‘To a Waterfowl’ was published in North American Review in March of 1818. It appeared a few years later in his collection Poems in 1821. According to The American Spirit in Literature: A Chronicle of Great Interpreters, the inspiration for this poem came when Bryant was 21 and walking from Cummington to Plainfield whole looking for a place to work as a lawyer. He saw a duck flying solitarily across the skyline and he wrote the poem later than the same day.
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Summary of To a Waterfowl
In the first lines of ‘To a Waterfowl,’ the speaker addresses the waterfowl and asks it where it is going and why. He warns the creature that traveling alone is dangerous (just as Bryant was traveling alone at the time). But, he soon states, the duck isn’t alone. He’s accompanied by a higher power, God. Once gone, the speaker spends time thinking about the power of God and how he is guiding him in his own life. As the poem concludes, the speaker says that he thinks God led the waterfowl there as a reminder of God’s presence in his own life. He sought to give the speaker strength through this sign.
In ‘To a Waterfowl,’ William Cullen Bryant engages with themes of solitude, religion, and one’s purpose in life. The speaker spends the poem celebrating the strength and determination that the waterfowl shows in the sky. It flies on, despite its solitude and the nature of the cold night. It’s headed towards some unknown destination, but the speaker chooses to believe that it’s a place of warmth and friendly community. Through allusions and symbols, it becomes clear that this place is heaven. God is guiding the bird there, and the speaker determines that he has to trust that God is guiding him there as well. Now, he says, he’s going to take the lesson the bird taught him to his own life and live with it in mind.
Structure and Form
‘To a Waterfowl’ by William Cullen Bryant is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Bryant also chose to use iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter in ‘To a Waterfowl.’ These are common metrical patterns that are concerned with the number of stresses in each line. The first, iambic pentameter, refers to the longer lines, those that contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. Iambic trimeter uses the same arrangement of stresses, except for these lines only have three sets of two beats for a total of six syllables rather than ten.
Bryan makes use of several literary devices in ‘To a Waterfowl.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, personification, apostrophe, and anaphora. The latter is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, the use of “soon” at the beginning of lines twenty-one, twenty-two, and twenty-four.
An apostrophe is an address to something or someone that can’t hear and/or respond to the speaker. In this case, the poet addresses the waterfowl as though it could respond to him. Alliteration is another type of repetition. It occurs when the poet repeats a consonant sound. For example, “While” and “Whither” at the start of lines one and two of the first stanza as well as “distant,” “do,” and “darkly” in lines two and three of the second stanza.
Metaphors are comparisons between two things that don’t use “like” or “as.” For example, these lines in stanza seven: “on my heart / Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given.” There is another example in the second line of the poem with the phrase: “While glowing the heavens with the last steps of the day.” Readers might also take note of the use of personification in ‘To a Waterfowl.’ This occurs when the poet gives something non-human human features. In this case, the poet personifies the fowl, suggesting that it taught a lesson and speaking to it as a “fellow.”
Analysis of To a Waterfowl
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?
In the first stanza of ‘To a Waterfowl,’ Bryant begins by asking a question. He’s directing his words, at this point, to an unknown listener. It’s quickly made clear that he’s talking to a waterfowl, or a duck/heron/loon, etc., that’s flying overhead. This is an example of a technique known as an apostrophe. He’s asking the waterfowl where it’s going on this evening when the sun is setting (“last steps of the day).
The phrase “solitary way” is an interesting example of an allusion, in this case to Milton’s Paradise Lost. One of the best-known lines from this epic uses the phrase to describe Adam and Eve walking “hand in hand…Through Eden” on their “solitary way.” This is from the moments the two are departing Eden, one of the pivotal moments of the story. The speaker is implying that this moment for the waterfowl is just as important and sorrowful as that from Paradise Lost.
Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight, to do thee wrong,
As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.
In the following four lines, the speaker describes what it’s like to look p at the bird through the perceptive of a “fowler” or someone who would seek out the bird to hunt it. This person might “mark thy distant flight” and “do thee wrong.” The fowler might see the bird, but he isn’t going to be able to shoot it. It’s too obscured and too high. This certainly isn’t the speaker’s intention. He’s enjoying seeing the bird flying overhead, and as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that he sees it as a symbol for his own path through life.
