Study Guide

To a Waterfowl Man and the Natural World

By William Cullen Bryant

Man and the Natural World

  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? (1-4)

The poem's opening lines are filled with references to nature: dew, the heavens (sky), the "rosy depths" of day (the sun). "To a Waterfowl" presents itself as a poem about nature, about the transitions that take place in nature (from dry to wet, from day to night). These foreshadow the impending transition in the speaker's perspective.

  Vainly the fowler's eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly painted on the crimson sky,
  Thy figure floats along. (5-8)

Very early on, the speaker starts flirting with images of death. Here the "crimson sky," for example, both describes the deep shade of red that characterizes the sky, but also makes us think of blood and death (it certainly doesn't help that there's a "fowler"—i.e., a bird hunter—in here).

  Seek'st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
  On the chafed ocean side? (9-12)

This might just be the most "natural" stanza in the entire poem. The entire thing is devoted to nature, and nature alone: rivers, lakes, the ocean, and the waterfowl. The speaker, the fowler, and any other people are completely absent.

  There is a Power whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,--
The desert and illimitable air,--
  Lone wandering, but not lost. (13-16)

Time and time again, the speaker confronts the vastness of the natural world. The sky here is "pathless," a "desert," an "illimitable" space. Try looking up at the sky sometime and mapping it, and you'll get an idea of how the speaker feels here.

  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. (17-20)

The waterfowl models the kind of endurance that we sense the speaker lacks. He flaps his wings for an entire day, despite how cold the air is, despite the fact that night is near, and despite the fact that there is a very "welcome" place to go (the "land").

  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. (25-28)

These lines recall other "darker" lines in the poem (such as the description of the "cold, thin atmosphere"). Like those, these too paint a very dark picture of nature: the sky is an "abyss" that can monstrously swallow things. Sure, this is a metaphor, but it's still deeply unsettling.

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