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For other uses, see Thanatopsis (disambiguation).

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


The title comes from the Greek thanatos ("death") and opsis ("sight"); it has often been translated as "Meditation upon Death". Bryant wrote the bulk of the poem in 1811 at age 17, and it was first published in 1817 by the North American Review. He added the introductory and concluding lines 10 years later in 1821.

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.[1] 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."[2]

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.[3]

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. ^ 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
  2. ^ Parks, Edd Winfield. Ante-Bellum Southern Literary Critics. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1962: 175.
  3. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Max Cavitch, American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Includes a chapter on the poem. ISBN 0-8166-4893-X
  • Connie Willis, Ado (Asimov's Science Fiction, 1988) A short story about political correctness and religious vigilance run amok on campus mentions this poem.
  • Acacia International Fraternity

External links[edit]