“To a Waterfowl”, by William Cullen Bryant, is one of the oldest poems in the Countdown, dating from 1821, long before Bryant had turned into one of the greyest-bearded of American “schoolroom” poets. The language is a little archaic even for 1821. Few Americans except for conservative Quakers were still using the old second-person singular forms thou/thee/thy (or associated second-person verb forms like “dost” and “seek’st”) in 1821, even if the King James Bible kept those forms continuously in the public ear.
“To a Waterfowl” is in dialogue with poems up and down the Countdown, including “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”. Part of its appeal comes from the wonder we have in the presence of animals. They are so far from our way of being – and, in the case of birds, often so far from our earthbound realm. What is their existence really like? To fly enormous distances at heights that a pre-airplane poet could only fantasize about, the bird must enter a realm that might as well be supernatural.
In particular, the mysteries of migratory creatures – from geese to monarch butterflies – are still not well understood by science. Their behavior is so impossibly complex that an appropriate human response is simply to marvel.
Bryant’s expression of marvel, in “To a Waterfowl,” is one of the noblest and most famous of the 19th century. It is an expression steeped in faith, but a faith that knows no specifics. In the word “He” that begins the final stanza, it comes closest to being a monotheistic God. But previous elements of the poem, like the word “Power” and the general sense of awe that the bird inspires, seem to hark back to Deist, even animist ideas about the omnipresent life-force of Nature.
The poem seems caught between a faith in Nature and a faith in a personally involved God. The speaker seems to have to reach into the abyss of the unknown to encounter that God. He does so with a kind of sublime feeling that aspires to serenity on the surface but seems far more turbulent below.