William Cullen Bryant never hesitated to espouse his views in his poetry and Thanatopsis is one of his strongest works of personal reflection. The theme of Thanatopsis is that the natural occasion of death is nothing to be fear but rather will be a peaceful transition to an eternal sleep. Therefore death is not to be feared but rather to be a journey to be embarked upon with courage. Bryant uses nature to express that all men are brought together peacefully under the heavens in death and laid to rest “to mix forever with the elements”.
Though Thanatopsis is a poem about death, it is far from foreboding and is closer to a gentle reminder to live a happy life. Bryant begins and ends the poem in the exact same manner. First he points out the beauty in nature and how man sees life when the sun is shinning and he is happy. Bryant gives nature the female pronoun and states that she has the ability to “glide[s] into his darker musings” and teach him a lesson about the cycle of life. The cycle of life revolves around the certainty that the earth that nourished man while take him once again at the end of his life, completing the cycle. The end of this cycle is a communal process in which all men must experience and is not to be feared. Death is the great equalizer, the great unknown, the one thing that all men hold in common.
Bryant is stating that death comes to every man and the earth provides the most beautiful tomb possible. His love of nature and respect for its enormous beauty is obviously witnessed in the poem. He repeatedly uses images that comfort in relation to the earth: “slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings/Of morning…“have laid them down/In their last sleep”. Thus Bryant uses a cycle of the beauty of nature to the reality of death and back to the beauty of a natural, eternal slumber.
Bryant concludes the poem with a typical theme of the naturalist/transcendentalist writers that he preceded. As Frost or Wordsworth would also empress upon his readers, life should be lived to its fullest without the fear of the inevitable – death.