The use of the word “crimson” in this line suggests that the sky is changing colors somewhat. It’s getting darker and more intense as the sun sets.
Seek’st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chaféd ocean side?
In the third stanza of ‘To a Waterfowl,’ the speaker asks the bird through another four-line question if he’s seeking the “plashy brink” or the edge of a river near the “chaféd ocean side.” These are the possible locations the bird might be headed to, but the speaker isn’t sure. This plays into the fact that the speaker calls the bird a “waterfowl.” He doesn’t know exactly what type of bird it is, so he doesn’t know where it’s headed.
There is a Power, whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,—
The desert and illimitable air
Lone wandering, but not lost.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker references “a Power,” God, who cares for “thy way along the pathless coast.” The bird wanders alone, something that’s dangerous, but there is a force that’s looking after it. The bird might be alone, the speaker adds, but it is not lost. It has something “Teaching” and guiding its path through life. God, the speaker, alludes, is in control of everything.
All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere;
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.
The speaker spends the fifth stanza celebrating the bird’s strength in the face of the hardships it had to endure. It’s spent all day with its wings fanned, flying to whatever its destination might be. It’s up in the “cold thin atmosphere,” completely alone. It’s not a great place to wander, and the speaker makes sure to emphasize how distant the bird seems from him and from its brethren.
Despite the fact that the bird is alone in the cold sky, it’s continuing to fly. It’s not stooping or showing signs of weakness, or does it appear tentative when the night is clearly approaching. The speaker’s praise for the bird is clearly related to his own situation. He too is alone, he too feels the cold of the night and the troubles of his broader life, and he wants to be as strong and steadfast as the bird is.
Readers might also take note of the possible symbolism in the fourth line of the fifth stanza. Here, the speaker refers to “dark night,” and it’s oncoming presence. This might be an allusion to death, something that is often described as “dark” and is usually present through “night” imagery. This would mean that the entire narrative around the bird is based on perseverance through life, not just through a single moment or journey.
And soon that toil shall end,
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o’er thy sheltered nest.
The “toil” of the flight through the sky is almost at an end, the speaker says. Soon, the bird is going to reach a safe and sheltered place. If one considers the final symbol as a representative of death from the previous stanza, then this safe place is heaven. There, the bird shall “scream song thy fellows” and no longer have to worry about long and dangerous flights through the night. In this depiction of the bird’s future, the speaker is also wishing something similar for himself. He, too, hopes that his life will end peacefully and warmly, and he’ll end up in heaven among friends and family.
Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form, yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker notes that the bird has disappeared entirely. It’s been swallowed up by the “abyss of heaven.” This seems to confirm the image of the night as oncoming death and the destination as heaven and peace. Despite the fact that the bird is no longer in the speaker’s sight, the lesson it taught has remained with him.
It’s going to stay with him forever, presumably, or at least not “depart” soon.
He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
In the final stanza of ‘To a Waterfowl,’ the speaker refers to God, “He” who “Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight.” It’s God who helped the bird to its destination and who helped it maintain its strength when the night grew cold and lonely. In these final lines, the speaker turns to himself, using first-person pronouns to acknowledge that he too must walk alone and know that his “steps” will be in the right direction. God is guiding him and won’t lead him astray.
Readers who enjoyed ‘To a Waterfowl’ should also consider reading some of William Cullen Bryant’s other best-known poems. For example,
- ‘Consumption’ – describes the approach of tuberculosis, also known as consumption, and how a patient is on their way to heaven.
- ‘The Evening Wind’ – speaks on the impact of the evening wind on all parts of the earth and its inhabitants.
- ‘Thanatopsis’ – is one of Bryant’s most famous poems, written when he was only 19. In it, he speaks on death and how one should accept its inevitability and leave peacefully.
- ‘A Song for New Year’s Eve’ – discusses change, memory, and hope. The poem is based around the transition into a new year, everything to come and left behind.