An Example of detailed interpretation: Thanatopsis
  A 1935 Lesson Plan

The Teaching of Literature in the High School by Reed Smith. American Book Company. New York: 1935. Page 236.

[William Cullen Bryant]

[PRELIMINARY COMMENT: Notice that this is an example of detailed interpretation. It hardly needs be said that only selections of unusual difficulty or importance will call for this full, intensive method of interpretation. In the case of other selections, now one, now another of the eight suggested points will need emphasis, and the other points may not come up at all. Everything will depend upon how much significance the teacher attaches to any particular selection and hence upon how thoroughly it will seem advisable to go into details.]

COURSE: American Literature (third or fourth year of high school)

ASSIGNMENT: Bryant “Thanatopsis”

TIME: Early in the first term

1. The Author

(The familiar picture of Bryant should be available to the class at this time.)

TEACHER: Bryant was one of the first American authors, along with Irving and Cooper, to make our literature respected in Europe. His two most famous poems are this one, “Thanatopsis,” and “To a Waterfowl,” which is the next selection. Bryant lived to be a very old man, eighty-four years old, and was loved and honored all over the United States. But he did his best work when he was very young. He wrote most of “Thanatopsis” when he was only seventeen and “To a Waterfowl” when he was twenty-one. We always think of him as he looks in this picture—a venerable, noble-looking old man with white hair and beard. When he wrote “Thanatopsis,” however, he was no older than some of the boys and girls in this class.

The only other thing we need to recall about Bryant this morning is that his family was not rich, and that he could not go to college as he wished or enter the profession he preferred. These two facts become important when we come to consider the mood he was in when he wrote “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl.”

2. Background: Approach to the Poem

When the idea of “Thanatopsis” came into Bryant’s mind, he was, as has been said, only seventeen. The year before, he had attended Williams College but had been able to stay only seven months. Now he was very anxious to go to Yale, which along with Harvard was one of the most famous colleges in New England. His family did not have enough money to bear this expense, so that Cullen (as they called him) was unable to go. Of course he was greatly disappointed and for a while was much cast down. About this time, too, he happened to be reading some very melancholy English poems written by contemporaries of Thomas Gray. Gray you will remember as the author of the “Elegy,” which has been called the most famous poem in English. How many in the class have read the “Elegy”? (A show of hands to indicate this.) How many have memorized one or more stanzas? (Another show of hands.) The “Elegy,” too, is about death, or rather the dead—the dead buried in a quiet country churchyard who lived simply and died unknown to fame.

Out of these two outward circumstances—Cullen’s disappointment over not being able to go to college and his read ing melancholy poetry—grew the idea and the mood of “Thanatopsis.”

The title “Thanatopsis” comes from two Greek words, thanatos (death) and opsis (view). It means, therefore, A View of Death or Thoughts on Death. Incidentally, this is a very serious subject for a boy of seventeen, and the resulting poem was a very mature one for that age. But such was the boy and such was the poem.

For six years no one knew that Cullen had written “Thanatopsis” at all. It lay in his desk in manuscript just as he left it. Then one day his father came across it and was of course greatly astonished and delighted, both. There is a story that when he first read it he could not contain himself, but ran to a neighbor’s house, and said with tears of joy in his eyes, “Oh, look what Cullen has written!”

The poem was published in 1817 in the North American Review and created a sensation. Only a few poems in American literature have made such an instant and widespread hit; among them probably Poe “Raven,” Bret Harte “Heathen Chinee,” Markham “Man with the Hoe,” and Joyce Kilmer “Trees.” All of these are in our course and will be taken up later. Few people who read “Thanatopsis” when it first came out could believe that any one on this side of the Atlantic could have written such a poem, least of all a boy of seventeen.

As Bryant first wrote it, the poem began with the second half of line seventeen with the words,

“Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more.”

It ended with the first half of line 66,

“And make their bed with thee.”

The present beautiful beginning of sixteen and a half lines and the even more famous and oft-quoted close of sixteen lines were added ten years later in 1821, when Bryant was twenty-seven.

