Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1847
Evangeline is a lengthy, but not quite epic, poem by Longfellow about the Expulsion of the Acadians. During the French and Indian War, the British forcibly exported French colonists from Nova Scotia, Maine and a few other maritime settlements in Canada. Longfellow’s poem follows the story of a pure, young Acadian lady named Evangeline.
Evangeline and her beloved, Gabriel, are separated during the Expulsion. When they arrive somewhere in the 13 colonies, Evangeline starts searching for Gabriel. She spends her life seeking after him, roaming far across the colonies.
The poem is written in the meter of classical Greek poetry, dactylic hexameter. I am not fond of this choice of Longfellow’s. The awkward syntax and lack of rhyme made me hanker after Percy Bysshe Shelley, who could tell story in lovely poetry. Longfellow tells a story, but the poetry is unlovely.
Evangeline is a sentimental poem. It evokes emotions, but it’s a bit saccharine and oversimplified. Longfellow depicts the Acadians as perfect peasants. He supports that classic Victorian idea that the city is vile and corrupting while the country is basically Eden before the Fall. What a whacky idea. There is darkness in human hearts, regardless of the location of the hearts.
Longfellow ignores the complicity of the American colonists in the Expulsion, letting the blame fall entirely on the British.
I also take issue with the idea that Evangeline is made more divine by her self-sacrificing quest to find Gabriel. She gives up her entire life to this search. I don’t think this concept of complete, all-consuming female devotion serves women very well.
That being said, Evangeline is an important poem. It became Longfellow’s most famous work. It also engendered sympathy for the Acadians among the general public, which is quite a feat given the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment at this time. The Acadians don’t appear often in literature. The rarity of the subject matter lends interest.
Evangeline is beloved in Acadia and in Louisiana. There are sculptures of Evangeline and places named after the poem.
“Talk not of wasted affection, affection never was wasted;
If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters, returning
Back to their springs, like the rain, shall fill them full of refreshment;
That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain,
Patience; accomplish thy labor; accomplish thy work of affection!
Sorrow and silence are strong, and patient endurance is godlike.
Therefore accomplish thy labor of love, till the heart is made godlike,
Purified, strengthened, perfected, and rendered more worthy of heaven!”
Cheered by the good man’s words, Evangeline labored and waited.
Still in her heart she heard the funeral dirge of the ocean,
But with its sound there was mingled a voice that whispered “Despair not!”
Thus did the poor soul wander in want and cheerless discomfort,
Bleeding barefooted, over the shards and thorns of existence.
You might like Evangeline if:
- Gambit is your favorite X-man.
You might not like Evangeline if:
- you didn’t enjoy reading the Illiad or Odyssey in high school.
I feel for Evangeline as a victim of patriarchal need for women to suffer for love. Her story is compelling. However, Longfellow’s treatment of his historical subject matter lacks nuance and so does his poetic style.