As a prolific and resourceful translator, Longfellow uses the tool of language to enrich his characters in his poems. For example, in The Song of Hiawatha, the title character invents Picture-Writing to help identify the unmarked graves of his tribe: “On the grave posts of our fathers are no signs, no figures painted/ Who are in those graves we know not” (228).
Hiawatha ponders on the welfare of his people not being able to discern these ancestral graves and thus takes different colors and begins to paint shapes and figures on the bark of a birch-tree. Longfellow describes Hiawatha’s “Picture-Writing”: “each figure had a meaning”: Life and Death were depicted with circles of light and dark; the earth was a straight line with the sky as a bow above; footprints toward the wigwam represented a “sign of invitation”; and bloody hands were a symbol of destruction (228, 229).
Secondly, Longfellow refers to the gift of language towards the end of The Song of Hiawatha in the coming of the white man “Speaking many tongues, yet feeling but one heart-beat in their bosoms”(272). This section shows there can be unity and harmony in civilization despite a difference in language. I believe this is also symbolic of a glimpse of heaven where we will all speak our native languages and still be understood.
Longfellow was perhaps inspired to include “Picture-Writing” as an integral part of this epic tale written in trochaic tetrameter from his own gift of language acquisition. He was a student of Latin in his early years of education and learned French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian while living in Europe. Longfellow consequently became the Librarian and a Professor of Modern Languages at his alma mater, Bowdoin University in 1829 and began translating textbooks in French, Spanish and Italian. He soon returned to Europe to live in Germany and consequently visited England, Sweden and the Netherlands and wrote poetry and prose reflecting his travels as seen in the Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha,and the Belfry of Bruges.
Longfellow’s linguistic gifts are perhaps best recognized in his translation of The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri which led to his writing of six prolific sonnets on Dante. Longfellow told George Washington Greene that translation “seizes people with irresistible power, and whirls them away till they are beside themselves” (Irmsher). It is no wonder that Longfellow himself was one of the most translated authors of his time.
Irmsher, Christophe. Public Poet, Private Man, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200. Houghton Library Collections. hcl.harvard.edu. 2008
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. In Poems and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 2000.
Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
On Longfellow’s Belfry of Bruges: https://frenchquest.com/2016/02/04/my-american-poetry-review-the-belfry-of-bruges-by-henry-wadsworth-longfellow/
On Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition: https://frenchquest.com/2012/11/15/my-parisian-journey-week-8/