The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

Both lyric and didactic, “To a Waterfowl” creates a natural scene in order to derive a moral lesson from it. The poem consists of eight quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Each stanza is written in pentameter and trimeter verse with an alternating rhyme scheme. The poem subtly blends descriptive scenes with...

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Both lyric and didactic, “To a Waterfowl” creates a natural scene in order to derive a moral lesson from it. The poem consists of eight quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Each stanza is written in pentameter and trimeter verse with an alternating rhyme scheme. The poem subtly blends descriptive scenes with inward reflections on them. The poem’s title indicates an unspecified waterfowl, which some critics have suggested must be a goose. By not specifying the waterfowl’s species, the poet suggests a more universal image that will help in conveying his theme. The poem opens with a question and the interrogative form is used in both the first and third stanzas.

The whole poem encompasses the flight of the waterfowl from two viewpoints. It appears to the poet at dusk as it gently floats overhead and gradually disappears into the horizon. The poet also projects the journey of the bird over vast territories as it flies from its winter abode to its summer home. The immediate image of the bird has the poet reflect on the bird’s destination and the nature of its flight. In his whimsical meditating, the poet addresses the bird directly as though to open up a dialogue between nature’s creature and the poet’s inner soul. However, it is not until the last stanza that the poet reveals himself and speaks out his message in the first person.

The poem is organized clearly around the scenic images alternating with the poet’s reflections. The first three stanzas describe the bird’s flight and possible destination, while the fourth meditates on a “Power” that guides the bird’s flight. The fifth through seventh stanzas return to the description of the bird’s excursion, and the last stanza comes back to the guiding Power and brings out the poem’s message. Thus, the poem twice repeats three descriptive stanzas followed by a meditation.

The poem opens at sunset as the sky glows red and evening dew falls. The poet sees a bird flying alone in the distance and muses that it is safe from any would-be hunter who would do it harm. The bird, alone and solitary, is silhouetted across the evening sky. As it floats smoothly by, the poet wonders where it is going. Is it headed for the edge of a lake in an area covered with weeds? Does it seek the margins of a wide river, or is it heading for the oceanside, “chafed” by the constant beat of the surf?

Then, the poet feels that some Power is leading the bird over coastlines that have no path, over a wide aerial expanse. Because this Power guides the bird, it can wander alone without ever getting lost. The bird will be flapping its wings the whole day, far above the earth in the cold, thin atmosphere. The bird may be weary, but it does not land even when night comes on. Nevertheless, the poet realizes that the bird’s tiring journey will soon come to an end, and that the bird will be able to rest in its summer home, make noise among the other birds of the flock, and have the reeds cover its nest. The poet tells the bird that it is gone, that it is “swallowed up” in the heavens. However, the image of the bird leaves a message in the poet’s heart. The poet feels that the same Power that guides the bird from one area to another will guide him in the right path in his solitary journey through life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

This poem, like most of Bryant’s poems, is filled with nature imagery. Bryant felt that the American poet should capture all the wonders of the American landscape and should also bring forth his own personal expression. This poem satisfies both goals. Bryant captures the natural scene of the bird at sunset. He shows how the sky glows with “the last steps of day.” This metaphor unites the temporal with the spatial as day is seen in steps. There is also a unifying theme introduced in the poem’s very last stanza, which states that the Power that guides the bird will “lead my steps aright.” The metaphor of the “last steps of day” combines with images of the “crimson sky” and “rosy depths” to add the color of the natural sunset and to highlight the silhouette of the bird “darkly seen.” The imagery and figure of speech help to create a vast and shaded background. However, the movement is graceful as the figure “floats along.”

In describing the bird’s journey, Bryant again paints a vast American landscape using vivid nature imagery, such as “plashy brink/ of weedy lake,” “marge of river wide,” and “chafed ocean side.” Rivers, lakes, and oceans emerge in an immense vista. The bird becomes a compelling force in the sky that Bryant compares to a “desert” empty and vast; so high is the bird that the coast is “pathless.” The bird has “fanned” the air with its wings as it continues on its strenuous journey. Bryant also uses dynamic auditory imagery to show the mood of the bird when its journey is over. When it reaches home, it shall “scream among” its “fellows.” The use of “scream,” instead of a word such as “cry,” accentuates the bird’s exhilaration. Moreover, the sibilant alliteration of “scream,” “shall,” “soon,” and “sheltered” adds to the dynamics of the bird’s homecoming.

In the final image of the bird, Bryant uses the metaphor of the throat in which the “abyss of heaven/ Hath swallowed up thy form . . .” This disappearance of the bird as a natural image lays the groundwork for the analogy between its flight and the life of the poet. Also, in showing the journey of the bird and comparing it to the life of a person, the poem focuses on a figure that is “Lone wandering, but not lost.” “Lost” literally means not being able to find one’s way; here, however, it also signifies the damned, those who are morally lost. The imagery and figurative language of the poem show a natural journey and compare it to an inner spiritual journey.

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