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William Cullen Bryant's "To a Waterfowl"

Updated on October 9, 2017
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

William Cullen Bryant


To a Waterflow

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?

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.

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?

There is a Power, whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,—
The desert and illimitable air
Lone wandering, but not lost.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Reading of Bryant's "To a Waterfowl"


The Divine guidance of a bird of water flying through the sky has enchanted a viewer who dramatizes the event in a poem.

William Cullen Bryant's brilliant poem, "To a Waterfowl," features eight quatrains with the rime scheme ABAB. The rhyme scheme varies but with a regularity of short, long, short, long. The poem makes a statement about nature and its interdependence on the Divine Reality.

First Quatrain: "Whither, 'midst falling dew"

The first quatrain finds the speaker addressing the bird, querying of the creature as to where the bird aspires to fly. The speaker disjoins his query in order to paint the scene through which the bird flies: dew is forming while the sun is setting, and the bird is flying, "through their rosy depths."

Second Quatrain: "Vainly the fowler’s eye"

The bird's body contrasts against the sky, as it is, "darkly painted on the crimson sky." Because it is so easily seen, the creature could become an easy target for some hunter.

Third Quatrain: "Seek’st thou the plashy brink"

The third quatrain features a question directly asked of the bird. The speaker wants to ascertain if the fowl is flying toward a lake, river, or ocean. For two important reasons, those three bodies of water are significant: 1. the bird being a "waterfowl" is surely seeking out a body of water. 2. by moving the question from smallest to largest body of water, the speaker begins a metaphoric comparison to the spiritual life as he muses about the flight of the bird.

Fourth Quatrain: "There is a Power, whose care"

The speaker then avers that the bird flying alone is guided by the invisible power of the Divine, a power that, "Teaches thy way along the pathless coast." The speaker contends that the bird is not without a purpose, no just out haphazardly wandering the sky, but instead the fowl is infallibly guided by the Divine.

Because birds usually fly in V-shapes over great distances, one might deem a lone bird a lost creature. But the speaker intuits the Divine's hand in guiding all nature at all times and thus asserts that the bird is "not lost."

Fifth Quatrain: "All day thy wings have fann'd"

In the fifth quatrain, the speaker's spiritually inspired musing on the bird's flight has morphed into the metaphorical. The speaker effuses: "All day thy wings have fann'd / At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere: / Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land, / Though the dark night is near." With this effusion, the speaker constructs his metaphorical comparison that "day" is a metaphor or "life" and "night" is a metaphor for "death."

The overstatement that the bird has fanned his wings "all day" signals the speaker's metaphorical comparison of the bird's flight to life, death, and guidance by the Divine Power.

Sixth Quatrain: "And soon that toil shall end"

Continuing metaphorically, the speaker then contends that the bird will soon alight at its destination, and the speaker also alludes to the more permanent end.

By pointing to and labeling the bird's single flight "toil," the speaker would again be engaging simple overstatement, but the speaker is metaphorically referring to the bird's death in addition.

Seventh Quatrain: "Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven"

Abruptly, the bird vanishes from the speaker's view; it is "swallowed up" by "the abyss of heaven." Despite the fact that the bird's form has left the speaker's sight, the speaker will retain the memory of what he has learned from seeing the bird. The speaker has been moved to connect the profound issues of life, death, and Divine Power, and how that power guides them all.

Eighth Quatrain: "He, who, from zone to zone"

The speaker's conclusion in the final quatrain can be considered none other than an epiphany. He realizes that the same Power that guides the lesser evolved creatures also guides humankind. The Power that brought a simple bird through its arduous journey will guard and guide the speaker and all other travelers on the their own life path.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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