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Tough Love: Parody & The Song of Hiawatha

The following is a transcript of a talk I gave last Tuesday, July 24, as a part of the Mixtape Reading Series at the Casbah in Durham. It is actually sort of two talks in one, a treatment of parody and a Longfellow recovery operation, merged together with a twist in the middle.
Tough Love: Parody & The Song of Hiawatha
by Brian Howe
“With both hands his face he covered.”
I believe that in order to truly love something, you have to perceive and rejoice in what is ridiculous about it. This is also a good description of one of my favorite arts, the art of parody. To be sure, some parodies are simply catty and cruel, coming from disinterested or even hateful places—and these can be quite fun. I want to warm up with an occasional doggerel by Byron, which he seems to have written in an absolute fury over Peter Bell, a notoriously awful book that Wordsworth self-published even though his friends begged him not to. I should note that I’m using the term “parody” broadly here, to also encompass burlesque and drive-by attack poems such as this:

Epilogue by Lord Byron
There’s something in a stupid ass:
And something in a heavy dunce;
But never since I went to school
I saw or heard so damned a fool
As William Wordsworth is for once.
And now I’ve seen so great a fool
As William Wordsworth is for once,
I really wish that Peter Bell
And he who wrote it were in hell,
For writing nonsense for the nonce.
I saw the “light in ninety-eight,”
Sweet Babe of one and twenty years!
And then he gave it to the nation,
And deems himself of Shakespeare’s peers.
He gives the perfect works to light!
William Wordsworth—if I might advise,
Content you with the praise you get
From Sir George Beaumont, Baronet,
And with your place in the excise.
Now, I don’t know who Sir George Beaumont was, but that withering “baronet” says it all, doesn’t it? It’s good and dishy fun to read 19th-century writers being malicious and petty in such a contemporary-feeling way, but this is clearly not an attempt at real art or parody by Byron, and it certainly doesn’t come from a place of love. It seems to me that the best parodies, with the sharpest tang, are usually written from deeply informed positions of frustrated admiration. The gist is, “You can be so good. Why then do you choose to be so bad?” It’s most vividly illustrated in the following parody of Wordsworth by J.K. Stephens.
A Sonnet by J.K. Stephens
Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst;
At other times—good Lord! I’d rather be
Quite unacquainted with the ABC
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.
Wordsworth and Browning were the most frequently parodied poets of the 19th century, according to Dwight Macdonald in one of my true desert-island books, this anthology of literary parodies from Chaucer to the 20th century. Macdonald’s notes are as delightfully caustic as the parodies themselves, as when he writes of Wordsworth and Browning, “It was not only that each had eccentricities of style and thought that could easily be mocked; it was also, I think, that the combination of absurdity and elevation opened especially wide the gap which the parodist exploits. Had they been either less elevated or more sensible, Wordsworth and Browning would have been spared much.”
We won’t be suffering through Peter Bell or any Wordsworth, who I can mostly tolerate only in satiric form. But we will be hearing from another heavily parodied 19th-century poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, particularly “The Song of Hiawatha.” Here is the special case where I love the poem and the parodies of it in equal measure, and I want to spend the rest of this talk on Longfellow.
There is plenty to roll your eyes at in “The Song of Hiawatha,” as has been documented for more than 150 years now. Starting at random: In the poem’s opening sequence, Longfellow frames his hodgepodge of Native American myths by saying, “I repeat them as I heard them from the lips of Nawadaha, the musician, the sweet singer.” This scans much more nicely than the facts of the matter, which would read, “I repeat them as I read them in the books of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the ethnographer.” I should read a bit from the opening sequence of Hiawatha to set up what follows.
The Song of Hiawatha: Introduction by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?
     I should answer, I should tell you,
“From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer.”
     Should you ask where Nawadaha
Found these songs so wild and wayward,
Found these legends and traditions,
I should answer, I should tell you,
“In the bird’s-nests of the forest,
In the lodges of the beaver,
In the hoofprint of the bison,
In the eyry of the eagle!
     “All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!”     [read more]
The poem goes on to freely alter numerous Native American myths and conflate them in the personage of Hiawatha. Longfellow mistakenly thought that Hiawatha was another name for Manabozho, an Ojibwa trickster spirit, though actually Hiawatha was a 16th-century Iroquois general. Thus did the poem begin in error, painting a mythical figure over an historical one. Longfellow set it in a thudding, hypnotic trochaic tetrameter that he took from the Finnish Kalevala. DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da; an almost scolding tone, ad infinitum or perhaps ad nauseum, with plenty of repetitions that exist only to fill out the meter. This cadence, which I happen to enjoy immensely, was in some cases derided as rigid and facile, most notably in a hilarious burlesque by Lewis Carroll that begins with the trochaic disclaimer, “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.”
