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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1705/A Polynesian Griselda

From The Examiner.


Was there ever a Griselda? The heroine Petrarch and Boccaccio found for after poets and the world, Chaucer's "flour of wifly pacience," remains with us lifelike too to-day; but is her character, with its sublime and ludicrous submission, its dignity and abjectness of utter obedience, its sedate approval of a lord and master's crimes, its strength and its servility, a possibility in the life of any age or people? No, answer experience, instinct, observation, induction, deduction, history, psychology — every form of reasoning and research. No, say the husbands emphatically. No, still more emphatically, say the wives. But other news has come from Polynesia. Griselda really existed there. At least the Rev. William Wyatt Gill says she did, and he is a missionary, and bound to keep his anecdotes truthful. Mr. Gill knew a man whose father knew her and all her family, including her husband. Mr. Gill does not call her Griselda; her name was Rao. And she did not entirely rival the Marquis of Saluzzo's wife, for her conjugal humility was not put to the test so long and so subtly. She had no children to give up to death as, like herself, their father's "own thing," and she was not called on to prepare her successor's wedding-feast. Her husband, being but an uneducated savage, merely took his own way with her, without any view to advancing her higher moral interests and teaching her to be a good wife; thus her womanly affections, her love and her jealousy, were not experimented upon, and her time of trial was short — an hour or two against Gricelda's twelve years of contented endurance. But if ever the spirit of Griselda inhabited mortal body it must have been in this woman.

Rao, the idolized daughter of Rongovei, became the wife of a famous warrior, Tupa, chief fighter of his clan. They were a well-assorted and happy couple, and their pride in each other was almost as great as their love. If no Rarotonran hero could boast such a tale of vanquished and eaten foes as Tupa, who had such skill in music and song as the beautiful Rao? Their countrymen gloried in them both, and they knew it. They lived a little apart from their fellow-villagers in a shadowed spot beneath cocoa-palms and chestnuts and breadfruit trees; the low wall that parted off their plot of home-ground from the luxuriant tropical wilderness around them was hidden with vines tangled among roses in perpetual bloom; from the distance the sound of the rushing breakers foaming against the coral rocks came softened into a lullaby. Here the married lovers lived in blissful peace, sharing together the gentle duties of home and, says Rao in her dirge, scarcely ever separated. Only the brave delight of war could draw Tupa from his darling's side; then he would hasten from the battle-field, clad with fresh renown, and bearing his prey with him; and there was rejoicing and banquetting, and Rao had composed a new song, one of the sweet little love-ditties or plaintive laments for which she was celebrated, and sang it tenderly when the feast was over and the savory foeman put away. A sister of Tupa's came to live with them, but she was devoted to her sister-in-law, and made no mischief. There was no cloud in the sky till the day when the enthusiasm of the too uxorious husband passed the wonted bounds and he loved not wisely but too well.

One day Rao, having little to do, bethought herself that her luxuriant raven tresses had been too much neglected of late, and set to work to restore them to their natural splendor. But they were so impenetrably matted that all her pains went for nothing, and finally she thought it best to shave them off altogether; they would grow again more abundant than ever. She called Tupa to her aid, and he obligingly proceeded to remove her hair with a razor made of a shark's tooth fixed on a reed. Soon, to her joy, he had discovered a new beauty in his beautiful wife: as the white skin began to shine in patches through the thinned locks his eyes dwelled on it in admiration, and from time to time he burst into interjections of rapture. Presently the whole scalp was bare, and Tupa gazed in silence lost in estatic thought "Does it all look so white?" said Rao, coquetishly bent on more compliments. It did, and Tupa's resolution was already formed. Kindly but resolutely he announced to her his intention of forthwith eating her; a woman with so fairskinned a head was too appetizing to resist. And when she had given one quick appealing glance at him she knew he was in earnest.

Boccaccio puts into the mouth of Griselda, when Walter of Saluzzo demanded of her the sacrifice of her infant son, an exquisite little speech full of tender subservience, "Signor mio, pensa di contentar te e di sodisfare al piacer tuo, e di me non avere pensiere alcuno, per ciò che niuna cosa m' è cara se non quant' io la veggo a te piacere" — or as the English ballad tersely renders it, —

Sith you, my lord, are pleased with itt,
Poore Grissel thinkes the actyon fitt

In like spirit, but more laconically, Rao accepted her master's behest "Do as thou wilt," she said simply. And then, while Tupa busied herself in getting ready the oven outside the house, she sat still indoors and composed a poem. With a confidence in her fidelity which does honor to them both, Tupa appears to have kept no watch over her; the village was not far off, two brothers of hers lived at an easy distance, but Rao had no thought of flight. She could not but know that public opinion would be against Tupa's manner of using his marital authority, for wife-eating was far from being a recognized custom in Rarotonga, but the true-hearted wife knew her duty, and would invoke no aid against her husband. She had

The laws of marriage charactered in gold
Upon the blanched tablets of her heart,

and the will of the natural arbiter of her destiny sufficed her. Still it must be owned that here she seems to fall short of the ideal perfection of Griselda. Griselda would have got ready the oven herself. Griselda, however, was not a poet; and Rao had her dirge to make. One might have been tempted to point from this a moral against literary occupations for women, since even a Rao could be drawn away by them from her housewifely duties, but that we are expressly told that she had been habitually diligent in preparing the daily food, and that she herself in her last poem refers with a pardonable touch of pride to the condition of her oven. Perhaps we may assume that it was by Tupa's desire she devoted her last moments to immortalizing their love and its fatal issue in her celebrated lament, instead of assisting him in the needful preparations.

