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The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

The Song of Hiawatha is based on the legendary Native American hero, Hiawatha who performs brave and magical deeds in a pristine American setting. It's readable, lyrical, entertaining and still very popular among readers of all ages.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the Native Americans

'I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians, It is to weave together their beautiful traditions into a whole…'

And so Henry Wadsworth Longfellow declared his intention to record the deeds of Hiawatha, a legendary Native American hero. Along with many of his readers, Longfellow was passionately interested in Native Americans and was well versed in their folklore. He had studied the works of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an expert on the Ojibwa and other Native American tribes. One of Schoolcraft's stories was about a chief named Hiawatha who was famous for forming the Iroquois nation.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American Romantic Poet

Longfellow belonged to a sub-group of American romantic poets known as the 'fireside poets'. These writers, including Oliver Wendell Holms and John Greenleaf Whittier were so named because they produced pleasant, readable verse that quickly became popularized as entertaining poetry to read aloud around homey places such as the fireside.

Romanticism was a predominant literary style popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Romantic writers were interested in nature. They emphasized contrasts such as: great triumph and tragedy, sadness and joy. Romantic writers often wrote about supernatural and mysterious events. Their heroes tended to be 'larger than life'. The Song of Hiawatha provides many examples of each of these romantic elements. Although clearly a product of the American romantic tradition the poem may also represent the ideals of Native Americans.

The Song of Hiawatha, an Epic Poem?

As literature, The Song of Hiawatha may best be described as an epic poem. Epic poems are typically about the deeds of a great hero who represents the ideals of a nation or group of people. One example of a classic epic poem is Beowulf which chronicles the life and death of the great Geat prince, Beowulf. In this story Beowulf kills a monster, slays a dragon and finds a great treasure for his people. Another example of a classic epic is The Odyssey by Homer, a story about the brave Greek hero, Odysseus, on his return from the Trojan War. Epic heroes often perform great deeds that sometimes seem superhuman. The language is poetic, which is certainly true of The Song of Hiawatha. The difference between The Song of Hiawatha and other epic poems is that Hiawatha is not a member of Longfellow's own culture.

Hiawatha's Childhood

Most readers are familiar with at least one section of Longfellow's poem. 'Hiawatha's Childhood' is often illustrated and presented in children's anthologies. Representative of the complete poem, the repetitions create a musical cadence and the imagery is descriptive of a utopian environment.

'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.'

'Hiawatha's Childhood' is the third in a series of 22 sections (and an introduction) that compose the larger poem. Each section consists of approximately 60 to over 115 lines. In this section readers learn that Hiawatha is the child of Wenonah and the West-Wind. Longfellow describes Hiawatha's supernatural origin:

'Wooed her with his words of sweetness,

Wooed her with his soft caresses,

Till she bore a son in sorrow,

Bore a son of love and sorrow.'

Sadly, Wenonah dies leaving little Hiawatha to be raised by his grandmother, Nokomis. Nokomis is a wonderful kind and loving grandmother who answers all his questions and provides nurturing guidance.

Hiawatha's Supernatural Abilities

Hiawatha turns out to be a superior athlete and a skilled woodsman. He is charismatic and magical too. He builds a canoe by asking trees and animals of the forest to provide the materials. He is so gifted the canoe paddles itself.

'Paddles none he had or needed

For his thoughts as paddles served him'

In similar fashion, Hiawatha invents maize and causes it to sprout magically from the ground.

'Then he called to old Nokomis

And Iagoo, the great boaster,

Showed them where the maize was growing,

Told them of his wondrous vision,

Of his wrestling and his triumph,

Of this new gift to the nations,

Which should be their food forever.'

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