Page 140 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 39

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
future he evokes the humble simplicities of the past, the inter­
necine squabbles of the Indians, and their massive wars against
Spaniards. In the idealization of his people he approximates
Chateaubriand’s view of the noble savage. The cult of the Great
Spirit who demands human saci^ices and the cult of the Soul-
God who represents peace and purity: they live side-by-side in
uneasy harmony. And so do the wiles o f chiefs and the
perspicacities of priests.
In the evocations of the American landscape Silkiner was less
muscular than in the descriptions of the people in the landscape.
He celebrated the high mountains— the abodes of the eagles, and
the hoary seas — the home of the whales — and the woods where
the leopards roamed. But, preferably, he depicted the valleys in
the setting sun, “the tender skies wrapped in azure light” and “the
last rhythms of the dying heart of the day,” “breezes blowing in
hushed sounds and murmuring mysteries to the ears of the bush
and the tree.” The setting sun is not merely the setting sun in
Silkiner’s epic: it is the setting song of the Indian people, the
glorification of the end in the last verses of the poem. In a graceful
lyric on the sunset he also celebrated “the tired day, the dying day
when the sun sinks in the west and the mourning world drowns in
a sea of darkness.” In short: the sunset was Silkiner’s favorite
theme which appeared and reappeared in his lovely lyrics and in
his longer poems.
Unlike Whitman who destroyed old verse forms and devised
new directions for American poetry, Silkiner represented a
touching loyalty to traditionalism in prosody, to biblicism in lan­
guage. In his attitude to the Bible his inherent Jewish receptivities
and perceptivities are meshed with American sensitivities to the
Book of Books. He knew what the Old Testament meant to the
English Puritans, to their predecessors and successors in English
and American literature.
I f the interest of Silkiner in the American Indian might be
placed in the context of romantic historicism which dominated
European literature in the 19th century, his observations on the
misery of the blacks were made in the streets of Harlem where he
lived for many years. But he also used the folk traditions of the
Negro in the single poem on “A Negro Motif’ which was found
among his papers and which was published posthumously. It was
written in the form of a dialog between an interrogator and a