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William Cullen Bryant's "To a Waterfowl"

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

William Cullen Bryant

Introduction and Text of "To a Waterfowl"

In William Cullen Bryant's colorful poem, "To a Waterfowl," the speaker is enjoying a meditative musing on the flight of a bird through the sky. As the speaker considers the invisible power that is guiding the bird, he is inspired by the thought that the same powerful force is guiding and guarding humankind. His musing demonstrates the positive results that may come from observing a simple act of nature—in this case inspiring the observer to make the connection from originator to agency to outcome.

The rime-scheme and rhythm of this poem offer a nuance of meaning by simulating the even flow of the bird through the air as it glides, rises, and falls with graceful wings and determined measured gulps of wind that propel its delicate physical encasement to follow its soul power.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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?

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"

Commentary

The guidance of a bird 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 from his query in order to paint the scene through which the bird is flying: dew is forming while the sun is setting, and the bird is flying through the sky which the sun has caused to glow with a rose-colored tint.

Interestingly, the poet chose the term "falling" referring to dew. Dew actually forms; it does not fall, as rain would fall. The idea that dew falls likely originates from the following quotation, "My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass" (KJV Deuteronomy 32:2).

The actual verb, "distil," used with "dew" is accurate, but because the claim, "my speech shall distil as the dew" is surrounded by statement with "rain" and "showers" falling, it is likely that the true meaning of "distil" became associated with "falling." Thus, the erroneous expressions of the dew falling became widespread.

The poet could have easily employed the accurate term for how dew appears and not lost any poetic meaning or sound: "'midst forming dew" instead of the inaccurate "'midst falling dew." This is, however, the kind of poetic error that has no ultimate detrimental effect on the poem, because the common parlance has long accepted the term, and those who know the more accurate scientific term can easily subsume the meaning without strain.

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.

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.

The speaker offers his hope that no "fowler" could be able to catch the bird as it moves along the beauty of its surroundings.

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 of the human mind and heart 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 God, a power that shows the bird the way to fly as it guided and guarded by that same invisible power. The speaker contends that the bird is not without a purpose, not just out haphazardly wandering the sky, but instead the fowl is infallibly guided by the power force of its Creator, and thus the bird though "wandering" all alone can never lose its way.

Because birds usually fly in V-shapes over great distances, one might deem a lone bird a lost creature. But the speaker intuits that the hand of God is 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 bird’s having flown "all day." Yet the bird appears still to possess the energy and strength to remain air-born 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 of its Creator (God).

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 to the literal nighttime.

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 paths through life.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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