Study Guide

Song of Hiawatha Analysis

  • Sound Check

    All About the Trochees

    In the "Form and Meter" section, you can find out about how Longfellow used a specific meter called "trochaic tetrameter" to write this poem. Longfellow chose this meter because he felt that it did a good job of reflecting the natural rhythms of Native American speech. Here's an example of trochaic tetrameter, which uses a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one:

    With the Gods of the Dacotahs
    Drawn and painted on its curtains
    And so tall the doorway, hardly
    Hiawatha stooped to enter
    (158-161)

    This isn't to say that Longfellow used trochees as a calling card his whole career. But at this point in his life, it's fair to say that Longfellow was considered the king of the trochees in American literature. (We wonder if that would come with a sweet crown and robe.)

    One critic even went so far as to write: "The madness of the hour takes the metrical shape of trochees, everybody writes trochaics, talks trochaics, and think in trochees." Critics basically accused Longfellow of helping to ruin English poetry by making trochees so popular. For decades after, people would write parodies of Hiawatha and make fun of Longfellow by making their trochees sound increasingly silly and exaggerated.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    On some level, Henry W. Longfellow knew that he was no expert when it came to the legends of Native American peoples. But the dude wanted to write a poem about these legends either way, so here's what he did to protect himself: He created a short introduction that explained how he once heard a Native American singer and storyteller named Nawadaha sing a song about a great hero named Hiawatha.

    The truth is that all of this is totally made up and Longfellow created the story of Hiawatha by mashing together a bunch of stories from totally unrelated traditions. But this intro has a way of making everything seem more legit and accurate than it actually is. That's why instead of "Hiawatha" we get "The Song of Hiawatha." Longfellow knew that there would be people out there who'd call him out on his inaccuracies sooner or later, so he inserted this intro and called the whole poem a "song" as if to say, "Don't blame me. Blame Nawadaha."

  • Setting

    Lake Superior (Gitche Gumee)

    Longfellow decided to set The Song of Hiawatha in an area on the banks of Lake Superior, or what he thought the Native Americans of the area called "Gitche Gumee." Longfellow uses just about every chance he can to work this name into his poetry, as you get with passages like this:

    Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
    On the shining Big-Sea-Water
    With his fishing line of cedar,
    Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma
    .(8.1-8.5)

    It's clear that Longfellow was blown away by the beauty of North America's natural landscape, and he puts a lot of poetic description of this setting into his poem. It's actually fair to say that Longfellow saw the pitfalls of growing cities and modern technology and tried to escape them by retreating into nature with his poetry.

  • Speaker

    Nawadaha

    At some level, Henry W. Longfellow probably knew he wasn't well qualified to talk about Native American legends. So he did a clever thing. He wrote an introduction to The Song of Hiawatha where he claims that the entire long poem was something he actually heard being sung by a travelling Native American musician named Nawadaha, as we read:

    There he sang of Hiawatha,
    Sang the song of Hiawatha,
    Sang his wondrous birth and being,
    How he prayed and how he fasted.
    (I.70-73)

    What Longfellow does here is keep himself at arm's length from everything he writes in the poem. By having this fictional minstrel tell the story, instead of himself, Longfellow gives himself the ability to take all the credit for the poem while having an excuse if people don't like it. He has the chance to say, "Hey, don't blame me. I'm just writing down what Nawadaha was singing." It's especially important to remember that the speaker of this poem is a Native American character because it shows that Longfellow was savvy enough to realize that an old bearded white man like himself wouldn't be a great spokesperson for the indigenous peoples of North America.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Apart from some vocabulary, there's not a ton of stuff in The Song of Hiawatha that should trip you up, and that's one of the reasons it was so popular for so many years. Longfellow's poetry is easy to understand and easy to memorize because of its simple language and constant rhythm. Plus the poem is super-heavy on plot and not very likely to make you too bored.

  • Calling Card

    Zesty Zeal!

    When we say that you can know Longfellow by his zesty zeal, we mean that the guy wasn't afraid to be super-enthusiastic in his poetry. This form of open enthusiasm eventually died out as modernism became more cool and ironic. In fact, many modernists made fun of poets like Longfellow for not restraining their emotions enough. A passage like this one can give you a good sense of what we mean:

    Plates of bone with spines projecting!
    Painted was he with his war-paints.
    (8.40-42)

    Longfellow is actually describing a fish in this scene, but his exclamation points and overblown enthusiasm makes it seem as though the fate of the whole world rests on this fish. That's just the kind of enthusiasm that'll make a modern reader roll their eyes. But, back in Longfellow's day, folks weren't afraid to get really deep into their stories.

