Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 20. The Songs of the Midé Brethren

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 20. The Songs of the Midé Brethren

The Midé Wiwin, or society of Shamans, is a secret organization of the Ojibway, including both men and women, and has for its object the attainment of mastery over the means of life, health, and subsistence, through communion with Spirit Power. Its chief interests to the literary student are the facts that it is one of the few literary enterprises which make use of “song boards,” or “board plates,” in which between straight lines are incised or painted mnemonic keys to the songs, and that the forms of those songs closely resemble the modern poetic mode which goes by the name of Imagism.

The Midé ritual is divided into four parts, each representing a degree of spiritual progress in the initiate, who must be letter-perfect in the songs. Each sequence is introduced by a recitative of instruction. Each song consists of a single sentence of recognizable poetic measure, repeated as many times as is necessary to complete the appropriate rhythm, with slight melodic variations.

When we say that the form of the Midé songs is Imagistic, we mean that each one of them states a thing apprehended through the external sense; something seen, heard, or done, enclosing a spiritual experience as in the thin film of a bubble. Thus, the literal Midé song says:

  • The sky
  • We have lost it.
  • But the shape of the song determined by the drum is as follows: [char], the words and additional meaningless syllables being repeated as often as necessary to complete it. The full content of this combination of words and rhythm, which is directed toward the acquirement of magic power over the weather, would be something like this:
  • Darkness devours our sky!
  • Toward its obscuring clouds
  • We extend our hands
  • For the favour of clear weather.
  • By our power we attain it!
  • Though the idea of reaching toward the sky is not to be found in the words, it is plainly indicated in the ideographic key by a hand extended toward a cloud.

    If we assume that the office of the drum in this song is merely to unify, an office that in our sort of verse is served by the conventions of the printed page, we may safely discard the drum measure in translating, as is here done. It would also be entirely within the province of faithful translation to express all the subtleties of Indian thought in this connection, the Indian’s sense of the forces of nature, cloud, wind, and rain as being nearer to God than he is, and of his power over them through the attainment of mystic purity of heart and oneness of thought. The one convention of Indian verse which must not be broken is also the convention of Imagism, that the descriptive phrases must not merely describe, but must witness to something that has occurred in the soul of the singer. A little later in this same sequence this is even more clearly indicated. The women sing

  • We are using our hearts,
  • meaning in full:
  • With deep sincerity
  • We join our hearts
  • To the hearts of the Midé Brethren
  • To find our sky again.
  • With our hearts
  • Made pure by singing
  • We uphold the hearts
  • Of our Midé Brethren
  • Seeking our sky.
  • Any number of interesting observations of the co-ordinate development of writing and poetry could be made from the study of this single ceremony, and the relation of both to their forest environment. In both there is that tendency, always so clearly marked in a complicated environment, to take the part for the whole, the leaf for the tree, the track of the bear’s foot for the bear, the reaching hand for the aspiring spirit of man.