Robert Lowell at the Indian Killer’s Grave

King Philip’s War was a struggle between the New England Puritan settlers and Native Americans. Fought in 1675-6, it caused the deaths of about 800 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans and a catastrophe for the Native peoples of New England. King Philip (Metacomet, in his own language) was shot to death, his wife and child sold as slaves in Bermuda, his head displayed on a pike for decades.

Traditionally, King Philip’s War was described as a dangerous attack on the colonists, not a genocidal campaign by them against the Wampanoags. Robert Lowell (1917-77) early grasped his region’s original sin. His direct ancestor John Winslow had been a rich Boston merchant during King Philip’s War; another relative had been Josiah Winslow, the governor who led Massachusetts in that war. Out of his struggles with his own ancestry, the Catholic-leaning, pacifist Lowell made poems of permanent value.

In 1946, he published “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” in his collection entitled Lord Weary’s Castle. The setting is King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, where John Winslow was buried with his wife Mary. I recently visited the Burying Ground with a copy of Lowell’s poem in hand and found that he had described the setting precisely and had incorporated relatively obscure historical information. My annotations follow, interspersed with the entire text in italics. The whole poem is reprinted together here.

King's Chapel and Burial Ground

Title: “At the Indian Killer’s Grave”

The singular noun is interesting, since there are many graves in the Burial Ground that could be connected to King Philip’s War. Perhaps the grave of Joseph Tapping or of John Winslow is the specific reference (see below), or perhaps, as Frank Bidart writes in his notes to the Selected Poems, “The Indian Killer … is essentially generic, a collective figure ….”

Epigraph:

“Here, also, are the veterans of King Philip’s War, who burned villages and slaughtered young and old, with pious fierceness, while the godly souls throughout the land were helping them with prayer.”

Quoted from Hawthorne’s story “The Gray Champion,” which concerns the colonists’ resistance to James II (the king of King’s Chapel) and mentions their slaughter of Native Americans briefly and ironically. The story concludes: “still may the Gray Champion come, for he is the type of New England’s hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the eve of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New England’s sons will vindicate their ancestry.” (Vindicating his ancestors is pretty much the opposite of what Lowell accomplishes in this poem.)

Behind King’s Chapel what the earth has kept

Whole from the jerking noose of time extends

Its dark enigma to Jehoshaphat;

These are regular iambic pentameter lines, as are most (but not quite all) of the lines of the poem. Most of the poem rhymes, but in a complex and irregular scheme. (Note friends/bends/ends, well/compel, root/foot, etc.) The very first line has no rhyme.

“Behind King’s Chapel”: The small plot of ancient stones is hemmed by some of the city’s tallest and most modern commercial buildings. America’s first subway line runs very close below, the quaint cover of its ventilation shaft interrupting the graves. Crowds of tourists file down the narrow lanes.

The Burying Ground is historically separate from King’s Chapel. The former was a cemetery for Puritans, strenuous critics of the official Anglican Church. Because no settler would sell to King James II land on which to build an Anglican church in New England, James seized some of the Burying Ground to build the chapel, presumably disrupting many Puritan tombs. The present structure of the chapel is a sober neoclassical building, erected in 1754, that overshadows the cemetery. The modern congregation is Unitarian, the Anglicans having been chased away as Tories in the Revolution. Lowell uses the phrase “King’s Chapel” to locate the poem and does not mention the Burying Ground itself. The buried Puritans would be angry that their resting place is so described. Lowell’s own theology would be closer to James’ than to the Puritans’.

“What the earth has kept whole …” Does this refer to bodies in the burial ground, ones that have not been broken up by centuries of building? Maybe not, because the subject of the sentence is singular: it “extends / Its dark enigma to Jehoshaphat.” One possible reading: there is a crime, a mysterious sin, that is hidden from the time when the corpses were buried until the Day of Judgment.

“Jerking noose” alludes to the mass hanging of the Wampanoag Indians in King Philip’s war, part of the crime that is the dark enigma. This also suggests a concrete image: something in the earth is partly broken by a rope which, like time itself, shakes things to pieces.

Jehoshaphat: this could refer to the King of the Israelites. He might be associated with the Puritans because he struggled against idolatry and defeated a large army of Moabites (comparable to Wampanoags) when the Lord made them quarrel amongst themselves. But more likely Lowell means not the king but the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where the Resurrection and Judgment Day is expected: thus, a vast graveyard. Cf. “In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat,” a phrase from Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard of Nantucket.”