  • Form and Meter

    Trochaic Tetrameter

    Traditional European literature usually follows an iambic pattern, where you have two syllables with the emphasis falling on the first. For example, "I got the bus and rode to school." But for Hiawatha, Longfellow decided to use the opposite kind of meter—something called trochaic—which puts the emphasis on every first syllable. The "tetrameter" part of the meter just means that there are four (tetra- means four) pairs of syllables in each line. For example, "Dead he lay there in the forest" (3.259).

    Longfellow chose trochaic tetrameter because he felt like it more accurately represented the rhythms of Native American singing and chanting. Just think of a stereotypical chant like "Way ah Hey ah Wey ah Hey ah." That's the kind of sound Longfellow was going for, even though he was drawing really heavily on bad cultural stereotypes when he thought of it. The funny thing is that critics of Longfellow's time hated his use of trochaic tetrameter and couldn't even take it seriously. Some even accused of him plagiarism because Longfellow's meter was the exact same as that of an epic Finnish poem called the Kalevala that Longfellow had read and admired. People also found the meter so silly that they started writing their own poems with Longfellow's meter just to make fun of the guy. In case the rest of this module hasn't made it clear, Longfellow took flak from, well, pretty much everyone after writing this poem.

  • The Peace-Pipe

    The Peace-Pipe is probably the most powerful symbol in this poem, as it represents people's ability to overcome their differences and to have respect for one another. You can see this conflict resolution in the way the peace pipe involves sharing and ends up calming a lot of people down. The entire poem actually starts with the god Gitche Manito making a giant peace-pipe out of rock: "On the great Red Pipe-Stone Quarry,/ Gitche Manito, the mighty […]/ Stood erect, and called the nations" (1.2-1.6). As the poem continues, Manito then "Smoked the calumet, the Peace-Pipe,/ As a signal to the nations" (1.34-1.36). So the pipe calls together the great warriors from all the tribes of North America so Gitche Manito can ask them all to get along.

    By the time Gitche Manito is finished speaking, all the warriors go to the nearby quarry to make their own peace-pipes and bring them back to their home villages: "And in silence all the warriors,/Broke the red stone of the quarry" (1.191-192). It's hard to say how well this strategy works, since the rest of the poem is filled with violence. But at least we don't see any full-blown wars between two tribes, which sounds like an improvement from earlier times.

    • Line 1.2: In just the second line of this poem, the god Gitche Manito reaches down out of heaven and makes a giant peace-pipe. He then smokes the thing and uses the smoke to call together all the great warriors from different nations. 
    • Line 1.191: The warriors finish listening to Gitche Manito by heading for the nearby quarry and making their own peace pipes to bring home with them. The tradition of the peace pipe is born and many of the nations agree to end their longstanding wars with each other. 
    • Line 22.125: When the white Europeans first arrive in Hiawatha's village, Hiawatha's natural instinct is to smoke a peace-pipe with them to signal a truce between their people. It doesn't seem as though the pipe works though, because we all know how that story of Europeans and Native Americans would eventually play out.
  • Dandelion

    The dandelion is a sad symbol in this poem because it represents the illusion of love. More specifically, it appears when the lonely young man named Shawondasee thinks he sees a beautiful young woman hanging out in a meadow. He's too lazy to go talk to the woman, so he just comes to the meadow every day and watches her. But one day, the poem tells us "He beheld her yellow tresses/ Changed and covered o'er with/ whiteness,/ Covered as with whitest snowflakes" (2.304-2.307). The young woman's golden hair has turned to white, and Shawondasee takes this change as a sign that his brother has had sex with the woman. He gives up on love and spends the rest of his days in sadness.

    If Shawondasee had been a bit bolder, he might have approached the beautiful young woman and realized that she was just a dandelion all along (hence the gold hair that turns to white fluff and blows away). As the narrator says, "Twas no woman you gazed at,/ Twas no maiden that you sighed for,/ Twas the prairie dandelion" (2.333-2.335). So, in the end, the dandelion symbolizes all of the experience that a young man can miss out on if he's unwilling to meet life head-on.

