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Why read the song of Hiawatha?

Hiawatha, as many know, is considered to be Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's best-known poem. This long poem, retelling the legends of various Native American tribes, is often cited, but never really read. In fact some anthologies of American literature do not include the poem. One reason might be its length; another might be its meter. Published in 1855, the poem has 5,314 lines and is written in what is called trochaic tetrameter, a line of four "trochaic" feet. The word "tetrameter" means four, and a trochee is a long syllable, or stressed syllable, followed by a short, or unstressed, one. Longfellow's epic consists of each line having eight syllables, with the stresses falling on the first, third, fifth and seventh syllables. While come critics deride the meter for its sing-song effect, others claim that this is exactly the kind of meter a teller of tales would be using. As one critic puts it: "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." The opening lines of Hiawatha's Childhood provide an example of the meter:
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.


Hiawatha is, of course, not the only poem for which Longfellow will be remembered. He was very popular in his own day and honored for his contribution to American literature. Indeed, his life and works illustrate clearly his contribution to the establishment of an "American" literature, one distinct from England and the rest of Europe. In his graduation speech from Bowdoin College in 1825 Longfellow pleaded for "a national literature"; and one critic has written that Longfellow's "genius lay in the expression of American values and yearnings." The critic adds: "He mixed moral statement with hymns to the work ethic, family relationships, and nature. In a nation still primitive in material conditions he sought to 'clothe the real with the ideal and make actual and common things radiant with poetic beauty.'" The same desire is evident in much of his work. In one of his poems he has a character proclaim: We want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers ... We want a national epic that shall correspond to the size of the country ... We want a national drama in which scope shall be given to our gigantic ideas and to the unparalleled activity of our people... In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies.

Longfellow's "American" contribution is clearly evident in the poems for which he was famous in his own day and should be better remembered today. The list is impressive: Evangeline, The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Wreck of the Hesperus, Tales of a Wayside Inn, The Village Blacksmith, A Psalm of Life, The Jewish Cemetery at Newport, and The Children's Hour. One has only to remember memorable lines from these, many of which earlier generations had to learn and recite, to wonder why this American poet is so neglected today. One can randomly choose many of them. For instance, how many times have we heard the following:
Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!-
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.


Or these, from Evangeline:
This is the forest primeval; but where are the heart beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the
huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers,--
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?


The opening lines of The Children's Hour are often remembered:
Between the dark and daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.


Finally, there are lines from two of Longfellow's poems that will probably never be forgotten despite his dimmed reputation today. How many of us have in fact said at one time or another:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.


Or:
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

...

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!


Hiawatha, the work by which he has been most widely known, was an immediate success when it was published, and Longfellow himself in 1857 estimated that 50,000 copies had been sold. It is, of course, one of the poems that clearly demonstrates his desire for an "American" literature. Set on the shore of Lake Superior, the poem focuses on the legend of Hiawatha and Minnehaha; but in the course of the telling of the tale Longfellow describes in great detail Hiawatha's various adventures, including his getting rid of the evil magician Pearl-Feather, his invention of picture-writing, and his "discovery" of corn. Longfellow's desire for an "American" theme involves the telling of various aspects of Native-American mythology. In revealing the story of Hiawatha from birth to death Longfellow succeeds in recounting in great detail the traditions, both wonderful and harsh, of his hero's people. The poem closes with the approach of a birch canoe to Hiawatha's village, containing "the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face." Hiawatha welcomes him joyously, thus accepting and passing on the new religious message, and then departs, paddling his canoe westward. Here are the concluding lines:
Thus departed Hiawatha,
Hiawatha the beloved,
In the glory of the sunset,
In the purple mists of evening,
To the regions of the home-wind,
Of the Northwest wind Keewaydin,
To the Islands of the Blessed,
To the kingdom on Ponemah,
To the land of the Hereafter!


Why read Hiawatha? It is true that his popularity has declined, but there remain good reasons to read Longfellow's poems. With the increased interest in diversity and other literatures than just American, we can (ironically?) turn to Longfellow's poetry to appreciate other civilizations, especially, with Hiawatha, Native-Americans. One critic has written: "Its [Hiawatha] value for young readers could be rediscovered in the wake of a revival of interest in American Indian oral literature. In this regard, Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass (1855) was published the same year as The Song of Hiawatha, praised Longfellow as the 'Universal poet of young people.' His [Longfellow's] poetry in general is accessible to young readers and has proven a reliable resource for teaching prosody." Another critic has said: "He wrote poetry as a bird sings, with natural grace and melody." Surely, for these and other reasons, Longfellow's poetry deserves to be "rediscovered."

Mike Timko writes about the arts and is a frequent contributor to The World & I.
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Title Annotation:THE ARTS
Author:Timko, Mike
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 1, 2014
Words:1295
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