English Literature
The Indian Burying Ground

The Indian Burying Ground

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Exploring the Meaning Behind Philip Freneau's Poem, 'The Indian Burying Ground'

In his poem, 'The Indian Burying Ground' (1787), American poet Philip Freneau ponders on the burial practices of Native Americans and how they reflect their beliefs about the afterlife. Through the use of literary devices such as figures of speech, personification, and metaphor, Freneau praises the Native American approach to death as a continuation of life and criticizes the formal, distant European tradition.

'The Indian Burying Ground': Context and Significance

'The Indian Burying Ground' was first published in the American Museum literary magazine in November 1787, marking it as one of the early successful magazines in the United States. The magazine also featured works from influential figures such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, alongside Freneau's poem.

During his time, Freneau was a well-known American poet, particularly recognized for his political satires. He was dubbed "the poet of the American Revolution" for his anti-British works that chronicled the tensions leading up to and following the American Revolution. After the war, Freneau founded a newspaper that strongly opposed the Federalist politics of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, instead advocating for the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. He was also a vocal supporter of the abolishment of slavery, and 'The Indian Burying Ground' is one of the earliest recorded pieces in American literature that praises Native American customs.

Summary of 'The Indian Burying Ground'

In this poem, the speaker contemplates the Native American tradition of burying their dead in a seated position, which they believe continues the essence of life. The speaker suggests that the "learned" Americans, with their European descent, could learn from this custom. While Europeans perform solemn and formal burials, symbolizing the end of life, Native Americans bury their dead in a lively and active posture, believing that death is a continuation of their temporal world. In the afterlife, the deceased are free to hunt, feast with friends, and run freely in the forest. The speaker concludes by stating that the logical and rational approach of Europeans to death leaves little room for the deceased to thrive in the afterlife. By embracing the mystical and imaginative, however, the dead have a better chance at a dynamic afterlife.

It's worth noting that Freneau wrote 'The Indian Burying Ground' in 1787, immediately after the American Revolutionary War. At the time, the United States was still made up of 13 colonies, with Delaware as the first state to ratify the Constitution. It would be several decades before American expansion towards the west, with the Louisiana Purchase taking place in 1803.

Some may view Freneau's portrayal of Native American practices as reductionist and uninformed. However, it's crucial to understand the historical context in which he wrote. In the 18th century, Native American groups were often stereotyped and homogenized, omitting their diverse and rich cultures. Therefore, for his time, Freneau's defense of Native Americans and criticism of European traditions was progressive, making 'The Indian Burying Ground' a pioneering pro-Native American piece in American literature. While it may seem oversimplified to a modern audience, his words were revolutionary for their time.

Analyzing the Literary Devices in 'The Indian Burying Ground'

'The Indian Burying Ground' employs figures of speech and metaphors to highlight the differences between Native Americans and European colonizers. The speaker begins by challenging the beliefs of the "learned" Europeans, who consider themselves superior to the "ruder race" of Native Americans (1, 24). This highlights the cultural divide between the two groups.

Personification is used to depict the active nature of Native American souls after death. The speaker describes their souls as full of "Activity, that knows no rest" (12), unlike the stagnant and static European souls. This personification also extends to nature, as seen through the "aged elm [that] aspires" (25), symbolizing wisdom and a goal-oriented mindset.

The use of metaphor adds depth to the speaker's argument. The mention of the "children of the forest" playing beneath the elm tree (26) signifies the harmony between Native Americans and nature. This contrasts with the European colonizers, portrayed as outsiders and mere visitors in this land.

Exploring the Message of "Lines 13-16" through the Use of Imagery and Allusion

The anonymous author of "Lines 13-16" effectively utilizes imagery and allusion to challenge the concept of superiority and present a different perspective on Native American culture and their relationship with nature.

The poem paints a vivid picture of the lasting relevance of Native American customs through the metaphor of a bow and arrows, which are traditionally used for hunting. While Europeans may view these tools as primitive, the speaker portrays them as "action ready" and "long-lasting like a stone," symbolizing their enduring significance. This also serves to contradict the notion that Native American tools are crude, highlighting their lasting value and importance.

The poem's use of imagery is predominantly focused on Native American life, death, and their connection to the earth. This stark contrast to the lack of imagery in describing European burial practices emphasizes the emotional depth and significance of Native American customs. The deceased are portrayed as still actively participating in the natural world, enjoying joyous feasts with their loved ones. The descriptive language used appeals to the senses, further emphasizing the dynamic and continuous existence of the Native American people.

Additionally, the use of imagery in the poem places the Native Americans as the central subject, rather than just traditional symbols associated with them such as bows and deer. This emphasizes their active role in the poem and dispels any passive or romanticized notions.

The poem also vividly describes nature itself, particularly in relation to the Native American people. References to a "lofty rock" and an "aged elm" showcase the power and familiarity of nature in their lives. This is in stark contrast to the European colonizers' view of nature as something to be exploited for profit. The poem conveys how the Native Americans held a deep respect and reverence for nature, while the colonizers sought to dominate it.

The allusion to "Pale Shebah," the restless Indian queen, serves to compare the search for spiritual truth by Native American women to the biblical Queen of Sheba. Both women, considered outsiders due to their race and history, seek knowledge and wisdom. By referencing Queen Sheba, the speaker highlights the wisdom and beauty of Native American culture.

