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.”