The emphasis on disharmony in the poem is unmistakable from start to finish. Virginia, the poem asserts, is a land of diversity. Mention of its origin as a European colony begins the poem, and whatever is said about the land derives from the historical moment when European encountered nature and man in this particular spot. The resulting assortment continues into modern times in the form of Latin mottoes, European architecture, and assorted decorations. The land has suffered from the changes, however. Like the bird’s eye that has come to resemble “sculptured marble” (line 43), the imported tree has become indistinguishable from the native one. The land’s “lost identity” parallels the encroachment of man on the environment, to destructive effect.
Throughout most of the poem, the poet maintains an objective view of the settlement of Virginia while cataloging its effects on the land and its native culture. The bizarre appearance of a Native American chief “could be no/ odder than we were” (line 18). Although the European settler is criticized for having shown the land no mercy, the “redskin” is no noble savage. He is still “famous for his cruelty,” and the best that is said of him is that he “is not all brawn/ and animality” (lines 116-117). The poem’s catalog of the natural features of the land—its flowers, trees, and animals, especially the birds—develops into a sympathetic portrait of a land threatened by the changes that settlement brought to it.
All the attention given to the variegated texture of the land and its natural features culminates in the penultimate stanza, where the poet focuses on “The mere brown hedge sparrow,” symbol of the persistence of the natural element as well as its vulnerability. The bird’s naïveté is both attractive and frightful, for the bird’s “satisfaction in man’s trustworthy nearness” renders the bird’s ardor “reckless.” The image of nature celebrating man’s presence in the land is shadowed in the final lines by ominous hints. The bird “even in the dark/ flutes his ecstatic burst of joy” (lines 127-128), and the bough of the live oak presents a “darkening filigree” (line 133). The final image of the land shows sunlight flaming against a “blackening ridge of green” (line 140). Though glory-rich clouds hover aloft for the child to see, the poet suggests that in the clouds one sees only an “intimation” of glory, and they are, after all, detached from the land itself, and passing.
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