How can I interpret the poem "To a Waterfowl"?

Expert Answers
edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A stanza-by-stanza analysis is an effective method for interpreting poems.

The first stanza of four lines (a quatrain) finds the speaker asking the bird where it goes, on its own, at the close of day.

The second stanza observes that a hunter might "vainly" watch the bird on its flight as he attempts to shoot it; the word "vainly" could imply that the hunter has a high opinion of himself, or that he was unsuccessful in taking down the bird. Perhaps both meanings of "vainly" are intended.

In the third stanza, the speaker speculates on different places the bird might be headed for, suggesting a lake, river, and ocean.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker changes from a questioning tone to one of certainty as he observes that there is a "Power" that guides the bird on its solitary journey. This "Power" might be God or some other creative, protective force that guides the bird, such as instinct. 

The fifth stanza observes that the bird has the capability to fly all day at great heights without tiring or descending, though night is falling.

The sixth stanza speculates that the bird will ultimately stop for rest in a safe place among his fellow birds.

In the penultimate stanza, the bird has faded from the view of the speaker, who reflects on the impact its presence has made on him.  The "lesson" the bird has imparted will remain in his heart.

In the final stanza, the speaker elaborates on what the bird has taught him (or reminded him); the same "Power" that guides the bird on its solitary journey through life will also guide him. 

beateach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Cullen Bryant wrote “To a Waterfowl” in 1815. Bryant, an attorney, ultimately became a writer and the editor of the New York Evening Post. In this poem, he describes the flight of an unidentified type of water bird. It begins as the evening falls with the speaker describing how the bird is flying alone; he mentions that a bird hunter might be the only one to harm the bird as it travels alone. The author questions whether the solitary bird is seeking shelter in a “weedy lake, or marge of river wake” or “on the chafed ocean-side?”

The author then describes the “Power” that guides the bird, referring to a divine presence that keeps the bird from harm and on course as it travels. This Power guides the bird’s path as it shelters in its hidden nest; the Power provides the bird with the innate knowledge that it needs to complete its solitary journey. In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker compares this to his own individual journey. He also feels that he will find his way in life through the intervention of Divine Providence. Because Bryant penned this poem when he was 21 years old, some believe he wrote about how his own life choices would follow their intended path.