Thanatopsis: Overview

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Editor: Jim Kamp
Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay
Length: 904 words

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Anthologized in virtually every major collection of American poetry, "Thanatopsis" is William Cullen Bryant's most famous poem and is today considered a 19th-century American "classic." Begun when Bryant was not yet 18, "Thanatopsis" represents his youthful, yet remarkably sophisticated, attempts to confront his early doubts about life and his persistent fears about death. Taken from the Greek, the term "Thanatopsis" literally means "glimpse or view of death," and death is the subject of the poem.

Although from an early age onward Bryant wished to write a poem that would be remembered by future generations, "Thanatopsis" was originally published anonymously, without his knowledge or consent. While Bryant was away from home studying law, his father discovered unfinished versions of "Thanatopsis" and another poem, "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood," and he sent both manuscripts to the North American Review, where in 1817 they were published together as one poem. Scholars debate the actual date when Bryant began writing the poem, but it is believed that he may have composed a first draft as early as 1811 and certainly not later than 1814. From numerous extant manuscripts we know that Bryant continued revising "Thanatopsis" until 1821, when it was published in its final form, with introductory and concluding stanzas substituting for the poem erroneously published as part of it in the 1817 version.

The complicated textual history...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420001161