Kalevala (3): Lönnrot & Longfellow?

As the third episode in my series about the Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala, I want to speak just a little about the influence its publication has had on literature beyond the borders of its native land.


You may know, or may be interested to know, that the Finnish Kalevala epic is widely thought to have been a major influence on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” which uses the same meter  – trochaic tetrameter – and somewhat similar poetic devices, such as abundant parallelism.  While many have accused Longfellow of extensive imitation, and even plagiarism, it seems to me that these allegations are unreasonable, and that influence from the Kalevala could easily be legitimately incorporated into a poem such as “The Song of Hiawatha.”  Though some have sought and found sources in Native American culture that resemble Longfellow’s masterpiece, it seems clear that his reading of the Kalevala was also instrumental in its formulation.

For it is certain that Longfellow was familiar with the Kalevala, and words of his own suggest that it greatly affected the composition of “Hiawatha.”  In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, he is quoted as saying: “I have tried to do for our old Indian legends what the unknown Finnish poets had done for theirs, and in doing this I have employed the same meter, but of course have not adopted any of their legends.”  As Longfellow did not have mastery of the Finnish language, however, his studies of the Kalevala were directed to the German and Swedish translations.  Most likely, he used Franz Anton Schiefner’s 1852 German translation (which was used by many of the Kalevala‘s translators who could not work directly from the Finnish) and Castrén’s 1841 Swedish translation (the work of a bilingual Finnish philologist).  Both were the only full translations in these languages available before “Hiawatha” was published, although excerpts had sometimes been translated by others.

I find it fascinating to think that the Kalevala‘s influence could have been key in the composition of this most treasured work of American literature, regardless of the purity or authenticity of all that Longfellow attributes to Native American lore.  Among other things, it serves to show the power that literature can have on individual people and on whole literatures and nations.  The Kalevala has clearly had an effect that extends far beyond the borders of Finland itself.  I look forward to reading the epic of Hiawatha, perhaps this summer, and comparing it with my experiences of the Kalevala.  I am certain the investment of time will be quite worth my while.

In the next post I intend to examine another facet of the Kalevala‘s international influence, this time closer to its place of origin – in Estonia, a nation which has had fairly sparse experience of independence over the centuries, and which experienced a nationalist movement similar to and about the same time as Finland’s.


© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.

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