The extensive use of alliteration and consonance in the poem also adds to its mystical and otherworldly tone. This further emphasizes the importance of Native American customs and beliefs, depicted as powerful and enduring in the face of modernization.

One can see the use of alliteration in the first stanza, starting with the repetition of the "O" sound in "old opinion" (2) and the "S" sound in "soul's eternal sleep" (4). This pattern continues throughout the poem with phrases like "rock remains," "wasted, half, by wearing," and "ruder race" (21-24). The purpose of this alliteration is to evoke a sense of wonder and awe as the poem explores the unconventional relationship between Native Americans and death. By emphasizing certain pairs of words and highlighting unlikely combinations, the alliteration adds to the overall theme and creates a feeling of amazement. It also gives agency to typically passive nouns, such as "rock remains," further emphasizing the speaker's fascination with the subject.

The consistent use of alliteration throughout the poem also serves to quicken the pace and propel the poem forward. The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words creates a natural rhythm and enhances the flow of the poem. This rhythm mirrors the fleeting nature of life, as words with the same beginning letter flow effortlessly and quickly into the next.

Consonance, like alliteration, also contributes to the ethereal and spiritual mood of the poem, particularly in the first stanza. The repetition of the "P" sound gives a harsh and critical tone, reflecting the speaker's disapproval of European arrogance.

The Complexity of Cultural Beliefs in 'The Indian Burying Ground' by Philip Freneau

Published in 1787, 'The Indian Burying Ground' by American poet Philip Freneau delves into the contrasting views of death and nature between Native Americans and Europeans. Despite criticism from learned individuals, the speaker maintains his belief in the eternal spirit life held by the Native American tradition.

The poem examines how the European practice of burying the dead symbolizes the end of life, while Native American customs celebrate the continuation of existence. The speaker repeatedly uses the word "again" in lines 7 and 8, emphasizing that death is simply a transition to a different plane. The phrase "here still" is also reiterated, reinforcing the idea that Native American spirits remain present in the natural world even after death. Through this repetition, the speaker challenges the European belief in an afterlife, depicting it as a mere slumber compared to the enduring spirit life of the Native Americans.

The central theme of this poem is the stark contrast between European and Native American beliefs. The speaker highlights how the Europeans view death as a final end, while the Native Americans see it as a natural part of life. He states, "The posture, that we give the dead, Points out the soul's eternal sleep. Not so the ancients of these lands—" (3-5). This contrast is further emphasized by the speaker's observation that Native Americans do not lie in the ground like Europeans, but instead sit among the living, symbolizing their belief in an everlasting spirit life.

Another important aspect of this poem is the emphasis on diversity of thought. The speaker challenges the stereotype of Europeans being superior in intellect by promoting the Native American perspective on death. He recognizes the value of cultural diversity and unique beliefs, distancing himself from the European tradition of viewing death as the ultimate end.

In conclusion, 'The Indian Burying Ground' uses literary devices like alliteration and repetition to explore the theme of death and the afterlife. Through these techniques, the speaker highlights the wonder and criticism towards different beliefs, celebrating diversity of thought and challenging societal stereotypes. This poem serves as a reminder to embrace cultural diversity and appreciate the spiritual connection to nature held by Native Americans.

Discovering the Message of 'The Indian Burying Ground'

  • In 1787, Philip Freneau, a pioneering writer, released 'The Indian Burying Ground', advocating for the eradication of slavery and promoting respect for Native American traditions.
  • The poem delves into the stark contrast between the Native American and European perspectives on death and nature.
  • Through the speaker's words, the poem promotes open-mindedness and urges peaceful exchange of ideas.
  • The Native American way of life, customs, and even death closely intertwine with nature, showcasing their profound reverence for it.
  • The Europeans, however, are portrayed as detached and passive in their relationship with nature.
  • 'The Indian Burying Ground' employs a variety of poetic devices, such as figurative language, personification, metaphors, and imagery, to convey its message.

Exploring the Themes in 'The Indian Burying Ground'

Death and the Afterlife: The poem compares the Native American and European views on death, accentuating the spiritual connection that Native Americans possess with the afterlife through nature.

Diversity of Thought: The poem celebrates diversity of thought and encourages understanding and acceptance of different cultures and traditions.

Nature and Humanity: The relationship between Native Americans and nature underlines the theme of nature and humanity. Their deep reverence for nature stands in contrast to the European mentality of exploiting and dominating it for their own gain.

Frequently Asked Questions About 'The Indian Burying Ground'

What is the meaning of 'The Indian Burying Ground'?

The meaning of 'The Indian Burying Ground' is that Native Americans have a stronger connection to the afterlife and nature in comparison to Europeans, which is evident in their burial practices.

What is the rhyme scheme of 'The Indian Burying Ground'?

The rhyme scheme of 'The Indian Burying Ground' is ABAB CDCD.

What is 'The Indian Burying Ground' about?

'The Indian Burying Ground' discusses the contrast between Native American and European beliefs regarding death and nature, as well as the value of diversity of thought and the deep connection to nature that Native Americans possess.

When did Philip Freneau write 'The Indian Burying Ground'?

Philip Freneau wrote 'The Indian Burying Ground' in 1787 and published it the same year.

What are the poetic devices used in the poem 'The Indian Burying Ground'?

The poetic devices utilized in 'The Indian Burying Ground' include figurative language, personification, metaphors, imagery, allusion, alliteration, repetition, and consonance.

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