Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 5. Importance of Rhythm

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

§ 5. Importance of Rhythm

This is only another way of saying that all Amerind literature was rhythmic. It was true of all those forms we are accustomed to think of as prose, oratory, epigram, and tribal history, as well as of lyric and epic. But, though the Indian had no names for them, there was always a distinction in his choice of rhythms to be used. The difference was in their psychological relation to himself. The thing that came out of the Amerind heart was poetry, but if it came out of his head it was prose. This is a distinction to be borne in mind, for in the present state of our knowledge it is the only possible classification of aboriginal literary modes.

If utterance was out of the Indian heart, it could be sung or danced. But all Indian life was so intensely democratic that there was very little to be danced and sung which had not to be danced and sung in common, by the group or the tribe. When literature is danced or chanted in common there must be some common measure, some time-keeper. Among the Indians this was the drum, that “breathing mouth of wood,” the hollow log or hoop with a stretched skin. All Amerind literature is of these two classes: it can be drummed to, or it cannot.

Of the literature which came out of the Indian’s head, too little has been preserved to us, and that little by ethnologists rather than literary specialists. Translators have been chiefly interested in mythology, in language, in anything except literary form.