Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Mythic and Heroic: "The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I’ve been reading the epic poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poems I read as a child and in junior high and high school English classes. These are poems like Evangeline, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Tales of the Wayside Inn, which includes what is still one of the best-known poems in America, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

Longfellow in 1855
The epic Longfellow poem I hadn’t read was The Song of Hiawatha. And I was drawn to it not because I hadn’t read it, but because of an insulting comment aimed in its and Longfellow’s direction. I read an interview with two poets who have both written non-fiction works about the value of poetry. One of them mentioned The Song of Hiawatha as having something that appealed to her, even though it was “to say the least, racially insensitive.”

My first reaction was a question. Why do we feel compelled to politicize everything? My second reaction was to seek out the poem and read it for myself. Having already read three of Longfellow’s epic poems, and discovering that in one of them – Evangeline – he had done something no one in America had previously done – find the heroic in Catholics – and knowing that the poet had also written poems against slavery which cost him sales of his books in the South, I wondered if the poem was as “racially insensitive” as the writer seemed to think.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Painting: Hiawatha, oil on canvas by Thomas Eakin (1874); Hirschhorn Museum.

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