Pocahontas and the 19th Century Poetry

A year later Lydia H. Sigourney published her poem, "Pocahontas." Brought out by Harper & Brothers in New York, this ode seems to be one of the few widely appreciated poems about the Indian Princess. Many poems and fictional novels were produced in the 19th century; most were written by women, and most were self-published, presumably for small audiences. The Sigourney poem demonstrates the sentimentality and Byronic diction typical of these poems, yet it was probably much more widely read than the others, judging from the profile of the publisher. In her poem, Mrs. Sigourney paints the pre-colonial Virginia landscape as another Garden of Eden:

"Earth seem'd to glow with Eden's purple light, The fleeting days glanced by on pinion's bright, And every hour a rainbow lustre lent; While, with his tones of music in her ear, Love's eloquence inspired the high-born cavalier."

The young cavalier in the last line of that stanza is John Rolfe, who is cast in this poem as an equally Edenic figure, the American Adam destined to bridge the mythical past with the colonial future. In this poem, as in many other19th century Pocahontas odes, the omniscient narrating voice tells us that Pocahontas possesses the ideal Christian, feminine demeanor, even before Englishmen ever set foot on American soil. She is the embodiment of the noble simplicity of nature. The union of the idealized European gentleman--- sometimes John Smith, sometimes it is John Rolfe--- with the noble savage maiden is the most powerful force behind the Pocahontas mythology. In the marriage of the two, one may clearly read the preferred metaphor of American settlement: the sublime wilderness subdued and converted to English purposes presented as a divine seduction. It serves as a connection to the pre-Columbian history of this land as well as an antidote to the unsavory 19th century reality of Indian removal and genocide.

By the mid-1900's Americans in the eastern states must have begun to feel sufficiently safe from the Indian threat to afford nostalgia for their lost civilization. Also at work is the interest in the Native American who seemed to validate the mission of the colonists: you were and are right, she suggests by her assimilation. Sigourney's poem, for example, ends this way:

"The council-fires are quench'd, that erst so red Their midnight volume mid the groves entwined; King, stately chief, and warrior-host are dead, Nor remnant nor memorial left behind: But thou, O forest-princess, true of heart, When o'er our fathers waved destruction's dart, Shalt in their children's loving hearts be shrined; Pure, lonely star, o'er dark oblivion's wave, It is not meet thy name should moulder in the grave."

The poem beseeches readers to remember, but the story of Pocahontas is not a fixed historical truth to recalled, but an illusive, shifting, and ever-evolving legend. In fact, one might suggest that this sentimental version of Pocahontas is a uniquely 19th century invention, a useful icon for the times. When the culture clearly needed both a mythical, Edenic past as well as a balm for its guilt over Indian removal under Jackson and others, Americans turned to Pocahontas. You were and are right, she seemed to say.



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