Apr. 5, 2004

When Death Comes

by Mary Oliver

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Poem: "When Death Comes," by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

The text of this poem is no longer available.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Arthur Hailey, born in Luton, Devon, England (1920). He's the author of several best-selling novels, including Hotel (1968), The Moneychangers (1975) and Detective (1997).

It's the birthday of poet Richard Eberhart, born in Austin, Minnesota (1905). He grew up on a plot of land in rural Minnesota called Burr Oaks, and that was the title of one of his books of poetry, published in 1947. His Selected Poems, 1930-1965 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. He said, "If a poet writes to save his soul, he may save the souls of others."

It's the birthday of poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, born in London (1837). He wrote finely crafted poetry about subjects that many Victorian critics found offensive. His collection Poems and Ballads, published in 1866, contained poems about sadism and vampires. Two weeks after its first printing, when outraged reviews began to appear, the publisher withdrew all copies from sale and said they intended to sell them as scrap paper. Swinburne found another publisher, who gathered up all the scrapped copies, pasted in his own title page, and kept the book in print for another seven years.

It's the birthday of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England. His most famous work is Leviathan (1651), in which he says that the life of man in a state of nature, without a civil government, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

It was on this day in 1614 that John Rolfe and Pocahontas got married in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Ever since the English founded Jamestown in 1607, they had to deal with frequent attacks by the Powhatan tribe. They knew they would have to come to some sort of an agreement if they wanted the colony to prosper. In 1613, Samuel Argall had the idea to abduct the seventeen-year-old daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas, and hold her hostage, with the plan of returning her to the Powhatans in return for a peace agreement. The colonists succeeded in abducting her, but Chief Powhatan still wasn't willing to negotiate, so Pocahontas remained in Jamestown, where she was eventually converted to Christianity.

Pocahontas was young, bright and beautiful, and gained the admiration of many of the colonists during her captivity, but John Rolfe became especially attracted to her. Rolfe had arrived in Virginia in 1610, and his wife had died soon after his arrival. He's famous for planting tobacco seeds from the West Indies to make a sweeter tobacco that he could sell to European countries.

Rolfe and Pocahontas began meeting regularly, at church and in the tobacco fields, where Pocahontas showed him how the Powhatans grew tobacco. Rolfe became completely enamored of Pocahontas; he was distracted during the day and couldn't sleep at night. But he didn't know how other people would react to his emotions. He came from an old and respected family in England, he was extremely religious, and he thought people would be shocked to hear that he was attracted to an Indian.

Finally, one day, he wrote a letter to the governor of the colony, Thomas Dale, telling him that he wanted to marry Pocahontas. He said, "It is Pocahontas to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I (could not) unwind myself thereout." He said he was getting married not out of "unbridled desire of carnall affection: but for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our country, for the glory of God, for my own salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, an unbelieving creature, namely Pokahuntas."

Dale gave his permission for the marriage, and Chief Powhatan learned about it and gave his permission too. They were married on April 5, 1614, in a little church in Jamestown that was decorated with wildflowers. The marriage led to a long period of peace between Jamestown and the Powhatan Indians. It gave the colonists the time they needed to farm enough tobacco to export to Europe, which helped to make Jamestown a legitimate colony in the eyes of the British.

Two years after their marriage, Rolfe took Pocahontas and their infant son to England to try to garner support for the new colony. Part of Rolfe's mission was to show British royalty that the Native Americans in Virginia could be converted to Christianity and become loyal British subjects. While they were there, Rolfe introduced Pocahontas to King James and Sir Walter Raleigh, both of whom were impressed by her manners and her ability to speak English. He also took her to meet his family in Heacham, a town a hundred miles away from London.

Pocahontas fell sick near the end of the trip, and died in Gravesend, England just before they were about to return. She was just twenty years old. Rolfe left his son in England to get an education and returned to Jamestown, where he remarried, continued to farm tobacco, and served on the Council of State for the colony. He died in 1622.

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