Home  »  library  »  prose  »  The Teva Poets: Notes on a Poetic Family in Tahiti by John LaFarge (1835–1910)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Teva Poets: Notes on a Poetic Family in Tahiti by John LaFarge (1835–1910)

By Tahitian Literature

  • IN the Home of the Ogre I pillowed my head;
  • I followed in safety the Path of the Dead;
  • With the Sons of the Shark I lived as a guest;
  • I saw float before me the Isles of the Blest.
  • I have bathed in the sea where the Siren still sleeps;
  • The Kiss of the Queen is still red on my lips;
  • My hands touched the Tree with the Branchings of Gold,—
  • For a season I lived in the Order of Old.

  • IT is a part of the charm of little Tahiti, or Otaheite, whose double island is not more than a hundred miles about, that it has been the type of the oceanic island in story.

    With its discovery begins the interest that awoke Europe by the apparent realization of man in his earliest life—a life that recalled the silver if not the golden age. Here men and women made a beautiful race, living free from the oppression of nature, and at first sight also free from the cruel and terrible superstitions of many savage tribes. I have known people who could recall the joyous impression made upon them by these stories of new paradises, only just opened; and both Wallis’s and Bougainville’s short and official reports are bathed in a feeling of admiration, that takes no definite form, but refers both to the people and the place and the gentleness of the welcome.

    The state of nature had just then been the staple reference in the polemic literature of the century about to close. The refined and dry civilization of the few was troubled by the confused sentiments, the dreams, and the obscure desires of the ignorant and suffering many. Their inarticulate voice was suddenly phrased by Rousseau. With that cry came in the literary belief in the natural man, in the possibility of analyzing the foundations of government and civilization, in the perfectibility of the human race and its persistent goodness when freed from the weight of society’s blunders and oppressions.

    Later, Byron:—

  • “—the happy shores without a law,
  • Where all partake the earth without dispute,
  • And bread itself is gathered as a fruit;
  • Where none contest the fields, the woods, the streams:
  • The goldless age, where gold disturbs no dreams.”
  • There is no doubt that at the moment of the discovery our islanders had reached the full extent of their civilization; that, numerous, splendid, and untainted in their physical development, they seemed to live in a facility of existence, in an absence of anxiety emphasized by their love of pleasure and fondness for society,—by a simplicity of conscience which found no fault in what we reprobate,—in a happiness which is not and could not be our own. The “pursuit of happiness” in which these islanders were engaged, and in which they seemed successful, is the catchword of the eighteenth century.

    People were far then from the cruel ideas of Hobbes; and the more amiable views of the nature of man, and of his rights, echo in the sentimentality of the eighteenth century like the sound of the island surf about Tahiti.

    The name recalls so many associations of ideas, so much romance of reading, so much of the history of thought, that I find it difficult to disentangle the varying strands of the threads. There are many boyish recollections behind the charm of Melville’s ‘Omoo’ and Stoddard’s ‘Idylls,’ or even the mixed pleasure of Loti’s ‘Marriage.’

    I believe too that my feelings are intensified because they are directed towards an island, a word, a thing of all time marked by man as something wherein to place the ideal, the supernatural, the home of the blest, the abode of the dead, the fountain of eternal youth, as in Heine’s song about the island of Bimini:—

  • “Little birdling Colibri,
  • Lead us thou to Tahiti!”
  • Captain Cook and Bougainville and Wallis first appealed to me with the name of Otaheite or Tahiti; and I remember the far-away missionary stories and the pictures of their books, the shores fringed with palm-trees, the strange, impossible mountain peaks, the half-classical figures of natives, and the eighteenth-century costumes of the gallant discoverers. And I remember grewsome pictures in which figure human sacrifices and deformed idols, and still the skirts of the uniform of Captain Cook. Long ago there lay, by a Newport wharf, an old hulk, relic of former days. We were told that this had been one of the ships of Captain Cook,—the once famous Endeavor. Here was the end of her romance; now slowly rotted the keel that had plowed through new seas, and first touched the shores of races disconnected from time immemorial.

    On that little ship, enormous to her eyes, had been Oberea, the princess, the Queen of Otaheite, whose name comes up in the stories of Wallis or of Cook, and early in the first missionary voyages.

    Oberea was the tall woman of commanding presence, who, undismayed, with the freedom of a person accustomed to rule, visited Wallis on board of his ship, soon after his first arrival and the attempt at attacking him (July 1767). She, you may remember too, carried him, a sick man, in her arms, as easily as if he had been a child. I remember her in the engraving, stepping towards Wallis, with a palm branch in her hand, while he stands with gun in hand at the head of his marines.

    And do you remember the parting: how the Queen could not speak for tears; how she sank inconsolable on the stern of her canoe, without noticing the presents made her; and how the gallant captain’s eyes filled with tears? Surely this is no ordinary story,—this sentimental end of an official record of discovery.

