William Cullen Bryant explains why America is freaking out

In his classic poem “Thanatopsis,” William Cullen Bryant ponders death. The title means “the gaze of death” in Greek. A long tradition in poetry and art holds up the genre of thanatopsis, reflecting on what it means to die.

   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. When thoughts   
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight   
Over thy spirit, and sad images   
Of the stern 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—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice—

Here Bryant tells his reader to look at Nature, somewhat in the way that Boethius reflects on Fortune in Consolation of Philosophy. His point here is that nature gives us so much beauty and we experience the natural world as a place of comfort and consolation when we are young. We may be inclined, during our bounding youth, to forget that death is a part of nature. Everything that lives can die; this is in fact a central part of what makes something alive. Life is by its definition a force of change and flux, which can never be captured and kept still.

So Bryant suggests that when we realize that our better days have passed and we feel the end approaching, we should leave the indoors and go outside. We should be in nature. The “blight” upon our spirit to which he refers is natural. But it makes more sense when we see it in its context. And this is what is so lovely about nature. Trees, saplings, and fallen sticks may exist side by side. Predators and prey could cross our paths only moments apart. You might find a spry baby squirrel bounding along a branch, below which lies an aging stray dog. The vignettes of nature paint a scene of complete cycles for us.

Inside our homes, we do everything we can to avoid such mixed signals. We may have antiques and novelties in close proximity, but we avoid the sense of disorder that nature gives us. Our home décor creates an illusion of stability, as if the furniture and curtains of a room are frozen in time and meant to be there in perpetuity, just as they look now. When we replace one furniture set with another, we make the new set look as though it had no awkward youth, no troublesome adolescence–the couch, the lamp, the clock, and the china cabinet all leap fully formed, never born, and seeming never to die.

We should go out in the open air when we feel bitter about getting sick, getting old, or dying. We should remind ourselves that we’re not so different from all the other living things that have a limited time to be alive. And so Bryant continues:

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,   
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, 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. 

In this stanza Bryant does something that Ignatius Loyola had his readers do in the Spiritual Exercises of the early sixteenth century. Loyola wrote a series of prayer and meditation exercises, which would have the reader reflect on death. You spend one day thinking about dying, the next thinking about what the world will be like one month after you die, and the next day thinking about it a year later, and so on and so on until you must imagine what the world will be like 500 years after you die. Nobody knows your name. That’s the point of Loyola’s guidebook. To be spiritually mature, you must understand that everything we do will be forgotten. One day nobody will know our name.

Bryant puts a more winsome spin on the whole matter. He acknowledges that our forms will be lost forever after death because our bodies decompose. With this decay, our faces literally disappear never to be seen again. We become one with the soil and rejoin the elements, turning into “mould” pierced by the roots of oak trees. One can’t help but connect this stanza to Walt Whitman’s closing lines in Song of Myself, when he tells the readers to look for him under their bootsoles.

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.   The hills   
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales   
Stretching in pensive quietness between;   
The venerable woods—rivers that move   
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,   
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,   
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,   
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread   
The globe are but a handful to the tribes   
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings   
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   
The flight of years began, have laid them down   
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
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   
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
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—   
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,   
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.  

Here Bryant claims that as we walk in the open air, gazing at nature, we should stop thinking of death as something lonely. Our physical bodies will be like “ashes to ashes” and “dust to dust,” but this holds true because the entire world is a gigantic grave full of people who stopped living and decomposed into the elements. Young, old, kings, and commoners have all died and gone down into the earth. By dying we join them and become part of natural history, even if our names and faces are forgotten. It may pain us to think that people will carry on without us, as if we were not important enough to bring society to a halt on account of our passing. Yet we cannot forget that the same earth that swallows us after death will swallow all of them as well.

Bryant sees the grave as the great democracy, something that mattered quite a deal to him and his fellow Americans. It is in the grave that we all find equality, something Solomon explains eloquently in Ecclesiastes. At last Bryant completes his poem:

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.

All of us join the “innumerable caravan” of the dead sooner or later. Bryant warns us not to see death through the eyes of a “quarry-slave at night, scourged to his dungeon.” Eternity is not a prison. If we think of it that way, we will live like slaves, shackled by fear and dread. Such an attitude cheapens death and leaves our legacies even less impactful. In turn we have to know that after death, we will have left so little behind, we cling even more desperately to a life that we’re living incompletely, unfulfillingly, neither boldly nor lovingly.

Bryant’s poem looks pagan on the surface because there is no discussion of heaven and hell. I think it complements Christian scripture insofar as Bryant deals here with the eternity of our mortal flesh. Our soul is eternal, of course. But also we cannot forget the law of conservation of mass and energy. The atoms that make up our body will also exist in perpetuity, recombined with other elements in nature. Jesus warns us that whoever wants eternal life should be willing to give up life. This refers to the fate of our souls. Bryant’s poem does not necessarily negate that. He merely reflects on the point that the physical world will continue on without our form intact, but with the raw materials that made our body what it was. And Bryant’s recipe for a fulfilling life inside the physical cycles of nature resembles Jesus Christ’s instructions on finding eternal life for the soul. Look happily at death. Think of death as something comforting and beautiful.

Rather than look at death the way a quarry slave sees a dungeon, we should look at death like a snuggling blanket-wearer curling up to a night of pleasant dreams.

COVID-19 has traumatized America because we don’t have a strong tradition of reflecting on death anymore. I don’t often hear many church sermons telling Christians to think about dying and to feel serene and comforted by the fact that they will decompose and disappear one day. I have heard many sermons talk about heaven, and a few about hell (not many). The sermons I hear, however, don’t usually ask people to think about the experience of death with all its suffering, pain, and bitterness.

We can’t blame ourselves for not having developed the genre of death reflections. We live in an advanced society with the finest advances in medicine and don’t face the possibility of death from day to day. COVID-19 staggers us because it reopens the mystery of nature again. Can’t we take a pill? Can’t we go to see a doctor and have them fix it for us? Can’t we engage in some regimen that will keep us from ever falling ill with it?

Can it be that we might die of such a thing, with no way to stop it? Such a prospect would go entirely against everything we’ve come to know about the world in which we live.

Bryant’s poem returns to us now with renewed relevance. Nature is still the same force it has always been. All along uncontrollable causes of death have hidden along our paths. We just didn’t think about them that much. Now the whole world is focusing on one disease. We are back to where humanity was for almost all its history. Chances are high that we will catch a virus for which there is no known cure, no known vaccine, and not much reliable information.

My family is observing the quarantine. But I fear that the excessive quarantines may worsen the problem that underlies the present response to coronavirus. We fear being told the truth about death. It might be that for fear of the bug, we give up our whole reason for living. If you think of death as a dungeon you will live the life of a quarry-slave, as Bryant wrote. I don’t think the message of his poem is to kill ourselves, or to be reckless with our lives, or to be inconsiderate about putting other people at risk. I think his message is simply, know what death is, and proceed with that knowledge close at hand. If you don’t understand death you won’t know how to live.