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?
"To a Waterfowl" opens with a question.
Now, you might not think that at first because, well, it takes four lines before we get to the question mark. Sure enough, though, it's there.
Backing up three lines, we note that the speakerstarts by asking "Where" ("whither"), but it takes him almost the entire stanza to tell us the rest of the question.
Before he gets there, he sets the scene, using figurative language to tell us that it is sunset ("last steps of day"), that dew is falling, and that a certain "thou" is passing by.
While it's not totally just yet clear whom the speaker's talking to, we can guess from the title that he's likely addressing a waterfowl. Now, before we go any further, "waterfowl" is a generic term that can refer to any type of bird that spends a lot of time in the water: herons, ducks, loons, and the like.
Essentially, the speaker's saying, "Hey, duck, where you headed?" But we get a heaping helping of scene description (check out "Setting" for more) in the middle of this question.
This little descriptive interruption gives the poem a stream of consciousness effect—we feel like the speaker is describing the movements of his mind. He sees a bird, starts to ask where it is going, but then his mind wanders off and notices that the day is slowly dying, that there is dew falling, etc.
There are a few other things that need some 'splaining. First, "rosy depths" belong to those "last steps of day," a metaphor for the sunset.
Second, that whole business about "solitary way" is the speaker's way of tipping his hat to a famous English poet: John Milton.
So, why refer to Milton in a poem that is supposedly just about a bird? Well, if you recall your Milton, you'll know that the end of Paradise Lost is very sad. Adam and Eve have screwed up big time and are no longer allowed to live a stress-free, immortal life in Paradise (the Garden of Eden). They have to leave, and they don't get to take anything with them except their own two selves ("solitary way").
By evoking the expulsion or eviction from Paradise, the speaker implies that "To a Waterfowl" is a sad poem as well, a poem about departures, about leaving good and amazing things behind, and about mistakes.
We wonder if this poem will cheer up as we go on. Before we find out, though, let's go over some of the poem's formal elements:.
The poem's stanzas each contain four lines. Groups of four lines are usually called quatrains.
These quatrains, in turn, are comprised of lines written in two different types of meter. The first and fourth lines of each stanza are iambic trimeter (a line with three iambs), while the second and third lines (2,4) are mostly iambic pentameter (5 lines).
Don't sweat all these terms now, though. Head over to "Form and Meter" to read more about this poem's metrical intricacies.