    When Wallis arrived in June 1767, Tahiti and its neighboring island Moorea were under the rule of a chief, Amo or Aamo, as he is called by Wallis and Cook. He was their great chief,—a word we have managed to translate as king. It was a moment of general peace; and the “happy islanders” enjoyed, in a “terrestrial paradise,” pleasures of social life, of free intercourse, whose description even at this day reads with a charm of impossible amenity. The wonderful island, striking in its shape, so beautiful apparently that each successive traveler has described it as the most beautiful of places, was prepared to offer to the discoverer expecting harsh and savage sights, a race of noble proportion, of great elegance of form, accustomed to most courteous demeanor, and speaking one of the softest languages of man. Even the greatest defects of the Polynesian helped to make the exterior picture of amiability and ease of life still more grateful. The harsher side added to the picture the interest of mystery and contradiction. Just as Wallis left one side of the island, Bougainville the Frenchman came up to the other, different in its make, different in the first attitude of the natives, but with the same story of gracious kindness and feminine bounty; so that the Frenchman called it the New Cytherea, and carried home images of pastoral, idyllic life in a savage Eden, where all was beautiful, and untainted by the fierceness and greed imposed upon natural man by artificial civilization. So strong was the impression produced by what he had to say, and by the elaborations of Diderot and the encyclopædists, that the keen and critical analysis of his own mistakes in judgment which Bougainville affixed to his ‘Journal,’ was, as he complained, passed over, because people wished to have their minds made up.

    Last of all came Captain Cook, whose name has absorbed all others. Twice he visited Tahiti, and helped to fix in European minds the impression of a state nearer to nature, which the thought of the day insisted upon.

    That early figure of Purea (Oberea), the queen for whom Wallis shed tears in leaving, remains the type of the South Sea woman. With Cook she is also inseparably associated; and the anger of the first missionaries with her only serves to complete and certify the character.

    Her residence and that of her husband Amo was at Papara, on the south shore of Tahiti. Both belonged to a family whose ancestors were gods; and they lived a ceremonial life recalling, at this extreme of civilization, the courtesies, the adulation, the flattery, the superstitious veneration, of the East.

    This family and its allies had reigned in these islands and in the others for an indefinite period. The names of their ancestors, the poetry commemorating them, were still sung long after the white man had helped to destroy their supremacy.

    Now Oberea was the great-great-grand-aunt of the old chiefess Arii Taimai, or Hinarii (Mother of Chiefs), whom I visited in her country home. This great lady, the greatest in all the islands, is the last link of the old and new. With her will go all sorts of traditions and habits; and both she and her daughter, Queen Marau, were very affable and entertaining, telling us legends and stories. The mother of our old chiefess was known by at least thirteen different names, each of which was a title, each of which conveyed land: so for instance she was Marama in the island of Moorea, and owned almost all of it; so she was Aromaiterai in Papara. This investiture would be received by a child, as child to a chief, and it would be carried to the family temple to be made sacred, as was done in this case,—thirteen different temples having received the child, the mother of our chiefess. She repeated to us, with curious cadences and intonations unknown to the people here to-day, some of the forms of salutation through which a visitor addressed the honored person that he visited, or was addressed by him. These words gave names and surnames, and references to past history, and made out the proper titles to descent. They were recited in the form of a lamentation, and there were pauses, she said, when the speaker was supposed to weep; and in committing them to memory, she learned also when this wailing was to come. Once, she said, she had visited the island Raiatea with her friend, the famous late queen, Pomare, to call upon the queen of that island; and Queen Pomare, less versed than herself, asked her to speak these salutations for her, as they walked along upon their official visit. “It was difficult,” said the old lady: “I had to walk just so, and to repeat all this at the same time, without an error, and at the proper places to lament.” For our hostess is a lady of the greatest family,—of greater family than Queen Pomare’s, though her affection for her prevents her saying what she thinks.

    The famous Queen Pomare’s name was known to all sea-going people in that half of the globe. She was the Pomare of Melville’s ‘Omoo’ and of Loti’s ‘Marriage.’ The Pomares date only from the time of Cook. They were slowly wresting the power from the Tevas by war, and by that still more powerful means, marriage. The old lady Hinaarii is the chiefess representing that great line of the Teva, alongside of which the Pomares—the kings through the foreigner—are new people. Some years ago King Kalakaua of Hawaii had wished to obtain the traditions and genealogies of her family; but the old lady had never been favorable. This, the earliest of the traditions of the family, was told me at different times by Queen Marau; so that in many cases what little I shall quote will be the very words of our royal historian.

