'White Man's Foot, The' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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In his lodge beside a river,
Close beside a frozen river,
Sat an old man, sad and lonely.
White his hair was as a snow-drift;
Dull and low his fire was burning,
And the old man shook and trembled,
Folded in his Waubewyon,
In his tattered white-skin-wrapper,
Hearing nothing but the tempest
As it roared along the forest,
Seeing nothing but the snow-storm,
As it whirled and hissed and drifted.
All the coals were white with ashes,
And the fire was slowly dying,
As a young man, walking lightly,
At the open doorway entered.
Red with blood of youth his cheeks were,
Soft his eyes, as stars In Spring-time,
Bound his forehead was with grasses;
Bound and plumed with scented grasses,
On his lips a smile of beauty,
Filling all the lodge with sunshine,
In his hand a bunch of blossoms
Filling all the lodge with sweetness.
"Ah, my son!" exclaimed the old man,
"Happy are my eyes to see you.
Sit here on the mat beside me,
Sit here by the dying embers,
Let us pass the night together,
Tell me of your strange adventures,
Of the lands where you have travelled;
I will tell you of my prowess,
Of my many deeds of wonder."
From his pouch he drew his peace-pipe,
Very old and strangely fashioned;
Made of red stone was the pipe-head,
And the stem a reed with feathers;
Filled the pipe with bark of willow,
Placed a burning coal upon it,
Gave it to his guest, the stranger,
And began to speak in this wise:
"When I blow my breath about me,
When I breathe upon the landscape,
Motionless are all the rivers,
Hard as stone becomes the water!"
And the young man answered, smiling:
"When I blow my breath about me,
When I breathe upon the landscape,
Flowers spring up o'er all the meadows,
Singing, onward rush the rivers!"
"When I shake my hoary tresses,"
Said the old man darkly frowning,
"All the land with snow is covered;
All the leaves from all the branches
Fall and fade and die and wither,
For I breathe, and lo! they are not.
From the waters and the marshes,
Rise the wild goose and the heron,
Fly away to distant regions,
For I speak, and lo! they are not.
And where'er my footsteps wander,
All the wild beasts of the forest
Hide themselves in holes and caverns,
And the earth becomes as flintstone!"
"When I shake my flowing ringlets,"
Said the young man, softly laughing,
"Showers of rain fall warm and welcome,
Plants lift up their heads rejoicing,
Back Into their lakes and marshes
Come the wild goose and the heron,
Homeward shoots the arrowy swallow,
Sing the bluebird and the robin,
And where'er my footsteps wander,
All the meadows wave with blossoms,
All the woodlands ring with music,
All the trees are dark with foliage!"
While they spake, the night departed:
From the distant realms of Wabun,
From his shining lodge of silver,
Like a warrior robed and painted,
Came the sun, and said, "Behold me
Gheezis, the great sun, behold me!"
Then the old man's tongue was speechless
And the air grew warm and pleasant,
And upon the wigwam sweetly
Sang the bluebird and the robin,
And the stream began to murmur,
And a scent of growing grasses
Through the lodge was gently wafted.
And Segwun, the youthful stranger,
More distinctly in the daylight
Saw the icy face before him;
It was Peboan, the Winter!
From his eyes the tears were flowing,
As from melting lakes the streamlets,
And his body shrunk and dwindled
As the shouting sun ascended,
Till into the air it faded,
Till into the ground it vanished,
And the young man saw before him,
On the hearth-stone of the wigwam,
Where the fire had smoked and smouldered,
Saw the earliest flower of Spring-time,
Saw the Beauty of the Spring-time,
Saw the Miskodeed in blossom.
Thus it was that in the North-land
After that unheard-of coldness,
That intolerable Winter,
Came the Spring with all its splendor,
All its birds and all its blossoms,
All its flowers and leaves and grasses.
Sailing on the wind to northward,
Flying in great flocks, like arrows,
Like huge arrows shot through heaven,
Passed the swan, the Mahnahbezee,
Speaking almost as a man speaks;
And in long lines waving, bending
Like a bow-string snapped asunder,
Came the white goose, Waw-be-wawa;
And in pairs, or singly flying,
Mahng the loon, with clangorous pinions,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa.
In the thickets and the meadows
Piped the bluebird, the Owaissa,
On the summit of the lodges
Sang the robin, the Opechee,
In the covert of the pine-trees
Cooed the pigeon, the Omemee;
And the sorrowing Hiawatha,
Speechless in his infinite sorrow,
Heard their voices calling to him,
Went forth from his gloomy doorway,
Stood and gazed into the heaven,
Gazed upon the earth and waters.
From his wanderings far to eastward,
From the regions of the morning,
From the shining land of Wabun,
Homeward now returned Iagoo,
The great traveller, the great boaster,
Full of new and strange adventures,
Marvels many and many wonders.
And the people of the village
Listened to him as he told them
Of his marvellous adventures,
Laughing answered him in this wise:
"Ugh! it is indeed Iagoo!
No one else beholds such wonders!"
He had seen, he said, a water
Bigger than the Big-Sea-Water,
Broader than the Gitche Gumee,
Bitter so that none could drink it!
At each other looked the warriors,
Looked the women at each other,
Smiled, and said, "It cannot be so!"
Kaw!" they said, it cannot be so!"
O'er it, said he, o'er this water
Came a great canoe with pinions,
A canoe with wings came flying,
Bigger than a grove of pine-trees,
Taller than the tallest tree-tops!
And the old men and the women
Looked and tittered at each other;
"Kaw!" they said, "we don't believe it!"
From its mouth, he said, to greet him,
Came Waywassimo, the lightning,
Came the thunder, Annemeekee!
And the warriors and the women
Laughed aloud at poor Iagoo;
"Kaw!" they said, "what tales you tell us!"
In it, said he, came a people,
In the great canoe with pinions
Came, he said, a hundred warriors;
Painted white were all their faces
And with hair their chins were covered!
And the warriors and the women
Laughed and shouted in derision,
Like the ravens on the tree-tops,
Like the crows upon the hemlocks.
"Kaw!" they said, "what lies you tell us!
Do not think that we believe them!"
Only Hiawatha laughed not,
But he gravely spake and answered
To their jeering and their jesting:
"True is all Iagoo tells us;
I have seen it in a vision,
Seen the great canoe with pinions,
Seen the people with white faces,
Seen the coming of this bearded
People of the wooden vessel
From the regions of the morning,
From the shining land of Wabun.
"Gitche Manito, the Mighty,
The Great Spirit, the Creator,
Sends them hither on his errand.
Sends them to us with his message.
Wheresoe'er they move, before them
Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo,
Swarms the bee, the honey-maker;
Wheresoe'er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the White-man's Foot in blossom.
"Let us welcome, then, the strangers,
Hail them as our friends and brothers,
And the heart's right hand of friendship
Give them when they come to see us.
Gitche Manito, the Mighty,
Said this to me in my vision.
"I beheld, too, in that vision
All the secrets of the future,
Of the distant days that shall be.
I beheld the westward marches
Of the unknown, crowded nations.
All the land was full of people,
Restless, struggling, toiling, striving,
Speaking many tongues, yet feeling
But one heart-beat in their bosoms.
In the woodlands rang their axes,
Smoked their towns in all the valleys,
Over all the lakes and rivers
Rushed their great canoes of thunder.
"Then a darker, drearier vision
Passed before me, vague and cloud-like;
I beheld our nation scattered,
All forgetful of my counsels,
Weakened, warring with each other:
Saw the remnants of our people
Sweeping westward, wild and woful,
Like the cloud-rack of a tempest,
Like the withered leaves of Autumn!"

