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The Song of Hiawatha

The Song of Hiawatha is an 1855 epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow based on the legends of the Ojibway Indians. Longfellow credited as his source the work of pioneering ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, specifically Schoolcraft's Algic Researches and History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States.

Description

Intentionally epic in scope, Longfellow himself described it as "this Indian Edda," and wrote it in the same meter as the Finnish folk-epic, The Kalevala. The connections between the poem and the Kalevala were never acknowledged by Longfellow, and were the subject of scholarly debate until well into the 1960s.

The poem itself was published on November 10, 1855, and was an immediate success.

A short extract of 94 lines from the poem was and still is frequently anthologized under the title Hiawatha's Childhood (which is also the title of the longer 234-line section from which the extract is taken). This short extract is the most familiar portion of the poem. It is this short extract that begins with the famous lines:

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.

The Song unfolds a legend of Hiawatha and his lover, Minnehaha. 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 and the "Black-Robe chief"

Told his message to the people,
Told the purport of his mission,
Told them of the Virgin Mary,
And her blessed Son, the Saviour.

Hiawatha and the chiefs accept their message. Hiawatha bids farewell to Nokomis, the warriors, and the young men, giving them this charge: "But my guests I leave behind me/Listen to their words of wisdom,/Listen to the truth they tell you." Having endorsed the Christian missionaries, he launches his canoe for the last time westward toward the sunset, and departs forever.

Reception and influence

In August 1855, The New York Times carried an item on "Longfellow's New Poem", quoting an article from another periodical which said that it "is very original, and has the simplicity and charm of a Saga... it is the very antipodes [sic] of Tennyson's Maud, which is... morbid, irreligious, and painful." In October, it noted that "Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha is nearly printed, and will soon appear."

By November its column, "Gossip: What has been most Talked About during the Week," observed that

The madness of the hour takes the metrical shape of trochees, everybody writes trochaics, talks trochaics, and think [sic] in trochees: ...

"By the way, the rise in Erie
Makes the bears as cross as thunder."
"Yes sir-ree! And Jacob's losses,
I've been told, are quite enormous..."

You see how easy it is to talk in trochees, but nobody thought of doing such a thing until MR. LONGFELLOW, who is a sort of COLUMBUS in metres, showed the way.

Parodies emerged instantly. In fact, the New York Times reviewed a parody of Hiawatha four days before reviewing Hiawatha itself. Pocahontas: or the Gentle Savage was a comic extravaganza which included extracts from an imaginary Viking poem, "burlesquing the recent parodies, good, bad, and indifferent, on The Song of Hiawatha." The Times quoted:

Whence this song of Pocahontas,
With its flavor of tobacco,
And the stincweed [sic] Old Mundungus,
With the ocho of the Breakdown,
With its smack of Bourbonwhiskey,
With the twangle of the Banjo,
Of the Banjo—the Goatskinner,
And the Fiddle—the Catgutto...

When the New York Times finally published a review of The Song of Hiawatha, it was scathing. The reviewer's judgment, however, seems based as much on the subject matter as on the poem. He allows that the poem "is entitled to commendation" for "embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race." However, "As a poem, it deserves no place" because there "is no romance about the Indian." He complains that Hiawatha's deeds of magical strength pall by comparison to the feats of Hercules and even to those of "Finn Mac Cool, that big stupid Celtic monarch."

The reviewer writes that "Grotesque, absurd, and savage as the groundwork is, Mr. LONGFELLOW has woven over it a profuse wreath of his own poetic elegancies." But, he concludes, Hiawatha "will never add to Mr. LONGFELLOW's reputation as a poet."

Despite this, the poem was immediately popular, and was so for many decades thereafter, with the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica noting that "The metre is monotonous and easily ridiculed, but it suits the subject, and the poem is very popular." It was increasingly mocked and attacked by early modernist poets, and, in the twentieth century it diminished both in esteem and in popularity, sometimes as much remembered for the parodies it inspired as the actual text. The Grolier Club named The Song of Hiawatha the most influential book of 1855. Lydia Sigourney was inspired by The Song of Hiawatha to write a similar epic poem on Pocahontas, though she never completed it.

In popular culture

Music

Antonín Dvořák was familiar with the work in Czech translation. In an article published in the New York Herald on December 15 1893, he stated that the second movement of his Symphony No. 9, From the New World, was a "sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera ... which will be based upon Longfellow's Hiawatha" and that the third movement scherzo was "suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance."

Curiously enough, Dvořák claimed that "the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical," and some passages that suggest African-American spirituals to modern ears may have been intended by Dvořák to evoke a Native American ambience.

The poem was later used as the basis for a three-part cantata, Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha (1898—1900), by the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who also named his son Hiawatha. Coleridge-Taylor also composed "The Death of Minnehaha".

Part of the poem is recited in Mike Oldfield's album Incantations.

1970s British rockers Sweet sings of Hiawatha & Minnehaha in their song "Wig Wam Bam".

Laurie Anderson also includes an excerpt of the poem in her song of the same name.

Johnny Cash began his concept album "Johnny Cash Sings Ballads of the True West" with an excerpt from the poem.

Parodies

Edward Wagenknecht called it "the most parodied poem in the English language; as noted above, parodies began to appear even before the poem was published.

Lewis Carroll wrote a poem, Hiawatha's Photographing, which he introduced by carefully noting "In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of The Song of Hiawatha. Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject."

