Song of the Owl by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘Song of the Owl,’ a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, describes the hooting of the great black owl. It taps on the themes of silence and darkness.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet of the best-known epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” wrote this poem, ‘Song of the Owl’ describing the sound of an owl that heightens the dark mood of the night. Besides, he uses auditory imagery to describe the pin-drop silence in the deep forest. The sudden hooting coming from the unseen boughs alerts a visitor to the dark territory of woods. It seems the poem is connected to the epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” as the poem begins with a reference to the Ojibwa people.

Song of the Owl by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Summary

‘Song of the Owl’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is an onomatopoeic poem that describes the hooting of an owl.

This poem progresses with the sound of an owl that is sitting somewhere in a tree. There is darkness all around. No other sound can be heard in the leaden darkness, except that of the shrill and transient sound of the bird. It is not an ordinary owl. According to the poetic persona, it is “the great black owl.” It seems as if the poet is hinting at something else by referring to this creature. It hoots, “Au” three times and suddenly a voice, probably that of the zoomorphic owl, calls, “Hi! a! haa!”

 

Structure

This poem doesn’t have a conventional structure or form. The lines contain a word or two and some of them are connected with the following lines. For example, lines 2 to 4 are connected. As they describe the sound of the owl. While the first line contains a single word, “Ojibwa”. It helps readers to delve deeper into the meaning.

There is not any specific rhyming scheme in the text. The text contains a repetition that creates a rhyming effect. Apart from that, the stress while reciting the poem falls on the second foot if the line is disyllabic. In the case of monosyllabic lines, it falls on the word itself. For this reason, the work does not contain a set metrical pattern. Readers can say it’s a free-verse poem.

 

Literary Devices

The poem begins with an allusion to Ojibwa, one of the native Americans. It seems by using this word Longfellow is referring to his epic hero Hiawatha who is portrayed as an Ojibwe warrior.

He uses onomatopoeia to describe the sound of an owl. The lines, “The owl, —/ Au” contains this device. This sound helps the poet for depicting the dark ambiance of the woods. The lines quoted here get repeated thrice with a slight variation during the third time. Such resonance of sounds creates an internal rhyming inside the text.

In these lines, “The great black/ Owl” Longfellow uses personification. He invests the idea of speaking into this creation. For this reason, in the last line, it utters, “Hi! a! haa!” It seems the owl is smiling. But, it sounds like a pun. While rereading this line, it appears as if the poet is referring to Hiawatha.

 

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1–5

Ojibwa

The owl,—

   Au

The owl

   Au

Longfellow’s ‘Song of the Owl’ begins with a direct reference to “Ojibwa.” Readers have to understand the reason behind using this allusion. The Ojibwe or Ojibwa people traditionally speak the Ojibwe language and they are one of the indigenous people living in the United States. They are known for their birch bark canoes, scrolls, mining and trade in copper, and their cultivation of wild rice and maple syrup.

The publication of the epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” in 1855 publicized the Ojibwa culture. This poem has many toponyms that have Ojibwe origin. So, Longfellow refers to the Ojibwa for probably hinting at the epic and its hero Hiawatha. It seems he is talking about one of the owls that hoot at the beginning of the epic.

This owl that is present in the darkness of woods cannot be seen. It is sitting on an invisible tree. From there it makes a shrill sound, “Au”. The traditional sound associated with the creature is not present here. For this reason, the “au” sounds as if it’s not an owl, rather it’s a fox or wild dog.

Whatsoever Longfellow repeats the same sentence sequence twice for creating a silent mood in the poem. This visual imagery efficiently portrays the darkness of the forest. Nothing can be seen there, only the short-staying sound of the owl can be heard.

 

Lines 6–9

The great black

Owl

   Au

Hi! a! haa!

In the last few lines of ‘Song of the Owl,’ Longfellow gives some more information regarding the bird as well as its sound. First of all, it’s not any ordinary bird. It is an owl but not one that can be seen often. According to the poetic persona, it’s “The great black Owl.” It seems the bird is a character of a fairy tale or a part of a longer story (probably a reference to his epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”). Besides, the bird has importance in the plot.

This creature is depicted as a symbol for darkness overall as a mighty creature that is wise as well as all-knowing as God. It knows what’s there out in the dark. So, after making the recurring sound, “Au,” it smiles peculiarly.

The bird says, “Hi! a! haa!” When a reader comes across this line, it primarily seems as if it is welcoming the audience into a mystical world. Apart from that, the series of exclamations sound like, “Hiawatha.” It’s not sure but the punning effect hints at this name. If readers look at the first part of Hiawatha’s epic-story, they can find a reference to the owls and owlets. Longfellow might be pointing at one of these owls.

 

Historical Context

Longfellow’s ‘Song of the Owl’ has a similar title to his larger work, “The Song of Hiawatha”. After reading the text, it seems the great black owl is a part of this story. On top of that, the poem begins with a direct reference to the Ojibwa people. Hiawatha was one of them and he is depicted as an adventurous hero as well as a warrior. For this reason, it can be deduced that this poem is a part of the epic.

Longfellow wrote this epic in 1855 and it features all the Native American characters belonging to the Ojibwe people. In one of the first chapters of the epic, the sound of the owls can be heard. This song might be sung by one of those owls present there who knows about the coming of the hero and his future events.

 

Similar Poetry

The following list contains a few poems that are similar to the themes present in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, ‘Song of the Owl’. Discover can also read more H. W. Longfellow poems and the below poetry too:

You can also read about these incredible poems on birds and short funny poems.

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About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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