Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

The Song of Hiawatha

Introductory Note

THE GENERAL purpose to make use of Indian material appears to have been in the poet’s mind for some time, but the conception as finally wrought in Hiawatha was formed in the summer of 1854. He writes in his diary under date of June 22, “I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians, which seems to me the right one and the only. It is to weave together their beautiful traditions into a whole. I have hit upon a measure, too, which I think the right and only one for such a theme.” A few days before, he had been reading with great delight the Finnish epic Kalevala, and this poem suggested the measure and may well have reminded him also of the Indian legends, which have that likeness to the Finnish that springs from a common intellectual stage of development and a general community of habits and occupation.

An interest in the Indians had long been felt by Mr. Longfellow, and in his early plans for prose sketches tales about the Indians had a place. He had seen a few of the straggling remainder of the Algonquins in Maine, and had read Heckewelder while in college; he had witnessed the spectacle of Black Hawk and his Sacs and Foxes on Boston Common; and a few years before, he had made the acquaintance of the fine-tempered Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, the Ojibway chief, and had entertained him at his house, trusting not unlikely that he might derive from the Indian some helpful suggestion. His authority for the legends and the material generally of his poem was in the main Schoolcraft’s great, ill-digested work, with probably the same author’s more literary composition Algic Researches, and Heckewelder’s narrative. He soon took Manabozho’s other and more euphonic name, Hiawatha, into his service, and gave himself up to a thorough enjoyment of the task.

Mr. Longfellow began writing Hiawatha June 25, 1854. It was finished March 29, 1855, and published November 10. It is doubtful if the poet wrote any of his longer works with more abandonment, with more thorough enjoyment of his task, with a keener sense of the originality of his venture, and by consequence, with more perplexity when he thought of his readers. He tried the poem on his friends more freely than had been customary with him, and with varied results. His own mind, as he neared the test of publication, wavered a little in its moods. “Proof sheets of Hiawatha,” he wrote in June, 1855. “I am growing idiotic about this song, and no longer know whether it is good or bad;” and later still: “In great doubt about a canto of Hiawatha,—whether to retain or suppress it. It is odd how confused one’s mind becomes about such matters from long looking at the same subject.”

No sooner was the poem published than its popularity was assured, and it was subjected to the most searching tests. It was read by public readers to large audiences, and a few years later was set to music by Stoepel and given at the Boston Theatre with explanatory readings by Matilda Heron. It was parodied,—one of the surest signs of popularity,—and it lived its parodies down, a surer sign still of intrinsic uncopyableness. It was criticised with heated words, and made the occasion for controversy. The elemental nature of the poetry led to vehement charges of plagiarism, and altogether the poet found himself in the midst of a violent war of words which recalled his experience with Hyperion. He felt keenly the unreasonableness of the attack upon his honesty in the charge that he had borrowed metre and incidents both from the Kalevala. He made no secret of the suggestion of the metre,—he had used an acknowledged form, which was not exclusively Finnish; and as for the legends, he openly confessed his indebtedness to Schoolcraft in the notes to the poem.

Meanwhile the book had an unexampled sale, and the letters which the poet received from Emerson, Hawthorne, Parsons, Taylor, and others showed the judgment passed upon his work by those whose poetic perception was not blunted by habits of professional criticism nor taken captive by mere novelty. Several years after, a translation into Latin of a portion of the poem was made for use as a school-book, by Professor Francis W. Newman. A suggestive criticism, by Dr. Holmes, upon the measure of the poem will be found in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for April 13, 1882.