I remember how my dad, years ago, sometimes began to recite “By the shore of Gitchee Gumee/ By the shining big sea water/ At the doorway of his wigwam/ In the pleasant summer morning…” I’d always wanted to read this epic. Now I have.
I just finished reading The Song of Hiawatha, the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. According to my journal, one moon passed during my sporadic reading. I always have three or four books in process, so I am not displeased with the time I took to read it. Especially is this true because of the various notes I took. Reading one of the celebrated masters of American poetry, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, even as part of my brain was trying to figure out what he was doing from a technical standpoint.
Longfellow has a rhythm pleasing to the ear. Throughout the twenty-three cantos, Longfellow keeps up the steady beat (for some reason, Sonny Bono’s “The Beat Goes On” comes to mind), if you will, of the trochaic tetrameter. Thinking out loud, here, I wonder if that foot/meter combination would have been familiar to Native American ears. I haven’t been near a Wacipi or anything lately, so I don’t know, but with the story, it works, in my opinion. Not that my opinion means anything. Also, I think this would be difficult to keep up that rhythm for such a lengthy poem, but, then again, I’m not him.
Longfellow’s use of repetition is enjoyable. When, in the introduction, Gitche Manito tells the nations,
“I have given you bear and bison,
I have given you roe and reindeer,
I have given you brant and beaver”
the trio of “I have given you” lines serve to emphasize Gitche Manito’s rule of the created order. Then, the sounds of the animal names repeat in each line. And, while the rhyme is not common throughout the epic, here, in the introduction, the reader may appreciate the lines ending in “hunt in”, “fish in”, and “bison”.
Not only in this opening canto, but especially here, I appreciate the various “lessons”. This appreciation may not be universal throughout the epic, but I should think the following lines would share wide appeal, perhaps as much now, as any other time since their writing:
“I am weary of your quarrels,
“Weary of your wars and bloodsheds,
“Weary of your prayers for vengeance,
“Of your wranglings and dissensions;
“All your strength is in your union,
“All your danger is in discord;
“Therefore be at peace henceforward
“And as brothers live together.”
How this universal peace is achieved is another matter, but in this world of sin and sickness, it is a lofty hope and goal. Ironically, perhaps, it would not be longer than 15 years after this was published that the white men of these United States of America were fighting among themselves in the War between the States.
Longfellow’s opinions and reflections, via Hiawatha, on death and on life, on friends and on foes, on memory and on vision, and in courtship and community, are certainly food for thought. Less like a snack, they are, and more like a feast. More I could write, but I will not.