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Lydia Sigourney, "Pocahontas" (1841)

Sarah Ballan

The distinctive aspect of the rescue scene in Sigourney's 1841 "Pocahontas" -- she told this famous story with some differences both in poetry earlier (1822) and in storybook prose later (1847) -- is the analogy of the rescue of the manly Smith with the rescue of the infant Moses to account for Pocahontas's action and the consequences of that action. So the analogy sheds light on two perennial issues: motive and consequences. We're always wondering why Pocahontas saves Smith. The analogy to the Pharaoh's daughter makes clear that Pocahontas's motive is spontaneous, feminine, maternal compassion for the helpless. There is no prior relation between the Egyptian princess and baby Moses, no prior relation between the Native American princess and the mature Smith. Their motives are pure instinctive sympathy. Just as that no doubt similarly dusky princess from across the ocean yields "to an infant's tearful smile," our dusky princess yields to the power of "death-mist" swimming on Smith's "darkened sight." Such motivation, however, is fairly commonplace in the three-century album of rescue scenes. What the analogy does dramatically differently, though, is exonerate Pocahontas from blame for the consequences of her action on her people. Sigourney's direct rhetorical question makes her purpose explicit: "Know'st thou what thou hast done?" No, and there is no way she could. Smith's martial character is not revealed even to the reader until after the rescue. Just as Moses is an unformed babe in the arms of the Pharaoh's daughter, Smith is a blank slate in the arms of Powhatan's daughter. This savior of the Chosen People and this "savior of the Saxon vine" are not responsible for the havoc wreaked on their nations. Which allows, in conclusion, the "Sweet Singer of Hartford," as Sigourney was known, to both lament that "like fallen leaves those forest-tribes have fled" and simultaneously to hold our "forest-princess true of heart." We miss your people, Pocahontas, but you bear no blemish, and you will never be forgotten.