsis, was also named after this poem. The electronic artist Daedalus named the last song on the album Exquisite Corpse after the poem.

The Avant Garde film-maker Ed Emshwiller's 1962 short film Thanatopsis was inspired by the poem. In the episode "Terminal" of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a portion of the poem is set to sappy folk music and sung by Dave Willis.

In the 1942 film Grand Central Murder, the private railway car where the showgirl is murdered is named Thanatopsis.

In T.C. Boyle's 1990 novel East Is East, the writer's colony on the fictitious Georgia sea island of Tupelo (near Darien) is called Thanatopsis House. Each of the artists in the colony have their own private studio cabin to work in during the day. Each studio cabin is named after a famous suicide (example: Hart Crane).

The Acacia Fraternity adopted the last stanza as their code.[12]

American progressive rock band Kansas' 2000 studio album Somewhere to Elsewhere features a song called The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis). The lyrics are a reflection on a life at its end.


  1. ^ Trent 1920, p. 258.
  2. ^ Haralson 2014, p. 57.
  3. ^ Trent 1920, p. 259.
  4. ^ a b Phelps 1924, p. 7.
  5. ^ a b Bigelow 1890, p. 40.
  6. ^ Phelps 1924, p. 6.
  7. ^ Trent 1917, p. 262.
  8. ^ Trent 1917, p. 263.
  9. ^ Trent 1920, p. 261.
  10. ^ Gioia, Dana. "Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism". The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. Columbia University Press, 1993: 74–75. ISBN 0-231-07836-6
  11. ^ Parks, Edd Winfield. Ante-Bellum Southern Literary Critics. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1962: 175.
  12. ^

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]