Study Guide

To a Waterfowl Setting

By William Cullen Bryant

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William Cullen Bryant is said to have written "To a Waterfowl" while walking in the environs of Cummington, Massachusetts (the rural village where he spent his childhood). The features of that environment find their way into "To a Waterfowl." The fact that the poem is even about a waterfowl suggests that the speaker is in some kind of wooded area where there are ample water sources, such as the rivers and lakes mentioned in the third stanza, and ample room for the different waterfowl of the area to make the kind of nest described late in the poem (23-24). It is also the kind of place where people would live off the land, so to speak, more than they would in a place like Boston. This explains the presence of the "fowler" (a bird hunter) in the poem's second stanza.

If "To a Waterfowl" evokes an early nineteenth-century version of rural Massachusetts, it also evokes a less external setting: the heart of man. Okay, okay—this might sounds a little abstract, but bear with us for just a second. "To a Waterfowl" isn't just about a waterfowl, it's also about the speaker's relationship to that waterfowl (this is his way of "living off" the land, you could say). The setting of this poem is very much, then, the time period in a person's life when they stumble upon or realize a profound spiritual truth.

For the speaker of this poem, that spiritual truth is this: even though the waterfowl appears to be just floating aimlessly in the sky, it is actually being guided and controlled by a powerful spiritual force. If the bird's life is informed by a spiritual energy, then so is the speaker's. "To a Waterfowl" dramatizes a scene that we usually associated with solitude (the speaker is walking alone), where we observe things and discover something when we least expect it.

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