Or will King Philip plait

The just man’s scalp in the wailing valley! Friends,

Blacker than these black stones the subway bends

About the dirty elm roots and the well

For the unchristened infants in the waste

Of the great garden rotten to its root;

“Or will King Philip plait …”: The word “or” suggests two possibilities. Either the enigma remains hidden until Judgment Day or King Philip braids the hair on the scalp of the “just man” in the valley of Jehosophat. The phrase “just man” could be ironic and refer to the kind of men whom the real Philip scalped: Puritans. “Plaiting” seems gentle and cosmetic, although perhaps King Philip celebrates the ultimate demise of the men who killed him and his people. Although they won the war, they all died in the end.

“Friends!”: Who could that be? We the readers? Imaginary companions visiting the Burying Ground with Lowell? A congregation addressed by a preacher? King Philip’s friends (for he clearly speaks later in the poem)?

“Blacker than these black stones …” The headstones are gray now, as they must have been when first cut. In Lowell’s time, pollution had blackened them (see the “off-scourings” mentioned in line 2.6). The air was polluted by the heavy industry that his ancestors brought to New England after 1790 and that supported all the office buildings around King’s Chapel.

“… the subway bends …”. It does bend–the Green Line of the Boston “T”–and as it moves it makes extraordinary creaking and whining sounds immediately below the cemetery, as if the dead were rising. The construction of the “T,” like the building of King’s Chapel, disturbed the sober Puritans in their graves and jumbled their bones together promiscuously.

“About the dirty elm roots and the well”: The “well” is actually the cover of the subway airshaft, a remarkable structure that I would call quaint, but I can see how it might look diabolical.

“For the unchristened infants in the waste”: In 1833, a charnel house (a vault for bones) was constructed under the Burying Ground to hold dead orphans. Once again, the dead Puritans must have been shifted. They would not be upset by the idea of unchristened burials. They considered baptism unnecessary for salvation and conducted no baptisms in the New World until about 1628. For the Catholic Lowell, unchristened babies would evoke Limbo.

Of the great garden rotten to its root: The garden may be the cemetery, where the bones are like roots. “Great” is surprising and worth some consideration, because I would have described the Burying Ground as small and quaint. Perhaps the cemetery is metonymy for something truly “great,” such as Boston or America.

Death, the engraver, puts forward his bone foot

And Grace-with-wings and Time-on-wings compel

All this antique abandon of the disgraced

To face Jehovah’s buffets and his ends.

 

I think we are now looking at this particular gravestone, that of Joseph Tapping, who died at 23 in 1678 and therefore seems likely to have fought in King Philip’s War (although I have found nothing about him):

This headstone is a spooky momento mori, complete with Time and Death (the skeleton) fighting to snuff out the candle of a life. I don’t see Grace-with-wings: she may be drawn from a different headstone or invented by Lowell. (If the skull with wings is Grace, that is heavy irony.)

“Death, the engraver”: Literally, death is engraved, not the engraver. The engraver is believed to be the Charlestown Carver, who was active in Boston in the late 1600s. But the metaphor suggests that Death friezes a life into a fixed form that can be judged.

“antique abandon of the disgraced”: The jumble of old headstones and their guilty dead.

“Jehovah’s buffets and his ends”: Buffets must be punishments. Ends are either final dispositions or ultimate, hidden purposes.

The dusty leaves and frizzled lilacs gear

This garden of the elders with baroque

and prodigal embellishments but smoke,

Settling upon the pilgrims and their grounds,

Espouses and confounds

Their dust with the off-scourings of the town;

“baroque / and prodigal embellishments”: an apt description of the tombstones, although the baroque style is accomplished in a very naive, “folk” way.

“smoke … off-scourings of the town”: The smoke comes from Boston’s factories, founded by the descendants of the Pilgrims, who made eastern Massachusetts the second area in the world to industrialize, thus fouling the land that the Indians had owned while enriching themselves. The factory smoke merges with their own corpses’ ashes.

“Espouses and confounds” is the first line not in iambic pentameter: possibly enacting the entropy that has set in after the Pilgrims’ time.