    • Line 2.290: We don't know it's a dandelion yet, but Shawondasee first sees the dandelion in the prairie when he thinks he sees a beautiful young woman hanging out in the fields. He loves her immediately, but he's too lazy to go talk to her. 
    • Line 2.304: Shawondasee is heartbroken when he sees the woman's hair turned from yellow to white because he assumes that his brother from the North has left his mark on the girl.
    • Line 335: The poem tells us that Shawondasee has actually fallen in love with a dandelion and that all of his heartbreak is for nothing. He'll never realize it though, because he's not bold enough to walk up to his sweetheart and realize she's just a flower.
  • Kahgahgee, King of Ravens

    As soon as you get to Part 5 of this poem, you'll realize that one of Hiawatha's biggest nemeses is Kahgahgee, the King of Ravens. The dude's not some giant monster or anything. He's just a regular raven. But it's understandable that some legends would paint ravens as bad because ravens have a tendency to dig up seeds and ruin gardens. That's why Hiawatha needs to keep the King away from his cornfields in the spring. As the poem says, he "Drove away, with scoffs and shoutings,/ Kahgahgee, the king of ravens" (5.303-305).

    Old Kahgahgee never learns his lesson though. He's determined to gather his armies and eat up all of Hiawatha's corn. He eventually flies right into a trap and gets all his troops killed in the process. As the poem tells us, "Only Kahgahgee, the leader,/ Kahgahgee, the King of Ravens,/ He alone was spared among them/ As a hostage for his people" (13.183-186). In other words, Hiawatha keeps Kahgahgee alive and ties him to the front of a wigwam just to humiliate him and to warn away any other ravens.

    The last time we see Kahgahgee is when the mischievous Pau-Puk-Keewis comes by Hiawatha's wigwam and kills the raven just for the fun of it. As the narrator says, "By the neck he seized the raven,/ Whirled it round him like a rattle" (16.256-257). It's a shame because, even though the King of Ravens is a jerk, there's still something we respect about him. The poor guy deserved a better death than a random strangling by some punk kid.

    • Lines 5.303-16.222 (off and on): Kahgahgee and his raven armies try to dig up the grave of a recently buried demigod named Mondamin. But Hiawatha keeps his promise to the dead and stays up day and night, chasing the birds away.
    • One day, Kahgahgee thinks he spots a chance to dig up Hiawatha's corn seeds and ruin the whole year's harvest. He and his armies swoop in. But they fly right into one of Hiawatha's traps. Hiawatha kills all of them except Kahgahgee, who he keeps as a prisoner. 
    • Kahgahgee spends the rest of the poem tied up to Hiawatha's wigwam until a punk named Pau-Puk-Keewis struts by and kills the raven out of sheer boredom.
  • Mishe-Nahma's Skeleton

    Mishe-Nahma's skeleton only shows up for a handful of lines in The Song of Hiawatha, but it is without doubt one of the most powerful images in the entire poem. After Hiawatha has killed Nahma by punching him in the heart, he calls on his sea-gull friends to help him escape Nahma's body after being swallowed. The sea-gulls are happy to oblige because they want to eat the fish either way. So they totally go to town (along with Hiawatha's grandmother Nokomis). As the poem says, "Three whole days and nights/alternate/Old Nokomis and the sea-gulls/ Stripped the oily flesh of Nahma" (8.256-259).

    By the time the seagulls and Nokomis are done, there's nothing left of Nahma except his skeleton. The image is one of total death and absence, as we read: "[T]he waves washed through the rib-bones,/ Till the sea-gulls came no longer,/ And upon the sands lay nothing/ But the skeleton of Nahma" (8.260-8.264). Isn't that just the most chilling thing you've ever heard? The image of the waves washing through the rib bones also reminds us that Nahma's skeleton has become a part of the natural landscape, even though it belonged to one of the world's fiercest monsters only a week earlier. That's how thin the line between life and death can be.

    • Lines 256-264: These eight lines mark the only place where we see the skeleton of Nahma. But just read them back to yourself and try not to get goose bumps. The lines describe how the body of the monster Nahma slowly decays and gets eaten until there's nothing left but the bones on the beach.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      There's nothing even close to steam in this poem. Even when Hiawatha gets married to Laughing Water, all the poet wants to talk about is the food at their wedding feast.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References:

      • George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1.1)
      • John Heckewelder, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (2.51)
      • Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (12.3)