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William Cullen Bryant's "To a Waterfowl"

Updated on February 23, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Text of "To a Waterfowl"

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.

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?

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?

cThere 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"

Commentary

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

First Quatrain: Addressing a Bird

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 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: Easy to Spot

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?

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: Inquiring of the Bird

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?

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: Invisible Power

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

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: Inspired Effusion

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.

In the fifth quatrain, the speaker's spiritually inspired musing on the bird's flight has morphed into the metaphorical. The speaker effuses about the birds having flown "all day." Yet the bird appears still to possess the energy and strength to remain airborn well into the night. 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: Destination

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.

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: Vanishing from View

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.

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: An Epiphany

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.

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.

William Cullen Bryant

Source

Life Sketch of William Cullen Bryant

Most noted for his poem “Thanatopsis,” a study of death, William Cullen Bryant also wrote numerous sonnets focusing on nature. Born in Cummington, Massachusetts, November 3, 1794, Bryant was an early nature lover, and much of his poetry focuses on nature subjects.

Despite the fact that he lived a long life, dying in New York in 1878, his health was weak in infancy. One story has it that as a baby Bryant had a large head; his father who was a physician sought to reduce the size of his son’s head by dunking him in cold water every morning. It is not known if these cold baths actually brought about the desired result.

Bryant entered Williams College at age sixteen and studied there for two years. Later he studied law and became a member of the bar in 1815. He practiced law at Plainfield and at Great Barrington. Despite his high achievement in the courts, his real love was literature, not law.

Bryant’s literary career had begun in his teens. He wrote and published a satirical poem titled “The Embargo” and several other poems when he was only thirteen. He wrote his most widely read poem, “Thanatopsis,” when he was only eighteen.

He moved to New York in 1825 and with a friend founded The New York Review, where he published many of his poems. His longest stint as an editor was at The Evening Post, where he served for over fifty years until his death. In addition to his editorial and literary efforts, Bryant joined in the political discussions of the day, offering clear-headed prose to his repertoire of works.

In 1832, Bryant published his first volume of poems, and in 1852 his collection, The Fountain and Other Poems, appeared. When he was seventy-one years old, he began his translation of the Iliad which he completed in 1869; then he finished the Odyssey in 1871. When he was eighty-two, he wrote and published his strongest work, The Flood of Years.

Another important poem that serves as an excellent example of this poet's style and unique craftsmanship is his sonnet titled "October":

October

Aye, thou art welcome, heaven's delicious breath!
When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf,
And sons grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
Wind of the sunny south! oh, still delay
In the gay woods and in the golden air,
Like to a good old age released from care,
Journeying, in long serenity, away.
In such a bright, late quiet, would that I
Might wear out life like thee, 'mid bowers and brooks,
And dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks,
And music of kind voices ever nigh;
And then my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass.

The speaker addresses the month of October, personifying its presence. As in his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis,” the poet portrays death as something to be admired instead of feared. Bryant’s dedication to his literary career as well as to his homeland could not be emphasized any better than by the poet himself when he declared the following:

We are not without the hope that those who read what we have written, will see in the past, with all its vicissitudes, the promise of a prosperous and honorable future, of concord at home, and peace and respect abroad; and that the same cheerful piety which leads the good man to put his personal trust in a kind Providence, will prompt the good citizen to cherish an equal confidence in regard to the destiny reserved for our beloved country.

Despite the shrill voices of many of today’s poets and political pundits who denigrate their country with their undisciplined art and polemics, Bryant’s hope has well been realized for those who focus on the right places.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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