The first line of this poem is confusing all by itself, so read through it to the middle of the third line – that’s where the first idea ends (at the semicolon after "language"). Now let’s go back to line 1.
Here the speaker is introducing us to a certain kind of guy who loves nature.
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
This guy has an almost holy relationship with nature. He "holds communion" (like you would do in a church) with things like rocks and trees and rivers (those are examples of "visible forms" of nature). In these moments of communion nature actually "speaks" to this guy.
Nature is the "she" mentioned at the end of the line. That’s an example of personification, a pretty common poetic trick.
(We’ll go along with Bryant and use the capital letter "N" for Nature, because in this case she’s more like a person than a thing).
A various language; for his gayer hours She has a voice of gladness, and a smile And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Nature talks to her lover in different ways, depending on the way he’s feeling. When he is feeling happy (in "his gayer hours") Nature smiles, and speaks to him happily ("with a voice of gladness"). In these moments, she has the "eloquence" (smooth and lovely speech) "of beauty" (line 5).
Into his darker musings, with a mild And healing sympathy, that steals away Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Sometimes the nature lover is feeling mopey and is brooding over depressing thoughts. Then Nature "glides" in and makes him feel better.
In these moments, Nature treats him with gentle sympathy, which heals him. She takes away the pain ("sharpness") of his thoughts before he even realizes it. Basically, when this guy’s feeling lousy, Nature fixes him up. She might even bake him some chocolate-chip cookies.
Still, this guy isn’t just having any old depressing thoughts. He’s really worried about death ("the last bitter hour").
These thoughts about death come like a plague or disease (a "blight") on his spirit. (By the way, "blight" is a pretty good word. It's often used when referring to diseases plants get. Check outthese pictures of potato blight for an example. Can you imagine this guy's spirit getting potato blight? Nasty.)
Did you see what happened there? The speaker of the poem isn’t just talking about a random lover of nature now (the "him" from line 1). All of a sudden, he’s talking about you. Here, for the first time, in line 10, he talks about "thy" (your) spirit. The poem has switched from musing about nature to giving you advice.
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
We're pretty sure everyone has thought about what it will be like to die. You have, haven't you? Here the speaker gives us some strong images of those scary thoughts.
He talks about the "stern agony" of dying, which we think is a great phrase. Death doesn’t just hurt, it hurts in a sharp, severe, serious way. We think of mean substitute teachers and hall monitors as being "stern," but usually those guys don't cause agony. Death does, though.
The speaker also uses a couple of useful, death-related words, so we’ll break those down for you.
A "shroud" is the cloth you use to wrap up a dead body.
"Pall" is another good, spooky death word. It can mean a cloth that covers a coffin, or it can mean the coffin itself (like when people talk about "pallbearers" at a funeral).
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Here we get some more death imagery, only this time even scarier.
The speaker helps us imagine the "breathless darkness" of the grave and the "narrow house" of the coffin. These lines are really claustrophobic, aren’t they? They make us feel like we’re trapped in some suffocating prison. We're feeling a bit panicky now.
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
The speaker is definitely building a mood here. He wants us to think about those moments where we worry so much about death that we "shudder" and "grow sick at heart."
Soak up this scary feeling, because he’s about to change things up on us.
Suddenly, we’re set free. The speaker tells us to go outside, "under the open sky." That’s a big relief, given that just two lines ago, we were trapped in a grave underground (line 12).
Suddenly we’re back with "Nature" and we’re being told to "list" (a fancy poetic way of saying listen) to her "teachings." Those teachings are all around us in the great outdoors.
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air— Comes a still voice— Yet a few days, and thee
The "voice" of Nature comes from the "Earth," the "waters," and the "air."
It’s really important that the poem calls Nature's voice a "still" voice. That means, calm and quiet, and it gives this line a feeling of peace and comfort. Things are going to be OK.
Or maybe not. What's up with the "Yet a few days" bit? Well, at the end of line 16, there’s another shift. Apparently something is going to happen in a few days, and we're guessing it's going to have something to do with death...
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
Bad news! Apparently we’re going to die in a few days.
The speaker tries to make it sound pretty, but really he's telling us we're going to die soon. Even the sun, which sees everything ("all-beholding") won’t be able to see us any more. We’re just going to vanish.
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
Now we go on a little tour, as the speaker tells us all the places we won’t be after we die.
We won’t be on land, where the sun runs "all his course" (that’s the path the sun follows over a day).
We also won’t be in the "cold ground," where our crying relatives bury our corpse during our funeral.
We won’t be in the "embrace of the ocean" either.
So wait. Where will we be? We've talked about a land burial and a sea burial. What' next? Cremation?
This poem’s kind of a bummer right now, but there’s good news coming, we promise.
Lines 22-30 Summary
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
Phew. No cremation.
So where does our "image" go when we die, if it isn’t sinking in the sea or being buried in the ground? Well, it goes back to the Earth.
It was "nourishment" from the Earth that allowed our body to grow, and now our body will be turned ("resolved") back into earth again. This is like that old expression you may have heard – "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up Thine individual being, shalt thou go
When we die, according to this poem’s version of things, we lose what made us human ("each human trace"). We give up our "individual being."