Hiawatha’s Photographing by Lewis Carroll
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.
All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions.
First the Governor, the Father:
He suggested velvet curtains
looped about a massy pillar;
And the corner of a table,
Of a rosewood dining-table.
He would hold a scroll of something,
Hold it firmly in his left-hand;
He would keep his right-hand buried
(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;
He would contemplate the distance
With a look of pensive meaning,
As of ducks that die in tempests.
Grand, heroic was the notion:
Yet the picture failed entirely:
Failed, because he moved a little,
Moved, because he couldn’t help it.      [read more]
On the other hand, since poor Longfellow just couldn’t win, the same meter that Carroll found rigid and facile was criticized from other quarters for being slipshod and difficult to scan, as in this petulant little jab by J.W. Morris:
What I Think of Hiawatha by J.W. Morris
Do you ask me what I think of
This new song of Hiawatha,
With its legends and traditions,
And its frequent repetitions
Of hard names which make the jaw ache,
And of words most unpoetic?
I should answer, I should tell you
I esteem it wild and wayward,
Slipshod metre; scanty sense,
Honour paid to Mudjekeewis,
But no honour to the muse.
You will notice that the complaints about the verse seem to mask some deeper issues having to do with race and class, and with what is a suitable subject for a poem. In his time, Longfellow was thought to be too generous to the Native Americans; in our time, he’s thought to be too patronizing. You will hear that he papered over an authentic history, which was not his to alter, with an ersatz romantic one; that he crystallized the much-derided image of the “noble savage” that began to emerge after Native Americans ceased to be a significant threat to the European immigrants who had all but eradicated them. This may all be true.
But all of this is to read Longfellow as an historical figure—through a contemporary lens—and nobody actually writes that way. For myself, I prefer to read people as individuals. For all his pseudo-ethnography and crypto-Christianity and other outmoded biases, what I feel from The Song of Hiawatha is that these stories stirred something boyish and guileless in Longfellow, in the same way that his poem stirs something boyish and guileless in me. That stirring is love, even if it does what we postmodernists would call a kind of violence to its object.
But there is more to The Song of Hiawatha than boys’ adventure stories. When Longfellow writes “That in even savage bosoms there are longings, yearnings, strivings for the good they comprehend not; that the feeble hands and helpless, groping blindly in the darkness, touch God’s right hand in that darkness and are lifted up and strengthened,” we may balk at the condescension and Christian imposition. But he is not being cruel. In fact, you might turn back his own passage onto him and see that in his own wrong-headed darkness, he is nevertheless groping for the good, for understanding, for kindness—that through the warped lens of his time and place, he is aiming for love, just as we think and feel through the warped lens of our time and place, to be judged by future generations for our savagery.
The Song of Hiawatha was published in 1855, and was met by a New York Times review that accused it, with chilling frankness, of “embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race.” In this historical context, what sounds like retrograde condescension to the contemporary reader starts to sound like a radical sort of progressive empathy instead—like the first courageous, awkward steps of a painful reckoning that, judging from the Timesreview, clearly wasn’t in process yet.
The most mysterious thing of all is how through artifice and error, through bowdlerization and excessive frivolity, Longfellow brings me into close, visceral confrontation with the tragedy that haunts his poem, in a way that I seldom experience when reading more historical accounts. As the verses go along, their  whimsical falsehood feels more and more like the stirring of a desperate wish, easy to identify with now, to live in a world less stained by unspeakable, irreparable crimes. The flawless beauty of the fantasy somehow underscores the shattered horror of the reality. No matter how many times I read The Song of Hiawatha, there are certain parts of it that just split my heart in two with the unbearable weight of what we live with in America, this eradicated culture we stand upon, the enormity of the loss. I want to close with a passage that I am hoping will not, as it often does, make me too emotional.
The Song of Hiawatha: The Peace-Pipe by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.
     From his footprints flowed a river,
Leaped into the light of morning,
O’er the precipice plunging downward
Gleamed like Ishkoodah, the comet.
And the Spirit, stooping earthward,
With his finger on the meadow
Traced a winding pathway for it,
Saying to it, “Run in this way!”
     From the red stone of the quarry
With his hand he broke a fragment,
Moulded it into a pipe-head,
Shaped and fashioned it with figures;
From the margin of the river
Took a long reed for a pipe-stem,
With its dark green leaves upon it;
Filled the pipe with bark of willow,
With the bark of the red willow;
Breathed upon the neighboring forest,
Made its great boughs chafe together,
Till in flame they burst and kindled;
And erect upon the mountains,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
Smoked the calumet, the Peace-Pipe,
As a signal to the nations.
