Last time, I talked about Thanatopsis, the best-known poem by American poet William Cullen Bryant, who some considered, in his day, the first American poet to meet what had become the “British” standard. Today we will look at the other well-known poem by Bryant — To a Waterfowl.
This poem illustrates a common gimmick used in poetry of Bryant’s time and earlier. If you wanted to write a poem about a certain subject and then draw a lesson or moral or conclusion from it, the way to do it was to write it as though speaking directly to the person or thing you were talking about. That is why so many poems of the 19th century are are titled “to” this or “to” that. And it is why Bryant’s poem is To a Waterfowl.
Before we go on, remember another characteristic of poetry in Bryant’s time: the general feeling was that everyday language was too common for poetry, so the poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek.” All of this can seem just too overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.
Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.
So here, part by part, is To a Waterfowl:
Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?
Bryant is using the convention mentioned above of addressing the subject of the poem. It is an evening in December (as we shall see). The sky in the West still glows with the last light from the setting sun, and the ground is cooling, causing dew to form on the grasses and plants. In this setting, Bryant says to the bird, “whither (meaning ‘to where’) are you going on your way all alone?
“Whither” and its useful mate “whence” have unfortunately largely dropped out of modern English. I say “unfortunately” because they are very useful words, with “whence” meaning “from where,” and “whither” meaning “to where.” As the now largely-forgotten early Oregon poet Samuel L. Simpson wrote, life’s old questions are “whence” and “whither,” that is, where do we come from, and where are we going? As we shall see, that has a lot to do with today’s poem as well.
Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight, to do thee wrong,
As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.
The fowler — that is, the fellow out to hunt birds — might “mark” (notice) the distant flight of the waterfowl to do it wrong, meaning to shoot and kill it, because the dark form of the bird stands out sharply against the red sky of evening.
Seek’st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chaféd ocean side?
Bryant is still on the “whither” question: He asks the bird if it seeks the “plashy brink” of a weedy lake. “Plashy” here means both wet and “splashy” — where the waters of the lake splash gently against its edges (brink), its shore. Or does the bird seek the “marge” or bank of a wide river, or perhaps where the “rocking billows” — the rolling waves — rise and fall by the “chaféd ocean side,” meaning the shoreline of the ocean where the waves constantly rub against it. Bryant indicates by the accent in chaféd that he wants us to pronounce it as two syllables — chay-fed — instead of the usual one.
Now comes the first of two stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about (he leaves the second for last):
There is a Power, whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,—
The desert and illimitable air
Lone wandering, but not lost.
There is some Power in the universe, Bryant says, that teaches the waterfowl its way along the coastline, even though there is no marked path — a Power (he capitalizes it for emphasis) that guides it through the “desert” (empty, deserted) and illimitable (endless) air — through the empty sky, that is, as the bird wanders alone in its flight, alone and seemingly wandering, but not lost.
All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere;
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.
The bird is on a long, migratory flight; its wings have flapped the air all day, up where it is cold and thin, yet the bird does not “stoop” (meaning “go downward” here) to the earth, though the bird should be weary, and dark night is near.
And soon that toil shall end,
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o’er thy sheltered nest.
Soon, however, the toil (labor) of the long and wearying flight shall end, and the bird will find the end and goal of its migratory path in a land far in the South where the weather is that of summer, and it will then rest and raise its cries among other birds of its kind; and it will build a sheltered nest in a marshy place over which the reeds will bend.
Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form, yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.
The bird Bryant has been watching is gone; it has flown out of sight, its form vanished in the great emptiness (abyss) of the sky (heaven), but the poet tells us that it has left a message in his heart (by which he means his mind) that will not go away but will long be with him.
What is that lesson? Here we come to the second of the stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about:
He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path from one place to another through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.
Bryant refers to this “Power” as “He” in the final stanza, which is the traditional way of speaking of the God of Christianity, but to Bryant it is more the Deistic “Nature and Nature’s God,” as we saw in the discussion of Thanatopsis. That is why this poem seems so very akin to the writings of the Transcendentalists, in which everything that happens is guided by a transcendent Power. It is the same faith in “Divine Providence” that moved Thoreau to say, when asked on his death bed if he did not want to make his peace with God, “I am not aware that we have ever quarreled.” So even though Bryant was slightly too early to be considered a part of the Transcendentalist Movement, he was certainly a precursor and kindred spirit to it.
And not a kindred spirit just to American Transcendentalism. I cannot read To a Waterfowl without thinking of the much earlier poem written by the Japanese Zen Master Dōgen (1200 – 1253), which R. H. Blyth translates as:
Wanders here and there
Leaving no trace
Yet her path
She never forgets.
Though Bryant would never have even heard of Dōgen, To a Waterfowl seems like just a longer and wordier version of the earlier and much shorter poem, with both having the same sense that a transcendent Power guides all paths, whether of bird or human.
J.R.R. Tolkien said in a poem in The Lord of the Rings, “Not all who wander are lost.” Bryant and Dōgen would have said that none who wander are really lost, even though they may seem to be. It is just that some trust their steps are guided while others do not.
Though Bryant is said to have had the experience that led him to write this poem in December of 1815, on seeing a lone duck flying against the evening sky, the poem was not published until 1818, when it appeared in The North American Review. Bryant was 24.
Michael Schmidt relates that when Charles Dickens arrived from England on his visit to New York, he is reputed to have asked, when coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?” That is because, as mentioned in my earlier discussion of Thanatopsis, Bryant was, again as Schmidt says, “the first American-born poet to be accorded relatively uncondescending recognition” by the British.