[The following makes reference to dialogue found only in the 2008 extended edition of the film.]
The first half of Terrence Malick’s The New World offers an account of the relationship between the British adventurer John Smith and a young Algonquian woman. After Smith spends time as a prisoner and then guest of the Algonquian people at the city of Werewocomoco, he and the daughter of the monarch Powhatan fall in love. Although anyone familiar with this story knows that she is Pocahontas, that name is never spoken in the film. No given name for her is mentioned until she is baptized in the Jamestown colony as Rebecca.
During their time together, the secret couple’s affection has not gone entirely unnoticed, but neither has it been made a public issue. As Smith’s departure from Werewocomoco for the Jamestown colony looms, Pocahontas addresses her deity, the divine Mother, in voice-over. She begs the deity’s help, and describes the transformation she feels within herself (most of the scene is here, starting at 2:28):
Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea?
Show me your face.
Give me a sign.
We rise, we rise.
Afraid of myself.
A god, he seems to me.
What else is life but being near you?
Do they suspect?
Oh, to be given to you… you to me.
I will be faithful to you. True.
Two no more.
A montage begins. We witness a flow of images accompanying these words – a temple to the divine Mother, Pocahontas worshipping with other Powhatans, her mortal mother, birds in flight, a sky illuminated by lightning. Her voice transforms these into the visual record of her inner experience, adding an aura of erotic desire to the relationships of community, nature, and spirit that the imagery symbolizes.
The seventh line of this address – “A god, he seems to me” – is an unmistakable allusion to the opening of Sappho, fragment 31, but there are also important correspondences between the two contexts (translation by Anne Carson, 63):
He seems to me equal to gods that man
Whoever he is who opposite you
Sits and listens close
To your sweet speaking
And lovely laughing – oh it
Puts the heart in my chest on wings.
Fragment 31 contains the speaker, a female addressee, and, sitting near her, a male third party. Pocahontas’ speech likewise contains three figures: a female speaker, the divine Mother and Smith, though it is significant that he is never named.
The montage depicts Smith smiling and laughing with Pocahontas, offering visual, rather than verbal, recollection of Sappho’s reference to “your sweet speaking / And lovely laughing.” Its effect on Pocahontas, akin to that of the addressee’s laughter on Sappho’s speaker, is the transport of joy that registers in her voice-over and the exuberant imagery that accompanies it.
The speaker in Sappho’s poem appears, in the first line, to desire this man who is like a god, but it is quickly revealed that her appreciation is reserved for the young woman with whom he sits. The man seems to her like a god only because he is so fortunate as to sit with the woman whom the speaker desires. Initially, both Sappho’s speaker and Malick’s Pocahontas seem to desire the male who has been positioned so prominently before the audience. Soon, we realize that the male in view is a bridge to the female addressee.
Pocahontas’ response to Smith in combination with her desire for the Mother deity creates its own complex relationship. She begins the voice-over with an address to her divine Mother. After asking her where She lives and proposing several possible places, Pocahontas says, “A god, he seems to me.” After this point, the address seems to shift toward Smith, but in fact the prayer to the Mother has not ended. As Thomas Wall observes, “Her attitude to [Smith] blends with her attitude to the Mother … (Wall, 74).” Indeed, the scene suggests that Pocahontas believes that the deity is to be found in John Smith and, for this reason, he seems godlike to her.
Pocahontas desires Smith erotically, but eros for her is not separate from a relationship to the divine source (i.e. the Mother) of all the world’s beauty and generative power. Pocahontas sees in Smith a path to this union — mistakenly, as it turns out. The blending of her address to the Mother and to Smith does not suggest the subordination of her erotic feelings for Smith to a higher love for the goddess, but rather that these two loves share the same space.
To be near him, she feels, is to be near Her. She underscores the unity of her love for Smith and, through him, to the Mother with the words: “I am, I am.” This is an allusion to line 15 of Walt Whitman’s One Hour to Madness and Joy (Blodgett and Bradley, 106):“O to have the feeling, to-day or any day, I am sufficient as I am!” Malick changes Whitman’s desired feeling into a feeling accomplished.
“I am, I am” also recalls the name of the Hebrew deity – Yahweh, or “I Am Who Am” – and makes for a significant close to a speech addressed to a goddess on the subject of divinity. The fullness and joy that Pocahontas feels in her oneness with Smith and her Mother find expression in the same words. When Smith leaves her, she says: “You have killed the god in me.” Not only is the god ultimately not in him, he destroys it in her, albeit temporarily.
When John Smith departs for the Jamestown fort, leaving Pocahontas behind in the Powhatan capital, the young girl meditates on the state of her desire in voice-over. Pocahontas’ words are addressed to a divine Mother deity (see 01:08-30 in the clip below): “My mouth is dry . My body trembles. My skin burns. I have two minds.” This sentence references three poems of the Greek poet Sappho — a fact recognized, it seems, by the original poster of the clip below, insofar as ‘Eros the Bittersweet’ is an image drawn from Sappho.
The first comes again from fragment 31, where Sappho’s speaker enumerates the places on her body that love has afflicted, as she looks at the young woman whom she desires and the man next to her: “…tongue breaks and thin / Fire is racing under skin.” And “shaking grips me.” Desire afflicts Pocahontas in like fashion: mouth, fire on the skin, and trembling body. Pocahontas then sums up her experience: “Love has unbound my limbs. This love is like pain.”
“Love has unbound my limbs” is a quotation from C. M. Bowra’s translation of the first line of Sappho’s two-line, fragment 130 (Higham and Bowra, 211). “This love is like pain” appears to be a variation on the second line of the same fragment, where Sappho describes as, in Bowra’s translation, “a monster bittersweet and my unmaking.” Lastly, “I have two minds” is a translation of fragment 51: “I do not know what to do; I have two minds.”
[For a fuller treatment of classical allusions in this film see my chapter entitled “Sappho and Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)” in Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World. Monica Cyrino, Ed. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013.]
Blodgett, Harold and Sculley Bradley, edd. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Knopf, 2002.
Higham, T. F. and C. M. Bowra. Oxford Book of Greek Poetry in Translation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1938.
Wall, Thomas. “Rührender Achtung: Terrence Malick’s Cinematic Neo-Modernity.” In Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. Edited by Thomas Deane Tucker and Stuart Kendall. London: Continuum, 2011: 58-79.