The libertarian crown

of England built their mausoleum. Here

A clutter of Bible and weeping willows guards

The stern Colonial magistrates and wards

of Charles the Second, and the clouds

Weep on the just and unjust as they will,–

 

“The libertarian crown”: I have not found a 17th-century usage, but “libertarian” wouldn’t have the modern sense of Milton Friedman. It could mean generous, or tolerant to dissenting sects such as the Puritans.

“Charles the Second”: King’s Chapel was founded in the first year of his son James II’s reign. Mentioning Charles II here is a minor error, unless Lowell believed that Charles had ordered the chapel to be built before he died. James II is the villain in Hawthorne’s tale.

“… built their mausoleum”: Treats the King’s Chapel as the Pilgrims’ mausoleum because it stands next to their graves, even though the king built it against the wishes of their community and at the expense of their graveyard. Lowell knows this, so his rhetoric is venomous.

“A clutter of Bible and weeping willows guards … “: I saw no willows, so unless they have been cut down, Lowell must be thinking of images on graves.

“the just and the unjust”: cf. Acts 24:15 “And have hope toward God, which they themselves [sc. the Jewish elders] also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.” This resurrection is what will happen at Jehosaphat. The graves of King’s Chapel contain the bones of unrepentant sinners, according to this poem.

guards/wards/clouds: a Yeatsian off rhyme.

For the poor dead cannot see Easter crowds

On Boston Common or the Beacon Hill

Where strangers hold the golden Statehouse dome

For good and always. Where they live is home:

A common with an iron railing: here

Frayed cables wreathe the spreading cenotaph

Of John and Mary Winslow and the laugh

Of Death is hacked in sandstone, in their year.

“The poor dead cannot see Easter crowds”: They would not want to see those crowds, which are presumably swelled with Catholic Bostonians. Here Lowell introduces the contrast between communitarian Catholics and solitary Puritans, important later on. There are two reasons that the buried Puritans cannot see the modern crowds: 1) they are dead, and 2) many large buildings have been constructed in modern times between the cemetery and “Boston Common or the Beacon Hill.”

“The golden Statehouse dome”: A Boston landmark, it is no longer controlled by WASPs of Puritan heritage, but by Catholics, Jews, and other “strangers” who dominate the Massachusetts legislature in Lowell’s time and in ours.

“Where they live is home”: Their home is reduced from Massachusetts to the crowded plot where their bodies lie.

“A common with an iron railing”: A public cemetery is a “common,” but of a ghoulish type. The iron railing was erected in 1884.

Mary Winslow (born Mary Chilton) was the first female person to land with the Pilgrims at Plymouth: hence the symbolic mother of New England. The tomb of John and Mary Winslow is actually a small, plain, sandstone headstone in King’s Chapel Graveyard, not “a spreading cenotaph … wreathe[d with] frayed cables.” But a cenotaph is an empty tomb, a memorial that does not mark the position of a buried body; so maybe Lowell’s idea is that the iron railing is John’s and Mary’s monument now that their bones have been dispersed.

As noted above, John Winslow was Lowell’s direct ancestor. He died before King Philip’s war and served on a jury that convicted settlers for murdering an Indian. Frank Bidart writes, “In sum, Lowell chooses as his emblematic ‘Indian Killer’ not a famous soldier in the Indian Wars, but a successful Puritan businessman, a ‘good citizen,’ whose religious convictions and mercantile habits inevitably led to the near-extinction of New England’s Native American tribes.” I find this plausible, although it is not self-evident that John Winslow is the Indian Killer of the title.

“the laugh of death / is hacked”: reprises the theme of death as the mason of the headstones.

A green train grinds along its buried tracks

And screeches. When the great mutation racks

The Pilgrim Fathers’ relics, will these placques

Harness the spare-ribbed persons of the dead

To battle with the dragon? Philip’s head

Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime

The fingers of kept time:

 

“A green train …” This is a vivid and literal description of what one hears as the Green Line train (which is painted green) passes below the cemetery. It may evoke the idea of the dragon of the Apocalypse (Revelations 12 and 13), although that beast is red.

“the great mutation”: Google suggests this is an astrological term, perhaps known to Lowell, but I think the main reference is 1 Corinthians 15:52: “for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

“will these placques / Harness the spare-ribbed persons of the dead / To battle with the dragon?”: Taken apart literally, the question means: will the gravestones ride the skeletons of the dead pilgrims to fight against the dragon of the apocalypse?