3. Interpretative Outline
In its present form the poem is eighty-one lines long, and while it is not as difficult as some poems that we meet later ( Poe “Ulalume,” for instance, and Emerson “Each and All “), its thought is somewhat abstract in places and hard to follow. The outline given yesterday summarizes simply the underlying thought and different ideas. Suppose we read that first. (A pupil is called upon and reads aloud the outline, as follows):
I. Nature has various ways of speaking to those who love her and commune with her (11. 1-8).
II. When sad thoughts of death come, go listen to what Nature says about death (ll. 8-17).
III. She teaches that in a short time we all must die (ll. 17-30).
IV. Yet our resting-place will be hallowed by the presence of the mighty dead of old, and magnificently decorated with the beautiful things in Nature (l. 31-48).
V. The living are but a handful compared with the dead (ll. 48-57).
VI. Though no one may seem to care because we are gone, yet both those now living and those who are to come will all finally join us in death (ll. 58-72).
VII. We should so live as to approach death not with fear but with an unfaltering trust (ll. 73-81).
4. First Reading Aloud: Detailed Interpretation of Language

This outline gives the intellectual part, the thought-content of the poem—what it is about. Now for the details—the beauty of language and rhythm and picture with which Bryant has clothed the thought.

(Calling on pupil): Mary, will you read for us the first section, lines 1-8: Nature has various ways of speaking to those who love her and commune with her.

his passage is read aloud:

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 5
Into his darker musings with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware.

What does “visible forms” in line 2 mean?

(Answer desired): That part of nature or those things in nature which we can see.

Does Bryant name anywhere in the poem some of nature’s visible forms?

ANSWER: Yes, in lines 37-43.

Name these simply.

ANSWER: Hills, valleys, woods, rivers, brooks, green meadows, ocean, sun, planets, and stars.

Now what do the first two and a half lines mean? Put them into as simple language as possible.

(Answer desired): Nature says many things to those who are on intimate terms with her and love her outward beautiful forms.

What does “darker musings” in line 6 mean?

(Answer desired): Blue feelings, despondent thoughts.

John (calling on another pupil), will you read division two, lines 8 to 17: When sad thoughts of death come, go listen to what Nature says about death.

This passage is read aloud:

When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images 10
Of the stem agony and shroud and pall
And breathless darkness and the narrow house
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart,
Go forth under the open sky and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—15
Earth and her waters and the depths of air --
Comes a still voice --

What is “the last bitter hour” of line 9?

ANSWER: Death.

What are the “shroud and pall” of line 11?

ANSWER: Funeral dress and draperies.

What do you think is meant by “the narrow house” of line 12?

ANSWER: The grave or the coffin.

What probably suggested to Bryant the phrase the “still voice” of line 17?

ANSWER: “The still small voice” that spoke to Elijah on the mount after the passing of the great wind, the earthquake, and the fire. I Kings xix, 11, 12.

Kate (calling on another pupil), will you read the third section, lines 17-30: Nature teaches that in a short time we all must die.

This passage is read aloud:

Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears, 20
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shall thou go 25
To mix forever 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. 30

What is the construction of “lost each human trace” in line 24? The grammar of the passage will help us to understand the meaning.

(Desired answer): It is the nominative absolute construction, and means, Each human trace being lost, or having been lost.

What is meant by “insensible” in line 27?

ANSWER: Unfeeling, or unable to feel.

What does “swain” mean, line 28?

ANSWER: A rustic or countryman.

“Share” in line 29 you will notice means plowshare or plowpoint.

What is meant by “mould,” line 30?

ANSWER: The ground, or earth, hence a grave.

William (calling on another pupil), will you read the next division, lines 31-48: Yet our resting place will be hallowed by the presence of the mighty dead of old, and magnificently decorated with the beautiful things in nature.

This passage is read aloud:

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, 35
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulcher. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun; the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods, rivers that move 40
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round
all, Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun, 45
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages.

Paraphrase “patriarchs of the infant world” in line 34.

(Answer desired): Ancient rulers in the early days of the world.

