Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Song of Hiawatha vs. Leaves of Grass - an idea that didn't work, which didn't stop me

So for some reason I thought it might be instructive to read Walt Whitman and Henry Longfellow together, specifically the first edition of Leaves of Grass and The Song of Hiawatha.  Both were published in 1855.  The latter became, possibly, the most popular long poem in the English language, for as long as long poems were popular.  The former revolutionized American, Spanish, and Portuguese poetry – eventually.  Genius versus talent.  Freedom versus constraint.  Future versus past.  Art versus kitsch.  What fun.

Well, now I’m not so sure.  I mean, I assumed that Hiawatha, Longfellow’s attempt at an authentic Native American epic, was better than its reputation, and it is.  How much better – later, later.  Let me set Whitman aside, too, and relate a story from my literary education.

I can’t remember actually reading The Song of Hiawatha, or any little chip of it, in tenth grade, but I remember the instructor using it to teach us about meter:

OF the SHINing BIG-Sea-WATer (Canto IX)

And so on, each foot given the same length, each stressed syllable pounded like a drum.  Like a tom tom drum, you know, like Indians play.  I think the real lesson was simply that meter exists, so a level of exaggeration was understandable.

But some damage was done.  The reader does not have to – and should not – read the poem this way.  The trochaic tetrameter is in fact quite natural, even conversational, while allowing for a more ritualistic, repetitive mode when useful.  Hiawatha does not sound weird or artificial.  Even the above lines, read naturally, closer to anapests (“On the SHORES of Gitche GUmee”) don’t sound so bad.  More typically, Hiawatha sounds no more artificial to me than blank verse:

And whenever Hiawatha
Came from fishing or from hunting,
When the evening meal was ready,
And the food had been divided,
Gliding from their darksome corner,
Came the pallid guests, the strangers,
Seized upon the choicest portions
Set aside for Laughing Water,
And without rebuke or question
Flitted back among the shadows. (Canto XIX)

Those pallid guests are ghosts; this is from one of the weirdest and to me most interesting parts of the story.  If this were prose, it would sound odd, but how odd?  “And whenever Hiawatha came from fishing or from hunting, when the evening meal was ready, and the food had been divided” and so on.  As prose, the filler becomes more visible to me – “from fishing or hunting” would be better – and maybe the clauses should be rearranged a little, but the rhythm is not particularly insistent.

Whatever problems The Song of Hiawatha has, it is not kitsch.  The subject matter is treated respectfully, the meter complements the subject, and the versification is expert.  It was a pleasure to read.  I read Leaves of Grass with furrowed brow; with Hiawatha I am calm and relaxed.  Ah - perhaps that’s the problem.


  1. Fun (?) story about my literary education. When I was pretty small, maybe 6 or 7, maybe 5, I had a children's illustrated edition of The Song of Hiawatha that was probably my favorite book. So much so that I memorized the entire poem. (I did things like that; not many years later when studying Edgar Allen Poe I would voluntarily memorize "The Raven" in its entirety when only the first one or two stanzas were required for school.)

    Sadly I can't recite it anymore. Even more sadly, when I saw it in your currently reading I immediately asked my mom to go searching for it. I was sure I had seen it in my parents' house not that long ago, but she came up empty. I'll be rummaging for it myself later in August.

  2. I think I actually saw a cartoon version of The Song of Hiawatha that left a image in my mind of childhood days of this work as totally kitsch-I will have to reconsider it-Leaves of Grass is among my Holy Texts

  3. Is there going to be another post? Sounds to me like you have more to say.

    I have not read Hiawatha so I'm not really qualified to comment on whether or not is is kitsch. I think I can say that it has become kitsch, at least by reputation. Sounds like that isn't fair, that it deserves better.

    I should look for a copy.

  4. I'm reading an illustrated edition, too. More on that tomorrow. I will write more - I should say something on what the poem is about, I guess, since that's part of the problem with it.

    But, oh yes, much better than its reputation. Certainly not first-rate, nor even first-rate Longfellow. Probably better for kids than adults. Some scenes are excellent, others more ordinary.

    I'm still sorting this out. St. Walt is giving me a headache, which does not help.

    Memorized the entire poem! I hope you find the copy - maybe it will jog your memory.

  5. I read Leaves of Grass with furrowed brow; with Hiawatha I am calm and relaxed. Ah - perhaps that’s the problem.

    This reminded me of an article I read somewhere that argued that the label of "kitsch" is all too often applied to art and literature that inspire good, positive feelings. The author wanted to know why something that inspired darker emotions was more likely to be considered "high-brow." Anyway, just some food for thought. I think that's a good question.

  6. Hello, Constant Weeder--and I hope/see you have given up some of that weeding and returned to reading! I had exactly the same expectation as you did, of your finding 1855 to be the year of The Great Divide in American poetry, and I'm glad you're finding it more problematic than that. I also think that if you stick with Whitman, your headache will lift and you'll find yourself feeling pretty good. Oddly, I did not like Whitman much on first reading--having been educated too thoroughly in the traditions of the New Criticism, which called for tightly structured little artifacts instead of such lists, blasts, musings, etc.as Father Whitman delivers. But it grows on you, grew on me. Big time. By the way, Cape Cod is wonderful. Yeserday, as it happens, I was thinking about Walt. Thinking about his walking along beaches. About his thinking about ME walking along beaches, or so he said. Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking.

  7. EL - How interesting. Some real truth there. Similar to: dark = serious, light = frivolous. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

    The Whitman that is really doing me in is the 1855 Preface. Aggravating, contradictory, flashingly brilliant. The poems at least give me some room to breathe.

    The real issue, which I may take up later, is complexity. Whitman is enormously complex. Those lists alone! Longfellow, a masterful poet with a fine ear, is not. Hiawatha is just not that complex. Leaves of Grass is bottomless.

    I've got to read Whitman's "seashore" poems again, soon.