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William Cullen Bryant and Two of His Poems: "To a Waterfowl" and "Thanatopsis"

Photo of William Cullen Bryant by Matthew Brady.
Photo of William Cullen Bryant by Matthew Brady. | Source
William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Massachusetts.
William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Massachusetts. | Source

1794 - 1878

One of America's earliest poets wore many hats as he was a poet, a journalist, and a half-century long editor of the New York Evening Post. He was a romantic poet who wrote some of the great masterpieces of American poetry. He is none other than William Cullen Bryant and he developed an interest in poetry early in his life. Although he wrote many poems, his two most famous ones are "To a Waterfowl" and "Thanatopsis" which he wrote when he was young. Following are some facts of his life:

  • He was born in a log cabin in Cummington, MA
  • His ancestors were John Allen and Francis Cook who came to America on the Mayflower.
  • His boyhood home, the William Cullen Bryant Homestead, is today a museum in Massachusetts.
  • His education consisted of two years at Williams College and he then studied law at Worthington and Bridgewater. He was admitted to the bar in 1815.
  • He developed an interest in poetry early in his life and continued to write poetry throughout his life. In the last decade of his life, he turned to writing blank verse translations of Homer's works, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
  • In 1821 he published a collection of his poetry in Thanatopsis and Other Poems, his first major book of American poetry.
  • He was hired as an editor for two literary magazines in 1825 before becoming assistant editor of the New York Evening Post.
  • Two years later he became editor-in-chief and part owner of the paper, the New York Evening Post. He was editor in chief from 1828-1878. He became very wealthy and wielded much political power.
  • Bryant died in 1878 of complications from a fall


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"To a Waterfowl"

The poem respresents the early stages of American romanticism which looked to nature to find God and the celebration of Nature and God's presence within Nature. Bryant first published this poem in the North American Review and later published it again in his collection of Poems in 1821.

Through watching a solitary waterfowl flying above in the sky, Bryant expresses the lesson he learns from the waterfowl that he can apply to his own life. Bryant turns to Nature and trusts in the lessons he can glean from it.

The waterfowl flies on its solitary way and Bryant wonders to where it is going. He sees a hunter who tries to shoot the bird, but Bryant urges the waterfowl to find refuge in the reeds, the rocks and the rivers along its way.

There is a Power (God) who shows the waterfowl the way along the coast and in the air. The waterfowl is "Lone wandering, but not lost."

No matter how long and tiring the flight is for the waterfowl, he continues on his long flight. Soon the waterfowl shall find its summer home.

Finally, the day will come that the waterfowl shall die and be swallowed up in heaven. But, the bird's life has taught Bryant a lesson.

"He, who, from zone to zone,

Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,

In the long way that I must tread alone.

Will lead my steps aright."

Just as the Power (God) guides the waterfowl to its summer home, so too shall He guide Bryant through life to his ultimate destination. (Heaven) Bryant has written a poem of his profession of faith in God.


The poem, "To a Waterfowl"

"Thanatopsis"

This poem is considered his best and his masterpiece poem. It is one of the classic poems about death. It was originally written in 1811 and originally published erroneously under his father's name as the editor could not believe a seventeen year old could write such a beautiful and moving poem of such quality. After publication, Bryant was given credit for his poem.

"Thanatopsis" comes from Greek and means thanatos (death) and opsis (sight). It is translated to a "Meditation on Death" or a "View of Death." Like, "To a Waterfowl," it expresses the beauty of Nature and the idea that death is just a part of the cycle of Nature. It is quite a comforting poem and provides comfort to both the living and the dead. Bryant was of the Unitarianism religious persuasion and his poem provides comfort to anyone despite their religious beliefs.

The poem is quite long and is divided in to three stanzas:

Stanza 1

Nature takes on the persona of a beautiful woman who speaks a various language. She has a glad voice and a smile. At death, she glides into our dark musings and brings a mild and healing sympathy and steals away our last thoughts before death. There is nothing to fear. When we are frightened of death, we are to go forth and listen to nature's teachings as we return to the earth only to mix with the earth and the elements again.

Stanza 2

But, Bryant tells the us, do no despair that we will become one with the earth. The greatest men, kings, patriarchs, and the most powerful all have returned to earth - ashes to ashes, dust to dust - just as we all will. The beauty of nature, waterfalls, rivers, woods, brooks, green meadows - all decorate and are the great tomb of man. The dead are everywhere in nature. Millions have died and rested, finally, in nature where each man and the dead reign there alone in nature.

Stanza 3

And, what if no one notices our death, our departure from this world? All that live now will share our same destiny of death also. Each person will make his/her bed with us in nature. All will be gathered by our side in death. So, Bryant advises, don't approach death as a "quarry-slave" at night, but approach death and our grave by wrapping ourselves in a warm blanket and lying down to pleasant dreams.

Through this lovely poem, Bryant leaves us with the comforting and pleasant thought that in death we rest peacefully within Nature.

The poem, "Thanatopsis"

William Cullen Bryant's Nature

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Comments 6 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

I remember his works well from college. Great job of detailing the man and his work; the pictures work perfectly with your words. Nice job, Suzette!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you, Bill. I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. I appreciate your comments. These were some of my favorite poems to teach so long ago. Thanks for the visit.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

It seems that William Cullen Bryant has an old soul at 17 to have written "Thanatopsis". He had a very pragmatic view of death for one so young. He writes of it as the great equalizer, where animals, kings, queens and common man all return to nature. Though he relates the presence of God through nature, his poetry sounds as if ashes to ashes, dust to dust is where it all ends, as part of the beauty of the landscape forever. Somehow, Suzette, this doesn't comfort me. I saw a movie on TV early one morning recently called The Lovely Bones, directed by Spielberg. This is the way I want to see the hereafter. I don't know if you are familiar with the movie, but I find comfort in the fact that we are given choice in settling up, so to speak, with answers to questions that are troubling the individual before crossing over. It gives relevance to the lives we have lived, the choices we have made, the special people we love. Though I understand Bryant's concept and his intent as peaceful, the idea of eternal sleep and simply returning to the earth is oddly disturbing to me. Physically, I understand this is fact, but spiritually, I hope for more. It is an industrious endeavor as a topic, with many schools of thought that in the end, we must all experience to know the unknown.

Your hub is, again, Suzette, unequaled in it's beautifully presented information and thought provoking content. Truly awesome


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: Thank you for your insighful comments. You really have taken in Bryant's poetry and philosophy. What is comforting to me is that we return to nature and I further believe we become part of nature in a beautiful flower, a strong oak tree, a babbling brook etc. I believe we are reborn in nature. I think that is why I am so attached to nature - I am so comfortable and at ease in nature and this is where I get rid of stress. I also understand your philosophy, too. Yes, I am familiar with the book and the movie, although I have not read the book or seen the movie yet. That book is on my 'to read' list, though. It does have its own look at heaven I am told. Perhaps we do have an opportunity to finish some 'unfinished business' in life before we 'cross over.'

That, too, is a comforting thought. Thank you so much for really thinking about my poems. I agree, 17 is young to write a poem about death. Usually at that age, death is the furthest thought from someone's minds. Your comments always make me think, Amy, and I appreciate them very much.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

Thank you so much for this so interesting and wonderful share. Your obvious hard work has certainly left its mark Here's to so many more hubs for us both to share on here.

Eddy.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Eddy: Thanks so much for your visit and your comments. I'm glad you liked this. This is not as creative as your hubs, which I admire, but these poems are nature oriented, which I like. Thanks for your interest and yes, to many more hubs.

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