Tupa's work took some time. The oven, a hole in the ground, was deep and wide, and he had to split firewood enough nearly to fill it, then to lay stones on the firewood. Next the firewood had to be all burnt to ashes, and the red-hot stones to be carefully arranged above the ashes with a long hooked stick. Then a quantity of thick juicy leaves, freshly plucked, had to be thrown on the hissing stones, and when a cloud of scented steam rose into the air, and only then, the oven would be ready for Rao to be laid in it and carefully covered with more of the rich banana and breadfruit leaves. She had plenty of leisure for composition. And her sister-in-law sat by her, listening attentively, that she might be able to publish the poem afterwards to the tribe. This was Rao's lament: —

Alas! how have we talked, we two, till now!
Weep, my love, weep:
And now, farewell; we part; and I am gone:
Weep for me, weep.
How have we talked together, two alone!
Ah, me! my joy, wilt thou not heed my moan?
My time is near,
Death is already here.
Farewell; we part forever; farewell, thou.
Weep, dearest, weep.
E rua ua karireia ē.

Weep for me, weep.
The sun drops down below the mountain's brow;
Love, wilt thou not think pity of my fate?
Lo, my trim well-used oven by our gate!
Hark! how he lops the branches from our tree!
He spreads the fire! hark! 'tis for cooking me.
Weep for me, weep.
Farewell; we part forever; farewell, thou.

Weep for me, weep.
How happily have we two lived till now,
In the sweet tasks of love, and side by side,
In nothing known apart. And, if thy bride
Was Rongovei's darling, not less dear
The son-in-law who in the famine year
Hungered to spare him of thy scanty cheer.
Weep, my love, weep.
Farewell; we part forever; farewell, thou.

Ay, my love, weep,
Lo, I am but the thing thy words allow,
The dusky caval-fish, food prized by thee,
The frequent fish from out the teeming sea,
Turned over, over, in your oven's braze:
But thou, my husband, thou, surpassing praise,
Art fairer than the breadfruit cloth bleached white
And flashing in the noonday's sunny light
Weep for me, weep.
Farewell; we part forever; farewell, thou.

Weep for me, weep.
Oh pity me, my husband, dearest, best;
I am thine own, destroy me; 'twas my vow —
Yet keep me, darling, keep me, and forgive;
Clasp me once more unto thy constant breast;
Oh! for thine own sake spare me, let me live.
Nay weep, nay weep.
Farewell, we part forever; farewell, thou.
Weep, my love, weep.
E rua ua karireia ē.

Mr. Gill suggests "Fal, lal, lal," as the English equivalent of the burden of mere vocal sounds occurring in the first and last stanzas, "E rua ua karireia ē." But one can hardly admit that Rao, however desirous of expressing her resignation, would, as a poet, have chosen to do so by enlivening her dirge with a comic chorus. Rather it may be supposed that the sounds have a note of sorrow in them to Polynesian ears; something corresponding to the mournful "waly, waly," of one of our own most pathetic ballads. There is a touch of craft in the praise of Tupa's conduct during the famine; Rao, who would not be guilty of argument against her husband, would yet, if she could, awake in him the remembrance of his former self-control — how he had borne to be hungry and had eventually been all the happier for it: she would, if she could, insinuate into his mind an emulation of himself. A like subtlety appears in the next stanza; it is not only for the aptness of the metaphors that she speaks of cavally-fish and of bread-fruit, the reference to them might perhaps inspire her husband with an appetite for more customary food than herself. Yet one would not blame her for her harmless devices to turn her husband's mood, as if they had been a resistance to it. And if, unlike Griselda who was pleased with everything that happened to her and through all her miseries "lived contented," she breaks into grief and even entreaty, it must be remembered that she could not compose a lament without.

Parenthetically it may be remarked that this unsophisticated savage, whom Mr. Gill's friend's father knew, industrious over her last song while the oven was being made ready for her, offers an encouragement to those whose sense of congruity is jarred upon by the cavatine of sopranos and tenors in peril on the operatic stage. The child of nature did what librettists make the prima donna do.

Rao completed her dirge to her own and her sister-in-law's satisfaction, and sat practising it, ready for Tupa. It so moved the sister-in-law that she formed an heroic resolution — a resolution which she kept — that she would not eat a morsel of Rao. She might perhaps have called some of Rao's family to the rescue, but she was an invalid, dying of cancer, and could not leave the house. All she could do she did; she learned the song. At last Tupa had got his leaves asteam, and came. Rao sang him the dirge. Then he strangled her and hastened with her to the oven.

Tupa had his feast that day, and looked forward to the morrow. But on the morrow, while he was out hiding some of his provisions in an extemporized storehouse in the bole of a hollow chestnut-tree, Rao's two brothers strolled over to see her, and the sister-in-law, unable to forgive her brother for depriving her of Rao's companionship and kindly attendance, told the story of Tupa's dinner. The brothers hastened to their home for their spears, tracked Tupa to his chestnut-tree, rushed together upon him with a mighty shout, and in one moment he lay dead at their feet. They cooked him in his own oven under the chestnut-trees by his gate, the oven which, still seen near the ruined homestead, bears Rao's name. He had laid the fire ready to light that day to re-cook some of his wife. What was left of Rao was duly anointed with aromatic oil and, shrouded in breadfruit-cloth, solemnly lowered into the great chasm where the dead of her tribe were placed to rest under the guardianship of the gods.

Grisild is dead, and eke her pacience.

The missionaries have taught the Rarotongan women that it is their duty not to be eaten even by their husbands.