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What does the way humans bury their dead say about their relationship to the afterlife? To American poet Philip Freneau, it means the difference between a passive, eternal sleep and an everlasting, active existence. In 'The Indian Burying Gound,' (1787) Freneau's speaker uses figures of speech, personification, and metaphor to admire how Native American groups approach burials as an extension of life, while simultaneously critiquing the European tradition of death for being so formal and distant.
Iambic Tetrameter (with slight variations)
Figure of Speech
Bow bent for action
Arrows with head of stone
Mystical, admiring, contemplative
Death and the afterlife
Diversity of thought
Nature and mankind
Native Americans have a deeper relationship to the afterlife and the natural world than Europeans do, as expressed in things like how they bury their dead
American poet Philip Freneau first published 'The Indian Burying Ground' in the American Museum literary magazine in November, 1787. The American Museum, along with the Columbian Magazine, were some of the first successful magazines in the United States. In addition to Freneau, other contributors to the magazine included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
Freneau is a widely forgotten American poet who was well known in his own time for his political satires. He earned the title "the poet of the American Revolution" for his anti-British pieces that chronicled the tensions leading up to and following the American Revolution. The newspaper he founded after the war strongly opposed the Federalist politics of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, promoting Jeffersonian politics instead. Freneau was also a strong advocate for the abolishment of slavery, and 'The Indian Burying Ground' is one of the first recorded poems in the United States that praises Native Americans.
The speaker reflects on a Native American tradition of burying their deceased in a seated position. He admires this custom, saying that the "learned," the American citizens with European descent, could learn a lot from the Native Americans. When the Europeans bury their dead, it is a solemn, formal event, signifying the end of life. They lay their deceased on their backs, cementing the idea that death is the soul's eternal rest. The Native Americans, on the contrary, bury their dead in a posture that conveys activity and vitality in the afterlife. They believe that death is an extension of the temporal, not an end. Their dead are free to hunt deer, enjoy feasts with their friends, and run through the forest. The speaker concludes the poem saying that the rational way that Europeans approach death leaves little room for their deceased to live on in the afterlife. But when people give in to the mystical and imaginative, the dead have the best chance at a dynamic afterlife.
It's important to remember that Philip Freneau wrote 'The Indian Burying Ground' directly after the American Revolutionary War in 1787. The United States was still technically composed of 13 colonies at the time of this poem's publication. Delaware was the first to ratify the Constitution and become a state on December 7, 1787. The Louisiana Purchase wouldn't take place until 1803 and it would take decades before Americans moved west in earnest.
Freneau's generalization of Native American practices probably seems reductive and ignorant to contemporary readers. Obviously, now we know that Native American groups were hugely diverse and differed widely from one another. Stereotyping them all into one idea of "Indian" erases the vibrant diversity and cultural differences between different tribes.
But Freneau, who spent the vast majority of his life in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, probably didn't mean to come off as arrogant. His ignorance was a product of his time, not his own indifference to Native American nuances. Speaking in favor of Native Americans and in opposition of European traditions was actually incredibly significant, and 'The Indian Burial Ground' is one of the first recorded pro-Native American texts in the United States. So while his language may seem reductive to a 21st century audience, he was quite progressive as an 18th century thinker.
The speaker says that the rational, orderly burial method used by Europeans leaves no space for the dead to thrive in the afterlife, pixabay
In spite of all the learn’d have said, I still my old opinion keep;The posture that we give the dead, Points out the soul’s eternal sleep.
Not so the ancients of these lands-- The Indian, when from life releas’d,Again is seated with his friends, And shares again the joyous feast. °
His imag’d birds, and painted bowl, And ven’son, for a journey dress’d,Bespeak the nature of the soul, Activity, that knows no rest.
His bow, for action ready bent, And arrows, with a head of stone,Can only mean that life is spent, And not the finer essence gone.
Thou, stranger, that shalt come this way, No fraud upon the dead commit,Yet, marking the swelling turf, and say, They do not lie, but here they sit.
Here, still a lofty rock remains, On which the curious eye may trace(Now wasted half by wearing rains) The fancies of a ruder race.
Here, still an aged elm aspires, Beneath whose far-projecting shade(And which the shepherd still admires) The children of the forest play’d!
