American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Poems of Places 5

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From Poems of Places, vol. 31, Oceanica: Australasia, Polynesia, and Miscellaneous Seas and Islands (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Hawaii]

Under the heading “Sandwich Islands,” Longfellow includes two poems in translation. Googling the authors’ names for some biographical information, I jumped to the conclusion that Longfellow had made a simple error of transposition, giving the title “Hawaiian National Anthem” to a lyric by Lilia K. Dominis instead of the actual anthem, by King Kalakaua, which is also included in the volume, under the title “Kamehameha Hymn” (both are translated by H. L. Sheldon).

Wikipedia told me that King Kalakaua “wrote Hawaii Pono’i, which is the state song of Hawaii today,” and further Googling brought me to recordings of “Hawaii Pono’i” identified as Hawaii’s national anthem. A quick comparison of translations showed that “Hawaii Pono’i”  was indeed the same poem as “Kamehameha Hymn.”

Rereading the two poems with this information in mind, it seemed silly that I had not noticed earlier how martial Longfellow’s “Hymn” sounds (it begins, “Hawaii! sea-girt land! / Strong for thy monarch stand”), or the hymn-like quality of his “Anthem” (“Eternal Father! mighty God! / Behold us, from thy blest abode”). A howler, right?

Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 032, Item 039

Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 032, Item 039

Searching further, I found sheet music for a song that looked to be “Kamehameha Hymn.” The title is given on the first page as “He Mele Lahui Hawaii,” with a legend under that reading, “Ke Mele a me na Huamele hakuia e Mrs. Lilia K. Dominis.” Since there was no translation, I did a search for “He Mele Lahui Hawaii,” which brought me to a page headed “Mele Lâhui Hawai’i ― Hawaiian National Anthem: Words & music by Queen Lili’uokalani,” illustrated with the same sheet music, but with a translation that indeed resembles the anthem given in Poems of Places. A footnote then exonerated Longfellow of the charge of error: “Composed November, 1866 by Queen Lili’uokalani, at the request of Kamehameha V, this was the Hawaii National Anthem, until 1967, when Hawai’i Pono’i was declared the state song.” So much for the howler.

I unfold this silly story, well, for two reasons. First, to admit that I am just like my students: I hurry through Google toward understanding, overconfident in my ability to avoid a stumble. Not quite the same thing as Heraclitus’s ass, who preferred straw to gold (as an ass should, right?), but in danger, yes, of becoming an ass. Second, however, I record these stumbles to indicate that the search for understanding, however bedeviled, is one of the things a poem requires, especially a “poem of places.” Without that search, one’s reading will often remain a muddle of impressions. Close reading is one way to clarify that muddle; another ― its complement, not opposite ― is to look outside the poem. Does it make sense to say that the nineteenth century, unlike the twentieth, had more faith in the latter than the former? Longfellow did, I am sure. His anthologies are like little Baedeckers in the search for understanding, a search that takes poetry as starting point, not ending.

Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch to reign in Hawaii, was ousted from power and later arrested by the United States. Here is her anthem as given by Longfellow:

Hawaiian National Anthem

Eternal Father, mighty God!
Behold us, from thy blest abode;
To thee we turn, for thou wilt care
To listen to our humble prayer.
May gentle peace forever reign
O’er these fair islands of the main,
Hawaii’s peaks to Niihau’s strand,
The peace of God o’er all the land!
Forever be our country free,
Our laws and Heaven’s in harmony.
All hearts respond, all voices sing,
God save, God save our gracious King!

And may our Chieftains ever be,
Guided, O Lord, by love to Thee,
And all the people join to raise
One universal song of praise.
God save the people of our land,
Uphold by thine Almighty hand;
Thy watchful care defends from harm,
Faithful and sure thy sovereign arm.
Forever be our country free,
Our laws and Heaven’s in harmony.
All hearts respond, all voices sing,
God save, God save our gracious King!

Lilia K. Dominis. Tr. H. L. Sheldon.

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