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“To a Waterfowl” is a poem written by William Cullen Bryant. It is a poem that revolves around the poet’s persona’s self-reflection inspired by a waterfowl.
About the Poet:
William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) was a prominent American poet. He was a Romantic poet, in addition to being a journalist. Famous works of his include “Thanatopsis”, “The Pirates”, and “A Forest Hymn”.
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?
At the very beginning of the poem, the poet’s persona directly addresses the waterfowl, a bird. This waterfowl is flying in the dusk in dew, as can be gleaned from the phrase “last steps of day”. The persona asks the waterfowl rhetorically whether it is its wish to follow such a “solitary way” all alone during nightfall
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.
Here, the persona’s tone is cautionary. They state that one wrong step of the fowl might end up with it attracting the “fowler” or the hunter of fowls. For the fowl, even though it was dark, could still be seen visible in the “crimson sky”.
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?
Here, the persona muses about which water body the waterfowl might seek as a destination. They wonder whether it was a “weedy lake”, a wide “river” or an “ocean”.
There is a Power, whose care Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,— The desert and illimitable air Lone wandering, but not lost.
In this stanza, the persona invokes God. They state that there existed a “Power”– referring to God’s divine powers– that seems to be what is guiding the waterfowl, along the coast and desert. Here, without explicitly stating it, the poet is drawing a parallel between the aimlessness of the waterfowl to that of the persona. They assert that while the waterfowl might be alone, it was “not lost”, thus taking strength from God’s presence.
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.
Here, the persona encourages the bird to fly one. Indeed, the bird would no doubt be tired having flown all day at such a height in the cold air and yet, the persona does not wish for it to land, though it was nearing night. Clearly, the persona worries for the safety of the bird.
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 persona placates the bird in this stanza. Soon, they state, the bird’s worries shall dissipate for it would find a “summer home, and rest”. There, it will be amongst its brethren, “sheltered” and protected.
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.
Here, the persona states that the waterfowl had long been gone and disappeared into the night. However, the lesson the persona learned through it– on omnipresent God always having His watchful eyes on us– shall forever remain in their heart.
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 this final stanza, the persona reiterates the presence of God and the strength they derive from Him thereon. They state that the very God that guides the waterfowl “through the boundless sky” shall also guide the persona themselves in the “long way” that they were to “trace alone”. However, as the persona already stated, despite being alone, they don’t believe themselves to be lost for God was there to “lead” their “steps aright”.
This is a beautiful poem. The poet manages to exquisitely bring out their faith in God by intertwining it with nature.