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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

Funeral Tree of the Sokokis

  • Polan, chief of the Sokokis Indians of the country between Agamenticus and Casco Bay, was killed at Windham on Sebago Lake in the spring of 1756. After the whites had retired, the surviving Indians “swayed” or bent down a young tree until its roots were upturned, placed the body of their chief beneath it, and then released the tree, which, in springing back to its old position, covered the grave. The Sokokis were early converts to the Catholic faith. Most of them, prior to the year 1756, had removed to the French settlements on the St. François.

  • AROUND Sebago’s lonely lake

    There lingers not a breeze to break

    The mirror which its waters make.

    The solemn pines along its shore,

    The firs which hang its gray rocks o’er,

    Are painted on its glassy floor.

    The sun looks o’er, with hazy eye,

    The snowy mountain-tops which lie

    Piled coldly up against the sky.

    Dazzling and white! save where the bleak,

    Wild winds have bared some splintering peak,

    Or snow-slide left its dusky streak.

    Yet green are Saco’s banks below,

    And belts of spruce and cedar show,

    Dark fringing round those cones of snow.

    The earth hath felt the breath of spring,

    Though yet on her deliverer’s wing

    The lingering frosts of winter cling.

    Fresh grasses fringe the meadow-brooks,

    And mildly from its sunny nooks

    The blue eye of the violet looks.

    And odors from the springing grass,

    The sweet birch and the sassafras,

    Upon the scarce-felt breezes pass.

    Her tokens of renewing care

    Hath Nature scattered everywhere,

    In bud and flower, and warmer air.

    But in their hour of bitterness,

    What reck the broken Sokokis,

    Beside their slaughtered chief, of this?

    The turf’s red stain is yet undried,

    Scarce have the death-shot echoes died

    Along Sebago’s wooded side;

    And silent now the hunters stand,

    Grouped darkly, where a swell of land

    Slopes upward from the lake’s white sand.

    Fire and the axe have swept it bare,

    Save one lone beech, unclosing there

    Its light leaves in the vernal air.

    With grave, cold looks, all sternly mute,

    They break the damp turf at its foot,

    And bare its coiled and twisted root.

    They heave the stubborn trunk aside,

    The firm roots from the earth divide,—

    The rent beneath yawns dark and wide.

    And there the fallen chief is laid,

    In tasselled garb of skins arrayed,

    And girded with his wampum-braid.

    The silver cross he loved is pressed

    Beneath the heavy arms, which rest

    Upon his scarred and naked breast.

    ’T is done: the roots are backward sent,

    The beechen-tree stands up unbent,

    The Indian’s fitting monument!

    When of that sleeper’s broken race

    Their green and pleasant dwelling-place,

    Which knew them once, retains no trace;

    Oh, long may sunset’s light be shed

    As now upon that beech’s head,

    A green memorial of the dead!

    There shall his fitting requiem be,

    In northern winds, that, cold and free,

    Howl nightly in that funeral tree.

    To their wild wail the waves which break

    Forever round that lonely lake

    A solemn undertone shall make!

    And who shall deem the spot unblest,

    Where Nature’s younger children rest,

    Lulled on their sorrowing mother’s breast?

    Deem ye that mother loveth less

    These bronzed forms of the wilderness

    She foldeth in her long caress?

    As sweet o’er them her wild-flowers blow,

    As if with fairer hair and brow

    The blue-eyed Saxon slept below.

    What though the places of their rest

    No priestly knee hath ever pressed,—

    No funeral rite nor prayer hath blessed?

    What though the bigot’s ban be there,

    And thoughts of wailing and despair,

    And cursing in the place of prayer!

    Yet Heaven hath angels watching round

    The Indian’s lowliest forest-mound,—

    And they have made it holy ground.

    There ceases man’s frail judgment; all

    His powerless bolts of cursing fall

    Unheeded on that grassy pall.

    O peeled and hunted and reviled,

    Sleep on, dark tenant of the wild!

    Great Nature owns her simple child!

    And Nature’s God, to whom alone

    The secret of the heart is known,—

    The hidden language traced thereon;

    Who from its many cumberings

    Of form and creed, and outward things,

    To light the naked spirit brings;

    Not with our partial eye shall scan,

    Not with our pride and scorn shall ban,

    The spirit of our brother man!