Meeting the British

by Paul Muldoon

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The Poem

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The nine slant-rhymed couplets of “Meeting the British” tell a brief and simple story that encapsulates many elements in the history of the discovery and conquest of America by Europeans. The title sets up the situation of the poem, an encounter between Native Americans and British explorers in the eighteenth century. It is not until the last couplet, however, that one is entirely sure who is speaking and thus who is “meeting the British.” This openness requires readers to complete the implications of the poem’s details, implications not explicitly discussed in the text.

The speaker of the poem first notes the season and weather when he and his group “met the British”: the “dead of winter,” with snow-covered earth and sky the same “lavender” color. He remembers being able to hear the convergence of two frozen-over streams and recalls his own surprise at himself “calling out in French” to the European strangers. He then notes not a dramatic confrontation or the details of a high-level encounter but the fact that neither of the two British officers could “stomach” the tobacco used by the speaker’s group. The speaker also, however, experienced a new sensation: the “unusual scent” from the handkerchief of the colonel, who explains (in French) that “C’est la lavande,/ une fleur mauve comme le ciel” (it is lavender, a flower purple as the sky). The last couplet notes the gifts of the British to the speaker and his people: “six fishhooks/ and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.”

Forms and Devices

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“Meeting the British” uses motifs and imagery carefully chosen to appeal to several senses to establish the complex web of relationship and difference, communication and missed communication, that the poem asserts is the essence of the encounter between the three cultures (British, French, and Native American) represented in the story. Even the form—couplets, but without regular meter and with only slant rhymes—suggests an order at best tentative, relationships at best problematic. The reader of the poem must supply much of what is not said directly, however, to complete the text.

The unusual word “lavender”—the color of the snow-covered earth and the sky, and the scent from the colonel’s handkerchief—in itself carries one such motif. When it first appears in couplets 1 and 2, it emphasizes the speaker’s sensitive appreciation of the natural world and the unity among earth, sky, and speaker. When it reappears, not in its English form but in the colonel’s French, that reappearance emphasizes the distance between the main speaker, who knows “lavender” as a color in nature and an emblem of unity, and the colonel, whose “lavande” is first of all a perfume and only secondarily derived from the “flower purple as the sky.” The mere image of the English gentleman-explorer carrying a perfumed handkerchief in the wilds of the new world further distances him from the speaker.

Just as “lavender” encompasses the complex relationships between British and Native American in appeals to the senses of sight and smell, so the “two streams coming together” which the speaker can hear despite their being frozen appeals to the sense of hearing and reminds readers of the incompatibility of the cultures. The speaker’s own voice is “no less strange” to him than those muted water sounds when he remembers himself “calling out in French,” not his own language; when the colonel is directly quoted in French, not English, readers are invited to hear strange and unexpected sounds incompatible with their habitual ways of communicating.

Even the sense of taste proves to be a point of difference: When the speaker recalls that neither British explorer “could...

(This entire section contains 509 words.)

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stomach our willow-tobacco,” the “our” places the Europeans’ tastes outside the normal range for the speaker. The gifts offered to the speaker are similarly problematic: The fishhooks can only invite greater exploitation of the natural world, and the attractive blankets whose embroidery in reality is smallpox spell doom for the speaker and his people, doom much more profound than differing tastes in tobacco.

The speaker emphasizes that this encounter is with the incompatible by characterizing three elements in the story as “strange” or “unusual”: first, his being able to hear the natural phenomenon of the two streams converging beneath the ice; second, his own use of French to hail the explorers; third, the aroma of the colonel’s perfume. This progression, from the relatively familiar natural world through the speaker’s own self-consciousness of linguistic alienation to a wholly different world of behavior and value, demonstrates the speaker’s ultimate loss of control over his fate.