Compare with “patriarchs of the infant world” the phrase “hoary seers of ages past” in line 36, meaning “prophets white with age.” Both phrases point as far back in time as the poet’s pen could express.

What is “sepulcher” in line 37?

(Answer desired): An impressive word for tomb or grave. It suggests size and magnificence.

Notice line 43. It is a beautiful, suggestive one:

“and poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste.”

Sometimes the sea is blue and gay and sparkling, but any one who has ever been to the coast on a dark day in autumn or winter knows how exactly Bryant has caught and expressed the spirit of the scene,

“and poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste.”

Name a few other of nature’s “visible forms” besides those Bryant mentions in lines 37-43.

ANSWER: Flowers, clouds, waterfalls, the moon. (Once a pupil raised the point that Bryant included the moon as the planet of a planet in line 46.)

Put into simple words “the still lapse of ages,” line 48.

(Answer desired): The quiet passage of long years.

Harry, will you read d+ivision five, lines 48-57: The living are but a handful compared with the dead.

This passage is read aloud:

All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom. Take the wings 50
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound
Save his own dashings; yet the dead are there,
And millions in those solitudes, since first 55
The Right of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep: the dead reign there alone.

Is the statement in the first two and a half lines true? Absolutely. The dead far outnumber the living. The phrase “the silent majority” is based upon this fact, meaning “the silent dead who are many more in numbers than the living.”

In lines 51 and 53 Bryant singled out two remote places, uninhabited in his day. The Barcan desert northeast of Egypt is still uninhabited, but not so the region bordering the Oregon or Columbia River. Remember Bryant wrote this passage nearly a hundred and twenty-five years ago, and the West has been settled and largely populated since that time. The Oregon now hears many more sounds besides its own dashings—mainly automobile horns along the splendid paved scenic highway through the states of Oregon and Washington. There is a similar instance in “My Life Is Like the Summer Rose” by Richard Henry Wilde , lines 19 and 20.

“My life is like the prints, which feet
Have left on Tampa’s desert strand.”

Tampa’s strand is not desert now, for the southern Florida coast is thickly populated. Tampa itself is a thriving city of over 100,000.

Jane, read the sixth division, lines 59-72: Though no one may seem to care because we are gone, yet both those now living and those who are to come will all finally join us in death.

This passage is read aloud:

So shalt thou rest; and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe 60
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh

When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come 65
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men --
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man— 70
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those who in their turn shall follow them.

Give a simple, one-syllable word for “destiny,” line 61.


Put “the solemn brood of care,” line 62, into simple prose language.

(Answer desired): Anxious, care-worn people.

What is a “phantom,” line 64?

ANSWER: Shadow, spirit, unreal appearance.

What are some of the favorite phantoms that we chase?

(Answer desired): Wealth, popularity, social success, power, fame, pleasure.

Notice the beauty and impressiveness of Bryant’s poetry all through this poem but especially in the closing passage, to be read next, and in lines 66-72.

(The teacher reads aloud again these lines):

As the long train

Of ages glide away, the sons of men --
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man --
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those who in their turn shall follow them.

And now for the poem’s famous close. Maud, will you read it for us: We should so live as to approach death not with fear but with an unfaltering trust.

This passage is read aloud:

So live that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take 75
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 80
About him and lies down to pleasant dreams.

That is wonderful word-music, one of the best-known and best-loved passages in American poetry. I shall ask every one in class to memorize these nine lines by the end of the week, and we will have a check-up of some kind Friday to see that every one knows them.

A good paraphrase of lines 74-76 would be: The countless multitude which is steadily and inescapably traveling onward together to the grave.

Put “mysterious realm,” line 75, into simple words. ANSWER: Strange, unknown country.

Notice “quarry-slave,” line 77. A quarry-slave was one of the lowest and worst-treated of slaves.

“Scourged,” line 78. A scourge is, of course, a whip. What kind of whip?

ANSWER: An unusually cruel kind, often having many thongs with jagged bits of metal fastened to them.

Notice how poetic is the phrase “drapery of his couch” as compared with the work-a-day, prosaic term, bedclothes!

