Miss Lubbers is a member of First Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In the first article on this topic concerning the relation of the antithesis and literature we determined that God establishes an antithesis between the world and His people. We contended that God’s people must live the antithesis, and the child of God must be opposed to everything that opposes God.

We argued that we cannot assume a “touch not, taste not” approach and asserted, therefore, that in the study of literature one should not be governed by a “world-flight” attitude. The teaching of the Word of God does not permit this attitude. Therefore one should not avoid secular literature but should use with discretion and discernment such literature, because only in this way can one teach the antithesis and teach an understanding of the antithesis. The antithesis is more than a catchword or phrase used in speeches and articles. The antithesis is not only a term that describes and identifies a way of life or a basic worldview, but it comes to expression in all aspects of the Christian life. The antithesis describes, it defines and identifies, the battle in the life of a Christian—the battle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.

In this article we wish to demonstrate that a Reformed Christian teacher can and should use both secular and Christian literature to teach the antithesis—i.e., to teach a basic worldview. The teacher can encourage and challenge students to show the difference between truth and error and demonstrate their understanding of the antithesis—i.e., to argue from a scriptural worldview.

The American Literature class I was teaching thirty years ago studied and discussed the poetry of the nineteenth century American poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). It is appropriate, when one studies the writings of the American authors, to study the poetry of Bryant because his poetry is some of the best that was produced by the early American authors. Two of Bryant’s poems, “To a Waterfowl” and “Thana-topsis,” stand out and prove the contention that the poetry produced by Bryant is formally excellent and noteworthy.

“To a Waterfowl” begins with the fetching lines,

Whither, midst falling dew,

While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,

Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue

Thy solitary way?

The poem ends with the memorable stanza,

He who, from zone to zone,

Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight

In the long way that I must tread alone

Will lead my steps aright.

“Thanatopsis” begins with the lines,

To him who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language.

The poem ends with the stanza,

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan …

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.

William Cullen Bryant, often called the “father of American poetry,” gained a national audience with his poetic works and was the first American writer to produce a body of poetry that can be matched with the achievements of English poets. When Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis” was submitted to the North American Review, there were those who did not believe that anyone in America could write like this. One of the editors of the review protested to a fellow editor that “you have been imposed upon. No one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verse.” Matthew Arnold, the famous English poet and the most respected critic of his time, stated that Bryant’s poem “To a Waterfowl” was the “most perfect poem in the language.”

It is fitting that students in American literature classes should read and become familiar with the poetry of William Cullen Bryant, the son of a country doctor, and a pronounced representative of a group of writers in America identified as “Early Men of Letters.” Bryant began what is perhaps his best and most famous poem, “Thanatopsis,” when he was only seventeen. As a young man earning a slender living as a lawyer and book reviewer, Bryant roamed the countryside and became a delighted observer of external nature. He extolled the splendors of the breaking of the day in winter, the glories of the autumnal woods, and the return of spring with its flowers.

“Thanatopsis,” a meditation on death, is similar to all of Bryant’s poems in that it is also a paean of praise to nature. The opening lines of the poem confirm what became obvious to my literature class, that Bryant, who in one of his poems speaks adoringly of “Nature with its everlasting smile,” was a perceptive student of nature and also a lover of nature to the point of deifying it. This adoration of nature becomes evident in the opening lines of “Thanatopsis.”

To him who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language.

A bit later he writes,

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.

The poem asserts that communion with nature has a purpose. Nature and thoughts of nature may serve as a soothing balm when the thoughts of the “last bitter hour come like a blight over the spirit” and when the “sad images of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall … make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart.”

The message of the poem concerning the power of nature provides the Christian teacher with an opportunity to evaluate and condemn the idolatrous lie of pantheism—i.e., the doctrine that God is everything and everything is God. The doctrine of the pantheist that equates God with nature and the forces of nature declares God to be creping and four-footed beasts. Because men deny the instruction of the Word of God, they adopt pagan pantheism. Such pagan pantheism is natural to man, since all men by nature serve the creature rather than the Creator God (cf. Rom. 1:25).

The Christian teacher can demonstrate that the deification of nature is a denial of the teaching of Scripture that nature and the creation are not God, but that only the eternal Jehovah is God. The Christian teacher can show that because of man’s sin the curse of God rests upon all creation, and that the whole creation groans to be delivered (cf. Rom. 8). The teacher can remind students concerning the instruction of Romans 1 that states that all things are clearly understood by the wicked but that they suppress the truth. They do not merely deny the truth but they suppress it; they hold it down in unrighteousness. They change the truth of God into a lie. The judgment of God is that they become fools because of the suppression of the truth.