In 1856, a slim book entitled The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee appeared, by "Marc Antony Henderson" (Rev. George A. Strong (1832–1912) and published by "Tickell and Grinne." It is a 94-page-long parody of Hiawatha, following it chapter by chapter. It contains the following passage:

In one hand Peek-Week, the squirrel,
in the other hand the blow-gun—
Fearful instrument, the blow-gun;
And Marcosset and Sumpunkin,
Kissed him, 'cause he killed the squirrel,
'Cause it was a rather big one.
From the squirrel-skin, Marcosset
Made some mittens for our hero,
Mittens with the fur-side inside,
With the fur-side next his fingers
So's to keep the hand warm inside;
That was why she put the fur-side—
Why she put the fur-side, inside.

Over time, this has been transformed into an elaborated version, sometimes attributed to Strong and sometimes (as in Carolyn Wells' A Nonsense Anthology) to "Anonymous:"

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.

The Smothers Brothers used this as a song on one of their albums; although, they made it refer to Hiawatha.

Another parody popular among hacker culture is The Song of Hakawatha.

Some Disney cartoons include episodes in which inept protagonists are beset by comic calamities on camping trips. Often these are introduced by a mock-solemn intonation of the lines about the shores of Gitchee Gummee. The most famous of these was the 1937 Silly Symphony Little Hiawatha, whose hero is a small boy whose pants keep falling down.

The 1941 Warner Bros. cartoon, Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt, featuring Bugs Bunny and a pint-sized version of Hiawatha, was nominated for an Academy Award.

In World War I, Owen Rutter, a British officer of the Army of the Orient, wrote "Tiadatha", to describe the city of Salonica, Greece, where several hundred thousand soldiers were stationed on the Macedonian Front in 1916-1918:

Tiadatha thought of Kipling,
Wondered if he's ever been there
Thought: "At least in Rue Egnatia
East and West are met together."
There were trams and Turkish beggars,
Mosques and minarets and churches,
Turkish baths and dirty cafés,
Picture palaces and kan-kans:
Daimler cars and Leyland lorries
Barging into buffalo wagons,
French and English private soldiers
Jostling seedy Eastern brigands.

(Cited by M. Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts, 2004, p. 313)

Margaret Pietsch wrote a parody skit based on "Song of Hiawatha". The skit was actually performed hundreds if not thousands of times, most famously on Saturday Night Live. As an introduction to "Song of Hiawatha" in a listing of "Programs of Inspiration and Humor", she wrote:

"As chairman of an adult dance at my daughter's grade school on January 25, 1958, our committee chose an Indian theme. The gym was decorated with live trees cut and arranged around the room. Large halved totem poles decorated the sides of the gym. A ceremonial artificial fire with lights and red paper and sticks was placed in the center and tables around the room. Ninety-five percent of those that attended wore hand-made or rented Indian costumes.

"This skit was prepared as the entertainment. Presidents of banks, leading realtors and business men in high positions were recruited to be a tree, the firefly or the deer, and each person was responsible for his own costume.

"It has been repeated several times, a must at the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the school.

"We appreciate and have a high regard for the Indian culture and this was always presented for the humor of the actions, as many of the Indian dances were performed with humor too.

"It has always received a happy response with requests for its repeated performance."

Song of Hiawatha Pageant

From 1948 through 2008, a Song of Hiawatha Pageant was performed annually on the last two weekends in July and the first weekend in August in Pipestone, Minnesota at a large outdoor amphitheater. Most parts were played by white actors, but Indians have played major roles.

The performance was interrupted in 1970 by a protest by the American Indian Movement. A public radio story quotes a Native American who lives in Pipestone as saying that although some Indians criticize the play, he thinks that "Anything, like the pageant, that shows a little bit of our tribal culture, even if it is a romanticized version of it, is a good thing. 2008, the 60th anniversary of the pageant, was said by its producers to be the final year of the performance.

Longfellow's Hiawatha vs. the historical Iroquois Hiawatha

There is virtually no connection, apart from name, between Longfellow's hero and the sixteenth-century Iroquois chief Hiawatha who co founded the Iroquois League. Longfellow took the name from works by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, whom he acknowledged as his main sources. In 1856 Schoolcraft published The Hiawatha Legends, based on this material.

In his notes on the poem, Longfellow cites Schoolcraft as a source for "a tradition prevalent among the North American Indians, of a personage of miraculous birth, who was sent among them to clear their rivers, forests, and fishing-grounds, and to teach them the arts of peace. He was known among different tribes by the several names of Michabou, Chiabo, Manabozo, Tarenyawagon, and Hiawatha." Longfellow's notes make no reference to the Iroquois or the Iroquois League or to any historical personage.

According to ethnologist Horatio Hale (1817-1896), there was a longstanding confusion between the Iroquois leader Hiawatha and the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon due to "an accidental similarity in the Onondaga dialect between [their names]." The deity, he says, was variously known as Aronhiawagon, Tearonhiaonagon, Taonhiawagi, or Tahiawagi; the historical Iroquois leader, as Hiawatha, Tayonwatha or Thannawege. Schoolcraft "made confusion worse ... by transferring the hero to a distant region and identifying him with Manabozho, a fantastic divinity of the Ojibways. [Schoolcraft's book] has not in it a single fact or fiction relating either to Hiawatha himself or to the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon."

Indian words recorded by Longfellow

Longfellow cites the Indian words he used came from the works by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The majority of the words he records come from the Ojibwa language, with a few of the words from the Dakota, Cree and Onondaga languages.

Though the majority of the words do seem to accurately reflect pronunciation and definitions, some words seem to appear incomplete. For example, the Ojibway words for "blueberry" are miin (plural: miinan) for the berries and miinagaawanzh (plural: miinagaawanzhiig) for the bush upon which the berries grow. Longfellow records Meenah'ga that appears to be a partial form for the bush but uses the word to mean the berry.

A comprehensive list, Native American Words in Longfellow's Hiawatha has been published at www.native-languages.org

References

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