The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

“The Indian Burying Ground” is a short lyric poem of forty lines celebrating the spirits of Native Americans haunting their sequestered graves in the North American wilderness. It is an early American example of the Romantic movement in Western literature. Although its elegiac subject matter harks back to the eighteenth century British school of “graveyard” poetry, Philip Freneau adds a Romantic twist to the sepulchral theme of human mortality. This writer displays a Gothic fascination with supernatural phenomena and moonlit scenes of fancy, a primitivistic attention to unspoiled natives and pristine nature, a nostalgia for a legendary past, and an interest in the spellbinding powers of the imagination (or “fancy”) as superior to the reason of the European Enlightenment. In lyric form and fanciful poetic theme, Freneau bears close comparison to William Collins in eighteenth century England.

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The poem opens with a primitivistic speaker in the guise of a common man challenging civilized burial customs, which betray what a culture thinks of the state of death. When civilized culture demands burying a corpse in a prone position, death is seen as an eternal sleep for the soul.

If readers consider not the European past but the antiquity of the New World, however, they contemplate America’s primordial race of Indians, whose sitting posture in their graves suggests that their souls actively continue the simple pursuits of their former mortal lives, as depicted on their pottery and as indicated by their weapons. For example, an Indian arrowhead, or “head of stone,” symbolizes the opposite of a European headstone—namely, the enduring vitality of the dead person’s spirit, unlike the cold, engraved memorial for a dead white man.

Almost midway through the poem, there is a shift from commentary about burial rites to an exhortation to an unnamed stranger forbidding any violation of a secluded Indian grave site where the dead were buried sitting, not sleeping, and whose corpses therefore left a noticeable swelling in the grass-covered landscape. This Indian graveyard lay in a setting of Romantic sublimity, set off grandly by a boulder of native carvings and sheltered by a venerable elm tree that once witnessed Indian pastimes.

Let the passerby and local farmer (“the shepherd”) beware of disturbing the ghosts of these departed Indians, who haunt their burial site and ward off injuries done to the hallowed place. One such spirit is the ghost of an Indian maiden as beautiful as the darker-skinned Queen of Sheba in the Bible.

At the haunting time of midnight in a dewy moonlit setting, the passerby will let reason be overpowered by imagination, or “fancy,” so as to be able to see a frightening supernatural vision of deer hunters and an Indian chief wearing war paint and riding perpetually in night’s shadows.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

“The Indian Burying Ground” is a lyric poem consisting of ten quatrains with alternating end rhymes. The prevailing meter is iambic tetrameter with variations. A lyric poem tends to be a simple evocation of a single, simple experience and/or emotion, and such is this poem’s aim and achievement. Freneau’s lyric poetry, though minor, is often haunting in its beauty. Using contemporary themes of nature, evanescence, interest in an unspoiled humanity and solitude, primitivism, and the supernatural, he evoked a real charm that is at odds with the harsh satire for which he was best known in his own time.

His lyric poems are rooted in the eighteenth century seedbed of British “graveyard” poetry, and especially in William Collins’s more formally ornate Romantic poems that pay homage to the new European interest in fancy, fantasy, Gothic supernaturalism, and nostalgia for remote national history. Freneau’s accomplishment was to naturalize these English literary trends and European artistic impulses to help give impetus to a national literature for the burgeoning United States of America.

As Freneau lamented in his “Advice to Authors” (published in the same year, 1788, as the poem under discussion), the United States was as yet a very thin, rocky soil for cultivating the fine arts and for nurturing starving poets. It was a miracle that any literature emerged at all in a nation that was too young and too rude to have developed a fully civilized culture sustaining poetic creation:In a country, which two hundred years ago was peopled only by savages, and where the government has ever, in effect, since the first establishment of the white men in these parts, been no other than republican, it is really wonderful there should be any polite original authors at all in any line, especially when it is considered, that according to the common course of things, any particular nation or people must have arrived to, or rather passed, their meridian of opulence and refinement, before they consider the professors of the fine arts in any other light than a nuisance to the community.

Even outside the context of an uncultured United States, “The Indian Burying Ground” should be considered a good performance, if not a great poem; it is a lovely piece, of European inspiration and idealistic American sensibility.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

Andrews, William D. “Philip Freneau and Francis Hopkinson.” In American Literature, 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years, edited by Everett Emerson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

Elliott, Emory. “Philip Freneau: Poetry of Social Commitment.” In Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 1725-1810. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Leary, Lewis. “Philip Freneau.” In Major Writers of Early American Literature, edited by Everett Emerson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. “Antecedents: The Case of Freneau.” In The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Ronnick, Michele Valerie. “A Note on the Text of Philip Freneau’s ’Columbus to Ferdinand’: From Plato to Seneca.” Early American Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 81.

Tichi, Cecelia. New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans Through Whitman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Wertheimer, Eric. “Commencement Ceremonies: History and Identity in ’The Rising Glory of America,’ 1771 and 1786.” Early American Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 35.

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