The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 436 words.)