In December 1815, freshly admitted to the bar, the American poet William Cullen Bryant was walking to Plainfield, Massachusetts, when he observed a bird—probably a duck—flying across the horizon at sunset. That vision gave birth to what has been called the best short poem in any language and even by one “the most beautiful poem in the world.” I might not reach that far, but “To a Waterfowl,” published two hundred years ago in 1818, remains worthy of our consideration.
Providence is the central theme of the poem, and its allusions to Psalm 91 —which also focuses on God’s Providential care—are strong. The waterfowl is bound for its destination just as night is about to fall: “Whither, //… while glow the heavens with the last steps of day//… dost thou pursue // thy solitary way?” Drawing both on Scripture and common human experience, darkness is the time of danger, the haunt of evil. The lone bird might be regarded as an easy target: “darkly against the crimson sky//thy figure floats along.” Today’s flying duck might be tonight’s duck soup. But “vainly the fowler’s eye//might mark thy distant fly to do thee wrong,” because the duck’s path is not just his own: “There is a Power whose care//teaches thy way along the pathless coast//The desert and illimitable air//lone wandering, but not lost.”
In his commentary on Psalm 91 , the German theologian Romano Guardini likewise pointed out the comprehensive, protecting care of Providence: like the waterfowl, racing but sustained by that caring “Power,” “He who dwells in the shelter of the Almighty” need fear neither nocturnal terror nor pestilence nor diurnal arrow nor plague (vv. 5-7).
Bryant was struck by the “lone wandering” waterfowl, no doubt comparing it to his own solitary situation as he began his professional life. The “rugged individual” is, of course, a strong motif in American culture: Bryant’s contemporary, James Fenimore Cooper, was five years away from launching his famous “Leatherstocking Tales,” with its resourceful hero, Natty Bumpo. Butt Psalm 91 also focuses on the one who “dwells in the shelter of the most High, and abides in the shade of the Almighty” (v. 1). Although Israel is called to be Yahweh’s People, the Psalmist is clearly centered on the one whose trust is in God (v. 3) and enjoys His Protection, in contrast to the “thousand fall at your side, and ten thousand who fall at your right” (v. 7). The waterfowl seeking “shelter” and the faithful Israelite “refuge” (v. 9) both find it under the Divine Wing (v. 4). Both also enjoy that Protection while they are in via, on the way: the waterfowl, winging his way to “plashy brink … or marge of river wide,” the righteous Israelite wherever he goes. And, as human life is also a pilgrimage en route to the dwelling He prepares for us (John 14:2-3) so, too, the waterfowl’s “toil shall end//shalt thou find … rest,” not alone, but “among thy fellows.” Confident in that Divine One, He who “commands His angels to bear you up” (vv. 11-12), the waterfowl is counseled not to succumb to temptation, to give up the flight: “stoop not, weary, to the welcome land.” Your home is elsewhere.
As the bird disappears against the horizon (“the abyss of heaven has swallowed up thy form”), Bryant takes to heart (“on my heart//deeply has sunk the lesson thou hast given”) this experience of Providence: “He, who from zone to zone//Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight//In the long way that I must trace alone//Will lead my steps aright.” Bryant’s lesson is not just for a moment (the lesson “shalt not soon depart”) but a lifetime: undoubtedly, as the young man must have wondered what lay ahead for him in what we know the next 63 years would bring—a life as a lawyer, well-liked poet, and successful journalist—he drew assurance he was not really tracing his steps “alone.”
Providential guidance of the waterfowl’s path is hardly limited to ducks: the same Divine barber counting the hairs of our heads (Mt 10:30) is He who ensures no sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge (v. 29). Bryant’s reflections on avian and human concerns of Divine Providence enjoys clear warrant.
The encounter of man with God through nature is long and proven: one of the ways of discovering God, at least rudimentarily, is “natural theology,” i.e., through the order of the world. Bryant clearly shared that perspective, considering that he opens “A Forest Hymn” with the line: “The groves were God’s first temples.” Bryant’s recognition of God’s care to the end is apparent in his lesser-known poem, “To the Fringed Gentian,” the last flower to appear in the year, which “waitest late and cometh alone,” after the frosts have felled others, looking towards heaven as death approaches, just as Bryant hopes “blossoming in my heart//May look to heaven as I depart.”
Bryant’s poem is almost a prayer: speaking to the waterfowl, he reveals what he has learned from the encounter. For this Catholic theologian, this poses no issue: man, the summit of God’s creation, gives voice to a dumb creation which, nevertheless, by its very being “proclaims the glory of God.” That is as it should be.
A modern world fixated on technological and technocratic manipulation, obsessed with being “in control” and confident of its own mastery of the world, has little interest in God. Providence, then, likewise becomes a dispensable notion, as we become functional deists, perhaps paying nominal lip service to a deity whose presence and influence in our lives we discount. Two centuries after Bryant’s work appeared in the North American Review, 203 years after his walk on a late fall day in western Massachusetts, it might be worthwhile for modern man to take a stroll and look up at heaven’s “rosy depths.” You can learn a lot from a duck.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Lake Landscape and Flying Duck” attributed to Dutch painter Joseph De Groot (1828-1899).