American Literature Native American and Poetry Term Paper

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Symbolism in "The Origin of Stories"

In "The Origin of All Stories" we can see an example of the importance that the Seneca -- a Native American tribe -- placed in their oral tradition, stories, as well as symbolism. Symbolism, especially, figures prominently in "The Origin of All Stories." It is the figurative device through which this story impresses upon readers the importance of storytelling to the Seneca people. Literally, storytelling formed the basis of the sense of history that the Seneca possessed. Without it, vital cultural information could not have been passed down from generation to generation. The purpose of this essay is to examine some of the usage of symbolism in "The Origin of All Stories" and detail how those examples of symbolism demonstrate the centrality of the oral tradition to the Seneca people.

To begin, I should make it clear what it means that the Seneca had an oral tradition. This means that the Seneca had no written language. Information was not passed from individual to individual and from generation to generation through literacy. Writing down stories was entirely alien to the Seneca. For them, stories were told and shared. According to their traditions, stories had a life and power of their own. They did not exist within the confines of the human mind, but rather are entities that come to human beings through other means such as dreams or magic (51). It may be difficult to understand this conception of a story. For the modern Western mind, a story is just inanimate words on a page that never change. An oral tradition means that stories change and adapt across time. They are, in this sense, alive.

It is no wonder, then, that in "The Origin of All Stories" the symbolism that is employed is used in such a way as to highlight the importance and otherworldly nature of stories. For example, consider one of the first symbols in the story: the flying canoe that whisks Gaqka away to a world where he is able to learn many stories (51). This is an important symbol. Although it is clear that the place Gaqka is taken to is very similar to the one that he left -- he has no difficulty making a life for himself there -- this place is simultaneously very different. He reached this new place by going on a canoe ride through the clouds and under the moon. His journey is characterized immediately by the use of magic. This symbol delineates the world from which the protagonist came from the one in which he learns the stories of the world.

And how does he learn these stories? The place that canoe landed was at the base of a great rock that had the face of a man. Later, we will learn that this rock is alive in its own way and is the grandfather of the young woman that our hero will marry (53). In the meantime, Gaqka quickly discovers that if he pays homage to this "grandfather rock" that the rock will tell him stories about the world and the people who came before him. Again, this is an important symbol because it solidifies the nature of stories as being outside the realm of ordinary human experience. No matter Seneca animistic beliefs, it is obviously a fantastic occurrence when the cliff rock asks our hero for some tobacco in exchange for stories (52).

Finally, consider the pouch that Gaqka is given by his new wife and which he fills with a great number of trophies, each of which represent a different story that the rock tells him (53). These trophies are the symbols for the countless stories that make up the Seneca oral tradition. This is a crucial symbol because it explains where the tribe's oral tradition came from in the first place. It literally makes this tale the story to explain all other stories. The pouch that Gaqka carries back with him to his original people is the figurative representation of the whole of the oral tradition of the Seneca. It is little wonder, then, that this symbolic pouch afford our hero so much prestige upon his return.

The symbols in "The Origin of All Stories" point to a singular purpose. They are intended to highlight the importance of the Seneca oral tradition, but also the nature of this tradition as outside the realm of ordinary human experience. To a people without a written language, oral stories would form the basis of their entire cultural heritage. Everything they knew about the world and everything they believed about its origins and nature would exist in those stories alone. "The Origin of All Stories" demonstrates this importance. Gaqka is greatly rewarded for returning with his pouch of trophies and stories. But the symbols in this story reinforce the Seneca belief that stories are powerful, magical, and alive in their own right.

Symbolism & Imagery in Richard Steere's "On a Sea-Storm nigh the Coast"

Richard Steere, who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, composed "On a Sea-Storm nigh the Coast," a poem rife with symbolism and imagery. On its surface, the poem is about nothing more than a violent storm that threatens a coastal region with inundation. However, when we peel back some of the layers of this nature-based allegory, it becomes apparent that Steere imbued the poem with more intricate meanings than that. Beyond its simple facade, this poem contains imagery that is reminiscent of Milton's Paradise Lost. There is something almost Biblical about the way in which Steere characterizes the sea's assault on the land. In short, "On a Sea-Storm nigh the Coast" is a poem dense with symbolism and imagery that elevates a coastal storm into an apocalyptic epic.

Richard Steere was born in 1643 in England but soon relocated to the New World when his political beliefs came under attack by the king, Charles II. Steere seems to have had continuous issues with oppression by those in power. Shortly after arriving in the New World, Steere moved more Connecticut Long Island to protest the local persecution of Quakers. Some of his poetry is also staunchly anti-Catholic, still the dominant religious tradition in those days (556). Steere was not simply a poet in the sense that we might think of it today. He was also a political activist and someone who obviously held deep-seated religious beliefs, even if they were anti-Catholic.

Superficially, this is a poem about a storm that rolled in from the sea. Steere begins the poem by writing "All round the Horizon black Cloud appear; A Storm is near" (556, line 1). He sets the scene for his poem with this image. It is a straightforward image, not one that is heavily layered with symbolic meaning. He goes on to reinforce the image of the seaside storm when he writes, "To make a Storm had all their forces joyn'd" (557, line 16). In this case, Steere is reiterating the point that a series of natural forces -- the wind, the waves, lightning -- had come together to form a powerful storm. As readers, it might even be possible to leave our analysis at this. We could assume that Steere simply wasn't that sophisticated a poet.

But this is not the case. The religious beliefs, anti-Catholic as they might have been, that I mentioned earlier shine through in this poem. In fact, if we look closely, we can see that many of the images that Steere employs are actually symbols that obliquely pay homage to John Milton's most famous work, Paradise Lost. For example, Steere says of the storm that it was "As if the Deeps resolv'd to Storm the Clouds" (556, line 8). This is an important line because it suggests a deeper symbolism.…

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