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Remembering the Dead: On William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”

Setting out on a new semester of teaching a course in poetry writing, I have the pleasure of rereading the two essays that begin the anthology The Making of a Poem (Norton), edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland—Strand’s “On Becoming a Poet” and Boland’s “Poetic Form: A Personal Encounter.” Strand’s essay recounts his early reading of Archibald MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell” and the uncanny way that the poem gave voice to his feelings of anxiety, at the same time transforming them into “sources of pleasure.” Boland’s piece begins with her early experience with William Blake’s “The Tyger,” and tells about her struggles with inherited ideas of form and the line, so that by the time this poet is 34, she is figuring out how to merge the intimacies and contours of her everyday voice with the demands of her poetry.

Both essays discuss the poets’ transformative encounters with poetry, but such transformations are surely not limited to the lives of our major literary figures. I encourage my students to share their own transformative, early meetings with poetry, and I share mine, which relates to William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” We read this poem in a literature course in high school. I remember especially Mr. Calhoun’s explanation of the closing lines. Much of the poem, which Bryant wrote when he was 17, is a fairly conventional—albeit accomplished—imitation of Wordsworth on the goodness of nature. But it’s that ending, which Bryant wrote ten years later, that most stayed with me, and stays with me still:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan which moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Only a few years earlier, when I was in eighth grade, my father had died unexpectedly—he was diagnosed with cancer and three weeks later was gone—and I had scarcely even begun to grieve the loss. At the time I didn’t realize what a death-haunted young man I had become, though I can’t really say I was any more beset by death than many of my peers. There used to be—perhaps still is—a conventional “wisdom” that says young people don’t really think about death; but as I age, I come more and more to realize how grossly (and even grotesquely) untrue that idea is. Even as I age into a middle-aged man’s thoughts of death, I realize that as a teenager, I thought about death plenty and knew in my bones that it applied to me and everyone I knew. So I took great comfort from the image of that “innumerable caravan” moving into the “mysterious realm,” which was rendered somehow welcoming by the image, merely the place where our pilgrimage is headed as we march through life together and descend into the earth where a “chamber in the silent halls” awaits each of us.

The image takes away some of the fear associated with that “summons” (to death) that Bryant alludes to a few lines earlier, as does the vision of death as lying down to “pleasant dreams.” As Mr. Calhoun explained, the “drapery” of a couch was a kind of coverlet that one could toss over one’s body for warmth, so dying becomes equivalent to catching some rest in the afternoon, casually tossing the couch drapery over one’s body in preparation to enter the realm of dreams. The poem also awakened me somehow to the meaningfulness of dreams, where we sometimes commune with the dead. At least, when my father shows up in my dreams, as he does on occasion to this day, it seems like an opportunity to get to know him all over again, and even to know him in new ways because I’m now a person that I’ve never been before, so my old memories, reframed, become new experiences.

In part because of this array of associations, I’ve come to think of poetry—both reading it and writing it—as one of the places where we most powerfully commune with the dead—not only Dickinson, Donne, Dante, and Virgil, but the many who influenced them and who have left traces of themselves in these poets’ writings. Further, because our memories of the dead draw the living together, they become occasions of our experiences of community. As my colleague Kurt Fosso puts it in his marvelous Buried Communities: Wordsworth and the Bonds of Mourning, “Wordsworth’s poetry repeatedly shows how we the living remain, even despite ourselves, bound together by the dead and by the griefs we share.” Poetry is one of the powerful ways that we can remember and know the past as we face into the uncertain and precarious future.