Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Meeting the British” above all concerns conflicts between cultures, especially those occurring when Europeans first conquered North America. The poem asks the reader, an English-speaker more than two hundred years after the encounter presented, to step inside the consciousness of the conquered culture. It lets a reader experience what it might have been like to have met the British for the first time.

Because the events in the poem happened long ago and the horrendous effects of European conquest on Native American populations are part of history, Paul Muldoon can give the imagined memories of the speaker melancholy resonance. Even the simple, almost hackneyed phrase “the dead of winter” in the first line implies, by the end of the poem, the deaths of many individuals and of an entire culture. The image of the “frozen” streams suggests not only the rigid, encrusted cultural elements that will prevent an amicable relationship but also death itself in the encounter of their “coming together.” European influences had alienated the speaker from his language even before the events of this poem—he is able to speak French and knows enough to “call out” to the English officers in French.

The deepest and subtlest effect of the meeting between Native American and European here is the automatic assumption of the Englishmen that their culture is superior, and the ways in which the Native Americans acquiesce in this view. That the explorers do not speak a native language, but instead rely on the speaker’s previous knowledge of French, demonstrates their desire to dominate and exploit, not to understand. Similarly, the movement from lavender in nature to lavender as an artificial perfume, part of a hyper-civilized affectation of one of the explorers, demonstrates in miniature the shift in values experienced by the speaker. Furthermore, since the speaker is remembering the encounter as an event in the past, and since the only words he quotes directly from the explorers is the description of the scent, his use of “lavender” to describe snow and sky may signify that he has adopted the colonel’s very vocabulary, taking the linguistic infection as if it were a case of European-borne smallpox. Muldoon here gives a voice to the forgotten natives who bore the brunt of European expansion into the Americas.