William Cullen Bryant was many things: a poet, a journalist, a translator, a lawyer, a political agitator committed to abolishing slavery in the United States, a friend to towering literary figures like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a member of the famous fireside poets, and even a one-time critic of President Thomas Jefferson. You could say that he was kind of a Renaissance man, and a wildly popular one at that. When he died in 1878, "all New York City went into mourning, and eulogies poured forth" in a way that hadn't been seen in the Big Apple for a very long time (Source).
And yet, despite all that he achieved, despite his importance to the American literary scene, and despite his contributions to American politics (he played a role in the establishment of the Republican party in the 1850s and was a supporter of ol' Honest Abe Lincoln), Bryant's reputation has declined over the course of the twentieth century. It's sad that his stock has fallen faster than a slinky down a buttered staircase (trust us on this one). Still, this decline actually started to happen during his lifetime.
In 1846, for example, the great Walt Whitman, who nevertheless described Bryant as a "poet who […] stands among the first in the world," was less than appreciative. And Mr. Gloomy Gus himself, Edgar Allan Poe, expressed similar sentiments, which you can read right here.
To be fair, these criticisms came at a time when Bryant was still a very popular figure—Poe said his position was "comparatively well-settled" but that there was a "growing tendency to underestimate him." Still, when Whitman expressed his bewilderment with Bryant's work (in 1846), it had been many years since W.C.B. (as we like to call him) first burst on the scene. He did that in 1821, with a widely popular collection simply called Poems. It was that collection, published when Bryant was 27 years old, which cemented his reputation as a poet, where some of his most famous poems, such as the complete version of "Thanatopsis" and this poem, "To a Waterfowl," first appeared.
It is likely that Bryant wrote the latter poem sometime in 1815, while walking in rural Massachusetts (where he spent his childhood). While the exact details of Bryant's encounter with the waterfowl are shrouded in mystery, the basic, accepted premise is that he saw the waterfowl flying in the sky (hey, makes sense to us). More accurately, the bird seemed to be flitting about aimlessly. It was then that Bryant had a realization. The waterfowl wasn't, in fact, just floating around, but was being guided by a higher, spiritual power: God.
If the poem is to be taken at face value, you could say this realization marked a turning point for a presumably lonely William Cullen Bryant, who could confidently say afterwards that he was no longer alone, but accompanied by God.
You like sure things, Shmoopers? Great. Well, we can guarantee that, at some point in this life, you'll encounter change (and not the happy, loose coin kind). Maybe you will start attending a new school, take a new job, move to a new city, or wake up one day to discover that all of your closest friends have gotten married and moved to the suburbs. Change: it's going to happen, Shmoopers. And when it does, we can 100% also guarantee that this will be one of the more unpleasant times in your life. You will feel lost, alone, adrift, confused, and perhaps many other un-fun things. It's just an inevitable part of life—everybody goes through it at one point or another. It's possible that it may not be this dramatic, or perhaps the change is so radical that this feeling lasts for years and years.
Don't freak out just yet, though. This is where our new friend William Cullen Bryant comes in. He understood this feeling all too well. Better than that, he actually came up with a solution. Okay, he came up with a kind of solution, or at least a way of trying to cope with that feeling. On the surface, "To a Waterfowl" seems like just a poem about, well, a waterfowl, but near the middle things start to shift in a different direction. The waterfowl appears to be floating, following no specific path, until the speaker realizes that a mysterious, spiritual "Power" is guiding it.
It is this realization about the waterfowl that ultimately brings the speaker the comfort he knows he will need in the future. This is the comfort that all of us need when we feel alone, lost, adrift, and confused. The speaker knows he's going to experience that feeling at some point, but he's also confident that the same power that guides the waterfowl will also be there to guide him in his time of greatest need. Even if he (the speaker) can't see the path he must tread—things may appear "pathless," in the words of the poem—he can rest assured that things will be okay. This is the "lesson" of the waterfowl that will remain "deeply" etched in his heart, and it makes our speaker feel tons better. We're willing to bet that, if you keep this poem in the back of your mind, you can break it in a time of need to make you feel tons better, too.
Well now, here's a nice and thorough online bio.
Walt Whitman on Bryant's Death
We told you William Cullen Bryant's death was a big deal!
The Bryant Library
These folks are definitely keeping Bryant's legacy alive.
Just in case you find yourself in rural Massachusetts, here's the website for the town where Bryant spent his childhood.
Bryant's Childhood Home
If you have a little extra time on that Massachusetts trip…
Bryant's Academic Side
Here's a link to a collection of Bryant's literary essays, including one about "Trisyllabic Feet in Iambic Measure."
Animated Bryant, Reading "Thanatopsis"
These things are always really cool, if a little creepy.
The News on Bryant
A young man, who appears to be in a high school project, does a mock news report about William Cullen Bryant.
Our friend W.C. Bryant got on the beard bandwagon way before it was cool.
Bryant's Childhood Home
We kind of wished we lived there.
Here's the old, wise, and somewhat sullen-looking William Cullen Bryant.
Bryant's Literary Biography
Well, according to this guy, William Cullen Bryant was the author of America. (There's kind of a pun in there. Can you find it?).
Check out this digital version of a collection of Bryant's poems from 1854.