Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Indian Burying Ground” is a poem about the admirable ways of Native Americans, here viewed essentially as “noble savages,” a fairly common eighteenth century idea, as exemplified in their custom of burying the dead in a sitting position symbolic of their pristine vitality in life and for eternity.
The poem indulges in a nostalgia for the primitive, the past, and the fantastic as envisaged through the poet’s and the reader’s imagination, which is deemed more powerful than the faculty of reason in the human mind. Freneau begins his poem with a declaration of independence from received notions of European civilization respecting burial rites, and ends, appropriately, with a declaration of allegiance not to fact-based reason but to the new Romantic imagination: fancy-bound and therefore capable of conjuring up Indian spirits that are shown to be forever alive in the sublime realm of mist, moonlight, and shadow. The growing interest of Americans such as Freneau in their own past and in the original natives of the country may be seen as the result of an impulse similar to the one that made the Germanic and Celtic past an important topic of English Romanticism. Veneration of the “noble savage” was also widespread in England and on the Continent in the eighteenth century.
It must be pointed out, however, that Freneau’s worship of the noble American savage is unconsciously compromised by large doses of implicit condescension toward Indians. Compared to white people of European background, the Indians are written off as “a ruder race” (line 24) and as the “children of the forest” (line 28) who in death produce “many a barbarous form” (line 31) to haunt their graveyard and punish unwary intruders. Hence, critics and readers alike must be cautious about ascribing an enlightened primitivism to Philip Freneau and his poetry.