I’m not an expert at reading poetry, and like many of you, I find some poems impossible to understand. But there are techniques for reading a poem.
First, you can use Google to get a basic idea of what the poem’s about.
Second, don’t stop at the end of each line. That makes the poem very choppy. Instead, read according to the punctuation. If you get to the end of a line and there is no punctuation, keep going, without a break.
Third, read more slowly than you normally read. It’s not a race.
Finally, use Google to get definitions of words you don’t know.
I love the poem Thanatopsis, by William Cullen Bryant. It was written in the early 19th century when the poet was 17. I looked on Google for a brief overview of what the poem’s about and found this in “enotes.com.”
““Thanatopsis” means “views on” or “vision of” death in Greek, which alludes to the poem’s content. The poet begins by describing nature, specifically saying that those who enjoy nature will appreciate its diversity. Nature, too, can be a balm or source of sympathy for those who are depressed at the prospect of death.
The speaker encourages his audience not to fear death, as he will be restored to the earth from which he sprung. He will be surrounded by rocks and soil. Essentially, the poet encourages the speaker not to fear death, as death returns us to nature, which we know (from our experience living) to be lovely and variegated.
Furthermore, the speaker reminds us that no one dies alone; we will be accompanied by every living person who has gone before us. After all, the number of people who are dead are much greater than even all of those on earth.
The speaker reinforces that, by returning to earth, the dead become part of the soil and therefore part of the living wilderness. Even if one dies alone, he will share in the fate of everyone who passed before him when he becomes part of the earth again.
The speaker encourages the audience to continue to live his life to the fullest, enjoying the things that make him happy; however, he should not be surprised when death (whose arrival is impossible to predict) should come for him. The speaker enjoins his audience not to face death with reluctance (as a slave going to a quarry), but rather to shore up his trust in death and face it with the peace of mind of one lying down to rest. The metaphor of death as sleep is a common one, and the poet uses this to remind us that we should not fear death but embrace welcome it as a natural process.“
If you’re brave, here is the poem. It will only take a few minutes to read.
By William Cullen Bryant
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—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.
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.
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.