The Indian Hunter by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow often addressed topics that varied greatly from volume to volume, but one topic of considerable interest for the poet was that of the Native Americans. Having lived in the nineteenth century, popular opinion towards these individuals was very different than it is today, but Longfellow always seemed to come back to their culture, history, or heritage in his works. He wrote a great many poems inspired by the life of Hiawatha, for instance, who helped to create the Iroquois Confederacy that still exists today, and also created a number of other noteworthy poems concerning these peoples — The Indian Hunter being an ideal example of one.

 

The Indian Hunter Analysis

First and Second Stanza

When the summer harvest was gathered in,

And the sheaf of the gleaner grew white and thin,

And the ploughshare was in its furrow left,

Where the stubble land had been lately cleft,

An Indian hunter, with unstrung bow,

Looked down where the valley lay stretched below.

He was a stranger there, and all that day

Had been out on the hills, a perilous way,

But the foot of the deer was far and fleet,

And the wolf kept aloof from the hunter’s feet.

And bitter feelings passed o’er him then,

As he stood by the populous haunts of men.

The Indian Hunter is a poem written in seven sextet stanzas, all evenly formed and rhyming generally in an AABBCC pattern (excepting the “A” rhymes in the third and fourth verses). Longfellow uses a reliable form to convey his story, which takes place at the end of summer in a particular valley. The titular character of a native hunter already implies a central character or idea, but the character himself is not introduced until four lines into the poem, which indicates that the setting of the work is of notable importance. These lines describe a farmer’s lifestyle in late summer or early autumn, who has been working hard and has successfully produced a sizeable harvest, evidenced by the appearance of his farm.

The following verse briefly describes the journey of the native, who is watching the same scene, briefly distracted from his hunt. The second verse parallels the first one by being its notable opposite, for while the farmer is enjoying a bountiful harvest, the hunter has been risking himself for very little reward. Longfellow describes the wolves as being aloof, and the deer being few and far between, and a hunter bitterly watching nearby farmlands prosper, as he struggles to feed himself for a single day.

 

Third and Fourth Stanza

The winds of autumn came over the woods

As the sun stole out from their solitudes;

The moss was white on the maple’s trunk,

And dead from its arms the pale vine shrunk.

And ripened the mellow fruit hung, and red

Were the tree’s withered leaves round it shed.

The foot of the reaper moved slow on the lawn

And the sickle cut down the yellow core–

The mower sung loud by the meadow-side,

Where the mists of evening were spreading wide,

And the voice of the herdsmen came up the lea,

And the dance went round by the greenwood tree.

 

Fifth Stanza

The next two verses of The Indian Hunter focus entirely on the scenery and the farmer’s harvest, emphasizing the gradual decline of summer life, as well as the work the farmer puts in to prepare for that decline. The third verse focuses strongly on the smaller details of the story’s setting, going so far as to describe the mossy tree trunks, the colours of fruits and leaves, and the light of the sun. These are largely positive images, the Longfellow interjects words with more negative connotation, such as “stole” and “dead,” as if to remind the reader of the hardships that come in autumn’s wake. Similarly, the fourth verse subtly likens the farmer to the Grim Reaper, emphasizing the cleave of the farmer’s scythe and the “reaping” of that bounty. Throughout the fourth verse, farmers prepare for winter, and come together in song, creating a sense of unity, and a positive atmosphere to counteract the bitterness of the nearby hunter.

Then the hunter turned away from the scene,

Where the home of his fathers once had been,

And heard by the distant and measured stroke,

That the woodman hewed down the giant oak,

And burning thoughts flashed over his mind

Of the white man’s faith, and love unkind.

The Indian Hunter is a poem that uses its contemporary society as a means of mirroring the hardships endured by Native Americans. Longfellow’s work examines its titular character most closely in its fifth verse, where the reader learns that this farm is of particular significance to the hunter, whose family once lived there. When the farmer cuts down the greenwood tree, the hunter reflects angrily on that society’s concepts of love and faith, both of which are implied to be backwards and wrong — “love unkind,” of course, is an oxymoron, indicating that the hunter sees “love and faith” as being empty justifications for the theft of his familial lands.

 

Read more:   The Cross of Snow by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sixth and Seventh Stanza

The moon of the harvest grew high and bright,

As her golden horn pierced the cloud of white– 

A footstep was heard in the rustling brake,

Where the beech overshadowed the misty lake,

And a mourning voice, and a plunge from shore,–

And the hunter was seen on the hills no more.

When years had passed on, by that still lakeside

The fisher looked down through the silver tide,

And there, on the smooth yellow sand displayed,

A skeleton wasted and white was laid,

And ‘t was seen, as the waters moved deep and slow,

That the hand was still grasping a hunter’s bow. 

There is no happy ending for The Indian Hunter; the anger and bitterness of the starving hunter proves too much for him to handle, and the final verses of the poem see his suicide as he enters a nearby lake and drown. Years later, a fisherman finds the hunter’s remains, identified through his bow, which he held onto in his final moments. Once again, the scenic details of the event are given as much attention as the event itself, as Longfellow tries to truly bring the story to life, since there is real meaning embedded within it. He describes the single footstep, and the pained voice of the hunter as he speaks his final words, and even the way the moon peeks through the clouds to illuminate his way. He describes the silvery gleam of the lake, and the way the white skeleton of the hunter contrasts with the yellow sand. All of these details are unnecessary for the main point of the story, but are here to bring the reader in, so they can share each moment with the characters and, ideally, feel sympathy for the hunter’s plight.

The Indian Hunter is, at its heart, a very simple story, with a clear intended meaning and strong message. Longfellow excels at taking these simple ideas and bringing them to life in the form of his poetic storytelling, in a way that hopefully made a difference to those Native Americans who survived past their most painful hardships.

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