Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie by Henry Wadsworth LongfellowI have somewhat jumbled thoughts about this lovely prose poem that tells the story of a fictional young woman named Evangeline Bellefontaine, who began her life in Acadia, what is now Nova Scotia. I had no idea of the history of this area. This is from the introduction:
At the close of what is known as Queen Annes war, in 1713, France ceded Acadia to the English, and it has since remained in their possession. Some thirty-five years passed before an English settlement was made at Halifax, the Acadians in the meantime remaining in undisturbed possession of the country. Soon after the settlement of Halifax trouble began between the rival colonists.
Whatever the reasons were for their decision (and the details seem to be debated even today) the British rounded up all the French Acadians and forced them into exile, burning their village to boot. Our Evangeline was newly betrothed to Gabriel Lajeunesse, but because the tide went out during the evacuation she had to stay on the beach with her father while Gabriel and his father were put on a ship. So the lovers were separated, and the rest of the poem follows the wanderings of Evangeline while she searches for Gabriel, whom she has never forgotten and will always love.
Here is where my jumbled thoughts really start. On the surface, Evangeline is a loyal young woman, who wants only to be reunited with her true love Gabriel. So she goes off searching for him, and we think she will find him a time or two, but he is always a week or so ahead of her. She is impulsive, rushing off to the north country when she hears a rumor that he has a hunters lodge in Michigan, instead of waiting longer at the mission where she had already spent over a year in hopes he would return. But of course when she arrives the lodge is empty and she continues her wanderings.
It was not until I finished reading that I realized the other layer involved here. Our loyal Evangeline represents all of the exiles, and her search for Gabriel is really an exiles longing for their former home. When a person is forced away from a place, that place becomes sacred to them. Looking at Evangeline herself as simply a woman, I was mad at her for spending her entire life running obsessively after a ghost of a memory. But looking at her as the symbol of the French Acadian people who were torn from their homes and thrown out into the cruel world to sink or swim however they could, I was able to understand that obsessed desire to reclaim the past. I still do not necessarily admire it, however. It is not possible or healthy to go back in time, to recreate what once was. Remember the magic, yes. Become obsessed over it, no.
I dawdled a bit while reading, as usual with poetry, because I kept savoring the prelude, which begins with these noble lines:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
I had avoided Longfellow since school days, remembering the torture of being forced to read him when I was interested in so many other things. But I was pleasantly surprised at the loveliness of this poem, and how easy it was to read. I certainly will be reading more of his work, and hopefully more about the history of Nova Scotia and Canada as well.
Evangeline Tale Acadie
In a primeval forest once dwelt the Acadian farmers. The village is in a fruitful and beautiful valley. The houses are strongly-built amid the fields of flax. Maidens spin, the parish priest wanders pleasantly down the streets followed by children, and laborers come home from the fields on peaceful summer evenings. All love God and their fellow men; none is rich, none poor. Benedict Bellefontaine is the wealthiest farmer and lives with his seventeen year-old daughter Evangeline.
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Evangeline; A Tale of Acadie
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The poem follows an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for her lost love Gabriel, set during the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians. The idea for the poem came from Longfellow's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow used dactylic hexameter , imitating Greek and Latin classics, though the choice was criticized. It became Longfellow's most famous work in his lifetime and remains one of his most popular and enduring works. The poem had a powerful effect in defining both Acadian history and identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recent scholarship has revealed the historical errors in the poem and the complexity of the Expulsion and those involved, which the poem ignores. Evangeline describes the betrothal of a fictional Acadian girl named Evangeline Bellefontaine to her beloved, Gabriel Lajeunesse, and their separation as the British deport the Acadians from Acadie in the Great Upheaval.