There oft a restless Indian queen, (Pale Shebah, with her braided hair)And many a barbarous form is seen To chide the man that lingers there.
By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews, In habit for the chase arrayed,The hunter still the deer pursues, The hunter and the deer, a shade.
And long shall timorous fancy see The painted chief, and pointed spear,And reason’s self shall bow the knee To shadows and delusions here.
The poem begins with figurative language in order to distinguish between the Native Americans and the Europeans. The speaker says, "In spite of all the learned have said,"—the learned being those of European ancestry who came from the "Old World" to colonize the "New World" (1). This is a reference to the Enlightenment period. Later in the poem, the speaker refers to the Native Americans as "a ruder race," reinforcing the dichotomy between Native Americans and European colonizers (24). In Freneau's time, the European settlers considered themselves much more cultured, civilized, and educated than the Native Americans who had been living on the land for generations.
But the speaker in the poem says he disagrees with the "learned," implying that they don't truly know everything, and they can still gain a lot of knowledge from the people who they consider to be ignorant outsiders. Rather than affirming Native American stereotypes of that time, he uses the label "ruder" as a slight satire to show how Native Americans are more advanced in some ways than their European counterparts. The figure of speech here is used to differentiate between the two ways of life: the Europeans on one hand and the Native Americans, who the narrator states shouldn't be discredited, on the other.
Figure of speech: the use of a phrase or speech that is meant to be used for vivid of rhetorical sense, not meant to be taken seriously
Personification is mainly used to describe the active state of the Native American spirits after death. The speaker states that the Native American souls are full of "Activity, that knows no rest" (12) even in death. As opposed to the Europeans who are stagnant, static, and trapped in the nothingness of death, the personification of Native American souls shows that they continue to live vibrant lives in conjunction with nature even after their physical demise.
Personification is also used to describe the active state of nature, which exists in harmony with the Native Americans. For example, the speaker notes that here, in the indigenous lands, a European visitor will notice how "an aged elm aspires" (25). Aspire means to rise high, but it also means to commit oneself towards a goal. Here, the ambiguity behind "aspires" positions the elm as wise and old, as if it were one of the tribes elders.
Personification adds many mystical, other-worldly connotations to the poem while also showing how Native American beliefs situate the natural world and themselves as active forces, not just something to be used as the Europeans believed.
Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.
The poem personifies nature, including an elm tree, to show that nature exists in tandem with Native American life, pixabay
The use of metaphor is very subtle in this poem, but it adds nuance to the speaker's argument. Consider lines 13-16:
His bow, for action ready bent, And arrows, with a head of stone,Can only mean that life is spent, And not the old ideas gone" (13-16).
The bow and arrows, as a traditional hunting method, are a metaphor for how the Native American way of life is still persistent and valuable, even in the face of modernization. Compared to rifles, the bow and arrows were seen as a primitive tools. But they are still "for action ready," and their use is long-lasting like a stone. Even though the "learned" might think that Native American tools are crude, their value is persistent and everlasting ("not the old ideas gone").
Imagery is used exclusively to describe Native American life, death, and relationship to the earth. There is no imagery used to describe how Europeans bury their dead (beyond "lie") which removes any emotional significance to Christian burial practices from the poem. In direct opposition, Native American burial styles and existence after death are described in imaginative, other-worldly detail, giving their customs much significance and eliciting a positive emotional response from the reader.
Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses
The imagery is used to position the Native Americans in a state of dynamic, continuous existence. For example, the speaker reflects on the dead who
This is not a solemn, mournful account of death, but rather a transformative, joyous one where the deceased are still able to interact with their loved ones. More than just existing in a single moment in time, the deceased Native Americans are still deeply involved in the natural world:
His bow, for action ready bent,
The imagery builds on traditional images Europeans associate with Native Americans (bows, deer, arrowheads, etc), but makes the people themselves much more active as the focal point of the poem.
The speaker says that the souls of deceased Native Americans are still active, ready for action with their bows and arrows, pixabay
Nature itself is also described in detailed imagery, predominately as it relates to the Native American people. The speaker notes that in the Native American territory
The natural world is a strong force that is at once dangerous, transformative, and familiar. The imagery extends deeper, to where
The European colonizers had a very different relationship to nature than their Native American counterparts: while the Native Americans saw nature as a sacred companion to be respected, the colonizers viewed it in terms of a commodity to own, build on, and profit off of. They continuously attempted to take land away from the Native Americans, showcasing how they wanted a dominant position over nature instead of to live in harmony with it. The imagery in this poem depicts how nature becomes a force in its own right when treated with the dignity afforded to it by Native Americans.
