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The Native American within Gezelle

Peace pipes, tipis and American Indian warriors. Gezelle translated the epic Indian poem The Song of Hiawatha. Why did he get interested in Native Americans, and why did he turn into a true indigenous peoples specialist? How did he encounter this epic poem and why did he decide to translate it?

Guido Gezelle
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In the middle of the 19th century a young priest and teacher was working in Roeselare on the eastern side of the Atlantic ocean, while on the western side a professor resigned from his job to write an epic poem. This American author was called Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was inspired to compose this epic poem in the tradition of Germanic heroic poetry after meeting indigenous chieftains and gathering their stories.

Guido Gezelle
Hiawatha 1

Hiawatha, a Wise Hero

The Song of Hiawatha, a long epic poem consisting of 5400 verses, was published in 1855. The main character is the mythical Hiawatha, a highly intelligent and idealistic Indian chieftain. Longfellow considered Hiawatha to be the prototype of Native American culture, submitting to European civilization embodied by a white catholic missionary and his entourage. The eradication of Indians was not acknowledged.

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Criticism and Satire

At first Longfellow had to deal with criticism and satire. Racist critics condemned his respect for Native American culture and the use of typical Indian names and vocabulary. The Boston newspapers contained numerous polemics. Insulting parodies of its form and meter circulated widely. Despite the initial opposition his poem became a tremendous success and many adaptations were published later on. For instance, the former Hiawatha is often revived in contemporary editions for young readers.

Guido Gezelle
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Minor Seminary

Felix Bethune, a colleague of Gezelle, returned home from England on August 31rd, taking with him a few books for the Minor Seminary in Roeselare. As a result of this Gezelle managed to get his hands on Hiawatha within the year of its publication. His enthusiasm was considerable. He used the poem in his lessons and turned it into a ‘translation and poetry’ exercise. Gezelle published a translation of one of the 22 cantos in the Ghent newspaper Het Vlaemsche Land (The Flemish Country) (January 1857). This text was altered later on and included in his debut Dichtoefeningen (Poetical Exercises) (1858).

GGA 8895 F R. De Ryckere missionary in North America

Mission Ideal

Gezelle encouraged his pupils to become missionaries in distant, adventurous countries: the North Pole, America or the Far East. Hiawatha served as the perfect example to former students such as Theofiel Van de Moortel and Remi De Ryckere.

Guido Gezelle
GGA5087r Letter by Longfellow to Verriest


After Gezelle left the Minor Seminary the Longfellow cultus did not fade easily among the pupils. When Gezelle’s alumnus Hugo Verriest was appointed as a teacher Longfellow soon became a favourite poet in the curriculum. Under the pseudonym Owais’sa he published the translation of the first Hiawatha canto, twenty years after Gezelle’s translation. Verriest even sent Longfellow a fragment and the author responded quite favourably.

“I have had the pleasure of receiving your letter and the specimen of your translation of “Hiawatha” into Flemish, which you have been kind enough to send me. It seems to me extremely well done”
Henry W. Longfellow - Cambridge, 11.03.1877
GGA050903 18a Emile Lauwers in group

Emile Lauwers

Hugo Verriest launched a project in the Roeselare literary guild: the translation of The Song of Hiawatha. He assigned Emile Lauwers, the club’s latest member, to undertake this task of epic proportions. In 1877 Emile Lauwers was a fifth year student at the Minor Seminary in Roeselare. Hugo Verriest did not teach him personally but he did take Lauwers under his wing in the literary guild. Shortly afterwards Verriest revised a translation by Emile Lauwers and published the piece in De Vlaamsche Vlagge under the pseudonym Owais’sa.

“He brings me his work and the first page read: Dream of Hiawatha; he had mistaken Song for songe [dream in French]. I then told him: translate the entire poem. He did so, couplet by couplet, and sometimes misunderstanding the English original fairly pleasantly, and how we laughed about that.”
Hugo Verriest
GGA1951 01 01 Translation by Emiel Lauwers, corrected by Gezelle

Three Musketeers

At the request of Verriest, Gezelle was again involved with the translation by late summer 1878. Consequently, Gezelle got acquainted with The Song of Hiawatha once again. Like three musketeers, Lauwers, Verriest and Gezelle were working together on the translation. Verses were continually being exchanged. Corrections, advice and revelations swiftly followed one another. In the Guido Gezelle archives we encounter translations in Emile Lauwers’s handwriting with corrections by Guido Gezelle.

