Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Tolkien and Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha

Recently read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855), mostly for reasons of the (distant) Tolkien connection. Tolkien read it, and liked it, and apparently Longfellow earned some inspiration from the meter -- trochaic tetrameter -- of the Finnish Kalavala. John Garth, after noticing the similarities between the death of Smaug and the death of Megissogwon, already did a nice piece on the connections,** and I don't really hope to add anything major beyond a few observations.

In the Letters, the only reference to Longfellow is indirect -- when Tolkien compared his philology to Lewis Carroll's fascination with math, he makes an interesting remark. With characteristic self-deprecation, he says that "this stuff of mine is really more comparable to Dodgson's amateur photography, and his song of Hiawatha's failure than to Alice" (Letters 22). The poem Tolkien is referring to is Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing," a comic little poem that Carroll deliberately modeled after Longfellow' poem. There's no real reason why Hiawatha is the main speaker, though -- perhaps the image just struck Carroll as amusing? Anyway, Tolkien evidently didn't like the poem, and it isn't great poetry, but I thought it was fun, if light.


Anyhow, back to The Song of Hiawatha.


It's actually quite boring -- I read it for several nights in a row just before going to sleep, and it worked like a charm. Things I liked:



  • the trochic tetrameter is quite melodious, as well as the well-placed use of anaphora (beginning consecutive sentences with the same word). It's like reading two hundred pages of a babbling brook.
  • I enjoyed the Native American names much less than Tolkien did (a bit too alien), but I did quite appreciate all the little tidbits of material culture (wampum, deer-skin) and nature (birch, cedar, sandstone, squirrel, rabbit) that Longfellow worked into the poem. 
But here comes the hammer:
  • It's basically a series of loosely-connected legends which, beyond their Native American subject matter, are quite unremarkable. I.e., we get Hiawatha's miraculous birth, his famous deeds, descriptions of his famous friends, the courtship of his wife and her eventual death, and so on. No one scene is all that memorable.
    • By the way, Longfellow did brag that he could give chapter and verse for all these legends, but I couldn't help feeling that this poem was much more American than it was Native American -- as might be expected from a cultural outsider writing about a different culture which he knew only through books and interviews. The poem ends with Hiawatha getting Christianized, for Pete's sake.
    • Likewise, it seems that the criticism that Longfellow cemented the "noble savage" stereotype in the American imagination is pretty sound.
  • No truly memorable lines -- nothing that leaps up as quotable. 
  • Longfellow's interest in psychology is sadly lacking. This is entirely a "plot-only" poem. The major interests here are the legends, the names, nature, and Native American material culture. A number of myths (this is why this is such-and-such) round out the picture. 
  • Oftentimes, Longfellow's use of imagery can be quite abstract. That is, we get generalized meadows and waterfalls, but nothing that suggests from he derives his detail from places he ever visited

All in all, I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad I'm finished with it. :)



** Summary of Garth's key points. (A) A similarity in the two death scenes. (B) the name Wan┼Źna used by Tolkien in his translation of the Kalavala is similar to Longfellow's name for Hiawatha's mother, Wenonah. Both have similar personal qualities. (C) Loved the strange names in Longfellow, (D) As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1912, there was a play performed called The Death of Minnehaha, who was Hiawatha's wife, so Tolkien probably encountered parts of the poem performed live.


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