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English Literature: William Cullen Bryant - Analysis of To a Waterfowl

William Cullen Bryant - Analysis of To a Waterfowl

This video is an analysis of the poem "To a Waterfowl" by the American writer William Cullen Bryant. The main metaphor of the poem is presented in the eighth stanza, where the parallel between the bird's flight and the narrator's life is presented. The conclusion is that God will guide the narrator just as he guides the bird in his migratory flight.

The structure of the poem is framed by the fourth and eighth stanzas, which mirror each other in tone and content. Both stanzas talk about God's guidance. The remaining six stanzas consist of two groups of three: 1, 2, and 3 and 5, 6, and 7.

Stanzas 1, 2, and 3 are full of questions, danger, and uncertainty. The first and third stanzas ask the bird where it is going and what it is seeking. In the context, of the metaphor these are questions about the meaning and purpose of life. The second stanza presents a threat and some dark imagery.

Stanzas 5, 6, and 7 are full of guidance, answers and assurance. The fifth stanza encourages the bird to continue on in its flight. The sixth stanza promises rest and a new home. The seventh stanza occurs, presumably, after the bird is gone and has found its home; it has at least disappeared out of sight.

The groups of three stanzas appear, at first, to be somewhat random. However, in the context of Christianity, the number three suggests the Trinity. The first and fifth stanzas talk about height and the heavens, which are always associated with God the Father. The second and sixth stanzas talk about the Earth, which we associate with Christ or God the Son. The third and seventh stanzas talk about the Baptism and the Ascension of Christ, which we associate with receiving the Holy Spirit and Christ promise to send the Holy Spirit to comfort us after he went to Heaven.

The shape of the stanzas, with 3, 5, 5, and 3 metrical feet, forms a cross, and the invocation of the God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is made during "The Sign of the Cross," which is said before and after prayers. The fourth and eighth stanzas are statements of assent to God's will, which we take to mean "Amen." Hence, the stanzas make "The Sign of the Cross" twice: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." "The Sign of the Cross" is made before and after prayers. For this reason, the poem begins in uncertainty and doubt, and ends with guidance and assurance, after the prayer has been answered.


The scansion for "To a Waterfowl" is given below and an explanation follows afterward.
                    | - delimits metrical feet
                    / - indicates a stressed syllable
                    x - indicates an unstressed syllable.

         /   x        x    /      x   /
        Whither, | 'midst fall | ing dew,
  x     /     x   /      x   /      x   x     /     x   /
While glow | the heav | ens with | the last steps | of day,
 /      x        x    /    x   /        x    /      x  /
Far, through | their ros | y depths, | dost thou | pursue
         x   /    x /    x  /
        Thy sol | itar | y way?

         /  x     x   /      x    /
        Vainly | the fowl | er's eye
  x    /      x   /      x    /      x  /     x     /
Might mark | thy dist | ant flight | to do | thee wrong,
x    /     x    /     x  /     x   /      x   /
As, dark | ly paint | ed on | the crim | son sky,
         x   /     x    /      x /
        Thy fig | ure floats | along.

           /     x      x    /     x   /
        Seek'st thou | the plash | y brink
x   /     x  /      x    /     x   /    x   /
Of weed | y lake, | or marge | of riv | er wide,
x    /      x   /      x   /     x    /      x   /
Or where | the rock | ing bil | lows rise | and sink
        x   x      /    /   x    /
        On the | chafed o| cean side?

          x   /    x  /    x    x    /
        There is | a Pow | er whose care
  /  x     x   /    x /      x    /      x     /
Teaches | thy way | along | that path | less coast,--
 x   /     x   /    x  /    x /    x   /
The des | ert and | illim | ita | ble air,--
         x    /     x  /      x   x   /
        Lone wan | dering, | but not lost.

         x   /     x    /      x     /
        All day | thy wings | have fann'd
x   /      x    /        x   /      x   /     x   /
At that | far height, | the cold | thin at | mosphere:
 x    /      x    /     x  /     x   /     x    /
Yet stoop | not, wear | y, to | the wel | come land,
          /     x     x     /     x   /
        Though the | dark night | is near.

         x   /      x    /       x    /
        And soon | that toil | shall end,
 x     /      x    /     x  /     x   /       x   /
Soon shalt | thou find | a sum | mer home, | and rest,
 x    /      x /      x   /     x     /        x    /
And scream | among | thy fel | lows; reeds | shall bend
         x / x / x /
        Soon o'er | thy shelt | ered nest.