"Pale Shebah," the restless Indian queen, serves as an allusion to the biblical Queen of Sheba. The African queen was primarily known for her visit to King Solomon, the king of Israel in the 10th century BCE. She was a seeker of truth and knowledge and sought Solomon because of his renowned wisdom. In this case, the speaker is comparing the "restless Indian Queen" to a biblical queen because the two seek spiritual truths (29). Queen Sheba was a symbol of Black beauty in the Bible, though she had a status as an outsider. By referring to the Native American woman as a "Pale Shebah," the speaker is also depicting how both women are outsiders to the Europeans due to the color of their skin and their peoples' history.
Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic
Alliteration is used extensively throughout the poem to add to the mystical, otherworldly feeling. Alliteration starts early in the first stanza with the repetition of the "O" sound in "old opinion" (2) and the "S" sound in "soul's eternal sleep" (4). Alliteration continues throughout with "rock remains," "wasted, half, by wearing," and "ruder race" (21-24). The entire poem is centered around the appreciation of the nontraditional relationship that Native Americans have to death and to nature, so the alliteration helps convey a tone of wonder and awe. It does this by centering the focus on interesting pairs of words (like soul and sleep; wasted and wearing) and shows how they thematically belong together. The alliteration also pairs groups of words that do not normally go together (like old opinion) or they give agency to traditionally inactive nouns (like rock remains) to create a sense of wonder.
Because alliteration is used constantly throughout the poem, it quickens the pace and helps to speed the poem along. Alliterative phrases accelerate the rhythm as words with the same beginning letter flow more naturally and give way to one another more quickly. This creates a natural beat that mimics how quickly life gives way to death.
Consonance has the same effect as alliteration and serves to create a mood that feels spiritual and otherworldly. In the first stanza, however, the repetition of the plosive "P" sound, creates a harsh sound that reflects the speaker's criticism of the European's arrogance. Lines 1-4 read:
In spite of all the learned have said,
I still my old opinion keep;
The posture, that we give the dead,
Points out the soul's eternal sleep"
The effect here is more subtle as the "P" sounds are spread out throughout the lines, but they contribute to the speaker's critical analysis of his fellow Europeans.
Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words
Consonance: the recurrence of similar consonant sounds
The speaker argues that the way Europeans bury their dead lead to the deceased being locked in an eternal sleep, pexels
The repetition throughout the poem shows how Native American spirits endure even after death. For example, the repetition of the word "again" in lines 7 and 8 depicts the idea that death is merely an extension of the temporal, and the dead are free to do the things they did in life again, just on a different plane of existence. Later in the poem when the speaker is describing the natural world, he repeats the phrase "here still" (21 & 25) to show that, like the natural world, Native Americans thought that their spirits would live on forever in the natural world that they inhabited. Repetition reinforces the idea that death isn't an end, rather it's a continuation.
The speaker is ultimately examining how people can create the most authentic and enduring afterlife based on their interpretation of death. He contrasts the relationship that Native Americans have with death with his own people, the Europeans, saying
Rather, the Native Americans "do not lie, but here they sit" (20). While the Europeans view death as the ultimate end to life, the Native Americans do not separate the two.
This means that the afterlife of the Native Americans are full of the things they loved in the physical world: deer, feasts, friends, and tree. According to Native American tradition, the dead still exist among the living, just in a spiritual realm. While death for Europeans means an end and an eternity of dark sleep, the Native Americans view the afterlife as a vivid place, full of vitality and pleasure. Throughout the poem, the speaker sides with the Native Americans, clearly positioning their spiritual meaning of death above his own people's.
The poem starts off with a widespread stereotype of the time that European Americans were intellectually and culturally superior to the Native Americans whose land they stole. The speaker himself refers to the Europeans as "the learned" (1) and the Native Americans as "a ruder race" (24). But the deeper into the poem the reader gets, the more they realize that the speaker is actually supporting the Native American traditions surrounding death and separating himself from the European ones. The speaker fully supports the diversity of thought that the Native American perspective adds and he thinks the "learned" could benefit greatly if they took the time to educate themselves on the indigenous people's culture.
