William Cullen Bryant wrote his most famous poem, Thanatopsis, a meditation on death, at his tranquil homestead in Cummington, Massachusetts.
William Cullen Bryant’s poetry was inspired by the peaceful, bucolic countryside overlooking the Westfield River Valley in Cummington, Massachusetts. He was considered a prodigy when, at the age of ten, he published his first poem. He began his most acclaimed work, Thanatopsis, a poem about death, when he was 17 and he continued to expand and embellish the poem throughout his life.
William Cullen Bryant
A prominent journalist, William Cullen Bryant was editor of the New York Evening Post for fifty years until his death. He was also a lawyer, philanthropist, and was politically active as an abolitionist, a supporter of the rights of workers, and an environmentalist before the term even existed.
The Bryant Homestead was a two-story farmhouse that Bryant expanded into a three-story Victorian cottage. He also expanded a barn and orchards on the land, which – to Bryant – represented the picturesque beauty of rural America. Bryant traveled extensively in the United States and went abroad numerous times. His house features both Colonial and Victorian articles as well as exotic items from his travels.
The 195 acres of land surrounding the house include woodlands, pastures, and streams. Open to visitors year-round, The William Cullen Bryant Homestead offers:
- Guided tours of the house and farm scheduled on various dates throughout the year.
- A self-guided tour of the “Rivulet Trail,” leading to the stream which inspired Bryant’s poem Rivulet, published in 1823.
- Two and a half miles of trails, including footpaths and carriage roads.
- A maple sugar bush that has been tapped for over 200 years.
- The “Pine Loop,” with pines among the tallest found in New England, some growing 150 feet high.
- A gift shop and visitor’s center, open seasonally.
Thanatopsis, a Poem about Death
For the literary tourist, the most interesting thing about the Homestead is that it was in this idyllic retreat that William Cullen Bryant wrote Thanatopsis. A poetic treatise on death, Thanatopsis was published in 1817 in The New York Review. Thanos is the Greek term for “death personified.”
Bryant’s poem identifies death as the common fate shared by all of humanity, which ties us together so that no one can ever die alone.
“All that breathe/ will share thy destiny…” (60-61)
The natural beauty of the quiet aerie where Bryant wrote the poem influenced his view of death as oneness with all living things and all of nature. In spite of his conservative religious upbringing, he describes the passage to death as joining in nature’s eternal cycle,
“to mix forever with the elements” (26).
He often compares death with “sleep” (57), alluding to it as “slumber” (59) “rest” (58) “bed” (66) and “couch” (59). The closing words of the poem are “… pleasant dreams.” (81)
On June 13, 1878, an article in the New York Times served as the obituary for William Cullen Bryant. It was named “Thanatopsis Realized” because Bryant died peacefully in his sleep, several days after suffering a fall.
The article also noted that Bryant was blessed to die in June. The Times noted that in his poem June, which praises the natural wonder and beauty of the month of June, Bryant expressed a petition to die in June, and not in the cold and darkness of winter.
The William Cullen Bryant Homestead: A Literary Travel Destination
The William Cullen Bryant Homestead is an excellent literary travel destination and is not far from the home of Emily Dickinson. Almost 50 years ago, as a child, I enjoyed chamber music on the lawn followed by a tour of the house. Today the Homestead offers even more for the literary traveler who is visiting New England.
“Thanatopsis Realized,” The New York Times, June 13, 1878, © The New York Times.
Thanatopsis excerpts from Yale Book of American Verse. Ed. Thomas R. Lounsbury. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1912. © 2002 Poetry-Archive.com.