This picture of the scourged quarry-slave as contrasted with the one who seeks restful sleep and pleasant dreams is beautifully suggestive. Just before we began to read this poem, Gray “Elegy” was mentioned as being another famous poem about death, or rather about the dead. There is another very beautiful English poem about meeting death peacefully and confidently. I wonder if any one in class can name it. (Probably no one does.) You will know which one it is when I say that it is Tennyson’s best-known short poem. (Possibly several mention “Crossing the Bar.") Yes, it is “Crossing the Bar.” This poem is only sixteen lines long. I want you to look it up and read it aloud and then read aloud the last nine lines of “Thanatopsis.” Tennyson liked “Crossing the Bar” so much that he gave instructions before he died that it should be put at the end of all editions of his poems, and there in that place of honor you will find it today.
5. Questions and Comments from the Class

We have now been over “Thanatopsis” in some detail. Are there any questions or remarks about the poem? There should not be a phrase or a word in it that we do not understand clearly. Is there anything in it that is obscure or that you wish to ask about? Don’t let’s leave the poem with a single detail of thought or language that is not perfectly clear. (If any question is asked or comment is made, it will of course be discussed sympathetically, whether it is to the point or not. The more class discussion the better.)
6. Verse Form

Finally we will take up the meter briefly. What is the meter?

ANSWER: Unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.

Yes, blank verse, with the beat (writing on the board)

x ʹ x ʹ x ʹ x ʹ x ʹ

Point out one or two perfectly regular lines. ANSWER: Line 30: Shall send his roots abroad and pierce thy mould

Line 56: The flight of years began, have laid them down

Blank verse is incomparably the most important verse form in English, most of our greatest poetry being cast in it. It is the measure of Shakespeare plays, of Paradise Lost, of much of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Browning, Arnold, and Tennyson. In American literature among the older poets Bryant probably wrote it most successfully. “Thanatopsis” is a notable example. Among recent American poets Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson use it fluently and well. Look up Frost poem “Mending Wall,” for example. Read some of it aloud when you get home and you will see Frost’s easy, conversational use of blank verse as contrasted with Bryant’s more stately, sonorous rhythm.

Be on the watch for the next blank-verse poem in the text, and we will remember “Thanatopsis” when we get to it.
7. Type of Poetry

Now as to the type or kind of poetry “Thanatopsis” belongs to. What are the three types of poetry? ANSWER: Narrative, Lyric, and Dramatic.

What is the best example of dramatic poetry? ANSWER: Shakespeare’s plays.

What is a narrative poem? ANSWER: One that tells a story.

What is a lyric poem? ANSWER: A poem expressing the personal feeling or mood of the poet.

Which kind is “Thanatopsis?” ANSWER: It is a lyric poem, because it does not tell a story but reveals Bryant’s mood or feeling.

His feeling about what? ANSWER: About nature and about death.

Yes, and when we take up Bryant next poem, “To a Waterfowl,” we shall find that it is lyric too, and for the same reason: it expresses his mood or feeling.

There are a great many narrative or story poems in both English and American literature. Can you name one or two that you had last year or before that?

(Answer desired, such examples as the following): “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Revere’s Ride,” “Hiawatha,” “Maud Muller,” “Enoch Arden,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Lochinvar,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix."Yes, these are all good examples of narrative poetry. We’ll keep in mind this distinction between lyric and narrative poetry, and apply it to the different poems we meet.

8. Final Reading Aloud for Appreciation
That is all we need to take up concerning this famous and beautiful poem. We have glanced at the author and how he came to write “Thanatopsis,” have been over the outline of the poem, have read it section by section, and cleared up all surface difficulties of thought and language, and have glanced at its verse form and poetic type.There now remains only to read it through once more with, we hope, perfect understanding and increasing pleasure. Will the following seven members of the class (naming them) read the poem for us as well as they can, each reading one division and following one another without further word from me.(The entire poem is read aloud as indicated.)

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/28 at 07:34 PM
2007 Michael L. Umphrey