Since “Thanatopsis” is a meditation on death, the poem ends with the following admonitory lines:

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.

The poem leaves no doubt that all men live in the fear of death. However, it asserts that no one needs to fear death if death is approached with the appropriate attitude—an attitude that death can provide a state of peace. The poem asserts that one can and should approach the grave as if he lies down to pleasant dreams.

The poem describes death as a state that is common to all men everywhere. The poet speaks of the commonality of death by asserting that “we do not retire to our eternal resting place alone, but with the patriarchs of the infant world and with kings, and with the powerful of the earth.”

The poem describes the fearsome thoughts of death, but the poem does not call death the last enemy—the enemy that shall be destroyed finally only through the powerful work of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 15:26).

The Christian knows and confesses that the souls of all men, both reprobate and elect, according to their nature, do not approach the grave as those who will lie down to pleasant dreams. All men know that death is the last enemy spoken of in I Corinthians 15. Death is referred to as the Grim Reaper. InEcclesiastes 8:8 Solomon says that everyone, kings and courtiers alike, is in a war with death. No one can keep the spirit contained in the body; no one is able to obtain a discharge from that ensuing battle. All will lose it.

For the reprobate wicked there is great trepidation and terror when they ponder death, because they know there is no continuing life for their souls. Although the poem calls men to think of death as a sleep with pleasant dreams, reprobate unbelievers cannot believe that they will lie down to pleasant dreams. The souls of unbelievers are spiritually depraved and dead during their life on earth, and when they die physically, their souls die immediately and eternally in the torments of hell. There is an everlasting existence for the unbelieving soul, but for the soul of the unbeliever the existence is not life eternal or immortality but it is everlasting death and dying.

Nor does the soul of the believer leave its habitation and connection with the body and fly away to heaven at the moment of death as if released now from the prison of an evil body. David Engelsma writes in Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism (The Reformed Witness, Redlands, California, 2001) that

the soul of the believer strains to maintain its mysteriously close connection with the body right up to the instant of death. God created man a unity of soul and body. The violent wrenching apart of man is the aspect of death from which we all shrink…. No one likes death. “Sweet death” is a lie. To the soul of the Christian, the body is not a miserable prison to be escaped, but a dear, familiar house to be clung to. No, souls of saints do not naturally and easily fly away.

The discussion and study of the poem by the class caused the class to come to a decision that, among other things, the concluding lines of the poem left unanswered questions. Questions arose concerning the source of the “unfaltering trust” that would make one lie down in peace. How could Bryant assume that all men everywhere could approach death with a confidence that all is well? These sixteen-year old students were challenged to write their evaluation and compare the message of “Thanatopsis,” composed by the nineteen-year old William Cullen Bryant, with Psalm 16 andPsalm 49. Two students who are now parents and have seen their sons and daughters pass through the Protestant Reformed Christian schools wrote the following brief evaluations of the poem.

William Cullen Bryant in his poem “Thanatopsis” speaks about his fear of death and the comfort he found in the hold of “Nature.” That comfort was the thought that he would share his destiny with all men in that one great sepulcher of “Nature,” the earth. After reading

Psalm 49

I realize that the peace after death that Bryant sought was not eternal life as this is taught in the Bible. The Bible teaches that man by nature does not understand and is like the beasts that perish. If Bryant’s poem had expressed the confidence in the sure salvation of his body and soul through Christ, it would have expressed true peace.

“But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me”

Ps. 49:15

is a great comfort to God’s children. In “Thanatopsis” Bryant gives no comfort. It is imaginary. He believes that every man dies since it is natural to die, but he describes it as a passage into the “silent halls of death.” As God’s children we say with David in the Psalms “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil,” because we believe God is with us. Bryant says, “To mix forever with the elements.” This contradicts

Psalm 16:10:

“For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (the grave).” Bryant’s attitude is wrong. We see the grave as a passage from death unto life while he sees it as a passage from life unto death—a death he calls “eternal sleep.”

Youthful Reformed Christians are called by Christ to be the salt of the earth. Therefore teachers must seize opportunities in the teaching of literature to assist students in their attempts to understand and to evaluate with discernment. The young Christian must be given the opportunity to demonstrate that he understands the antithesis.The teachers of youthful Christians must not commit the sin of the lawyers who did not use the key of knowledge and for this were condemned by Jesus (Luke 11:52). “Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” In Luke 17:2 Jesus emphatically states that “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”