Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, by Nathaniel B. Emerson, , at sacred-texts.com
The Hawaiian word mele included all forms of poetical composition. The fact that the mele, in whatever form, was intended for cantillation, or some sort of rhythmical utterance addressed to the ear, has given to this word in modern times a special meaning that covers the idea of song or of singing, thus making it overlap ambiguously into the territory that more properly belongs to the word oli. The oli was in strict sense the lyric utterance of the Hawaiians.
In its most familiar form the Hawaiians--many of whom possessed the gift of improvisation in a remarkable degree--used the oli not only for the songful expression of joy and affection, but as the vehicle of humorous or sarcastic narrative in the entertainment of their comrades. The traveler, as he trudged along under his swaying burden, or as he rested by the wayside, would solace himself and his companions with a pensive improvisation in the form of an oli. Or, sitting about the camp-fire of an evening, without the consolation of the social pipe or bowl, the people of the olden time would keep warm the fire of good-fellowship and cheer by the sing-song chanting of the oli, in which the extemporaneous bard recounted the events of the day and won the laughter and applause of his audience by witty, ofttimes exaggerated, allusions to many a humorous incident that had marked the journey. If a traveler, not knowing the language of the country, noticed his Hawaiian guide and baggage-carriers indulging in mirth while listening to an oli by one of their number, he would probably be right in suspecting himself to be the innocent butt of their merriment.
The lover poured into the ears of his mistress his gentle fancies: the mother stilled her child with some bizarre allegory as she rocked it in her arms; the bard favored by royalty--the poet laureate--amused the idle moments of his chief with some witty improvisation; the alii himself, gifted with the poetic fire, would air his humor or his didactic comments in rhythmic shape--all in the form of the oli.
The dividing line, then. between the oli and those other weightier forms of the mele, the inoa, the kanikau (threnody), the pule, and that unnamed variety of mele in which the poet dealt with historic or mythologic subjects, is to be found almost wholly in the mood of the singer. In truth, the Hawaiians not unfrequently applied the term pule to compositions which we moderns find it hard to bring within our definitions of prayer. For to our understanding the
[paragraph continues] Hawaiian pule often contains neither petition, nor entreaty, nor aspiration, as we measure such things.
The oli from its very name (oli-oli, joyful) conveys the notion of gladness, and therefore of song. It does not often run to such length as the more formal varieties of the mele; it is more likely to be pitched to the key of lyric and unconventional delight, and, as it seems to the writer, more often than other forms attains a gratifying unity by reason of closer adherence to some central thought or mood; albeit, when not so labeled, one might well be at a loss whether in any given case he should term the composition mele or oli.
It may not be entirely without significance that the first and second examples here given come from Kauai, the island which most vividly has retained a memory of the southern lands that were the homes of the people until they came as emigrants to Hawaii.
The story on which this song is founded relates that the comely Pamaho’a was so fond of her husband during his life that at his death she was unwilling to part with his bones. Having cleaned and wrapped them in a bundle, she carried them with her wherever she went. In the indiscretion begotten of her ill-balanced state of mind she committed the mortal offense of entering the royal residence while thus encumbered, where was Kaahumanu, favorite wife of Kamehameha I. The king detailed two constables (ilamuku) to remove the woman and put her to death. When they had reached a safe distance, moved with pity, the men said: "Our orders were to slay; but what hinders you to escape?" The woman took the hint and fled hot-foot.
255:a The scene is laid in the region about the Wailua, a river on Kauai. This stream, tossed with waves driven up from the sea, represents figuratively the disturbance of the woman's mind at the coming of the officers.
255:b Koolau, The name of a wind; stands for the messengers of the king, whose instructions were to expel (kipaku, verse 7) and then to slay.
255:c Wa’a. Literally canoe; stands for the woman herself.
255:d Hoa kanáka. Human companion: is an allusion to the bundle of her husband's bones which she carries with her, but which are torn away and lost in the flood.
256:a Mo’o-mo’o-iki. A land at Wailua. Kauai.
256:b Lua-ai-ele. To carry about with one a sorrow.