The Song of Hiawatha Introduction

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘The Song of Hiawatha’ Introduction by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the first in a series of sections, or cantos, from the long epic poem, ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nationality: American

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a famed poet and educator.

His poetry collections include Voices of the Night and Ballads and Other Poems.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: 'The Song of Hiawatha' is an important story that's about to unfold.

Speaker: The poet

Emotions Evoked: Excitement, Passion, Satisfaction

Poetic Form: Block Form

Time Period: 19th Century

This piece is the famous introduction to Longfellow's famous poem, 'The Song of Hiawatha.' It alludes to what's to come and

This introduction sets the scene for the rest of the poem to come, alluding to the story that’s about to be told and how important it is for the reader to listen. The poem also highlights the type of reader who is going to enjoy this piece (someone who appreciates nature, culture, and legends) and also suggest how excited the speaker is to tell their story. 


The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sets the stage for the epic poem, revealing that the tales come from the rich tapestry of the natural world and lands of indigenous tribes like the Ojibways and Dacotahs. 

These stories, the poet insists, were sung by wild creatures and shared with him through the singer Nawadaha, who lived in the serene vale of Tawasentha and sang about the hero Hiawatha’s life and sacrifices for his people.

In the latter part of the introduction, Longfellow directly addresses the readers, urging those who love nature, national folklore, and the inherent humanity present in every heart to pay heed to the ensuing tales. He also likens the stories to a poignant inscription on an old gravestone. He suggests that, while they may seem simple, they’re deeply evocative.

Structure and Form 

The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a 115-line introduction to the epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ This section has a clear linear progression. It begins by setting up the questions a listener might pose about the origins of the stories and delves into their roots in nature and indigenous folklore.

The poem is contained within one long stanza, with no line breaks for stanzas. There is no single rhyme scheme, but there is a consistent rhythmic quality and flow to the poem, making it sound almost like a chant or song.

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet makes use of a few different literary devices. For example: 

  • Repetition: The poem frequently uses repetition, such as in the use of the phrase “Song of Hiawatha.” 
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet evokes the natural world and ancient cultures. Descriptions such as “Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,  / Feeds among the reeds and rushes” are a good example. 
  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound multiple times. For example, “dew and damp” and “rushing of great rivers.” 

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-17 

Should you ask me, whence these stories? 
Whence these legends and traditions, 
With the odors of the forest 
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?
  I should answer, I should tell you,
“From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.

In the first part of this poem, the speaker begins with a rhetorical question. The first line indicates that the poet is preparing for the reader’s or listener’s innate curiosity. He lays out the foundation for a journey into the sources of these narratives.

In the next lines, the poet brings in some very clear examples of imagery. For example, “odors of the forest” and “curling smoke of wigwams.” Longfellow makes it clear that the natural world is the primary wellspring of these tales. By painting pictures of forests, prairies, lakes, mountains, moors, and fen-lands, he emphasizes the stories’ deep-seated connection to the land and its elements.

The imagery of the heron, referred to as “Shuh-shuh-gah,” feeding amidst “reeds and rushes,” underlines the symbiotic relationship between nature and the narratives. This is something that’s reoccurring within the entirety of this epic poem. 

Lines 18-35

I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer.”
  Should you ask where Nawadaha
Found these songs so wild and wayward,
Found these legends and traditions,
I should answer, I should tell you,
“In the bird’s-nests of the forest,
In the lodges of the beaver,
In the hoof-prints of the bison,
In the eyry of the eagle!
  “All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!”

In the next few lines of the poem, the poet continues to describe the tales that inspired this poem and where he got them from. The poet mentions Nawadaha. 

As a custodian of these tales, Nawadaha personifies the role of the individual in preserving and transmitting cultural heritage. This emphasis on oral transmission is evinced in the phrase, “I repeat them as I heard them.” This captures the essence of stories handed down verbally through the annals of time. 

Longfellow’s anticipatory structure helps to engage readers, pulling them into a quest for narrative origins. The poet indicates that these narratives are not just recounted by human voices but are etched into the very fabric of the environment.

The landscape itself, depicted through terms such as “moorlands,” “fen-lands,” and “melancholy marshes,” serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it paints a picture of the environment, and on the other, it suggests the diverse moods and themes inherent in these tales.

Lines 36-50 

If still further you should ask me,
Saying, “Who was Nawadaha?
Tell us of this Nawadaha,”
I should answer your inquiries
Straightway in such words as follow.
  “In the vale of Tawasentha,
In the green and silent valley,
By the pleasant water-courses,
Dwelt the singer Nawadaha.
Round about the Indian village
Spread the meadows and the corn-fields,
And beyond them stood the forest,
Stood the groves of singing pine-trees,
Green in Summer, white in Winter,
Ever sighing, ever singing.

