Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1802-1882), a great American poet and the author of The Song of Hiawatha, had also been an object of parodies. Admittedly, it would be improper for anyone interested in poetry not to imitate Hiawatha‘s verse and rhythm; but parodies are a different kind of exercise. One of the most famous was composed by Rev. George Alfred Strong. He rewrote all of The Song‘s 94 stanzas. The passage below is sometimes attributed to him, sometimes to an anonymous author, but gives a good feel of the main traits of Longfellow’s poem that made it a target for parodists (John Wesley Morris, an American geographer and writer, explained it well in his own parody (below)).
What Hiawatha Probably Did (G. A. Strong after H. W. Longfellow)
He slew the noble Mudjekeewis,
With his skin he made them mittens;
Made them with the fur-side inside,
Made them with the skin-side outside;
He, to keep the warm side inside,
Put the cold side, skin-side, outside;
He, to keep the cold side outside,
Put the warm side, fur-side, inside: –
That’s why he put the cold side outside,
Why he put the warm side inside,
Why he turned them inside outside.
(Is it only me who thinks this improved version makes a perfect tongue twister?? – JD)
What I Think of Hiawatha (John Wesley 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.
However, The Song‘s fame spread far beyond the United States, and in England Lewis Carroll was inspired to compose his own homage to the opportunities for parodies Longfellow’s poem presented. What is important to remember is that Carroll himself was an avid photographer, which is noted throughout the poem. He was well familiar not only with the technique of taking a photo, but was very observant of the sitters’ reactions: how they wanted to look more beautiful and noble, and how these efforts usually fell through. Amazingly, it seems his observations stand true to this day.
Reading Carroll’s poem made me remember one afternoon at school. I had a classmate who I thought was very beautiful. She carried herself straight (a bit unlike me in those days), well aware of her “assets”: wavy hair, blue eyes, a straight nose… As you know, though, it is highly immodest to carry your beauty without a tiny bit of self-deprecation. So, that afternoon between the classes she went to the mirror, to comb her hair. Those of us who didn’t leave the room all sat and watched her; when she turned to us, she was beautiful in the proper sense of the word: her hair was well done, her eyes were shining, a complete picture of teenage prettiness. She noticed our gazes; and, making her way to her seat, announced loudly:
– I can’t bear looking at myself, I’m ugly as a cow!
One can only ever wonder
What she’d say about her picture,
Even most finest picture
Ever made by Hiawatha
(my impromtu thus confirming the ease with which one can revisit the famous poem of Longfellow)
Hiawatha’s Photographing (Lewis Carroll)
[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.]
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 ill tempests.
Grand, heroic was the notion:
Yet the picture failed entirely:
Failed, because he moved a little,
Moved, because he couldn’t help it.
Next, his better half took courage;
SHE would have her picture taken.
She came dressed beyond description,
Dressed in jewels and in satin
Far too gorgeous for an empress.
Gracefully she sat down sideways,
With a simper scarcely human,
Holding in her hand a bouquet
Rather larger than a cabbage.
All the while that she was sitting,
Still the lady chattered, chattered,
Like a monkey in the forest.
“Am I sitting still?” she asked him.
“Is my face enough in profile?
Shall I hold the bouquet higher?
Will it came into the picture?”
And the picture failed completely.
Next the Son, the Stunning-Cantab:
He suggested curves of beauty,
Curves pervading all his figure,
Which the eye might follow onward,
Till they centered in the breast-pin,
Centered in the golden breast-pin.
He had learnt it all from Ruskin
(Author of ‘The Stones of Venice,’
‘Seven Lamps of Architecture,’
‘Modern Painters,’ and some others);
And perhaps he had not fully
Understood his author’s meaning;
But, whatever was the reason,
All was fruitless, as the picture
Ended in an utter failure.
Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of ‘passive beauty.’
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.
Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it;
But, when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said it ‘didn’t matter,’
Bit his lip and changed the subject.
Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.
So in turn the other sisters.
Last, the youngest son was taken:
Very rough and thick his hair was,
Very round and red his face was,
Very dusty was his jacket,
Very fidgety his manner.
And his overbearing sisters
Called him names he disapproved of:
Called him Johnny, ‘Daddy’s Darling,’
Called him Jacky, ‘Scrubby School-boy.’
And, so awful was the picture,
In comparison the others
Seemed, to one’s bewildered fancy,
To have partially succeeded.
Finally my Hiawatha
Tumbled all the tribe together,
(‘Grouped’ is not the right expression),
And, as happy chance would have it
Did at last obtain a picture
Where the faces all succeeded:
Each came out a perfect likeness.
Then they joined and all abused it,
Unrestrainedly abused it,
As the worst and ugliest picture
They could possibly have dreamed of.
‘Giving one such strange expressions –
Sullen, stupid, pert expressions.
Really any one would take us
(Any one that did not know us)
For the most unpleasant people!’
(Hiawatha seemed to think so,
Seemed to think it not unlikely).
All together rang their voices,
Angry, loud, discordant voices,
As of dogs that howl in concert,
As of cats that wail in chorus.
But my Hiawatha’s patience,
His politeness and his patience,
Unaccountably had vanished,
And he left that happy party.
Neither did he leave them slowly,
With the calm deliberation,
The intense deliberation
Of a photographic artist:
But he left them in a hurry,
Left them in a mighty hurry,
Stating that he would not stand it,
Stating in emphatic language
What he’d be before he’d stand it.
Hurriedly he packed his boxes:
Hurriedly the porter trundled
On a barrow all his boxes:
Hurriedly he took his ticket:
Hurriedly the train received him:
Thus departed Hiawatha.