‘There was an Indian’ by J.C. Squire is a three-stanza poem which is separated into two sets of four lines, or quatrains, and one set of six lines, or sestet. Although this piece has been divided into stanza it maintains the form of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. It also conforms to the rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efeghg.
While this pattern does diverge slightly from the traditional pattern of an Italian sonnet, it was, and is, a common practice among writers to alter the concluding sestet to suit their own writing.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there was an “Indian” man walking along a beach picking up shells. This was a common occurrence in the man’s life, nothing unusual, up until this point, has happened.
In a twist of fate that would change the lives of all men and women living on the land which would come to be known as the Americas, the man looks up and spots Columbus’ ship. It seems to have appeared out of nowhere. There are no oars rowing its great mass, lending it an air of magic to the man who has never seen anything like it before.
In the next section the man, in his shock and fear, hides behind a rock and watches the approach of the ship and then finally the men. He does not understand what is happening or who these people are. The poem ends with a cliff hanger. Although the reader knows the history of what happens next, this particular narrative is cut short.
You can read the full poem There was an Indian here.
Analysis of There was an Indian
There was an Indian, who had known no change,
Commingled noise: looked up; and gasped for speech.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the beaches of what would come to be known as the New World. These initial lines only hint at what is to come. They focus on the main character of this piece and the moments he spent in peace before realizing that something novel was occurring.
The man, who is referred to as “an Indian” in this work, is walking along a beach. This is likely something he has done many times before. There is nothing unusual about his actions or the day he is living. The speaker states that this person had…
…known no change.
Throughout his life, things had been one particular way. There was no reason to question or fear the change as there had been none.
The “Indian” was at this moment “content” to “stray” along the “sunlit beach.” This moment is incredibly peaceful and serene, a fact which comes across in the tone of the poem. As the lines progress the tone will slowly change. This can be seen most clearly at the beginning of the third stanza.
In the next two lines of this first stanza, the speaker describes the man as “gathering shells.” He is completing a simple task that, as mentioned previously, has probably been done an innumerable number of times before. In this same line, the man is startled by a “strange…noise.” It sounds to him like a combination of a number of different things occurring at once.
The man looks up from the beach and…
Gasped for speech.
He was shocked by what he saw. One is able to assume that what he is observing is Columbus’ ship sailing into view.
For in the bay, where nothing was before,
And fluttering coloured signs and clambering crews.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes what it is the “Indian” saw when he looked up from the sand. It is important to note at this point that the speaker describes the sites in the “bay” from the perspective of the man. The ships are described as “huge canoes,” as the “Indian” had never seen anything like them before.
Out in the “bay” the speaker states that something appeared…
…where nothing was before.
The ship, which will end up ferrying Columbus to land held a magical quality. It seemed to be “Moved on the sea, by magic.” The man cannot understand how it is that something so large can move without a single oar.
The speaker describes how from the man’s perspective the sails make no sense. They just look like “bellying cloths on poles.” He is not used to this mode of transportation.
Additionally, the man takes note of…
…the fluttering coloured signs and clambering crews.
This section of the poem contains a great deal of movement, emphasizing the change which is about to come over the land, and transform the lives of the Native Americans.
And he, in fear, this naked man alone,
His fallen hands forgetting all their shells,
Columbus’s doom-burdened caravels
Slant to the shore, and all their seaman land.
The concluding stanza is the sestet, meaning that it contains six lines and rhymes in the pattern of efeghg.
The man is immediately terrified of what he is seen. The once calm and serene tone of the poem is gone. The mood has transitioned to something much more menacing. The “Indian” does not know what to do. The speaker makes this clear by describing him as a “naked man alone.” He is daunted by the sight and prospect of this unknown craft.
In the next lines, the speaker portrays the Native American man’s initial reaction. He dropped the shells from his hands, completely forgetting about them. The man was unsure what to do next so he “knelt low behind a stone.”
It is from here that he watches as the ship and crew come to shore. The man “stared” at the scene but “did not understand.” This piece, especially the lines which are contained within the sestet, emphasizes the helplessness of the Native Americans upon meeting with Columbus’ crew, and all those which would follow.