My First Antiquarian And The Manly Art of Poetry

March 1, 2016

A long time ago, in what seems to be a parallel universe that's my sorely-missed real home to which I cannot return, my parents and I, on many a Saturday afternoon, went to vigil Mass at St. Ignatius Church on Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore. In Baltimore Saturdays I explain why we Bethesdans spent so many weekend days in that city 35 miles distant.

St. Ignatius was built in the 1850s in conjunction with Loyola College, forerunner of the university, which occupied the remainder of the block facing Calvert Street. The old college buildings are now Center Stage. Like St. Aloysius, its contemporary sister church in Washington, DC, St. Ignatius is modeled on The Gesu in Rome. Also like St. Aloysius, the Calvert Street church boasts artwork by Constantino Brumidi, a painting of the Jesuit founder in ecstasy that hangs on the south wall. Inside the front doors, one can still find old gas-light fixtures, long capped off, but mutely standing their ground against lighting progress.

St. Ignatius, Calvert St.

St. Ignatius in 2013. Brumidi's Ignatius in Ecstasy is on the wall at left. Photo by Neal J. Conway

Around 1990 St. Ignatius' mid-19th-Century glory was restored, however in the 1970s, its statues and fluted columns, moldings and gildings were all covered with many coats of white paint. Saturday vigil Mass was attended by a very senior crowd. The usher, a spry, diminutive man who raced around with the collection basket, was born in 1890. The other regulars were of the same vintage. The only one whose name I learned was Mrs. Utermohle. She and my Dad had some mutual acquaintance and she came to Mass from the Mt. Vernon neighborhood wearing a black hat and veil over her face. The other octagenarians, I suspect, drove from the suburbs to worship where they had all their lives. It's strange to think that these people that I saw at least once a month, virtually contemporaries of H.L. Mencken, who no doubt remembered the Great Fire of 1904 and who perhaps played with Baltimore's own Voltamp electric trains, are all long dead. The painted-over St. Ignatius seemed to be a secret place known only to them, my parents and me.

St. Ignatius' upper church being too large to light and heat for such a small crowd, Saturday vigil Masses during the latter years of our Baltimore excursions were held in the dingy basement chapel, a space since completely lost to remodeling.

At one Mass, the celebrant directed everyone's attention to a dark corner where there was a table laden with old books for sale at twenty-five cents each. My parents and I were the only ones interested. The volumes had no library stickers and were mostly from the 19th-Century with the oldest ones having 1850s copyright dates. They had probably been acquired for the St Ignatius rectory from the time it was built.

Leaving an honor payment, we came away with several, chosen mainly because they were the oldest and looked cool. One volume had hosted one of several insects known as bookworms which had bored through the rag paper and hollowed itself a chamber in the middle. Another was an enormous volume of saints' lives with engravings. Another contained lectures of Nicholas Wiseman, England's first above-ground Catholic cardinal in 300 years. The lot included a childrens' book of moral tales that, I gathered, had been translated from German with the Teutonic-vested children in the illustrations (and cultural situations) retained. The moral of one tale was: Be kind to Jews. Given my current interest in pre-Civil-War Catholicism and its media, I should have kept all these. However the only book of that haul that has stayed with me through the years and the disposition of the old homestead and its extensive collection of collections is an 1856 copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha.

Fourteen-year-old me had heard of Longfellow. In fact, the summer we spent in Cambridge, Mass., we had rented a few blocks from the poet's house on Brattle St. What kid of my generation could have watched Saturday morning cartoons without catching Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt which concludes with Bugs reciting, "Westward, westward Hiawatha / Sailed into the fiery sunset...."? That cartoon was in part funny to the 1940 audiences who first saw it because many a kid back then had to memorize parts of the poem in school. My mother could still summon from her twelve years at St. Leo's in Ashley, Pennsylvania:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

I figured that this 25-cent find was worth researching. From some source in those dark ages before Google, I learned that Longfellow had written the poem in 1855. Did we have the first printing? I remember Dad and I looking it up in a book about old books. The first printing from late 1855 was valued at 200-some dollars. However that's not what we had. Ticknor & Fields first printing of 5,250 copies has a few errors in it, e.g., "Wahonomin" instead of "Wahonowin." We had a specimen of a later printing of 25,000 from 1856.

