"Thanatopsis"

February 23, 2018

 

One of the classic poems we learned in high school English Literature class is one by the great American poet, William Cullen Bryant, published in 1817.

 

As the title sums it up, it is a poem about a view of death (Thanatos – death, opsis – view).* As such, it is good material to meditate on this Lent.

 

The last stanza of the poem gives a picture of what one must undergo when that fateful time comes: that is, to join other people moving to a mysterious place  where each one has a chamber reserved for him. There is an admonition that one must live his life in such a way that he can approach his grave like one who is just going to sleep at night and having good dreams. 

 

“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.”

 

Despite the poetic beauty of the imagery of death in the poem, it does not  adequately conform to the Christian idea of what death actually is as it omits most importantly what happens after it.

 

While the poem suggests we must not fear death, what is lacking is a reference to what/who man really is, that is, a being that has a soul that will go back to its Creator with Whom to be united after living a good and pleasing life. Although our Faith reminds us every Ash Wednesday that we are dust and to dust we shall return, the poem looks at the end of man as simply  a going back to dust and being united with earth and nature like other people who have died as in a huge tomb, as described elsewhere in the poem.

 

The poem is a springboard for us believers in Christ to contemplate once again this Lent, the true meaning of our life and death. It is not like the view in the poem of meeting it just with resignation, but with the joyful hope of sharing in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His glory without end.#

 

* For a summary and analysis of the whole poem, click here.

 

 

 

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