What Is the Poem "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant About?

The poem "Thanatopsis," by William Cullen Bryant is a reflection about life and death. The word "thanatopsis" means to think about death. "Thanatopsis" went through many stages of revision over the course of 8 to 10 years.

Several drafts of "Thanatopsis" in various stages of completion have been discovered. Scholars debate the year in which the first draft of "Thanatopsis" was written, however. Some believe Bryant began the poem in 1811, while others believe it was not started until 1813. A final, somewhat longer, version of the poem was published in 1821. It is believed that "Thanatopsis" is an internal reflection about Bryant's own personal conflict regarding religion, nature and immortality. Although Bryant's grandfather was very religious, his father placed priority on classical teachings. Bryant himself did not embrace the traditional tenets of the Protestant faith, the primary religion of the United States in his time, so he found himself facing somewhat of an existential crisis.

Bryant ultimately concludes in "Thanatopsis" that regardless of whether one is religious or not, death is inevitable and should be embraced as such. The narrator of the poem concludes that it ultimately does not matter what beliefs or morals man chooses to embody while he is living because, ultimately, the only thing of which anyone can be sure is death. So everyone should live the life that best helps prepare them for death.