As one of the children who loved to hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, I relished my early immersion into the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
One of the so-called Fireside poets — a group which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell — Longfellow entranced my classmates and me with his rhythmic and rhyming version of our nation’s history. If he trimmed, re-stitched, and embroidered that history from time to time, the broad outlines were there, together with vivid scenes we never experienced but heard echoing in stories told by parents and grandparents; we enjoyed it all.
Longfellow often wrote especially for children, but he also included them in works written more directly for adults. We envied the school children who populated his poems, wishing we could have experienced such marvelous sights as those recounted in The Village Blacksmith:
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
In time, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” gave voice to my fascination with the sea, and, somewhat obliquely, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” became responsible for the beginning of my blog. But in my youth, Longfellow’s most popular and long-enduring poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” seemed to be everywhere.
Shortly after his marriage to Mary Potter in 1831, Longfellow journeyed to Europe and Scandinavia, where he encountered the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Compiled by Elias Lönnrot from an extensive Finnish oral tradition that included ballads, lyrical songs, and incantations, the material was published in two editions; the original 32 cantos (1835) later were enlarged into 50 cantos (1849), and this later edition usually is meant when Finns refer to the Kalevala.
Kalevala, the dwelling place of the epic’s chief characters, is a poetic name for Finland which means ‘land of heroes.’ On the website of the Kalevala Society, a useful note about the nature of the epic is offered as introduction:
The world of the Kalevala is mythical – not historical. Therefore, its stories cannot be connected to actual places or events. Essentially, it lives in the realm of the mind’s eye. Lauri Honko, a Finnish scholar of the Kalevala, writes: ‘Many of the stories and their details become easier to understand if we do not try to force them onto the level of historical time and everyday experiences but try to listen to the voice of myth as it speaks to the man who conceives time as mythical.’
Written in unrhymed octosyllabic trochees and dactyls (known as the Kalevala metre), the epic is characterized by alliteration, parallelism, and repetition. Longfellow found the style congenial, and its use in”The Song of Hiawatha” directly reflects the influence of the Kalevala.
This section, perhaps one of the best known portions of Longfellow’s poem, may have been memorized by thousands of grade-school aged children:
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.
Of course, anyone who grew up in the 1950s — especially in midwestern states — remembers the Hamm’s Beer Company parody of “The Song of Hiawatha.” One of the most famous commercials ever produced, it borrowed its melody from Victor Herbert’s 1911 opera Natoma and paired the music with rhymed couplets similar to those in Longfellow’s poem.
Once heard, the jingle wasn’t easily forgotten. Even today, the percussive beat of its drumming brings it back in an instant, although many viewers would have been surprised to know the memorable beat of the tom-tom in the commercial wasn’t Native American. Minneapolis advertising legend Ray Mithun, who helped found the Campbell-Mithun agency with $1,500 and three clients, based it on recordings of Haitian voodoo drumming, and beat out the rhythm on an empty carton of Star-Kist tuna cans.
By the time the Hamm’s commercial arrived on the scene, a multitude of Hiawatha parodies had been published, including one written by the Reverend George A. Strong (1832-1912) under the pseudonym of ‘Marc Antony Henderson’ in 1856: one year after the publication of Longfellow’s poem.
Titled “The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee” and said to have been published by a company puckishly named ‘Tickell and Grinne,’ the parody imitated Hiawatha chapter by chapter. Over time, variations began to appear. A much-anthologised, self-contained verse sometimes attributed to Strong and sometimes to ‘Anonymous’ appeared in Mrs. Scott Saxton’sThe Newest Elocution Textbook, published in Denver, Colorado, in 1893. Found in a section titled “Gymnastics in Articulation,” it had been given the title, “Skin Side Inside, or The Modern Hiawatha.” The version endured at least until I reached second grade; our teacher read us the verse as we dried our snow-caked mittens on the radiators:
He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.
Never one to allow an opportunity for parody to pass by, Lewis Carroll created his own version of Longfellow’s poem, calling it “Hiawatha’s Photographing.” In his introduction, Carroll begins the fun early; his use of Longfellow’s meter becomes obvious only when the paragraph is restructured:
In an age of imitation,
I can claim no special merit
for this slight attempt at doing
what is known to be so easy.
Any fairly practised writer,
with the slightest ear for rhythm,
could compose, for hours together,
in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention
in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle,
I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism
to its treatment of the subject.
In fact, Carroll was quite a camera buff himself, and he filled his parody with amusing details related to cameras, unwilling subjects, the pains of portraiture, and film development — all in a perfect and wonderful imitation of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.
The entire, hilarious, improbable version of “Hiawatha’s Photographing” can be found here. Whether you enjoy 19th century poetry, photography, or the humor of parody, it’s well worth a read — preferably aloud, and preferably with an audience, just as Longfellow and Carroll would have wanted.
The Hamm’s is optional.