Basically, after you die, you stop being the person you used to be.
Our speaker is really in love with this image of returning to the Earth, so now he just riffs on it a little.
He tells us our bodies will "mix […] with the elements." We’ll basically be no different from an "insensible rock." Insensible just means "unable to feel." So, all the touch and sight and hearing and emotion that made us human will be gone, leaving us no different from rocks.
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Just to make sure we got the point, the poem drives it in again, this time with some fancy vocab words.
Now the speaker tells us we’ll be like a "sluggish clod" after we’re dead. A "clod" is a chunk of dirt, and "sluggish" lets us know how lifeless and heavy we’ll be.
The speaker really works this image of our bodies turning into dirt. Here he talks about how a country boy (aka a "swain" – a pretty popular dude in old nature poems) digs up that clod of dirt with his plow ("share") and walks ("treads") all over it. That’s just how low you’ll be after you’re dead. Even the swains get to step on you. Bummer.
Are you feeling comforted yet? Um, we're guessing no. Hey, Mr. Speaker, you're going to have to try a bit harder.
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
Our dead bodies will be food for oak trees, as they send their roots out through the earth. Those roots will pierce the "mould" (soil) of our bodies.
We think that last image is really vivid – a little bit violent, but also sort of beautiful. Bodies mixing with trees? OK, it could be worse.
Lines 31-37 Summary
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
This is a big turn in the poem. Up until now, we’ve only been talking about the sad and scary aspects of dying. Is the idea of your body turning into oak tree Miracle-Gro comforting? Sure it's better than that claustrophobic coffin, but it's still not great.
Now we get a big "Yet." Even though there’s some bad news about going to our "eternal resting place," the speaker wants us to know that we won’t go there ("retire") all by ourselves.
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
In fact, the speaker tells us we’re headed for a "magnificent" and comfy resting place, like a "couch." That sounds pretty good, right? Way better than the "narrow house" we were worrying about in line 12.
We’re making a big swing here, from creepy to comforting.
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,
The speaker tells us that when we die, we’ll "lie down" with all kinds of fancy and important people.
There will be "patriarchs" (that means fathers, heads of families, or male leaders) from long ago when the Earth was young ("the infant world"). This also makes us think of the Biblical patriarchs, like Abraham.
There will also be kings and others who are "powerful," "wise" and "good."
In this final resting place, there will be beautiful people ("fair forms"). There will also be old ("hoary") prophets ("seers").
Maybe it’s hard to see where this is headed, but he’s building to a point, we promise.
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
All of these important people from lines 34-36 will lie down with you in one giant tomb ("sepulcher"). That giant tomb, of course, is the Earth.
That’s what this whole section of the poem is about, the idea that when we die we all lie down together in one big grave. What’s cool is how Bryant can make that sound like a good thing. You're feeling a bit special now, aren't you?
Lines 38-45 Summary
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Now the speaker starts a description of the whole earth, of the geography of our globe. Remember, "Thanatopsis" started out as a nature poem, and now we’re headed back to those themes.
He begins by talking about the hills. He refers to them as "rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun." We sort of love that image – it makes the hills sound like giant, old sleeping animals.
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
Next he describes the quiet, thoughtful ("pensive") valleys that stretch out between the hills. Again, the idea that a valley could be thoughtful makes this whole imaginary landscape feel kind of alive.
The venerable woods—rivers that move In majesty, and the complaining brooks
Just a few more stops on this tour of the world’s landscape:
We take a quick peek at the "venerable" (that means something old and deserving of respect) forests. We picture these woods as being like Fangorn in Lord of the Rings – ancient, and full of wise Ents.
We also see the majestic rivers, and their little cousins, "the complaining brooks." (A brook is a little stream, and the speaker calls them complaining to create an image of the constant, burbling sound they make.)
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all, Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
After that, the speaker takes us to some pretty meadows, which the brooks have watered and turned green.
Finally, we arrive at the "gray and melancholy waste" of the "Old Ocean," which surrounds everything else.
A couple things to notice about that last image. First, Bryant spends a lot of times telling us how old (or "ancient" or "hoary" or "venerable") everything in the world is. We think that adds to the peaceful, serious tone of this poem. Second, we’re back to some grim imagery – does "melancholy waste" sound nice to you? – an echo of the sad moments in the first stanza.
Are but the solemn decorations all Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
All of these places in Nature – hills, valleys, forests, streams, the ocean – are compared to "decorations" on a "tomb." Every last hill and valley and river is just a way to spruce up the giant grave that all humans will share.
Like a lot of moments in this poem, it’s not super-happy. Still, there is a kind of quiet beauty to the idea of "solemn decorations."
Lines 46-50 Summary
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Suddenly we zoom up to the sky, and out to the sun and the planets. This is one of the cool tricks Bryant uses. Even though this is generally a sad, quiet poem, it’s also full of activity and energy and life.
Notice that the speaker also mentions the "infinite host of heaven." This could just be a reference to all the things that are in the sky (stars, planets, moons, etc).
It could also be a little religious hint. The Bible (Luke 2:13) talks about a "heavenly host," meaning an army of angels.
