Angie Debo (essay date 1931)
SOURCE: "John Rollin Ridge," in Southwest Review, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Autumn, 1931, pp. 59-71.
[In the following excerpt, Debo provides an overview of Ridge's poetry, concluding that Ridge was "a Cherokee poet only in the sense that he was both a Cherokee and a poet, and that his intellectual bent was all Christian, classical, and American rather than native".]
Most of Ridge's literary work has been lost; probably a great deal of it was of the ephemeral sort that goes to make up much of the output of the journalist. A volume of his verse [Poems] was published posthumously by his wife in 1868. Although somewhat disappointing after the strength and beauty of literary style revealed by his personal correspondence, still these poems throw some additional light on his strange and many-sided personality. As most of his life was spent in banishment from what was felt to be his home, his most interesting poems have to do with the loneliness of his exile. This emotion is dominant in "The Harp of Broken Strings," his best known poem, and also in a poem written when, at the age of twenty-three, exiled from his people, and with a price upon his head, he was crossing the plains to California. It begins:
A wanderer from my distant home,
From those who blest me with their love,
With boundless plains beneath my feet,
And foreign skies my head above; …
The following lines, evidently written two or three years later, express the same loneliness:
Long years have passed, and I have seen thee not,
Save in my waking and my nightly dreams,
When rose our quiet well-remembered cot
In that far land of pleasant woods and streams.
Ridge always felt a mystical companionship with nature that was a part of his Indian heritage. This is sometimes crudely expressed, but he always felt peace and calm descending upon his stormy spirit when he was in the presence of the intimate beauty of shaded streams, the pure remoteness of the stars, or the eternal strength of the snowcapped peaks.
One of his best expressions of this contact with nature is his "Mount Shasta," which begins:
Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands
Imperial midst the lesser heights, and, like
Some mighty unimpassioned mind, companion-
And cold. The storms of Heaven may beat in wrath
Against it, but it stands in unpolluted
Grandeur still; and from the rolling mists upheaves
Its tower of pride e'en purer than before.
The wintry showers and white-winged tempests
Their frozen tributes on its brow, and it
Doth make of them an everlasting crown.
Then there is the "Remembrance of a Summer's Night," which in its fatalism reminds one some-what of "Thanatopsis." As the poet sat beside a lake and watched the stars come out it seemed to him that the earth must burn dimly among her sister planets...
(The entire section is 1309 words.)