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Beauty of Longfellow's "The White Man's Foot"

As I read through Longfellow's "The White Man's Foot," I couldn't help but be struck by the beauty and depth of the poem. It's amazing how much Longfellow is able to convey in just a few stanzas, and how he uses language to create such vivid images and emotions.

At its core, "The White Man's Foot" is a meditation on the impact that white settlers have had on the land and on the native people who lived there before them. Longfellow describes how the land was once wild and untouched, and how the native people lived in harmony with nature. But then the white man came, and everything changed.

One of the things I love about this poem is how Longfellow uses language to create a sense of contrast between the old way of life and the new. He describes how the "forest paths were dim and strange" before the white man came, and how the native people "trode with naked feet" on the earth. But then the white man came, and "the grim forest frowned on him with all its ancient hate," and the land was "scarred and riven" by his plow.

There's a sense of nostalgia and loss in Longfellow's words, as if he's mourning for a way of life that can never be recovered. He describes how the native people "gazed upon the stranger's face/With fiery eyes of hate and fear," and how they "writhed beneath his stern command." There's a sense of injustice and tragedy in these lines, as if Longfellow is saying that the white man's conquest was not only harmful to the land, but also to the people who lived there.

But at the same time, there's also a sense of wonder and appreciation in Longfellow's words. He describes how the white man "stole upon the sleeping land/Like a thief in the night," and how he "gave the fields his strength of hand." There's almost a grudging respect for the white man's ability to tame the land and make it productive, even if it came at a great cost.

One of the things I find most interesting about this poem is how it can be read in different ways depending on your perspective. From the perspective of the native people, the white man's arrival was a tragedy that destroyed their way of life and robbed them of their land. But from the perspective of the white settlers, it was a triumph of civilization over the wildness of nature.

