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Progymnasmata

Book Review: The Song of Hiawatha by H. W. Longfellow

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I remember my grandmother reciting excepts from the the New England "fireside poets": Whittier, Bryant, Lowell and Longfellow. And I remembered reading some of their works in high school. Later, when I studied literature in graduate school in the late '90s, I was told that scholarly focus on those poets had faded and that, essentially, they were only novelties to skim on the way to the more sophisticated slave narratives and, later, to Whitman and Dickinson.

Nothing they could have said could have made me want to read and to love the Fireside Poets more than that.

But time was a problem and time overtook desire. Until now. I finally completed Longfellow's most famous "epic" poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Written in trochaic tetrameter, I found the poem's rhythm similar to the quiet, short waves of a lake: pleasant, but urging the reader forward with gentle pushes.

The poem uses traditional western notions of a hero: divine birth, predestination, warrior/peace bringer, and tragic end into a First Nations setting -- pre-colonized upper Michigan, along the Lake Superior shore. I suspect that Longfellow's lack of "fidelity" to Ojibway traditional stories is what brought the PC ire of 1990s cultural/literary scholarship upon his shoulders. But it's clear that the story and the character of Hiawatha is an intentional amalgamation of native story with western narrative structures & poetic diction. And this combination works to tell a story that is ennobling, insightful, and entertaining.

Personally, I found the poem wonderful. It was a good story; the poetry moved the characters through the plot peacefully and naturally. And, as a minor scholar of American letters, I see Longfellow seeking to create an American epic and American heroes in the way the Ellis Island created American citizens -- by blending, mixing, and stirring varied cultural elements together. In all the Song of Hiawatha is both an entertaining read and a must-stop on the road to understanding the American poetic voice.
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  1. TheFifthElement's Avatar
    I've never read The Song of Hiawatha but you've made it sound wonderful. I'm trying to read a bit more lengthy / epic poetry. I'll add it to my list (you had me sold at 'I found the poem's rhythm similar to the quiet, short waves of a lake...' ). Thanks.
  2. ShoutGrace's Avatar
    Thanks for the review. I too have been saddened to hear Bryant, Longfellow, et. all dismissed as trying too hard to emulate Victorian and major English styles "in an American" way (or whatever). They get passed over so easily on the way to "real" American voices.
  3. Paulclem's Avatar
    Perhaps they'll come back into vogue. These things ofte go in cycles. It would only take a re-popularisation of the epic poetic form to get them revisited. Someone might be writing the revival right now.