To a Waterfowl

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"To a Waterfowl" is a poem by American poet William Cullen Bryant, first published in 1818.


The narrator questions where the waterfowl is going and questions his motives for flying. He warns the waterfowl that he could possibly find danger, traveling alone. But this waterfowl is not alone; it is being led by some Power. As the waterfowl disappears out of the narrator's sight, the narrator reflects on God's guidance in his own life. The narrator is sure that God has led this waterfowl, and that the waterfowl had faith in the narrator. Now, the narrator's faith is strengthened. He knows that God is guiding him as well.[1]

As the narrator sees God directing the waterfowl, the narrator is reminded of God's guidance in his own life. Through his observance in nature, the narrator is reconnected with his faith in God.[2]


"To a Waterfowl" is written in iambic trimeter and iambic pentameter, consisting of eight stanzas of four lines. The poem represents early stages of American Romanticism through celebration of Nature and God's presence within Nature.

Bryant is acknowledged as skillful at depicting American scenery but his natural details are often combined with a universal moral, as in "To a Waterfowl".[3]

Figures of speech[edit]

  • alliteration: While, Whither (lines 1-2); depths, dost (line 3); their, thou, thy (lines 3-); distant, do, darkly (lines 6-7)
  • metaphor: last steps of day (comparison of the day to a creature that walks).
  • anaphora: repetition of soon (lines 21, 22, 24). Anaphora is the repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other. Examples: (1) Give me wine, give me women and give me song. (2) For everything there is a season . . . a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.—Bible, Ecclesiastes.
  • personification: The speaker addresses the waterfowl as if it were a person, saying it has taught a lesson; he also refers to other waterfowls as fellows (line 23).
  • apostrophe: The speaker addresses the waterfowl as if it could respond back
  • metaphor: on my heart / deeply hath sunk the lesson (comparison of the heart to the intellect)[1]

Composition and publication history[edit]

The inspiration for the poem occurred in December 1815 when Bryant, then 21, was walking from Cummington to Plainfield to look for a place to settle as a lawyer. The duck, flying across the sunset, seemed to Bryant as solitary a soul as himself, inspiring him to write the poem that evening.[4]

"To a Waterfowl" was first published in the North American Review in Volume 6, Issue 18, March 1818.[5] It was later published in the collection Poems in 1821.[1]

Critical response[edit]

Matthew Arnold praised it as "the best short poem in the language",[5] and the poet and critic Richard Wilbur has described it as "America's first flawless poem".[6] The narrator in George du Maurier's "Peter Ibbetson" calls it "the most beautiful poem in the world".


  1. ^ a b c Cummings, Michael J. "To a Waterfowl." Cummings Study Guides N.p., 2008. Web. 8 Feb. 2010. <>.
  2. ^ Cummings, Michael J. "To a Waterfowl." Cummings Study Guides N.p., 2008. Web. 8 Feb. 2010. <>./
  3. ^ Ruland, Richard and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York: Viking, 1991: 75–76. ISBN 0-670-83592-7
  4. ^ The American Spirit in Literature: A Chronicle of Great Interpreters, Bliss Perry, Yale University Press, 1918
  5. ^ a b The chronology of American literature: America's literary achievements from the colonial era to modern times, Daniel S. Burt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004
  6. ^ William Cullen Bryant: author of America, Gilbert H. Muller, SUNY Press, 2008

External links[edit]