Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

According to one of his biographers, Bryant was inspired to write “To a Waterfowl” when he was a twenty-one-year-old aspiring lawyer on his way to a new town. As he walked through New England hills, sad and concerned about what would happen to him in his new life, he saw a solitary bird flying against a sunset and wondered about its destiny. When he stopped at an inn, he wrote what became the poem’s last stanza.

Bryant not only wrote in the tradition of the Romantics, who saw sublime images in nature, but also followed the American Puritans, who saw natural events as signs of spiritual import. Like the Puritans, he read Nature as God’s book, which can deliver insightful messages about the spiritual world. His poem depicts the figure of the solitary bird in its natural pattern of migration. He shows how it has no map to lead it across the “pathless coast”; yet it is “not lost.” The solitary bird pursues its way tirelessly; even through the night, it does not land to rest. It continues on its way until it reaches its home or shelter. From a moral point of view the poet sees the flight of the bird as a metaphor for his own life. Like the bird, he is alone, a solitary wanderer, unsure of his path through life. Moreover, just as the bird is guided by a Power, the poet is also in the hands of providence, a benign power who would watch him “tread alone” and would “lead” his “steps aright.”

Not only does this poem deliver a personal message that life is not aimless or left to chance, but it is also an argument for God or providence by use of design. The argument of design holds that the world and all its parts are so well designed and so well run that there must be some designer who put everything in order and keeps it that way. Because the migratory bird has such a “certain flight” over vast regions, there must be some Power to design and control its flight. The corollary to this argument is that the same power influences humans on their journey through life.

Like much early American literature, this poem also celebrates American individualism. The bird is not flying within a flock, but alone. The poet also is walking his journey alone. Individuals are responsible under the guidance of divine providence to walk their own paths, not to follow the herd. There are no institutions, governments, or social organizations to bolster individuals as they seek their destinies. As well as celebrating the power of divine providence, the poem acknowledges the individual’s lonely struggle to discover himself anew. The solitary individual, nature, and divine providence are at the core of Bryant’s poem.

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