“Philip’s head … on the platter”: like that of the last prophet, St. John the Baptist. For some reason, this image reminds me of a passage in Joyce’s Ulysses (London, 1960, p. 508) in which Shakespeare’s disembodied head appears and says, “‘Tis the loud laugh bespeaks the vacant mind.”

“fouls in pantomime / The fingers of kept time”: As King Philip’s fingers tap to indicate the passage of time, he grins and makes a lewd gesture. (This is the only literal reading I can–tentatively–suggest.)

“Surely, this people is but grass,”

He whispers, “this will pass;

But, Sirs, the trollop dances on your skulls

And breaks the hollow noddle like an egg

That thought the world an eggshell. Sirs, the gulls

Scream from the squelching wharf-piles, beg a leg

To crack their crops. The Judgment is at hand;”

This is the beginning of a speech, presumably uttered by the head of Philip to the dead Puritans, although it is also a speech of Lowell to the same audience. The vocabulary is distinctive: “trollop,” “noddle,” “beg a leg.” I think these terms evoke Restoration comedy and other light literature from that era. For instance, “my self-flattering noddle supposed this carriage particular to me …” (from The English rogue: described, in the life of Meriton Latroon, a witty extravagant. Being a compleat history of the most eminent cheats of both sexes … 1666). The diction is remarkable because neither Philip nor the Puritans would have spoken in this foppish way.

“this people is but grass”: Compare Emerson’s poem “Hamatreya,” in which the Puritan settlers of Concord claim the land forever, but the “Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys / Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs; / Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet / Clear of the grave. ”

“the trollop dances on your skulls … that thought the world an eggshell:” King Philip is interested in the contrast between the Puritans’ subjective beliefs and reality. The Puritans believed that what they knew–everything enclosed by the “eggshells” around their brains–was real. But their brains rotted, and people whom they would consider “trollops” crushed their hollow skulls, much as the actual bodies of the Puritans have decayed and their bones have been crushed by sinners unimaginable to them.

“the gulls … beg a leg / To crack their crops”: Philip must refer to the gulls of nearby Boston harbor, sitting on piles that “squelch” the soil below, making noises that evoke Judgment Day. “Beg a leg” can mean “good luck.” “Crack their crops” could refer to the pouches in birds’ throats that hold food to be broken up. The sound of these lines is astringent: lots of “s’s.” Some of the sense is obscure to me.

Only the dead are poorer in this world

Where State and elders thundered

      raca

, hurled

Anathemas at nature and the land

That fed the hunter’s gashed and green perfection–

“Only the dead are poorer: Everyone has become richer in Massachusetts except the first merchant settlers who founded the commercial republic. They, being dead, are poorer.

“Where State and elders thundered raca/ hurled Anathemas at nature:” The church and state of colonial Massachusetts insult nature. “Raca” is the Aramaic insult (“fool”) that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount as an uncharitable remark: “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council” (Matthew 5:22). An anathema is a curse that casts its target out of the religious communion.

“at nature and the land / That fed the hunter’s gashed and green perfection” What they curse is the green and natural land that the Indian hunters had enjoyed. At least some Puritans held that Grace and nature were separate. Grace was granted by God and revealed by piety, social norms and restrictions, thrift and prosperity (i.e. both church and state). Nature and the wilderness symbolized sexual temptation and evil. Nature-worship (like the Indians’ spirituality) was devil-worship and witchcraft.

Its settled mass concedes no outlets for your puns

And verbal Paradises. Your election,

Hawking above this slime

For souls as single as their skeletons

Flutters and claws in the dead hand of time.”

Its settled mass concedes no outlets for your puns: “It” is divine judgment. It is “settled” because of the Puritan doctrine of predestination. Puritans held that everyone was either elected or damned, regardless of what they we might say (our “puns” and “verbal Paradises”).

Looking for a more specific connection between Puritanism and punning, I found Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds’ article on “Thomas Pynchon, Wit, and the Work of the Supernatural”. Pynchon, like Lowell, is a direct descendant of Massachusetts Puritan elders who subverts that heritage. Pynchon loves puns, uses verbal coincidences as causal forces in his novels, and perhaps understands them as subverting predestination (which implies that God has pre-planned everything). Hinds quotes Benjamin Rush (originally a Calvinist, but later a convert to the doctrine of free will), who observed in 1799 that “wit of all kinds, and more especially that species of it which is called punning, has a tendency to weaken the understanding by unduly exercising the imagination.” The Puritans would see themselves as immune to wit: sober people who plainly stated the truth. Philip wittily accuses them of being beguiled by their own language and imagining a Paradise in language.