“that [Gezelle] had entirely rewritten it, and so the work may, I suppose, be considered to be in reality his own”
J. Algar
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What’s in a name…

With the help of Gezelle, Emile Lauwers concluded his translation. A proof containing a few cantos was published. Yet Gezelle was not satisfied with it and he continued to take over the project. Respectfully Lauwers dropped his name from the translation. In August 1878 he expressed his feelings in verse with a postcard addressed to Gezelle and Verriest.

Guido Gezelle

My Poor Poet’s Tongue

My honourable gentleman,

I had, in my poor poet’s tongue
The golden poet’s wondrous tale
Sent thee in confidence;
Perishing it got to thee and was by thee
completed and made whole
Again reviving through thy heart and soul.

Thanks be to thee a hundred times for this-
And willst thou, Sir, of this my gratitude
A token from my part,
So be to thee attributed this chant
The song of “Hiawada” -thine,
not mine- with loving hand.

Your servant,

Emile Lauwers

GGA1389 02 Proof with corrections by Gezelle

Own Translation

It would take just a little longer. Gezelle was continually working on the same text during his English lessons and his linguistic endeavours for the magazine Loquela. In the meantime he forgot about Lauwers’ version. On the reverse side of this text he had corrected we find all kinds of notes, drafts for lectures, articles and letters jotted down by Gezelle. The surviving fragments obviously show that he did not use any lines of Lauwers’ work resulting from this early collaborative penmanship.

Guido Gezelle
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A Bestseller

At last the day had come: Gezelle published an entire ‘re-poetization’ (as he called it): 6800 copies. In 1886 Flanders this was clearly a bestseller. The amount was not determined by the demand for the book, but by the board of the cultural association Davidsfonds, who launched the book.

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For Connoisseurs

Personally Gezelle was very pleased with his translation and its phrasing. Yet it did not turn out to be a popular one. Literary critics received it indifferently or did not review the piece at all. Despite all the accumulated respect, it remained an artefact for intimates and connoisseurs. The vocabulary was considered too difficult.

“words are houses, we can rebuild them”
G. Gezelle
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Importance and Effect

This ‘re-poetization’ was extremely valuable for Gezelles second heyday. It was the first time he could actually turn his longstanding linguistic studies into a new ‘Gezellian’ poetic language. In order to match Longfellow’s level he had reached his technical limits in rhythm, alliteration, enjambment and parallelisms. When he returned to his own poetry in Rijmsnoer and Tijdkrans, his creative power in language and rhythm had changed for the better. Moreover, images and metaphors of the American Indian epic echoed in his own subsequent poems.

“Initially Gezelle talked about the habits of the Native Americans, their morals, their gifts and illnesses, about their lifestyle, their homes, their clothing, their houseware, additionally he talked about their persecution, their flight and how they were gunned down like a quarrel of sparrows, and eradicated.”
Emile Lauwers
Guido Gezelle

An Enduring Interest

In the years following the publication of the translation, Gezelle proved twice that he had a lasting interest in the Native Americans, In 1890 he wrote about possessing a tomahawk and even ‘the Calumet’ (a peace pipe) of chieftain Black Eagle. He wanted to write an article about this, but ultimately never managed to do so.

In 1897, two years before he died, he wrote a friend about negotiating with ‘an American fellow’ to publish a second edition of his translation. This time ‘images’ would be included. Even though nothing came of this plan, this instance illustrates his enduring interest.

GGB 870b Bible in the language of the Potewatomi


Gezelle had studied the Algonquin language and explained more about it in his footnotes than Longfellow had done! In these ‘Annotations’ he thoroughly illustrated his ethnographical knowledge of the indigenous peoples. He quoted four American and eight French ethnologists.

In his library he even had a bible in the language of the Potewatomi, a Native American tribe that lived on the banks of the Mississippi in the United States of America.

This website was composed by the Guido Gezelle Archives of the Bruges Public Library

Main Library Biekorf – Kuipersstraat 3 – 8000 Bruges- Belgium

050 47 24 00

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