To a Waterfowl: a Study Guide
A Poem by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
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.
By William Cullen Bryant
With Summaries and Notes
As the dew falls and the sun sets in the rosy depths of the heavens, I wonder where you (waterfowl) are going?
1.. Whither: Where.
Vainly the fowler's3eye 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.
3.. fowler's: Hunter's.
Seek'st thou the plashy4brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide, 10
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chafed5ocean-side?
Are you looking for the marshy edge of a lake, the bank of a river, or the shore of the ocean?
4. .plashy: Marshy, wet, having many puddles.
There is a Power6whose 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.
6. .Power: God.
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; reeds7shall bend,
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.
7. .reeds: 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.
God, who guides you from one place to another, will also guide me through life, leading me on the right path.
8. .He: God.
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.
vain LY the FOWL ers 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
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.
alliteration: While, Whither (lines 1-2); depths, dost (line 3); their, thou, thy (lines 3-4); distant, do, darkly (lines 6-7)
Like many other poets, Bryant occasionally uses anastropheinversion of the normal word orderas in While glow the heavens (line 2) and river wide (line 10).
1...What is the mood of the poem?
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