           x     /       x  x /     x   /  x
        Thou'rt gone, | the abyss | of heaven
 x    /       x   /     x   /       x   /    x    /
Hath swal | lowed up | thy form; | yet, on | my heart
 /  x     x    /      x   /     x   /      x    / x
Deeply | hath sunk | the les | son thou | hast given,
         x    /      x   /     x  /
        And shall | not soon | depart.

        x    /      x    /     x   /
        He, who, | from zone | to zone,
  x       /       x    /      x    /     x   /     x     /
Guides through | the bound | less sky | thy cer | tain flight,
/   x     x    /     x   /    x     /     x /
In the | long way | that I | must tread | alone,
         x    /     x    /     x  /
        Will lead | my steps | aright.

To mirror the unsettled nature of the text in first three stanzas, we see that each of these begins with a trochaic foot. That is, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (/x), instead of the normal iambic foot, which is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (x/). Recall that stanzas 1, 2, and 3 begin the prayer with uncertainty, and that stanzas 5, 6, and 7 end the prayer in assurance. So, as expected, the latter stanzas begin with the more regular iambic foot.

The first line of the first stanza is written with an iambic foot in the middle: "'midst fall." However, the foot is more correctly seen a spondee (two stressed syllables \). So, the first line is actually symmetric and has the form of a bird in flight: /x//x/. In the second, we have the anapest (xx/) on the fourth foot. However, this foot features a strong second syllable and a weak first syllable that gives it more of the sound of a bacchius (x//) and feels like a succession of steps. In the third line, the initial trochee (/x) slows down the verse, which then accelerates through the two unstressed syllables until it hits the internal rhyme between the words "depths" and "steps." This acceleration illustrates the pursuit that is mentioned next.

The first stanza features the frequent use of the "w" sound to give the feeling of soft, wet dew. In addition, most of the vowel and consonant sounds are soft, and many of the syllables are open. The irregular meter and the soft sounds together give this stanza a disconnected or lost feeling.

Like the first stanza, the second stanza begins with the unsettling trochaic foot. However, this stanzas maintains a harsh feeling throughout. The first foot of the second line is iambic, but it is almost a spondee in its feel since the syllables are strong and nearly equal. However, putting "might" on the unstressed syllable helps to suppress the rhyme with the word "flight" later in the line. The internal rhyme of "mark" in the second line and "dark" in the third lines helps to emphasize the harsh "k" sound. Additionally, the hard "k" sound is emphasized in "sky" with the end-rhyme, along with the hard "g" sound in "wrong" and "along." Overall, the stanza feels harsh and dangerous.

The third stanza begins with yet another trochee (/x). The rest of the meter is regular iambic, until we hit the fourth line where a pyrric foot (xx) followed by a spondee (//) is used to create the chafing feeling. The verse is full of many various strong consonant and vowel sounds that create the feeling of the water's motion.

In the fourth stanza, the use of anapestic feet (xx/) at the ends ot the first and last lines serve to subtly emphasize the words "care" and "lost" in this otherwise very tame stanza. The trochee (/x) in the second line puts the stress on "teach" next to the one on "care" and serves to join the two words. The last half of the stanza is full of soft sounds that create an open, airy, and empty feeling, much like the first stanza.

The fifth stanza uses regular feet in the first three lines to create the feeling of a long journey. Only in the fourth line do we find a single trochee (/x) to break the monotony and add an empasis on the "dark night," which is written here as an iamb but feels very much like a spondee (//). The stanza feels drawn out.

The sixth stanza begins with a line of iambic trimeter to continue the "toil" for a bit until we hit the spondee (/x) at the beginning of the second line, which signals the coming rest. The remainder of the stanza rests comfortably in iambic meter.

In the seventh stanza, the meter falls apart almost completely, mimicking the loss of bodily form. The second and fourth lines are regular iambic meter. However, the first and third lines break the structure and create a completely different rhythm. Each of these lines ends in an amphibrach foot (x/x), and this change in meter is further enhanced by the use of a the feminine slant rhyme. These ends, along with the anapest (xx/) in the middle of first line and the trochee (/x) at the beginning in the third line, serve to dissolve the iambic feel of the poem. This stanza feels irregular and formless.

The eighth stanza returns to order and regular meter. The only deviation from iambic meter, is the trochee (/x) that begins the third line. Many of the to remaining feet in the third line are approximately spondee (//) and serve draw out "the long way." Overall, the eighth stanza feels like a resolution to the prior disorder.