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Zoe Glass

Smith

American Literature

5 December 2019

Death is a subject often explored by poets. However, since so little is known about it,

death is viewed in many different ways. The best examples of this are the works “The Raven” by

Edgar Allan Poe and “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. Both authors wrote during the

Romantic period of literature, yet their thinking was practically opposite: Bryant favored logic,

while Poe thought with his emotions. On the subject of death, both acknowledge and accept its

inevitability and deny the existence of an afterlife. However, Poe is grieved by losses he views as

permanent, while Bryant chooses to live a fulfilling life free from the anxieties anticipation

brings.

Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” is about a naturalistic view of death. In short, the poem states that

death is an unchangeable part of nature, and that one should embrace it when it comes. In this

poem, Bryant rejects “Puritan dogma for Deism” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 1).

To provide context, Puritans often dwelled on death and the afterlife, devoting their lives to

fulfilling God’s law in order to have eternal life in heaven (Stannard 1305). Deists, on the other

hand, believed that one should focus on their present lives rather than the uncertain afterlife.

(Johnson 1). “Thanatopsis” encompasses this view, telling its readers to “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.” The message of this stanza is to accept death and stop trying to fight or delay
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it. According to Bryant, a man should be at peace when the end of his life comes, and welcome it

as if “[lying] down to pleasant dreams.” In summary, “Thanatopsis” states that death is an

inevitable part of life that must be accepted, rather than dreaded, and that the best course of

action is to live life in the present.

Poe’s “The Raven” presents a very different perspective of death from “Thanatopsis.” At

the start of the poem, the speaker is attempting to distract himself from the death of his love by

reading when he hears a knock at his window, which turns out to be a raven. He believes the

raven to be sent from either heaven or hell, and decides to ask it if his love is in paradise, and if

he may see her one day. The raven says “nevermore” -- in other words, “no” -- causing the

speaker to fall into crippling grief. Poe’s chosen “mode of evasion from the universe of common

experience was through eerie thoughts, impulses, or fears.” These three things fueled “The

Raven” and other “tales of death…”. (Cestre 1). In other words, Poe often chose to avoid the

normal man’s world by writing poems and stories about his fears, the chiefest among them being

death. Unlike other works of his, however, “The Raven” shows more than a primitive fear of

death. Though the speaker does seem to accept that death is inevitable, he doesn’t take any

comfort in this. He describes himself as a “soul with sorrow laden”, asking the raven “if, within

the distant Aidenn, / It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore,” to which the

raven replies “Nevermore.” (Poe 3). The raven, which symbolizes wisdom (as shown by its

perch on a bust of the wisdom goddess Pallas), tells the speaker that Aidenn, or heaven (Moliken

214), doesn’t exist, and that he will never see her again. This illustrates Poe’s belief that death is

the end of life. From there, the poem switches from describing the past to the present in the lines

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting … And the lamp-light o’er him

streaming throws his shadow on the floor; / And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating
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on the floor / Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (Poe 4). The raven’s shadow symbolizes grief, from

which the speaker will never recover. In summary, “The Raven” illustrates Poe’s view of death

as the end of both the body and soul. This belief saddens him, and he shows this emotion by

presenting a man crippled by the loss of his love.

Both Poe’s “The Raven” and Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” present two similar approaches to

death which garner two different emotional responses. Both authors believe death is inevitable

and deny the existence of an afterlife. According to Bryant, this means that we have no choice

but to accept death when it comes. Poe, on the other hand, believes that death’s inevitability is Commented [1]: I feel the need to say that this is not
the other hand. If Bryant is a hand, then Poe is a sock
that has been lost in the laundry.
the cause of the deepest sorrow a human can feel. These views show a classic struggle of logic

and emotion. Though Bryant is grouped into the Romantic writers, “Thanatopsis” shows a

Rationalist belief in the form of a poem. Rationalists believed that logic was man’s greatest asset

and applied it to everything, including religious and abstract things such as death. Bryant knows

that death will come, so he chooses to embrace it when it does -- the logical thing to do, since

sadness and fear will cloud his judgement and prevent him from living his life to the fullest. Poe,

on the other hand, is a textbook example of a Romantic writer. Romantic writers preferred

emotions to logic, and expressing them through writing. Poe feels depressed by death, regardless

of whether or not he should, and he chooses to write about it. In conclusion, Poe and Bryant

present opposing views of death in their poems. Bryant looks at it logically and accepts its

existence without any fear or grief, while Poe feels grieved by it and accepts that he can’t change

that.
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Works Cited

Bryant, William Cullen. “Thanatopsis .” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2019,

www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50465/thanatopsis

Cestre, Charles, et al. “Edgar Allan Poe.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia

Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Edgar-Allan-Poe


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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “William Cullen Bryant.” Encyclopædia

Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 Oct. 2019,

www.britannica.com/biography/William-Cullen-Bryant

Johnson, Bob. “Lesson Sixteen: Deism and Death.” Deism.com, 0AD.

http://www.deism.com/images/DeistLESSONSIXTEEN.pdf

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Best of Poe. Edited by Paul Moliken, Prestwick House, 2006.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” The Best of Poe, edited by Paul Moliken, Prestwick

House Literary Touchstone Classics, 2006, pp. 189–192.

Stannard, David E. “Death and Dying in Puritan England.” The American Historical

Review, vol. 78, 1973, pp. 1305–1330., doi:10.2307/1854094.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/1854094?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents