#50 “To a Waterfowl” (William Cullen Bryant)

“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.


3 responses to “#50 “To a Waterfowl” (William Cullen Bryant)

  1. “The Waterfowl” was a very beautiful poem, and one I enjoyed very much, though part of it may have been I grew up partly going to a private Christian school that used the bible, so the “archaic” language may not be so archaic for me. For me one of the greatest parts of this poem is the wonderful imagery that Bryant projects on us, especially the way he describes the sky. I think Bryant was right to call it an abyss, because that’s what it seems like some times, endless yet marvelous. The theme of faith tied in to the bird’s migration is interesting to me. I do like the religious message Bryant creates with this theme also; though you may be alone and wandering, you are never lost, God, or as Bryant says in this poem “Power” guides us like it guides the bird so that we are always on our way. They sky is the ultimate abyss, endless, unreachable by normal means, and I can’t imagine what people felt like in Bryant’s time when the concept of an airplane would have seemed like some kind of sorcery. The fact that there is something there to guide that waterfowl gives us the comfort of knowing there is someone to guide us through the uncertainty of life.

  2. firewaterboi321

    This poem appeared to be an inspiration to Bryant. The migration of water birds is a metaphor for human faith. They are guided by a “Power” that inevitably leads them to a destination. How would they know where to go? “He” leads the birds, as he eventually lead Bryant through his own life. Is this Bryant’s tribute to accepting faith as a guide in life? This poem gives a sense of hope, as the birds will ultimately make their way “home.” Bryant makes the point that “He” will also guide him in his own life, even though Bryant himself doesn’t know exactly where he’s going or how he will get there. Even though this poem was written in an almost archaic style, the message still came out very clearly to me. I find this odd, since a poem by a more contemporary writer, Robert Lowell, was not as clear. Perhaps language itself, as the way Bryant uses, can be flowery yet convey a powerful and subtle message. The case of “To a Waterfowl” is a perfect example of language transcending its context and conveying thought and meaning to the reader.

  3. This poem makes me feel at ease and is a great inspiration for bryant. I think he feels as if this is how heaven is going to be. He does not know where he is going just yet. He talks about having faith. I believe he uses his faith to determine where he is going. Bryant is trying to make other people to believd in faith and hope. I believe that we all have our own image of what heaven will look like. This poem was very different from the others on the countdown. It brings a different sense of feeling to me.

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