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Felicia Hemans, "The American Forest Girl" (1826)

Elle Irwin

This poem, perhaps like no other, humanizes Smith at the moment of death, taking us inside his head to his thoughts of happy home, of mother's love, of dying with his father's courage, of God. Smith is not the heroic warrior of his traditional image. No valiant soldier, Smith seems young, fair, weak, and afraid: he "felt his doom." He needs saving, deserves saving, his condition cries out for saving. Pocahontas, too, is humanized in a distinctive way. She knows death -- she's "mourn'd a playmate brother" -- and thus she pities Smith. The Pocahontas of this poem is no princess, no daughter of a powerful Native American chief faced with an alien invasion. History is not operative here. There's no American politics in this re-visioning by a British poet, only the tender motivating passion of a "fawn-like child of green savannas and the leafy wild." Protest against death's wrenching separation, says Paula Feldman, recent editor of the collection in which "American Forest Girl" appeared, characterizes each poem in Records of Woman. The larger book over and over again obsessively "reenacts the traumatic deathbed scene" of Hemans's mother, here in this poem specifically achieving a "wish-fulfillment -- the rescue of the one about to die." "A fearful gift upon thy heart is laid, / Woman!" starkly proclaims the "Forest Girl's" epigraph to the poem's female audience, "a power to suffer and to love, / Therefore thou so canst pity." And so Pocahontas's dutiful submission to her female nature at the imminent execution of Smith. She gives life.