Your election …, Hawking …, Flutters and claws in the dead hand of time: The “Election” of the Puritans is their salvation, which results from God’s grace alone. King Philip/Robert Lowell likens election to a hawk above “this slime” of worldly life. The hand of time is dead because everything is predestined.

“For souls as single as their skeletons”: The Puritan soul stands in a direct, unmediated relation to God and is saved or damned alone. To be a Puritan is to wait for a bird to swoop down and decide one’s fate. In contrast, Lowell, a Catholic, believes that the community of the Church is an intermediary and salvation comes through communion with others.

(Here ends the speech of King Philip, who presumably does not endorse predestination but uses it to mock his Puritan enemies.)

When you go down this man-hole to the drains

The doorman barricades you in and out;

You wait upon his pleasure. All about

Metaphorically, you go into the hole of a grave when you die and your fate is decided for you. It is possible that a literal attendant let people down into the burial vault or the subway under the Burial Ground, in Lowell’s day.

The pale, sand-colored, treeless chains

Of T-squared buildings strain

To curb the spreading of the braced terrain;

These lines begin a description of the cityscape around the Burial Ground. The “T-squared buildings” that were already erected by 1946 would have included the Parker House Hotel nearby. Such buildings are “T-squared” because large modern structures tend to be angular (in contrast to natural forms), but also because the Boston “T” runs underneath the streets.

“the braced terrain: the land here is hilly, and on several occasions the Burial Ground had to be supported by new retaining walls and terraces, or the skeletons would have tumbled down toward the harbor.

When you go down this hole, perhaps your pains

Will be rewarded well; no rough cast house

Will bed and board you in King’s Chapel. Here

“When you go down” used for the second time: anaphora.

Roughcast is a coarse plaster exterior wall-covering that can incorporate gravel or pebbles. King’s Chapel is handsomely faced in stone. I think Lowell means that if you are buried here, among the Puritan Fathers of Massachusetts, your body gets a fancy resting place. He does not specify whether the resting place is temporary until Judgment Day or permanent. Compare earlier: “Where they live is home / A common with an iron railing …”

A public servant putters with a knife

And paints the railing red

Forever, as a mouse

Cracks walnuts by the headstones of the dead

Whose chiseled angels peer

At you, as if their art were as long as life.

This whole section plays with surprising contrasts between ephemeral events (a painter at work, a mouse eating walnuts) and permanent facts. One would expect the scene of a man painting to last for just a short time, and even the red paint on the fence will chip or fade. But Lowell tells us they are “forever” (enjambing that word for surprise). Likewise, one would expect the “chiseled angels” on the headstones to last much longer than a human life. They are ancient and unchanging, like the bones beneath them, whereas we, like mice and painters, will soon pass away. But Lowell says “as if their art were as long as life,” thus reversing the Latin tag, “Art is long, life is short.”

I ponder on the railing at this park:

Who was the man who sowed the dragon’s teeth,

The fabulous or fancied patriarch

Who sowed so ill for his descent, beneath

King’s Chapel in this underworld and dark?

 

I ponder on the railing at this park“: Lowell, or the poem’s narrator, appears for the first time, placed at the gate in the present (modern) moment.

the man who sowed the dragon’s teeth“: Cadmus, who sowed the dragon’s teeth from which sprung a horde of armed men who fought until five remained, and they became the founders of Thebes and the heads of its aristocratic houses. The “Indian Killer” plays a similar role as founder of the city-state of Boston and its Brahman families.

“Who sowed so ill for his descent”: Sowing alludes to the Cadmus story, and to the idea that you reap what you sow. “Descent” could mean the decedents of the Indian Killer (including Lowell) or the Killer’s descent below ground as a corpse, or both.

“this underworld and dark”: hendiadys for “this world that is dark and under us.”

John, Mathew, Luke and Mark,

Gospel me to the Garden, let me come

Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers–

Her soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers

And her whole body an ecstatic womb,

As through the trellis peers the sudden Bridegroom.

