japonisme: by the shores

21 October 2008

by the shores

fascination with the native americans, the indians, the indigenous peoples, began pretty much exactly the moment when europeans first hit the americas. and at the same time, not surprisingly, fear of them started too.

but there were waves of artistic inspiration which always followed fear. during one of these, in 1855, longfellow joined many existing native myths into one epic poem (a form he wished to revive), and came out with hiawatha.

the poem, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful uses of the english language ever to have been written, is 22 chapters long, book-length -- much too long to post here. the entire work is here, though, and i shall try to find some passages so delectable your toes may curl. accompanied, of course, by another wave of artistic awe, at the time of japonisme, and its influences.

Downward through the evening twilight,
In the days that are forgotten,
In the unremembered ages,
From the full moon fell Nokomis,
Fell the beautiful Nokomis,
She a wife, but not a mother.

And Nokomis fell affrighted
Downward through the evening twilight,
On the Muskoday, the meadow,

On the prairie full of blossoms.

"See! a star falls!" said the people;

"From the sky a star is falling!"

There among the ferns and mosses,
There among the prairie lilies,

On the Muskoday, the meadow,
In the moonlight and the starlight,
Fair Nokomis bore a daughter.

And she called her name Wenonah,
As the first-born of her daughters.
And the daughter of Nokomis
Grew up like the prairie lilies,

Grew a tall and slender maiden,

With the beauty of the moonlight,

With the beauty of the starlight.

And the West-Wind came at evening,
Walking lightly o'er the prairie,

Whispering to the leaves and blossoms,

Bending low the flowers and grasses,
Found the beautiful Wenonah,
Lying there among the lilies,
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.

Thus was born my Hiawatha,
Thus was born the child of wonder.

There the wrinkled old Nokomis
Nursed the little Hiawatha,

Rocked him in his linden cradle,

Bedded soft in moss and rushes,
Safely bound with reindeer sinews;
Stilled his fretful wail by saying,

"Hush! the Naked Bear will hear thee!"

Lulled him into slumber, singing,

"Ewa-yea! my little owlet!
Who is this, that lights the wigwam?
With his great eyes lights the wigwam?
Ewa-yea! my little owlet!"

Many things Nokomis taught him
Of the stars that shine in heaven;

Showed him Ishkoodah, the comet,
Ishkoodah, with fiery tresses;
Showed the Death-Dance of the spirits,
Warriors with their plumes and war-clubs,

Flaring far away to northward
In the frosty nights of Winter;
Showed the broad white road in heaven,

Pathway of the ghosts, the shadows,

Running straight across the heavens,

Crowded with the ghosts, the shadows.

Then the little Hiawatha
Learned of every bird its language,

Learned their names and all their secrets,
How they built their nests in Summer,
Where they hid themselves in Winter,

Talked with them whene'er he met them,

Called them "Hiawatha's Chickens."

Of all beasts he learned the language,
Learned their names and all their secrets,

How the beavers built their lodges,

Where the squirrels hid their acorns,

How the reindeer ran so swiftly,

Why the rabbit was so timid,

Talked with them whene'er he met them,

Called them "Hiawatha's Brothers."

'In the land of the Dacotahs
Lives the Arrow-maker's daughter,

Minnehaha, Laughing Water,

Handsomest of all the women.

I will bring her to your wigwam,
She shall run upon your errands,

Be your starlight, moonlight, firelight,
Be the sunlight of my people!"

Still dissuading said Nokomis:
"Bring not to my lodge a stranger

From the land of the Dacotahs!

Very fierce are the Dacotahs,

Often is there war between us,

There are feuds yet unforgotten,

Wounds that ache and still may open!"

Laughing answered Hiawatha:
"For that reason, if no other,
Would I wed the fair Dacotah,

That our tribes might be united,
That old feuds might be forgotten,
And old wounds be healed forever!"

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Blogger willow said...

I can just hear Gordon Tootoosis narrating this Longfellow poem! My bit of Cherokee DNA tingled as I read this post.

Yes, BTW, I do make all those recipes and take the piccies, too. :^)

22 October, 2008 15:32  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

so what do you say to my offer?

22 October, 2008 16:08  
Anonymous lasourceauxbois said...

This is complete discover. Thanks. Brilliant post.

23 October, 2008 06:36  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

i am so happy to hear that. this has been one of my favorite poems for a very long time, and i don't think anyone reads it anymore.

23 October, 2008 08:03  
Blogger Roxana said...

omg, lotus, hiawatha is one of the dearest poems of my childhood, I had a wonderful book with pictures and I could spend hours looking at it, reading it again and again. You made me so nostalgic... but thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

26 October, 2008 16:48  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

roxy! it's wonderful to learn of someone else who has read and loved this! this explains a lot! ;^)

seriously, i'm really really happy to share this.

26 October, 2008 19:53  
Blogger Neil said...

I think you're right, Lily, to champion Longfellow. Could anything be more out of fashion? But even though he muddied the waters by foolishly misusing the name Hiawatha - who was a real ancestral hero of the Iroquois - his essential understanding of Native American mythology and values, as interpreted through the source material available to him through writers such as Schoolcraft, is good. He certainly isn't patronising or disrespectful. And there's a fascinating parallel between what he was trying to do in creating an American epic and the work of the Finnish writer Elias Lonnrot in creating the Kalevala from oral sources - Longfellow even used the Kalevala metre for his poem.

27 October, 2008 16:00  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

wow neil! thank you--that's fascinating. so he didn't originate that meter! i could never have guessed. so he had to know of the kalevala version, then.

one night back in the late 70s i guess i had been studying late, so around 2am i kicked back, got very very stoned, and reread one of my favorite stories for like the 2000th time. it was william kotzwinkle's story of a young navaho motorcycle rider, 'follow the eagle,' in the collection 'elephant bangs train.'

and for the very first time i noticed that beginning very slowly, like a line here and there in the beginning of the story, and then every line by the end, was that rhythm:

domingo falling to the barroom
laughing with his knife-blade bloody,
my look at that terra cotter
there like faces in the canyon....

i immediately wrote kotzwinkle a letter about my discovery. he answered back--nobody had ever noticed it before.

27 October, 2008 16:44  
Blogger Neil said...

Great story, Lily. Longfellow must have known the Kalevala, but by what route I don't know, as Hiawatha was written before any substantial English translation. Ah! A quick Google search gives an answer, that Longfellow visited Finland in 1835 and learned Finnish. Here's the link: http://www.kaiku.com/kalevalainhiawatha.html

29 October, 2008 15:32  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

ain't the internet grand, neil!!?! thanks for looking into that--i'll follow that link -- thanks!

by the way, of course in the short story those lines looked like prose, not poetry.

29 October, 2008 15:45  

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