    The great ancestress Hototu, from whom come all the Tevas, was the first queen of Vaieri. She married Temanutunu, the first king of Punauia. (Temanutunu means Bird that Let Loose the Army.) This was at the time when gods and men and animals were not divided as they are to-day, or when, as in the Greek stories, the gods took the shapes of men or beasts…. In the course of time this king left the island, and made an expedition to the far-away Pomotu. It is said that he went to obtain the precious red feathers that have always had a mysterious value to South Sea Islanders, and that he meant them for the maroura or royal red girdle of his son. The investiture with the girdle, red or white according to circumstances, had the same value as our form of crowning, and took place in the ancestral temples. While the king was far away in the pursuit of these red feathers, to be gathered perhaps one by one, the queen Hototu traveled into the adjoining country of Papara, and there met the mysterious personage Paparuiia. This wonderful creature, half man, half fish, recalls the god of Raratonga, who himself recalled to the missionaries the god Dagon. With Paparuiia, or Tino-iia as he was also called, the queen was well pleased; so that from them was born a son who later was called Teva. But this is anticipating. While the king was still away, his dog Pihoro returned; and finding the queen he ran up to her and fawned upon her, to the jealous disgust of Tino-iia, one half of whom said to the other, “She cares for that dog more than for me.” Then he arose and departed in anger,—telling her, however, that she would bear a son whom she should call Teva: that for this son he had built a temple at Mataua, and that there he should wear the maro tea, the white or yellow girdle; his mother the queen, and her husband the king, being the only ones that had the right to the maroura, the red maro or girdle—for which, you will remember, the king was hunting. Then he departed, and was met by Temanutunu, the king, who entreated him to return; but he refused, saying that his wife was a woman too fond of dogs.

    When I asked if he never came back, the queen told me that since that day the man-fish had been seen many times.

    When I asked about the old divinity of the family, the shark, I was told that he still frequents—harmless to his friends—the water inside the reef; changing his size when he comes in or out, because of the small passage.

    The old songs that she orders to be sung to us are not hymns but himenes, a name now applied to all choral singing. The mode of singing has not changed for its being church music—it is the South Sea chant: a buzzing bass brum-brum that sounds almost instrumental, and upon this ground a brocading of high, shrill cadencing, repeated indefinitely, and ending always in a long i-é-e—i-é-e,—a sound that we first heard in Hawaii, and afterwards as an accompaniment to the paddling of Samoan boats.

    I shall transcribe in prose some of the poems that are woven into the story of the family…. Some of these form parts of methods of addresses; that is to say, of the poems or words recited upon occasions of visiting, or that serve as tribe-cries and slogans. Such for instance are the verses connected with the name of Tauraatua that are handed down. The explanations may confuse it; but they make it all the more authentic, because all songs handed down and familiar must receive varying glosses. Where one sees, for instance, a love-song, another sees a song of war. The chief, Tauraatua, of that far-back day was enamored of a fair maiden whose name was Maraeura, and lived with or near her. This poem, which is an appeal to him to return to duty or to home, or to wake him from a dream, is supposed to be the call of the bird messenger and his answer. The bird messenger (euriri) repeats the places and names of things most sacred to the chief,—his mount, his cape, his temple. To which the chief answers that he will look at his mistress’s place or person on the shore.

  • “Tauraatua, living in the house of Roa,”
  • (Says) the bird that has flown to the rua rua,
  • “Papara is a land of heavy leaves that drag down the branches.
  • Go to Teva; at Teva is thy home,
  • Thy golden land.
  • The mount that rises yonder
  • Is thy Mount Tamaiti.
  • The point that stands on the shore is
  • Thy Outumanomano.
  • It is the crowning of a king that makes sacred
  • Teriitere of Tooarai”
  • (the chief’s name as ruling over Papara).
  • (Answer.)
  • “Then let me push away the golden leaves
  • Of the rua rua,
  • That I may see the twin buds of Maraeura
  • On the shore.”
  • Tati, the brother of Queen Marau, takes another view of the poem, regarding as frivolous the feminine connection, and giving the whole a martial character. His version ends with this, which is fine enough:—

  • “Tauraatua is swifter than the one who carries the fort.
  • He is gone and he is past before even the morning star was up.
  • The grass covering the cliff is trampled by Tauraatua.”
  • Every point, the proverb says, has a chief. A poem traditional in the family gives expression to the value of these points—to the attachment to and desire to be near them again—in the mind of an exile, Aromaiterai, who had been sent into the neighboring peninsula and forbidden to make himself known. From his place of exile he could see across the water the land of Papara with its hills and cape. The poem which he composed, and which is dear to the Tevas, revealed his identity:—

  • From Mataaoe I look to my own land Tianina,
  • My mount Tearatupu, my valley Temaite,
  • My “drove of pigs” on the great mountain.
  • The dews have fallen on the mountain,
  • And they have spread my cloak.
  • Rains, clear away that I may look at my home!
  • Aue! alas! the wall of my dear land.
  • The two thrones of Mataoa open their arms to me Temarii.
  • No one will ever know how my heart yearns for my mount of Tamaiti.
  • Tiaapuaa (Drove of Pigs) was the name of certain trees growing along the edge of the mountain Moarahi. The profile against the sky suggested—and the same trees, or others in the same position to-day as I looked at them, did make—a procession along the ridge.

    The “cloak” of the family is the rain; the Tevas are “the children of the mist.” Not so many years ago one of the ladies objected to some protection from rain for her son who was about to land in some ceremony: “Let him wear his cloak,” she said.

    By the “two thrones” I understand two of the hills that edge the valley.

    I have received from Queen Marau three poems: one about a girl asked to wed an old chief; one in honor of King Pomare. The third, a song of reproof, cherished by the Teva as a protest against fate, explains how the dissensions among the different branches of the eight clans of Teva allowed them to become a prey to the rising power of the Purionu clans headed by Pomare.

    [The above article with the translations that follow are from the informal note-book of Mr. La Farge.]