Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Peasant Bard

Thousands, and likely millions, of farmers and gardeners have collected bits of pottery and stone artifacts while turning the soil in the spring. It was after just such an event that Josiah Canning (1816-1892) wrote “The Indian Gone!” in 1838.


By night I saw the Hunter's moon
Slow gliding in the placid sky;
Her lustre mocked the sun at noon—
I asked myself the reason why?
And straightway came the sad reply:
She shines as she was wont to do
To aid the Indian's aiming eye,
When by her light he strung his bow,
But where is he?

Beside the ancient flood I strayed,
Where dark traditions mark the shore;
With wizzard vision I essayed
Into the misty past to pore.
I heard a mournful voice deplore
The perfidy that slew his race;
'T was in a dialect of yore,
And of a long-departed race.
It answered me!

I wrought with ardor at the plough
One smoky Indian-summer day;
The dank locks swept my heated brow,
I bade the panting oxen stay.
Beneath me in the furrow lay
A relic of the chase, full low;
I brushed the crumbling soil away—
The Indian fashioned it, I know,
But where is he?

When pheasants drumming in the wood
Allured me forth my aim to try,
Amid the forest lone I stood,
And the dead leaves went rustling by.
'The breeze played in the branches high;
Slow music filled my listening ear;
It was a wailing funeral cry,
For Nature mourned her children dear.
It answered me!

Canning’s early fondness for American antiquities, natural history, poetry stayed with him his entire life. At age 15, he built a printing press and launched his own newspaper, which eventually bore the slogan “The Tyrant’s Foe, the People’s Friend.” After brief stints as a printer in Wisconsin and Virginia, Canning returned to his birthplace in Gill, Massachusetts in 1838 and started farming. Comfortable with seeing himself as a “versifying plowman” Canning spoke of the pastoral origins of his poetry: “My muse sprang from the green turf, and is clad in the rustic garb of the plough.” Later, he would be known as “The Peasant Bard.”

After hearing of the Cherokee removal and Trail of Tears in 1838, Canning wrote “Lament of the Cherokee.”


0, Soft falls the dew, in the twilight descending,
And tall grows the shadowy hill on the plain;
And night o'er the far distant forest is bending,
Like the storm-spirit, dark, o'er the tremulous main;
But midnight enshrouds my lone heart in its dwelling,
A tumult of woe in my bosom is swelling,
And a tear, unbefitting the warrior, is telling
That Hope has abandoned the brave Cherokee!

Can a tree that is torn from its root by the fountain,
The pride of the valley, green-spreading and fair,
Can it flourish removed to the rock of the mountain,
Unwarmed by the sun and unwatered by care?
Though Vesper be kind her sweet dews in bestowing,
No life-giving brook in its shadow is flowing,
And when the chill winds of the desert are blowing,
So droops the transplanted and lone Cherokee!

Loved graves of my sires! have I left you forever ?
How melted my heart when I bade you adieu!
Shall joy light the face of the Indian ?—ah, never !
While memory sad has the power to renew.
As flies the fleet deer when the blood-hound is started,
So fled winged Hope from the poor broken-hearted;
O, could she have turned, ere for ever departed,
And beckoned with smiles to her sad Cherokee!

Is it the low wind through the wet willows rushing,
That fills with wild numbers my listening ear?
Or is some hermit-rill, in the solitude gushing,
The strange-playing minstrel, whose music I hear ?
'T is the voice of my father, slow, solemnly stealing,
I see his dim form, where the gloom gathers, kneeling,
To the God of the white man, the Christian, appealing;
He prays for the foe of the dark Cherokee!

Great Spirit of Good, whose abode is the heaven,
Whose wampum of peace is the bow in the sky,
Wilt Thou give to the wants of the clamorous raven,
Yet turn a deaf ear to my piteous cry?
O'er the ruins of home, o'er my heart's desolation,
No more shalt thou hear my unblest lamentation ;
For death's dark encounter I make preparation,
He hears the last groan of the wild Cherokee!

While Canning was not exempt from romanticizing native people, he recognized their humanity and also anticipated the self-destructiveness of white expansionism. He made that point in the conclusion of one of his later poems, “None May the Future Read Correctly”:

Has our fond regard
For human progress warped our mental view
Of the great Future? Can it come to pass
That when a few more wonders of our time,
Marvels of science and art, are found,
Till we become as gods in knowledges,-
A mighty, jealous power shall supervene,
Revulsion, revolution dire occur;
Forgetfulness, impenetrable gloom,
Blotting the brilliant science of the age,
Shall fall on man and cast his status back
To Babel’s lost, disintegrated base?


Peg A said...

I wrote a chapter on Canning for a book on American Nature poets; I think the project is on hold indefinitely. Glad to see another fan of his work!

GULAHIYI said...

Good to hear from you. I hope that project proceeds. I couldn't find much on Canning, but he seemed like a very interesting person. If you have anything you could send me, I would love to read it.