The speaker tells us that nature can make pain less painful. It can even lighten our dark thoughts about death. He tells us that, when we start to worry about death, we should go outside and listen to the voice of nature. That voice reminds us that we will indeed vanish when we die and mix back into the earth. Every person who has ever lived is in the ground "the great tomb of man" and everyone who is alive will be soon dead and in the ground too. This idea is meant to be comforting, and the poem ends by telling us to think of death like a happy, dream-filled sleep.
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The speaker tells us that nature can make pain less painful. It can even lighten our dark thoughts about death. He tells us that, when we start to worry about death, we should go outside and listen to the voice of nature. That voice reminds us that we will indeed vanish when we die and mix back into the earth. Every person who has ever lived is in the ground "the great tomb of man" and everyone who is alive will be soon dead and in the ground too.
This idea is meant to be comforting, and the poem ends by telling us to think of death like a happy, dream-filled sleep. Here the speaker is introducing us to a certain kind of guy who loves nature.
Line 2 Communion with her visible forms, she speaks This guy has an almost holy relationship with nature. He "holds communion" like you would do in a church with things like rocks and trees and rivers those are examples of "visible forms" of nature. In these moments of communion nature actually "speaks" to this guy.
Nature is the "she" mentioned at the end of the line. When he is feeling happy in "his gayer hours" Nature smiles, and speaks to him happily "with a voice of gladness". In these moments, she has the "eloquence" smooth and lovely speech "of beauty" line 5.
Lines Into his darker musings, with a mild And healing sympathy, that steals away Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts Sometimes the nature lover is feeling mopey and is brooding over depressing thoughts. Then Nature "glides" in and makes him feel better. In these moments, Nature treats him with gentle sympathy, which heals him. She takes away the pain "sharpness" of his thoughts before he even realizes it. She might even bake him some chocolate-chip cookies.
These thoughts about death come like a plague or disease a "blight" on his spirit. By the way, "blight" is a pretty good word. Check out these pictures of potato blight for an example.
Did you see what happened there? Here, for the first time, in line 10, he talks about "thy" your spirit. The poem has switched from musing about nature to giving you advice. Here the speaker gives us some strong images of those scary thoughts. He talks about the "stern agony" of dying, which we think is a great phrase. Death does, though. A "shroud" is the cloth you use to wrap up a dead body. It can mean a cloth that covers a coffin, or it can mean the coffin itself like when people talk about "pallbearers" at a funeral.
Line 12 And breathless darkness, and the narrow house, Here we get some more death imagery, only this time even scarier. The speaker helps us imagine the "breathless darkness" of the grave and the "narrow house" of the coffin.
Line 13 Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;— The speaker is definitely building a mood here. He wants us to think about those moments where we worry so much about death that we "shudder" and "grow sick at heart. The speaker tells us to go outside, "under the open sky. Lines Earth and her waters, and the depths of air— Comes a still voice— Yet a few days, and thee The "voice" of Nature comes from the "Earth," the "waters," and the "air.
That means, calm and quiet, and it gives this line a feeling of peace and comfort. Things are going to be OK. Or maybe not. Line 18 The all-beholding sun shall see no more Bad news! So wait. Where will we be? Lines Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again, Phew. No cremation. Well, it goes back to the Earth. It was "nourishment" from the Earth that allowed our body to grow, and now our body will be turned "resolved" back into earth again.
This is like that old expression you may have heard — " Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We give up our "individual being. Lines To mix for ever with the elements, To be a brother to the insensible rock Our speaker is really in love with this image of returning to the Earth, so now he just riffs on it a little. He tells us our bodies will "mix […] with the elements.
Lines And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak Just to make sure we got the point, the poem drives it in again, this time with some fancy vocab words. The speaker really works this image of our bodies turning into dirt. Here he talks about how a country boy aka a "swain" — a pretty popular dude in old nature poems digs up that clod of dirt with his plow "share" and walks "treads" all over it.
Even the swains get to step on you. Are you feeling comforted yet? Hey, Mr. Line 30 Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould. Our dead bodies will be food for oak trees, as they send their roots out through the earth. Those roots will pierce the "mould" soil of our bodies. We think that last image is really vivid — a little bit violent, but also sort of beautiful. Bodies mixing with trees? OK, it could be worse. Lines Yet not to thine eternal resting-place Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish This is a big turn in the poem.
Is the idea of your body turning into oak tree Miracle-Gro comforting? Now we get a big "Yet. Line 33 Couch more magnificent. Way better than the "narrow house" we were worrying about in line There will be "patriarchs" that means fathers, heads of families, or male leaders from long ago when the Earth was young "the infant world". This also makes us think of the Biblical patriarchs, like Abraham.
There will also be kings and others who are "powerful," "wise" and "good. There will also be old "hoary" prophets "seers". Line 37 All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills All of these important people from lines will lie down with you in one giant tomb "sepulcher". That giant tomb, of course, is the Earth. Lines Line 38 Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales Now the speaker starts a description of the whole earth, of the geography of our globe.
He begins by talking about the hills. He refers to them as "rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun. Line 39 Stretching in pensive quietness between; Next he describes the quiet, thoughtful "pensive" valleys that stretch out between the hills. Again, the idea that a valley could be thoughtful makes this whole imaginary landscape feel kind of alive. We picture these woods as being like Fangorn in Lord of the Rings — ancient, and full of wise Ents.
We also see the majestic rivers, and their little cousins, "the complaining brooks. Finally, we arrive at the "gray and melancholy waste" of the "Old Ocean," which surrounds everything else. A couple things to notice about that last image. First, Bryant spends a lot of times telling us how old or "ancient" or "hoary" or "venerable" everything in the world is. We think that adds to the peaceful, serious tone of this poem. Lines Are but the solemn decorations all Of the great tomb of man.
The golden sun, All of these places in Nature — hills, valleys, forests, streams, the ocean — are compared to "decorations" on a "tomb. Still, there is a kind of quiet beauty to the idea of "solemn decorations. This is one of the cool tricks Bryant uses. Notice that the speaker also mentions the "infinite host of heaven.
It could also be a little religious hint. The Bible Luke talks about a "heavenly host," meaning an army of angels. Lines Are shining on the sad abodes of death, Through the still lapse of ages. Man, everything, even the sun, reminds our speaker that death is unavoidable. The sun keeps shining and people keep dying forever and ever. This process keeps going "through the still lapse of the ages. Things are always quiet and "still," and the passage "lapse" of time continues no matter what we do.
To him who in the love of Nature holds Communion with her visible forms, she speaks A various language; for his gayer hours She has a voice of gladness, and a smile And eloquence of beauty, and she glides Into his darker musings, with a mild And healing sympathy, that steals away Their sharpness, ere he is aware. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again, And, lost each human trace, surrendering up Thine individual being, shalt thou go To mix for ever with the elements, To be a brother to the insensible rock And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould. Yet not to thine eternal resting-place Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings, The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good, Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past, All in one mighty sepulchre.
William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis: Summary & Analysis
Have you ever felt your spine tingle when you walked past a graveyard, just thinking about all those bodies lying in the ground? Those are exactly the kinds of thoughts that William Cullen Bryant had when he wrote "Thanatopsis. Young William Bryant was a fan of a group of English writers called "The Graveyard Poets" who wrote all about death and decay. Think of this as basically the 19th-century version of listening to Cure albums all day. Bryant was also getting to know the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth , whose love of nature had a pretty clear influence on this poem. That mix of calm nature poetry and dramatic thoughts of death helped to make "Thanatopsis" what it is. The first version of "Thanatopsis" appeared in that magazine in the September issue.
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