Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Song of Hiawatha

Today Tammy and I are looking at poems.

I've been thinking about "Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on and off for a while. My dad had to memorize some part of it in school, and I remember his quoting this stanza to us when we were kids:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Little did I know, this poem is something like 200 pages long! I would like to read the whole thing sometime. I began reading the first few pages and even when not heard aloud, I can feel how hypnotic it is. Here's a link to the the whole shebang:

From an Editor's Preface by Wallace Rice:

"HIAWATHA," rightly regarded as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's greatest, most characteristic, and most original poem, has for Americans the marked merit of being entirely concerned with tales of the aboriginal inhabitants of the North American continent. It is, from beginning to end, a metrical version of legends originating with the Algonquin family of Indians, of which the Ojibways or Chippewas were the most prominent tribe. Yet Hiawatha himself was not of this family, but was an authentic historical person, neither a myth nor a demigod, who was a great chief among the Onondagas in the fifteenth century, not only the framer of a code of laws by which they were long bound but also the successful negotiator of the remarkable treaty by which the Five Nations, afterwards the Six Nations, were confederated; best known to us as the Iroquois.


"Hiawatha" was begun on June 25, 1854, and its 5,314 lines were concluded March 29, 1855; nine months later. Its meter, derived from that of the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala, consists of eight-syllabled lines, with stresses falling on the first, third, fifth and seventh syllables. Octosyllabic verse, whether trochaic, as here, or iambic, as in Scott's "Lays of the Last Minstrel," is by far the easiest of all measures to write; and the fact that "Hiawatha" is unrhymed made the American's task greatly easier than that of the Scotchman....

Yet there can be no doubt of the suitability of the measure to the subject matter here, as in the Kalevala. It is just the sing-song that would be used by a teller of tales about the campfire, with each verse about the duration of a breath, lacking in rhyme so that little particularity in memorization is demanded of the narrator, repetitive so that he can go back from time to time and collect his thoughts, and so easy of composition that a line may be made up on the spot to replace one lost to the mind. It would be no serious task to anybody to he compelled to speak in these octosyllabics for a day, or even a week, as a slight test will prove.

It is an excellent rule in literary composition to use the commonplace as the vehicle for the conveyance of unusual thoughts and a foreign atmosphere. In this, Longfellow's instinct was far surer than that of the critics who considered his work adversely at the time of its publication, on November 10, 1855. The mere fact that "Hiawatha" was so readily memorized-and that lapses in memory could be so easily covered up-brought it into a favor which it could never have attained were it rhymed, or were its measure that of English heroic verse. Its fluent vehicle bore successfully the burden of the feelings, the habits, the ideas of the American savage, all strange and exotic to English ears. It has done more than all the writings in the world combined to give the Caucasian mind an understanding of and sympathy with that of the North American Indian.

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