 

We suddenly find ourselves in an entirely different world. Nature, instead of being sharply distinguished from grace, is divinely enchanted. Religion centers on the fecund figure of Mary instead of a male deity or an impersonal Providence. Sexuality is holy (“the bridal chamber,” the peering Bridegroom). The soul is not imprisoned in a body that rots, but is the “whole body,” and specifically the female body. We are not in a graveyard any more, but in a garden. The diction is no longer reminiscent of the King James Version, classical myth, Puritan sermonizing, or Restoration wit. Instead, it evokes the Marian devotions of early English poetry.

Indeed, from “Who was the man who sowed the dragon’s teeth” to the end of the poem, Lowell is reworking the last 11 lines of his earlier poem entitled “Cistercians in Germany” (from Land of Unlikeness, published in 1944). It is an explicitly anti-Nazi work. The Germans “howl: ‘Who was this man who sowed the dragon’s teeth …?'” They reply, “the bankers and the Jews.” But Bernard appears to offer some kind of resolution, “gathering his canticle of flowers, / His soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers, / And all his body one extatic womb.” Saint Bernard was named a “righteous gentile” for stopping pogroms against the Jews of Rhineland Germany and founded the Cistercian monastic order. Lowell longed for a Catholic community infused with Bernard’s pacific spirit. But the Nazi setting of his early poem was distant and abstract, and the attribution of feminine qualities to the male saint strikes me as somewhat strange. Lowell later told Frederick Seidel, “The ‘Cistercians’ wasn’t very close to me, but the last lines seemed felt; I dropped the Cistercians and put a Boston graveyard in.” (Collected Prose, p. 247.) Thus Puritans took the space occupied by Nazis in the earlier poem, although that doesn’t mean that Lowell regarded the two as equally evil.

Gospel me to the Garden: The form of the prayer sounds medieval. Parádeisos is one Greek word for “garden,” deriving originally from a Persian word for a walled outdoor space. Eden is a Paradise, in that sense. In the book of Daniel, Susannah is bathing in a walled garden when she is seen naked by lecherous men. According to Old Testament law, there are two possible places where women can be found with men not their husbands: within the city or in the fields. In the city, the woman has a duty to cry out if she is raped, so if she is found with a man, her consent is assumed and she merits execution by stoning. Outside the city, however, no one can hear her cries, so she is considered innocent. Susannah’s “Paradise” is an ambiguous zone that blurs the harsh boundaries of the law. Lowell’s garden, with its ecstatic, fertile Mary and the peering Bridegroom, evokes Susannah’s Paradise as well as Eden and a Cistercian cloister. It also evokes New England before the Puritans arrived.

“Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers”: Compare “Or will King Philip plait /

The just man’s scalp in the wailing valley …?” That question is now answered with a surprising alternative: Mary will plait Philip’s hair. Philip may be a “warlock” in the sense of a protector against foreign invasion. Or perhaps a scalp is a lock (of hair) cut in a war. Mary peacefully braids Philip’s hair with her flowers, healing and restoring.

“As through the trellis the sudden Bridegroom”: The groom must be Mary’s spiritual suitor–perhaps Lowell or the devout reader. Compare George Crabbe’s lines: “Hark, it is the Bridegroom’s voice: / ‘Welcome, pilgrim to thy rest!’ / Now within the gate rejoice ….” A trellis, like an iron gate, is a divider, but its purpose is to support flowers and produce shade.

Overall, the poem evokes the following styles or cultural referents:

      1. Old Testament prophesy about judgment and resurrection

 

2. Descriptions of a real graveyard in modern times, reminiscent of elegies by Crabbe or Thomas Gray

3. Puritan sermons against sexuality, Indians, and Catholics

4. Witty repartee from the 1600s

5. Pre-lapsarian, Native New England, when people were in harmony with nature

6. The Greek myth of Cadmus

7. Catholic, specifically Marian, spirituality.

Meanwhile, the poem plays with the following distinctions, all introduced with irony and ambiguity:

      1. nature versus grace

 

2. individual salvation versus communal faith and marriage

3. Puritans versus Native Americans and Catholics

4. wit, words, and imagination versus truth and hard reality

5. bodily corruption versus conception and rebirth

The concluding section suggests a solution by offering a vision of tolerant, nature-loving, female-centered Paradise. The narrator, who observed the Puritans’ ghoulish graveyard through its iron fence, ends as a Bridegroom peering into Mary’s flowery bridal chamber.

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