a Waterfowl" is a lyric poem of eight four-line stanzas presenting the
musings of a person observing a soaring waterfowl. Bryant completed the
poem in 1818 and published it in a collection, Poems, in 1821. According
to biographer Parke Godwin, Bryant was traveling from Cummington, Massachusetts,
to Plainfield when he saw a high-flying bird that later inspired him to
write the poem, one of his most popular. Godwin (1816-1904) worked with
Bryant at the New York Evening Post and later married his daughter.
He published a biography of Bryant in 1883. Godwin is not to be confused
with novelist and short-story writer Parke Godwin, born in 1929.
To a Waterfowl By William Cullen Bryant
With Summaries and Notes
glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?2
As the dew falls and the
sun sets in the rosy depths of the heavens, I wonder where you (waterfowl)
The speaker addresses the waterfowl as if it were present. Doing so constitutes
a figure of speech known as apostrophe.
Vainly the fowler's3
eye 5 Might
mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong, As,
darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.
Without success, a hunter
(fowler) might try to bring you down as you float in silhouette against
the crimson evening sky.
Seek'st thou the plashy4
weedy lake, or marge of river wide, 10 Or
where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chafed5
Are you looking for the marshy
edge of a lake, the bank of a river, or the shore of the ocean?
Marshy, wet, having many puddles.
chafed: Worn away by the sea.
There is a Power6
whose care Teaches
thy way along that pathless coast— The
desert and illimitable air— 15
Lone wandering, but not lost.
There is a Power that leads
you on your way across deserts and through unlimited expanses of air. You
may be wandering and alone, but you are 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. 20
You have been flapping your
wings all day high in the sky, yet you continue on even though night is
near and land beckons beneath you.
And soon that toil shall end; Soon
shalt thou find a summer home, and rest, And
scream among thy fellows; reeds7
Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest.
Soon your journey will end.
Soon you will descend to your summer home. There, you will scream among
others of your kind and find secure shelter among the tall grasses.
Tall grasses in marshland.
Thou 'rt gone, the abyss of heaven 25 Hath
swallowed up thy form; yet, on my heart Deeply
hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.
I can no longer see you,
but I will never forget the lesson you taught me.
He8 who, from
zone to zone, Guides
through the boundless sky thy certain flight, 30 In
the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
who guides you from one place to another, will also guide me through life,
leading me on the right path.
Just as God guides the waterfowl
to its summer home, so too He guides the speaker of the poem through life
to his ultimate destination, heaven. In the end, one will be able to say
about the speaker what the speaker says about the waterfowl: "the abyss
of heaven / Hath swallowed up thy form" (lines 25-26). The poem is, in
essence, a profession of faith in God.
Bryant neatly divides the
poem into eight stanzas, each with the same metrical structure and each
with the same rhyme pattern: the last syllable of the first line always
rhymes with the last syllable of the third, and the last syllable of the
second line always rhymes with the last syllable of the fourth. (Lines
14 and 16 have different vowel sounds at the end; consequently, the syllables
containing them become a pararhyme.) The use of iambs
(metrical feet each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a
stressed syllable) throughout the poem could be a way to suggest the flapping
of Figures of Speech
(lines 1-2); depths, dost (line 3); their,
(lines 3-4); distant, do, darkly (lines 6-7)
steps of day (comparison of the day to a creature that walks).
of soon (lines 21, 22, 24). Anaphora is the repetition of a word,
phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the
other. Examples: (1) Give me wine, give me women and give
me song. (2) For everything there is a season . . . a time
to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a
time to pluck up what is planted.—Bible, Ecclesiastes.
The speaker addresses the waterfowl as if it were a person, saying it has
taught a lesson; he also refers to other waterfowls as fellows (line
metaphor: on my
heart / deeply hath sunk the lesson (comparison of the heart
to the intellect)
Like many other poets, Bryant
occasionally uses anastrophe—inversion of the normal word order—as in
glow the heavens (line 2) and river wide (line 10).
Questions and Essay Topics
is the mood of the poem?
is a waterfowl?
meaning or meanings do you attribute to long way in line 31?
an essay about a lesson you learned from nature—for example, from a squirrel
gathering nuts, a tree bending in the wind, autumn leaves turning color,
thunder rumbling in the distance, a mist rolling through a valley?
you were to paint a picture illustrating the poem, what would it look like?
Would you include the speaker (poet) in the picture? How would you convey
the idea of a divine presence guiding the waterfowl?
conducting research, write an essay explaining the extent to which William
Cullen Bryant drew inspiration for his writing from nature.