After that, The Song of Hiawatha, unread by me, was put behind the glass doors of the secretary and remembered only when it had to be moved.

As was not the case with my parents and generations preceding them, poetry, particularly epic poetry, figured almost not at all in my education. With the exception described in the next paragraph, my schools did nothing to dispel the impression that poetry was something that rhymed and that if it didn't rhyme, it was defective or boring. Modern poets have destroyed poetry for the layman just as modern philosophers have destroyed philosophy for same. Also, a visiting alien anthropologist would be given the impression that the only verse worth reading was written by Maya Angelou. Educational faddishness and its snooty attitude toward memorization also pared back that vital learning exercise to practically nothing.

The Song of Hiawatha ... is so countercultural to the early 21st-cenrury vision of boyhood and manhood. That modern vision is to wit: Men are the evil empire of stupid dolts and rapists. Men must be emasculated and the process must start in boyhood.

St. Ignatius Baltimore

St. Ignatius

At Georgetown Prep I was exposed to a bit of Homer's Odyssey and The Divine Comedy. We read something about King Arthur, but it was not of Tennyson's authorship and our vision of Arthur as a cartoon character never evolved into a vision of Arthur as a great Christian legend. Virgil's Aeneid, a staple of education for 1500 years, was covered only in the chapters of a second-year-Latin book. It was in second-year Latin, taught by the wonderful Rev. James A.P. Byrne, S.J., that I learned that poetry can also be written in meter. I struggled with metric verse. It was one of those things that I have a hard time understanding. However I still remember Fr. Byrne exemplifying dactylic hexameter with "This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks."

That was the only line of Longfellow I got in school. At the time I got no pleasure out of hearing or reciting it.

The Manly Art of Poetry

My discovery of the poetry that my generation had missed out on began a few years ago. I have long admired the steel engravings of Gustav Doré, the 19th-century French illustrator who brought his gift for making the unreal seem real to editions of Danté's Divine Comedy, Tennyson's Idylls of The King, Poe's The Raven to mention a few. I picked up works to look at Doré's picture's and started reading the verse alongside them.

The Song of Hiawatha, Second Printing, 1856

A relative provided me with a poem mentioning a great uncle who had been gassed in World War One. I knew Joyce Kilmer's famous (Can we still call it so?) opening couplet from Trees and had read Wilfrid Owen's poems in a college class. I soon discovered that lots of men, even small-town men with little schooling like the hymnist of my great uncle, wrote poetry in World War One. It makes sense given that they had to memorize poetry in school. Although many quit formal education after 8th grade, they saw poetry as a normal means of communication, not the arcane pursuit of affluent suburban whiners that it has become.

Wonder and Manhood

Came a day when I could sense that a long sit was impending and so I cast about for reading material different from what's stacked on the tank. Out from the dark corner of the secretary where it was hidden for 40 years I pulled The Song of Hiawatha. I started reading and instantly came under the spell of Trochaic Tetrameter:

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!

If one pays attention to the meter, accented every other syllable (DUM da DUM de DUM da DUM de), the poetry becomes like music.

Scarcely can the ear distinguish
Whether they are sung or spoken;

The "DUM da," one long syllable followed by a short is the trochee. The fact that there are four trochees in a line make it tetrameter.

In Longfellow's day, an expert on Native American culture claimed that Indians spoke in trochaic tetrameter. It may be true. Why do Indians in Westerns say stuff like HEY ya, HI ya, HOW ya, HEY ya?

