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Meeting The British

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Title: Meeting The British  
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Subject: Irish poetry, Pontiac's War, British poems, Columcille the Scribe, Caitriona O'Reilly
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Meeting The British

Paul Muldoon’s poem Meeting the British, first published in the 1987 anthology of the same name, is an account of the native Pontiac's Rebellion against the British in North America in the 1763, written from an Indian perspective. The conflict is the first recorded case of biological warfare, in which the British subjugated the Ottawa Indians by introducing non-native diseases, referred to unambiguously in the poem’s final line, “two blankets embroidered with smallpox” .

The poem is thematically a post-colonial poem that draws on stylistic aspects from the modernist tradition. Written in nine couplets, its language and structure operate on dual levels catering for both ‘quick’ readings that evoke direct feeling and more deliberated ‘slow’ readings, which in absorbing an historical sense deeper emphasises timeless temporal presence. Muldoon critic John Redmond suggests that the ‘quick’ and the ‘slow’ are ‘the most desirable ’ when considered together and in relation to one another.

The poem marks the first meeting between the native Indians and the British colonisers, the metaphorical ‘two streams coming together’. As the poem unfolds, soft images of the native’s natural surroundings are gradually usurped by linguistically coarse intrusions from the sinister British invaders. The narrator speaks with gentle assonance, ‘the snow lavender-blue’ is symbolic of natural purity, but this is gradually diluted as the British presence becomes clearer. The lavender is a motif of ‘mythical status’ as it is a sacred and medicinal ‘mother herb’ . Its motif significance is lent to that of the natives and its repetition underscores the poem’s component parts, most potently referenced in the line ‘C’est la lavande’. Spoken in native French by the British Colonel, it signifies the point of colonial intrusion.

The discordance in their arrival is represented in the splitting of ‘handkerchief’ across two couplets. Itself a symbol of man-made industry that is at odds with nature, what at first reads ‘the Colonel shook out his hand’, implicit of the native’s trusting nature, on further reading turns the final word to ‘handkerchief’, exposing the coloniser’s eventual deceit, which culminates in the exchange of smallpox-infected blankets that the native Indians naively accept.

Composed in the months before Muldoon moved to America from his native Northern Ireland; the eponymous ‘Meeting the British’, in its treatment of Northern American history, simultaneously alludes to Irish politics. This lends the poem a certain geographical resonance from Muldoon’s life. There are significant parallels between Muldoon’s native Northern Ireland and North America; two countries that have been subjected to British colonisation in the past. The Middle Ages saw the gradual extension of British imperial control in Ireland, which culminated in the victory over the province of Ulster in 1603, giving the British total power over the country .

As a criticism of colonialism, it uses direct reference to colonizers Jeffery Amherst and Henry Bouquet, to attach the poem to its corresponding moment in history. Carefully dispersed, fragmentary language builds upon the historical context to allude to a wider sense of the violating nature of colonisation.

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