Poetic Analysis: William Cullen Bryant’s ‘To a Waterfowl’

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A Puritan descendent, William Cullen Bryant was a popular American poet in the Romantic tradition. Many of his best works, especially his influential ‘Thanatopsis,’ were written in the early 19th century, making Bryant one of the truly pioneer ‘American’ poets. His subject matter often dealt with spirituality and man’s relationship to nature. Interestingly, Bryant studied law as a young professional, being admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-one and thereafter serving as an attorney for ten years in Great Barrington and Plainfield Massachusetts (‘William Cullen Bryant’). He moved to New York City in 1825 and secured a job as an editor of the Evening Post in 1827, where he worked for the next fifty years (‘William Cullen Bryant’).

In his later teens, Bryant departed from his conservative religious orthodox upbringing, often showing this new point-of-view in his poetry, especially in perhaps his most popular poem, ‘Thanatopsis,’ in which Bryant rejects conservative beliefs for a new world view on religion that conformed more to Unitarianism than the traditional Trinitarian approach (‘William Cullen Bryant’). Other poems of Bryant’s, such as his ‘To a Waterfowl,’ written perhaps as early as 1814 but first published in 1818, show his romantic themes, i.e., man’s connection with nature and the value of divine guidance in leading the individual to a deeper understanding of the self. Many critics see ‘To a Waterfowl’ as Bryant’s autobiographical attempt to reconcile the uncertainty he felt pursuing the traditional lawyer’s path with what he saw as his true calling in literature and letters. Critics point to the poem’s final lines, ‘In the long way that I must trace alone, / Will lead my steps aright’ (lines 31-2) as proof of Bryant’s ideological conflicts with his chosen career. The peace and solitude of watching the waterfowl flying gracefully over the lake makes the reader feel Bryant’s own soul-searching as he seeks a moment of solace and time to reflect. Ultimately, ‘To a Waterfowl’ is an autobiographically-significant work that marks a shift in Bryant’s ideology, an expression of his newfound Unitarian views, and an affirmation of his own self-identity.

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Discussing his ideological feelings about the influence of poetry on readers, Bryant remarks, ‘The most beautiful poetry is that which takes the strongest hold of the feelings’ (qtd. in Godwin 8). Clearly, Bryant held the highest regard for the emotional impact of poetic imagery, and his poem ‘To a Waterfowl’ definitely captures this ideal. Written in eight stanzas in quatrain form, with an alternating rhyme scheme (ABAB CDCD’), Bryant’s poem evokes images of man’s communion with nature. The solitary flight of the waterfowl mirrors the speaker’s own seclusion from urban life. In fact, in the very first stanza, the speaker remarks about the solitary nature of the environment and the encroaching dusk: ‘Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue / Thy solitary way?’ (4-5). The reader gains a feel of the speaker’s reflective nature, amplified by his communion with the landscape. The speaker goes on to describe the flight of the waterfowl over the lake. He seems to address the waterfowl itself, questioning its path of flight:

Seek’st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chaf’d ocean side? (Bryant, lines 9-12)
In his questioning of the bird, the speaker actually questions himself and his own path in life. It is as if the speaker asks himself, What do I want in life, and what am I seeking?

In a biography on William Cullen Bryant, Parke Godwin paints a picture of the young professional headed home from work on an autumn evening in Massachusetts and stopping for a moment to take in the view of the lake and the waterfowl (cited in Bryant II 181). After taking in the rustic scene, Bryant returns home to pen the lines to his now-famous poem. Though critics are not sure whether or not this is, in fact, an accurate portrayal of the details of the poem’s conception, Bryant’s own son remarks that the scene described in his father’s poem did have some impact on his professional life. It appears that Bryant had been having issues with self-confidence, public speaking, and writing ability in his early professional life as a lawyer, and, through the writing of this particular poem, he was able to work through some of those fears and gain confidence in his abilities and path in life: ‘Only after he had resolved his fear in ‘To a Waterfowl”could he write, bravely’ (Bryant II 187). According to Bryant II, his father did achieve success after the penning of his poem, suggesting that the writing process was somehow therapeutic and reaffirming of his own self-identity.

One can see Bryant’s awakening self-confidence and self-awareness within the imagery in his poem. The solitary image of the waterfowl gliding over the lake is replaced by the image of a supreme being that teaches and guides others on the path to fulfillment: ‘There is a Power, whose care / Teaches thy way along that pathless coast’ (lines 13-14). The speaker finds solace in this thought, realizing that his life is guided by a higher purpose, and that he should trust in the path laid out before him. This speaks to Bryant’s Unitarian views, which hold God as being one unified being, as separate from the Trinitarian view of God represented by three distinct individuals (‘William Cullen Bryant’). The unity and purposeful direction in this peaceful scene parallels the flight of the waterfowl, who, the speaker believes, is also guided by the same greater power. This idea symbolizes the unity of Bryant’s faith and becomes a metaphor for his belief in a guiding and higher purpose.

William Cullen Bryant’s ‘To a Waterfowl’ is a remarkable example of American Romantic verse. Through its imagery and musical language (enhanced by the alternating rhyme scheme), Bryant creates a meaningful sense of well-being and a belief in the surety of one’s path in life. As the speaker takes in the view of the waterfowl and the scenery of the lake at dusk, one cannot help but think of Bryant, the poet himself, and how he had been faced with ideological and professional challenges prior to the writing of his poem. Through composing his verse, perhaps he was able to work through these challenges, as his own son has suggested. Whatever the case, it is clear that ‘To a Waterfowl’ represents a significant era in Bryant’s life, one in which his struggles to find himself and to realize his own self-worth were confirmed by the ideological stance found in his poetry. ‘Lone wandering, but not lost,’ writes Bryant in line sixteen. This idea seems to carry a central weight in Bryant’s poem. Here he recognizes both his own solitary and wandering nature. However, he also recognizes that he is ‘not lost.’ This admission is clearly in reference to Bryant’s own Unitarian belief in the guiding power of God. To Bryant, this idea must have been a welcome thought in a time of questioning and self-doubt. The fact that he was able to work through these issues through imagery, metaphor, and musical verse speaks to his great talent as a poet.

  • Bryant, William Cullen. (1818). ‘To a Waterfowl.’ Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/51861. Accessed on
    19 Feb. 2017.
  • Bryant, William Cullen II. ‘The Waterfowl in Retrospect.’ The New England Quarterly, vol. 30,
    no. 2, 1957, pp. 181’189, www.jstor.org/stable/362312.
  • Godwin, Parke. Prose Writings of William Cullen Bryant, vol. 5. New York: D. Appleton and
    Company, 1889.
  • ‘William Cullen Bryant.’ Encyclop’dia Britannica, Encyclop’dia Britannica, Inc, 1998
    https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Cullen-Bryant. Accessed on
    19 Feb. 2017.

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