The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 460 words.)