Longfellow seems to be aware of these different perspectives, and he doesn't shy away from the complexity of the issue. He describes how the white man "fought his way, and broke the sod," and how he "planted where the wild deer trod." There's a sense that both sides have their own valid points of view, and that the truth lies somewhere in between.

Overall, I think "The White Man's Foot" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that still resonates today. It reminds us that the land we live on has a complex and often tragic history, and that we need to be aware of the impact that our actions have on the world around us. Longfellow's words are a testament to the power of poetry to capture the beauty and the pain of our shared human experience, and to inspire us to be better and more thoughtful stewards of the earth.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

White Man's Foot: A Poem of Cultural Conquest and Colonialism

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "White Man's Foot" is a powerful commentary on the impact of colonialism on indigenous cultures. Written in 1855, the poem reflects the attitudes of the time towards the "civilizing" mission of European colonizers, who believed that they were bringing progress and enlightenment to the "primitive" peoples they encountered in their travels. However, Longfellow's poem challenges this narrative, exposing the violence and destruction that accompanied the spread of European culture and values.

The poem begins with a description of the natural world, which is presented as a pristine and untouched wilderness. Longfellow writes:

"In the woods, a fragrance rare Of wild grape and the blossoms fair Of the Mayflower, trailing slow Over the ground where the white man's feet Had trod a hundred years before."

This opening stanza sets the scene for the rest of the poem, establishing the contrast between the unspoiled beauty of nature and the destructive impact of human civilization. The reference to the "white man's feet" is significant, as it suggests that the arrival of Europeans has left a lasting imprint on the land, one that cannot be erased.

The second stanza introduces the central theme of the poem, which is the conquest of indigenous cultures by European colonizers. Longfellow writes:

"The monarchs of the woodlands old, The beech, the oak, the pine, the fir, Whose broad, green leaves their branches hold, As kings their scepters, -- all to her Submitted, -- for she deemed them less Than her ancestral loveliness."

Here, Longfellow personifies nature as a powerful and regal figure, who is able to command the respect and obedience of the trees and plants around her. However, this power is ultimately undermined by the arrival of the "white man," who sees nature as something to be conquered and exploited for his own purposes. The use of the word "submitted" is significant, as it suggests that the trees and plants are forced to bow down before the colonizers, who are seen as superior and dominant.

The third stanza continues this theme, describing the impact of European culture on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Longfellow writes:

"She saw the tribes, like leaves, arise, And flourish, -- then beneath her eyes Decay and die away. The white man came, a pestilence, And swept them from the face of earth."

Here, Longfellow portrays the colonizers as a destructive force, who bring disease and death to the native populations they encounter. The use of the word "pestilence" is particularly powerful, as it suggests that the Europeans are like a plague, spreading death and destruction wherever they go. The reference to the tribes "decaying and dying away" is also significant, as it suggests that the arrival of Europeans marks the beginning of the end for indigenous cultures, which are unable to withstand the onslaught of colonialism.

The fourth stanza introduces a note of regret and sadness, as Longfellow reflects on the loss of the natural world and the cultures that once inhabited it. He writes:

"She mourned above their bones, and said: 'O ye, whose homes are here, forgive The white man's sin, who comes to shed His brother's blood! With me he shall live A little while, and at my side Sit like a bridegroom, -- not a bride.'"

Here, Longfellow personifies nature as a compassionate and empathetic figure, who mourns the loss of the indigenous peoples and seeks to make amends for the harm done by the colonizers. The reference to the white man "sitting like a bridegroom" is significant, as it suggests that he is being welcomed into a new relationship with nature, one that is based on mutual respect and understanding.

The final stanza of the poem brings the themes of conquest and cultural destruction full circle, as Longfellow reflects on the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing struggle for justice and equality. He writes:

"Then, with a smile, that filled the air With odors sweet and rare, She took the Indian's hand, and led His way through purple meadows red With blossoms, and with berries fed; And pointed to the deer that fled, And to the river's shining thread. 'Behold!' she said, 'the land is free, For you and yours, -- for ever free.'"

Here, Longfellow portrays nature as a source of hope and inspiration, offering a vision of a world in which all people are free and equal. However, this vision is tempered by the knowledge that the legacy of colonialism is still being felt today, as indigenous peoples continue to struggle for their rights and their place in the world.

In conclusion, "White Man's Foot" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that challenges the dominant narrative of colonialism and cultural conquest. Through his vivid descriptions of nature and his empathetic portrayal of indigenous cultures, Longfellow invites us to see the world from a different perspective, one that recognizes the value and importance of all cultures and peoples. As we continue to grapple with the legacy of colonialism and its ongoing impact on the world, this poem serves as a reminder of the need for empathy, compassion, and understanding in our relationships with one another and with the natural world.

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