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NA334012 - LONGFELLOW, H.W.: Song of Hiawatha (The) (Unabridged)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Song of Hiawatha

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the first American poet to earn a living from writing verse, a situation made possible by such poems as Paul Revere’s Ride, The Village Blacksmith, The Courtship of Miles Standish and his most popular and enduring long poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1807, he was still at college when he declared his intention to make writing his career. The son of a lawyer and congressman, Longfellow’s first poem, The Battle of Lovell’s Pond, was published when he was only thirteen. But it was as a translator that he first made his academic mark: translations of Horace won him a scholarship to travel through Europe in the 1820s, which he did before returning to academia in the USA. (It is said that he mastered eleven languages.)

Shortly after his marriage to Mary Potter in 1831 he embarked on an extended journey to Europe and Scandinavia. There he encountered the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, which was, famously, to provide him with the distinctive metre used in Hiawatha.

By 1836, now a widower, he was the published author of a variety of works: the romantic novel Hyperion; Voices of the Night, a collection of poetry which sold many copies; as well as plays, and even poetry, on politically current topics such as slavery (written after spending time with Charles Dickens in London). The 1841 collection Ballads and Other Poems includes The Wreck of the Hesperus and The Village Blacksmith, both among his best-loved works. By this time, Longfellow was strongly established in the European Romantic literary mode.

In 1854 he resigned from his post as professor of French and Spanish at Harvard and went to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the following year he published The Song of Hiawatha: it was immediately successful. It was read and quoted everywhere, and translated into numerous languages. Cardinal Newman’s brother translated it into Latin; and before long, parodies began to appear. Hiawatha’s Photographing by Lewis Carroll transports the metre into a hilarious Victorian marriage:

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
Another parody is The Song of Milkanwatha by Marc Anthony Henderson (Rev. George A. Strong, 1832–1912):

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.
Longfellow’s poem endured and survived all.

Soon after the death of Mary Potter, Longfellow had embarked on a happy second marriage to Frances Appleton, whom he had met on his travels in Germany and Switzerland. Yet in 1861 his personal life was shattered by her death, in unusual circumstances: she was sealing an envelope with wax when her dress caught alight from the match. Longfellow tried to save her but she died the following day.

Longfellow lived the life of an honoured poet with international standing. During a visit to England in 1868 to receive an honorary degree from Cambridge University, he took tea with Queen Victoria. She noted in her diary that, such was his popularity, even her servants were curious to see him, and they ‘concealed themselves in places’ in the palace in order to do so. He counted Alfred, Lord Tennyson (whom he outsold) and Franz Liszt among his friends; and Nathanial Hawthorne (with whom he was at college), James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes were close American friends.

As a translator, one of his key achievements was the first American translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1867). Longfellow died in 1882 at the age of 75. He was the first American poet to be commemorated by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The Song of Hiawatha

Longfellow worked on The Song of Hiawatha from June 1854 to March 1855. Hiawatha was a historical figure from the mid-16th century, perhaps Mohawk, perhaps Onondaga. But Longfellow drew on the popular treatment of Indian stories made by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft who had married an Ojibway – and this is where Hiawatha himself was placed.

Longfellow made no secret of his source. He wrote:

Into this old tradition I have woven other curious Indian legends, drawn chiefly from the various and valuable writings of Mr Schoolcraft, to whom the literary world is greatly indebted for his indefatigable zeal in rescuing from oblivion so much of the legendary lore of the Indians.

The scene of the poem is among the Ojibways on the southern shore of Lake Superior, in the region between the Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable.

Nor did Longfellow attempt to deny that he had taken the haunting rhythm – a trochaic hexameter – from the Kalevala (Land of Heroes), the Finnish epic poem which had been transmitted orally until the early 19th century. Longfellow clearly wanted to draw parallels of native myths with his tale of Hiawatha, in addition to adopting the metre.

It is a mythical story, of the young Hiawatha raised by his grandmother Nokomis. He becomes a warrior who has grown up intent upon avenging the wrong done by his father, the West Wind, on his mother, Wenonah. Reconciliation occurs and Hiawatha becomes leader of his people.

The poem was immensely successful during Longfellow’s life, selling 50,000 copies within a short time of its publication. Even today, many of its 22 sections remain in common consciousness, particularly ‘Hiawatha’s Wooing’ and ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding-Feast’. The images are very strong of Hiawatha with his birch canoe, his close friendships, his ‘Minnehaha, Laughing Water’, and his life in the forests, mountains and rivers. And, certainly when read aloud, the much-mocked rhythm becomes an integral support for the epic nature of the poem: it is there, unmistakably, but as a base from which the narrative springs. It rarely feels intrusive, calculated, or (curiously!) arduously repetitive.

There occur frequently the expression of sentiments that are harder to take in the 21st century, and the welcoming of the missionary will raise eyebrows in an environment respectful of Native Indian traditions. Yet it is difficult to deny that The Song of Hiawatha has an engaging charm even now and, as an important steppingstone in American poetry, deserves to be read – and heard – more widely.

Notes by Nicolas Soames

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