The speaker further protects the diversity of thought when he challenges his people, who are "stranger(s)" to Native American customs to observe the burial traditions but "No fraud upon the dead commit" (19). The speaker wants his fellow Europeans to educate themselves on indigenous customs, but he is sure to tell them not to respond to their differences with violence. He supports the peaceful exchange of ideas without needing to oppose those who are different. Finally, he concludes by saying that
In this final couplet, the speaker states that the rationality that Europeans pride themselves on has no meaning in death. Instead, they should give way to the spiritual, otherworldly way of the Native Americans in death.
The Native Americans' relationship to death also highlights their relationship to the natural world. This reflects the theme of nature and mankind's relationship. Native American life, customs, and death are intricately connected to nature. In life, the Native Americans rely on deer to eat and trees to give them shade. Their reverence for the natural world is reflected in their "imaged birds, and painted bowl" (9). In death, they rely on the earth where they bury their dead sitting down in "the swelling turf" (20).
Their lives are so entwined with nature that they continue hunting deer even after death, forming one ghostly figure that cannot distinguish one from the other: "The hunter and the deer, a shade!" (36). To the Native American people, nature is a spiritual force in itself. They respect it deeply in life, and the speaker argues they live on in the natural world in death.
The Europeans, on the other hand, are not mentioned very much throughout the poem. Their relationship with nature is not discussed and their customs in death are not described in detail. In contrast to the Native Americans, Europeans, in general, did not view nature as an autonomous entity. Instead, it was a passive thing to be used and conquered. In keeping with the European tradition that nature is passive, the Europeans do not find eternal life in the natural world around them. They are confined to their mortal lives and are not able to exist outside of it.
The meaning of 'The Indian Burying Ground' is that Native Americans have a deeper relationship to the afterlife and the natural world than Europeans do as expressed in how they each bury their dead.
The rhyme scheme of 'The Indian Burying Ground' is ABAB CDCD.
'The Indian Burying Ground' is about how different cultures bury their dead, and what this says about their relationship to the afterlife.
Philip Freneau wrote 'The Indian Burying Ground' in 1787 and published it that same year.
Some poetic devices used in 'The Indian Burying Ground' are figure of speech, personification, metaphor, imagery, allusion, alliteration, repetition, and consonance.
What is 'The Indian Burial Ground'?
It is a poem written by American poet Philip Freneau in 1787.
How does 'The Indian Burial Ground' compare to other works at that time?
Freneau was more liberal than most of his contemporaries and wrote pieces advocating for the abolishment of slavery. This piece depicts Native Americans in a good light.
What is interesting about 'The Indian Burial Ground' as an American poem?
It was one of the first poems in American history that was pro-Native Americans.
What is 'The Indian Burial Ground' about?
It is about Native American burial customs and European burial customs. The Native Americans bury their dead in a seated position as an extension of life. Europeans bury their dead lying down like an eternal sleep.
What does the speaker think of Native American funeral customs?
He thinks the spiritual components are more beneficial than the rationality that Europeans approach death with. He thinks the Europeans can learn a lot from the Native Americans.
What does burying the dead in a seated position do?
It enables them to exhibit the same active properties that they did in death and depicts death as an extension of life. Instead of sleeping forever, they are active in death, hunting and feasting and thriving.
What distinction does the speaker make between the Native Americans and the Europeans?
He refers to the Europeans are "learned" and the Native Americans as "the ruder race." But instead of affirming stereotypes of that time, he uses the labels as a slight satire to show how Native Americans are more advanced in some ways than their European counterparts.
What kind of relationship do the Native Americans have with nature?
They are deeply interconnected to nature. They rely on nature and respect it, and in death they become one with nature, living on in the natural world.
What does the speaker suggest at the end of the poem?
He says reason should bend a knee to the shadows and delusion. Essentially, he says that spirituality and the mystical will get you farther in death. Reason won't help you in the afterlife, so you might as well give in to the otherworldly.
What are the major themes in the poem?
Death and the Afterlife
Diversity of Ideas
Nature and Humankind
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