The Song of Hiawatha's poetry has not only infectious meter, it's story is fascinating as well, fascinating because it is so countercultural to the early 21st-cenrury vision of boyhood and manhood. That modern vision is to wit: Men are the evil empire of stupid dolts and rapists. Men must be emasculated and the process must start in boyhood.

Hiawatha has a demi-godlike origin and is a "child of wonder." Does that mean he is a child who is a wonder or a child who wonders? He has heroic prodigies such as the ability to crush rocks between his mittens and cover a mile with each step. A very fast train across Hiawatha's homeland, Wisconsin and Minnesota, was named The Hiawatha. Perhaps the boy is both a wonder and a wonderer. He also hears "words of wonder."

It is said that the ability to wonder is stifled in today's children. What is wonder? Long before I read The Song of Hiawatha, I thought of wonder as that state of mind a child has when he sees a lightning bug (aka firefly) for the first time. Lo and behold, little Hiawatha has that instance of wonder:

Saw the fire-fly, Wah-wah-taysee,
Flitting through the dusk of evening,
With the twinkle of its candle
Lighting up the brakes and bushes,
And he sang the song of children,
Sang the song Nokomis taught him:
"Wah-wah-taysee, little fire-fly,
Little, flitting, white-fire insect,
Little, dancing, white-fire creature,
Light me with your little candle,
Ere upon my bed I lay me,
Ere in sleep I close my eyelids!"

Human societies have always had rites of passage for males in which boys separate from their parents, particularly their mothers, by achieving something difficult and enduring suffering. This is how the male becomes a man and is able to attach to a woman. It's a delicate and intricate process that can go wrong in many ways and perhaps never goes 100% right. Because manhood is evil, as our decadent society holds, manhood is not worth achieving. For reasons I won't get into here, childhood is now also prolonged. Our society has eliminated difficult rites of passage, substituting them with athletics, scouting, community service projects. Currently there is no war which demands the service of all able young men. A teenage boy may hunt his first deer, but his meal doesn't depend on it and he returns to his bed at night without spending months living by his wits off the land.

Making boys survive in the wilderness is no longer applicable to modern society, but difficult rites of passage are important in the raising of mature men. We need to think up some new ones or better yet, look around and see what can be built on. Some in the Catholic Church propose moving the Sacrament of Confirmation back to First Holy Communion age. I think that 's a mistake. Receipt of either sacrament should be the conclusion of a long, difficult formation process in adolescence.

Hiawatha begins his passage to manhood with the traditional going out into the wilderness by himself to hunt a red deer. When he bags one and drags it back to the shore of Gitche Goumi, the whole village celebrates him. He then augments his masculinity by seeking out his "false" father Mudjekeewis who seduced and abandoned his mother, Wenonah. Hiawatha and Mudjekeewis talk and then fight, after which Mudjekeewis informs his wrathful, unforgiving son that he has

"...put you to this trial,
But to know and prove your courage;
Now receive the prize of valor!
"Go back to your home and people,
Live among them, toil among them,
Cleanse the earth from all that harms it,
Clear the fishing-grounds and rivers,
Slay all monsters and magicians,
All the Wendigoes, the giants,
All the serpents, the Kenabeeks..."

Hiawatha the man is neither rapist nor nihilist that is, he is not a man whose masculine traits are undisciplined by religious faith. He is what a man should be, suffering and working for the good of his society:

"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!"

Easier done when you have wife like Minnehaha. Hiawatha's later suffering includes the loss of his beloved spouse in a cold winter famine.

I'm certain that the Jesuits at St. Ignatius in the 1850s added The Song of Hiawatha to their library, not only because it was a hot best-seller, but because at the conclusion of the poem, Jesuit priests, the "Black Robes," come to Hiawatha's Gitche-Gumee shores. Hiawatha welcomes the priests. Before departing Westward in his canoe, he commends his people to their hands.

Is it speculated that the character Hiawatha represents the obsolete American Indian. I think that Longfellow gives us a clue to what he really stands for:

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;--

Hiawatha is a kind of everlasting man.

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