This section of the poem delves into the identity and dwelling of Nawadaha, a central figure in the poem. In response to the hypothetical reader’s inquiry about who Nawadaha is, Longfellow locates him in the serene setting of Tawasentha Valley.

The repetition in the lines “Who was Nawadaha? Tell us of this Nawadaha,” amplifies the reader’s curiosity and underscores Nawadaha’s significance in the poem.

Nawadaha is described as a singer who resides by the pleasant water-courses, surrounded by an Indian village, meadows, corn-fields, and a forest marked by perpetually singing pine trees that alter with the seasons.

By placing Nawadaha “In the green and silent valley, By the pleasant water-courses,” Longfellow paints a picture of the harmonious existence between man and the natural world. This helps to establish the setting as peaceful and idyllic while also associating Nawadaha with natural beauty.

Lines 51-78

“And the pleasant water-courses,
You could trace them through the valley,
By the rushing in the Spring-time,
By the alders in the Summer,
By the white fog in the Autumn,
By the black line in the Winter;
And beside them dwelt the singer,
In the vale of Tawasentha,
In the green and silent valley.
  “There he sang of Hiawatha,
Sang the Song of Hiawatha,
Sang his wondrous birth and being,
How he prayed and how be fasted,
How he lived, and toiled, and suffered,
That the tribes of men might prosper,
That he might advance his people!”
  Ye who love the haunts of Nature,
Love the sunshine of the meadow,
Love the shadow of the forest,
Love the wind among the branches,
And the rain-shower and the snow-storm,
And the rushing of great rivers
Through their palisades of pine-trees,
And the thunder in the mountains,
Whose innumerable echoes
Flap like eagles in their eyries;–
Listen to these wild traditions,
To this Song of Hiawatha!

This next section of the poem emphasizes the complex and interwoven aspect of nature with the tale of Hiawatha. Nawadaha’s songs, centered on Hiawatha, recount the hero’s remarkable life, from his birth to his struggles, underscoring Hiawatha’s commitment to uplifting his people. 

Here, the singer’s role becomes central. He is the bridge connecting the past to the present, retelling tales that weave the fabric of a culture.

Nawadaha’s narration focuses on Hiawatha’s extraordinary life, the poet reveals. His journey, marked by prayer, fasting, and sacrifice, is important as it illustrates his unwavering dedication to the betterment of his community. Hiawatha isn’t just a hero; he is a beacon of hope. He is there as a representation of the potential for societal growth and prosperity.

In the next few lines, the poet uses powerful imagery and metaphors in order to convey the untamed essence of nature. It asks readers to pay attention as a story that’s incredibly compelling is about to unfold. 

Lines 79-100 

Ye who love a nation’s legends,
Love the ballads of a people,
That like voices from afar off
Call to us to pause and listen,
Speak in tones so plain and childlike,
Scarcely can the ear distinguish
Whether they are sung or spoken;–
Listen to this Indian Legend,
To this Song of Hiawatha!
  Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple,
Who have faith in God and Nature,
Who believe that in all ages
Every human heart is human,
That in even savage bosoms
There are longings, yearnings, strivings
For the good they comprehend not,
That the feeble hands and helpless,
Groping blindly in the darkness,
Touch God’s right hand in that darkness
And are lifted up and strengthened;–
Listen to this simple story,
To this Song of Hiawatha!

In this section, the poet speaks to those who cherish a nation’s lore. These are the ballads and tales that define a culture. These are not just tales, the poet implies; they are legacies. They are windows to understanding human nature and the threads that bind us.

The poet also appeals to those with pure hearts, who see the divine hand in every aspect of life, to recognize the shared humanity in all, even in those perceived as “savage.”  Such individuals, who find faith in the larger forces of God and Nature, are the target audience.

Lines 101-115

Ye, who sometimes, in your rambles
Through the green lanes of the country,
Where the tangled barberry-bushes
Hang their tufts of crimson berries
Over stone walls gray with mosses,
Pause by some neglected graveyard,
For a while to muse, and ponder
On a half-effaced inscription,
Written with little skill of song-craft,
Homely phrases, but each letter
Full of hope and yet of heart-break,
Full of all the tender pathos
Of the Here and the Hereafter;–
Stay and read this rude inscription,
Read this Song of Hiawatha! 

These are the final lines of the introduction to the epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ In this conclusion, the poet appeals to the same individuals once again. He alludes to the inscriptions on tombstones that these indicuadls see as they walk in the country, through often-neglected graveyards (a symbol of human history and memories.)

