I recently learned that April is National Poetry Month and that the American Academy of Poets designated April 24 as “National Poem in Your Pocket Day.” Their idea is simple, pick a favorite poem and carry it in your pocket to share with others. I liked it. But then I had another idea. There is an epic poem that had significant impact in my corner of Minneapolis (and the United States) in the 1800s, I would share that too. My poem is The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The epic poem takes place on the southern shores of Lake Superior and tells the story of the birth of Hiawatha, his falling in love with Minnehaha, and eventually his acceptance of Christianity when missionaries finally arrive by canoe.
Tourism to south Minneapolis increased significantly when the poem was published in 1855. And the poem left such a mark, this statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha by Jacob Fjelde stands at the top of the falls to this day:
And just beyond the Longfellow House off the beaten path is a statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow himself. More than 100 years old, it stands alone in what is now a prairie restoration area:
All of these remnants of Longfellow, yet I can’t seem to find any indication that he was ever in Minnesota. He relied heavily on the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (an ethnographer and United States Indian agent who was inconsistent in his documentation, justifying both the rewriting and censoring of his subjects). Longfellow also based his work on visits with Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh; Black Hawk and other Sac and Fox Indians. While controversy surrounded the poem, it was tremendously popular at the time and it appears that Longfellow felt he was sharing Native American legend, but one must consider this poem American Romantic literature and nothing more.
This short extract is the most familiar portion of the poem:
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.
Call me a romantic but my favorite part is the chapter on the wooing of Minnehaha, titled “Hiawatha’s Wooing,” these are a few short excerpts:
Hiawatha found Minnehaha living with her father and the Dakota people near Minnehaha Falls. He fell in love with her, taking her back to the shores of Lake Superior:
Personally, I think a poem is best when read aloud and highly recommend the free LibriVox recording by Peter Yearsley. What poem will you put in your pocket today?