Are shining on the sad abodes of death, Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
All those beautiful things in the sky – whether they're planets or angels – are looking down on the unhappy little homes ("abodes") of death.
Man, everything, even the sun, reminds our speaker that death is unavoidable. The sun keeps shining and people keep dying forever and ever. This process keeps going "through the still lapse of the ages."
Do you feel that sense of calm again? Things are always quiet and "still," and the passage ("lapse") of time continues no matter what we do.
The globe are but a handful to the tribes That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
Here we keep digging into the "earth as a big tomb" metaphor.
The speaker says that all the people who are now alive are just a "handful" compared to the dead people buried in the ground. Actually, we got curious about this idea, and it turns out to be true. You can read about it here.
Lines 51-57 Summary
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
All right, buckle your seatbelts, because we’re about to go off on another crazy poetic journey.
The speaker first imagines us flying off to the deserts of North Africa ("the Barcan wilderness"). He’s having some fun with his ability to transport us suddenly to far away lands, and to call up images of strange, exotic landscapes. It's sort of like BBC's Planet Earth documentary series.
In Bryant’s day, people didn't associate the West Coast with cities like LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. It was still a serious wilderness of endless trees ("continuous woods"). In its way, the American West in the early 19th century was as untamed as the African desert.
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound, Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
The speaker puts us on the shores of "the Oregon," which is an old name for the mighty Columbia River. He asks us to imagine that the wilderness around is so silent that there’s no sound except the noise of the river ("his own dashings").
Now the payoff for this little trip: even in the western woods, so far away from civilization, there are still dead people in the ground. That’s the one reality you can’t escape: death.
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.
In fact, there aren’t just a few dead people in these wild, far-away places ("solitudes"). Since the beginning of time, "millions" of people have gone underground for the big sleep. Even in places that seem completely empty of people, the dead rule there alone.
Basically, dead people are here, dead people are there, dead people are everywhere.
Lines 58-66 Summary
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw In silence from the living, and no friend
The whole point of this poem is that this is going to happen to you. You’re going to "rest" like all those other people.
It’s a little scary, huh? Maybe you’re worried that, when you "withdraw," none of your friends will notice your "departure."
This poem isn’t trying to freak you out. The speaker doesn’t want you to feel terrible or worry about your death. He wants you to think about it in a calm, relaxed way, to see how it fits in with the natural order of the world.
Everyone alive ("all that breathe") is going to die. All human beings are headed for the same place. In a way, it’s obvious, but this poem forces us to think about it really carefully.
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
After we are gone, life will go on. Happy people ("the gay" in line 61) will keep on laughing. Unhappy people ("the solemn brood") will continue to trudge on, weighed down by their worry ("care").
All these people – the happy and the unhappy – will continue to go about their business, even if, in the end, that business doesn’t amount to anything more than chasing "phantoms." To quote rock legends Kansas: "Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind." Don’t you forget it.
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Eventually, all of those people you left behind when you died are coming to "make their bed" next to you.
We’re taking the long view in this poem. Instead of getting caught up in your private worries, think about how we all end up in the same place.
Lines 67-72 Summary
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
We’re pretty sure you’ve got the idea by now, but the speaker is headed for his big conclusion, so we’re not about to stop him. We’re going to get one last survey of the history of humanity ("the long train / of ages"). As that history "glides away," all the "sons of men" pass away too.
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—
Once more: everyone dies. Young people, in the "green spring" of life, will eventually die.
People in the prime ("full strength") of life will die too.
The old woman ("matron") will die, but so will the young woman ("maid").
The same goes for babies who are too young to talk and old men with grey hair.
Death is the great equalizer. Doesn’t matter who or when or what you are – you will die.
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side, By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
All the people listed in lines 68-70 are going to come and lie down next to you in the earth. They will be laid in the grave by people who will then eventually die themselves. It’s an endless chain, all of us following each other into the grave, whether we like it or not.
Lines 73-81 Summary
So live, that when thy summons comes to join The innumerable caravan, which moves
If that was the end of the poem, it would be pretty depressing. Now, though, all of a sudden, Bryant switches the mood up a little.
The speaker says: "So live." Enjoy the time you have. Sooner or later you will hear the call ("the summons") of death. You will join the endless train of people leaving this life. We’re still talking about death, but there’s some hope, a reminder of the importance of life.
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,
We’re all headed for what our speaker calls "that mysterious realm," what Shakespeare called "that undiscovered country." We’re all going to get a room ("chamber") in the quiet "halls of death."
Still, we shouldn’t go as if we were being forced, like slaves in darkness.
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Instead of acting like we are being whipped ("scourged") into some underground prison, we should trust that what is happening to us is good. We should be comforted and soothed by our belief in the comfort and rightness of death.
Notice that he doesn’t say exactly what we should be trusting in. This is important. There’s no clear religious message here, just some general comfort.
We end the poem with an image that we think is actually really beautiful. After all that grim contemplation of death, the speaker closes things on a soothing, comforting note. He says that we should get ready to die like someone wrapping a blanket ("drapery") around him and getting ready for a happy, dream-filled sleep. Kind of nice, huh?