These are reflective people, ones who are more likely to find the tale he’s about to tell more appealing. The words “full of hope and yet of heart-break” capture the human condition. 

While life is filled with aspirations and dreams, it is also interspersed with moments of sorrow (also represented by the graveyard). The “tender pathos of the Here and the Hereafter” underlines the human need to understand the present in the context of eternity.


What is the tone of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ Introduction? 

The tone of this poem is excited, evocative, and reverent. The poet uses phrases and words that indicate that he’s excited about the lines to come and the tale that’s about to unfold. 

What is the epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ about? 

This famous epic poem is about the story of Hiawatha, a legendary Native American hero. It is fictional, but it is based on various Native American stories, legends, and traditions.

What is the central theme of this poem? 

The central theme of this introduction is excitement for what’s to come and how it’s going to address spirituality and the interconnectedness of nature.

Why is ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ important? 

It is important because it brought Native American stories and characters into the broader American literary consciousness during the 19th century.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems. For example: 

Poetry+ Review Corner

The Song of Hiawatha Introduction

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow, one of the most celebrated American poets of the 19th century, brought a lyrical elegance to his works that resonated with a broad audience. In 'The Song of Hiawatha,' he ventured into a realm that was novel for many of his readers: the legends and lore of Native American cultures. Although Longfellow's interpretation was romanticized and not entirely accurate in its representation of any single tribe, his endeavor was groundbreaking for its time. By weaving Native American tales into the tapestry of American literature, Longfellow contributed to a broader awareness and appreciation of indigenous narratives, albeit through his own poetic lens.
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19th Century

During the 19th century, poetry underwent significant transformations, reflecting societal shifts and intellectual movements. Romanticism, with its emphasis on emotion and nature, heavily influenced poets of this era. In 'The Song of Hiawatha,' the deep connection to the land and the emotive narrative echo the Romantic tendencies.
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This poem is part of the ranks of influential works that have shaped American poetic tradition. By blending indigenous stories with a unique poetic style, Longfellow has etched his place in the annals of American literature, offering readers insights into the nation's cultural evolution.
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This poem celebrates the rich tapestry of Native American legends and life. The poem exalts the land, its people, and their traditions, painting a picture filled with wonder and respect. This sense of celebration immerses readers, allowing them to appreciate the majesty of the landscapes and the profundity of the tales being told.
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Hiawatha's life is depicted as an overarching journey filled with personal growth, spiritual quests, and leadership challenges. His path mirrors the universal journey every individual undertakes, navigating the challenges of life, seeking purpose, and attempting to leave a lasting legacy.
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Nature plays a central role in 'The Song of Hiawatha,' serving as both setting and character. The vast landscapes, ranging from quiet valleys to roaring rivers, shape the experiences and lessons Hiawatha encounters. This profound emphasis on nature reflects the deep bond between the land and indigenous cultures.
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Throughout the poem, moments of excitement abound, whether in the depiction of nature's sheer force, the adventures Hiawatha embarks upon, or the battles he engages in. These moments punctuate the narrative, keeping the reader engaged and invested in Hiawatha's tale.
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Hiawatha's drive to unite tribes and foster peace is fueled by a deep passion. His love for Minnehaha, his commitment to his people, and his pursuit of wisdom all underline the fervor with which he approaches life.
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Amid challenges, there are moments of contentment and fulfillment in the poem. Hiawatha's successes, the bonds he forms, and the wisdom he garners provide pockets of satisfaction, offering respite and reflection.
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Challenges, both external and internal, permeate Hiawatha's journey. From tribal conflicts to personal losses, the adversity faced shapes his character, revealing resilience and determination.
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While the poem delves into a fictional representation of Native American culture, it still underscores the importance of traditions, rituals, and values. The practices, beliefs, and tales within the poem emphasize the richness of the cultural tapestry being explored.
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As an archetypal hero, Hiawatha's narrative is replete with acts of valor, wisdom, and sacrifice. His deeds, both grand and small, exemplify the traits of a leader and savior, making his tale an inspiring saga of heroism.
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Drawing from various tribal legends, 'The Song of Hiawatha' is imbued with mythology. These myths not only enrich the narrative but also emphasize the universality of certain themes and motifs in human stories.
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Block Form

The poem's structure, with long sections, can be likened to block-form poetry. Each section, while interconnected, stands as a self-contained narrative, adding layers to the overall tale.
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Epic poetry, known for grand narratives revolving around heroic figures, is the form Longfellow adopts for this work. Hiawatha's life, spanning various adventures and teachings, is characteristic of epic tales, making it reminiscent of classics like 'The Odyssey.'
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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