     And the smoke rose slowly, slowly,
Through the tranquil air of morning,
First a single line of darkness,
Then a denser, bluer vapor,
Then a snow-white cloud unfolding,
Like the tree-tops of the forest,
Ever rising, rising, rising,
Till it touched the top of heaven,
Till it broke against the heaven,
And rolled outward all around it.
     From the Vale of Tawasentha,
From the Valley of Wyoming,
From the groves of Tuscaloosa,
From the far-off Rocky Mountains,
From the Northern lakes and rivers
All the tribes beheld the signal,
Saw the distant smoke ascending,
The Pukwana of the Peace-Pipe.
     And the Prophets of the nations
Said: “Behold it, the Pukwana!
By the signal of the Peace-Pipe,
Bending like a wand of willow,
Waving like a hand that beckons,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
Calls the tribes of men together,
Calls the warriors to his council!”
     Down the rivers, o’er the prairies,
Came the warriors of the nations,
Came the Delawares and Mohawks,
Came the Choctaws and Camanches,
Came the Shoshonies and Blackfeet,
Came the Pawnees and Omahas,
     Came the Mandans and Dacotahs,
Came the Hurons and Ojibways,
All the warriors drawn together
By the signal of the Peace-Pipe,
To the Mountains of the Prairie,
To the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
     And they stood there on the meadow,
With their weapons and their war-gear,
Painted like the leaves of Autumn,
Painted like the sky of morning,
Wildly glaring at each other;
In their faces stem defiance,
In their hearts the feuds of ages,
The hereditary hatred,
The ancestral thirst of vengeance.
     Gitche Manito, the mighty,
The creator of the nations,
Looked upon them with compassion,
With paternal love and pity;
Looked upon their wrath and wrangling
But as quarrels among children,
But as feuds and fights of children!
     Over them he stretched his right hand,
To subdue their stubborn natures,
To allay their thirst and fever,
By the shadow of his right hand;
Spake to them with voice majestic
As the sound of far-off waters,
Falling into deep abysses,
Warning, chiding, spake in this wise :
     “O my children! my poor children!
Listen to the words of wisdom,
Listen to the words of warning,
From the lips of the Great Spirit,
From the Master of Life, who made you!
     “I have given you lands to hunt in,
I have given you streams to fish in,
I have given you bear and bison,
I have given you roe and reindeer,
I have given you brant and beaver,
Filled the marshes full of wild-fowl,
Filled the rivers full of fishes:
Why then are you not contented?
Why then will you hunt each other?
     “I am weary of your quarrels,
Weary of your wars and bloodshed,
Weary of your prayers for vengeance,
Of your wranglings and dissensions;
All your strength is in your union,
All your danger is in discord;
Therefore be at peace henceforward,
And as brothers live together.
     “I will send a Prophet to you,
A Deliverer of the nations,
Who shall guide you and shall teach you,
Who shall toil and suffer with you.
If you listen to his counsels,
You will multiply and prosper;
If his warnings pass unheeded,
You will fade away and perish!
     “Bathe now in the stream before you,
Wash the war-paint from your faces,
Wash the blood-stains from your fingers,
Bury your war-clubs and your weapons,
Break the red stone from this quarry,
Mould and make it into Peace-Pipes,
Take the reeds that grow beside you,
Deck them with your brightest feathers,
Smoke the calumet together,
And as brothers live henceforward!”
     Then upon the ground the warriors
Threw their cloaks and shirts of deer-skin,
Threw their weapons and their war-gear,
Leaped into the rushing river,
Washed the war-paint from their faces.
Clear above them flowed the water,
Clear and limpid from the footprints
Of the Master of Life descending;
Dark below them flowed the water,
Soiled and stained with streaks of crimson,
As if blood were mingled with it!
     From the river came the warriors,
Clean and washed from all their war-paint;
On the banks their clubs they buried,
Buried all their warlike weapons.
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
The Great Spirit, the creator,
Smiled upon his helpless children!
     And in silence all the warriors
Broke the red stone of the quarry,
Smoothed and formed it into Peace-Pipes,
Broke the long reeds by the river,
Decked them with their brightest feathers,
And departed each one homeward,
While the Master of Life, ascending,
Through the opening of cloud-curtains,
Through the doorways of the heaven,
Vanished from before their faces,
In the smoke that rolled around him,
The Pukwana of the Peace-Pipe!
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