William Cullen Bryant

Comments & Themes

William Bryant Biography picture“Thanatopsis” is an extraordinarily “advanced” poem for a teenager to write. In what ways does it disagree with Calvinistic ideas of the relation between man and nature and the concepts of Predestination and life after death?

“Inscription for an Entrance to a Wood” and “Thanatopsis” were written at about the same time and are both proto-romantic contemplations of nature. What similarities can you find between them? On the other hand, “Thanatopsis” has always been much better known (or successful) than “Inscription for an Entrance to a Wood”. What significant differences between them might account for this fact?

How does Bryant also manage to make “To a Waterfowl” a rumination on death? In what significant way (or ways) does the vision of death in this poem differ from that in “Thanatopsis”?

On Its surface, “A Forest Hymn” seems to offer a rather traditional view of nature as a reflection of God’s grandeur. Notice, for example, lines such as: “The groves were God’s first temples” (l. 1) and “Fit shrine for humble worshipper to hold / Communion with his Maker” (ll. 34-5). But this poem then moves on to contemplate death in similar terms to those of “Thanatopsis”, as a natural process. Discuss this tension between two apparently differing religious or philosophical standpoints. In this sense, “A Forest Hymn” could be compared with many poems by Emily Dickinson which also exhibit the same ambiguity, especially, for example, “These are the days when birds come back” (Johnson 130, Franklin 122).

Compare Bryant’s use of the late-blooming Fringed Gentian to speculate on the possibility of life after death (see especially the last stanza of “To a Fringed Gentian”) with Emily Dickinson’s use of the same flower in her early poem “The Gentian weaves her fringes” (Johnson 18, Franklin 21-3).

Bryant’s “The Prairies” (1832) is in many ways reminiscent of Philip Freneau’s “Lines Occasioned by a Visit to an Old Indian Burying Ground” (1788). Discuss the similarities and differences between them Which one do you prefer, and why?

The same kind of comparison could be made between Bryant’s humorous depiction of the bobolink in “Robert of Lincoln” (1855) and Freneau’s poem “To a Caty-Did” (1815).

Bryant’s “The Poet” was published nineteen years after Ralph Waldo Emerson’s very influential essay of the same title; yet Bryant’s vision of poetic composition seems much more traditional than Emerson’s. Perhaps it is ironic that a poet who began his career by looking forward to Transcendentalism has, by the end of his career, moved back to a much earlier stance on the deepest issues of romantic thinking. What are the differences in Bryant’s and Emerson’s views on the poet and the process of poetic inspiration and composition?

“The Death of Lincoln” was written almost immediately in response to the President’s assassination. So was Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”. Compare these two treatments of the same theme. Which poem do you feel to be more effective and moving, and why?