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To a Waterfowl
A Poem by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Text of the Poem
Theme
Meter
Structure
Rhyme
Figures of Speech
Anastrophe
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography
Bryant's Poems: 1840 Collection
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.. 2008
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Type of Work and Date of Publication

"To 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.

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To a Waterfowl
By William Cullen Bryant
With Summaries and Notes

1
    Whither1, midst falling dew, 
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day, 
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue 
    Thy solitary way?2

Summary

As the dew falls and the sun sets in the rosy depths of the heavens, I wonder where you (waterfowl) are going?

Notes

1.. Whither: Where.
2.. The speaker addresses the waterfowl as if it were present. Doing so constitutes a figure of speech known as apostrophe.



2
    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. 

Summary

Without success, a hunter (fowler) might try to bring you down as you float in silhouette against the crimson evening sky.

Notes

3.. fowler's: Hunter's.



3
    Seek'st thou the plashy4 brink 
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,   10
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink 
    On the chafed5 ocean-side? 

Summary

Are you looking for the marshy edge of a lake, the bank of a river, or the shore of the ocean?

Notes

4. .plashy: Marshy, wet, having many puddles.
5.. chafed: Worn away by the sea.



4
    There is a Power6 whose care 
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast— 
The desert and illimitable air—   15
    Lone wandering, but not lost. 

Summary

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.

Notes

6. .Power: God.



5
    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

Summary

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.



6
    And soon that toil shall end; 
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest, 
And scream among thy fellows; reeds7 shall bend, 
    Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest. 

Summary

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.

Notes

7. .reeds: Tall grasses in marshland.



7
    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. 

Summary

I can no longer see you, but I will never forget the lesson you taught me.



8
    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. 

Summary

God, who guides you from one place to another, will also guide me through life, leading me on the right path.

Notes

8. .He: God.

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Theme

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.

Meter

In each stanza, the poet uses iambic trimiter in lines 1 and 4 but iambic pentameter in lines 2 and 3. The second stanza illustrates this format:
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vain LY the FOWL er’s EYE  three iambic feet
might MARK thy DIST ant FLIGHT to DO thee WRONG, five iambic feet
as, DARK ly SEEN a GAINST the CRIM son SKY, five iambic feet
thy FIG ure FLOATS a LONG. three iambic feet
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Structure and Rhyme

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 wings. 

Examples of Figures of Speech

alliteration: While, Whither (lines 1-2); depths, dost (line 3); their, thou, thy (lines 3-4); distant, do, darkly (lines 6-7)
metaphor: last steps of day (comparison of the day to a creature that walks).
anaphora: repetition 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.
personification: 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 23).
metaphor: on my heart / deeply hath sunk the lesson (comparison of the heart to the intellect)

Use of Anastrophe

Like many other poets, Bryant occasionally uses anastrophe—inversion of the normal word order—as in While glow the heavens (line 2) and river wide (line 10).

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1...What is the mood of the poem?
2...What is a waterfowl? 
3...What meaning or meanings do you attribute to long way in line 31?
4...Write 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?
5...If 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? 
6...After conducting research, write an essay explaining the extent to which William Cullen Bryant drew inspiration for his writing from nature. 
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