I wish I could say that I owned the exquisitely beautiful book pictured
above, but I do not; I found that image online. Mine, unfortunately is a beat-up old paperback copy from high school upon which I
doodled and scribbled and colored in Evangeline's face in utter boredom. My what a difference forty-or-so years
makes. While, admittedly, I would still likely be bored during high school English, I most certainly was not bored with this poem. I read the whole thing,
about 100 pages, in a matter of hours. This has to be one of the saddest, most heartbreaking stories I have ever read. It is probably also the most famous of
all the poems of the renowned American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
It is based on the horrors of the Expulsion of the Acadians (French) by the English, sometimes called the Great Upheaval which took place from 1755-1764. Acadie was made up of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Longfellow presented a perhaps narrow view of the whole situation, but his poem nonetheless called attention to the atrocity. According to Wikipedia, it was part of the British Military Campaign against New France. About 11,500 Acadians were deported to the Thirteen Colonies, and later to Britain and France. After Britain's conquest of Acadia, they offered to allow the Acadians to keep their land, but they had to sign a pledge of loyalty to Britain which was unacceptable to these people, partially because they were Roman Catholic and Britain was Protestant (Church of England). Some participated in military operations, while other remained neutral. In the end, France expelled them all to be clear of their problem. None of this, however, is mentioned in the poem, including the fact that New England was a participant in the expulsion. The history is complex, but the poem is not. You may read more about the Expulsion of the Acadians at Wikipedia.
Longfellow got his idea for his poem from his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, then did additional research on the history of Nova Scotia and its families. The poem is a love story, and after the horror of the expulsion, the rest of it is about Evangeline's quest to be reunited with her betrothed.
He begins by painting a picture of peace, love, contentment, and joyfulness of the simple farmers who inhabit Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia. It is the night before the wedding of Evangeline Bellefontaine and her childhood sweetheart Gabriel Lajeunesse. Evangeline lives with her dear father, Benedict. Gabriel is the son of Basil the blacksmith. This night both families meet for the arrival of the old notary, Rene Leblanc, for the signing of the contract. The old men laugh and play games while the lovers watch the moon rise. Though Benedict tries to be merry, there is fear in the village. The English have called all the men to a mandatory meeting at the church the next day.
And their worst fears come to pass. They are ordered to gather their things and meet at the sea, where ships will deliver them to New England and other places. That evening, as they wait, they see their houses, their beautiful farms set to fire, while their animals, returned from the pasture run in fright. Basil and Gabriel get separated. Evangeline's father dies in the night. Father Felician is there, trying to bring comfort where comfort does little good.
In Part Two, we jump ahead years as we find Evangeline wandering alone across America, so many times, just missing Gabriel. She finally meets a party of boaters in the south who are old friends, including Father Felician. They travel south down the Mississippi. One evening, they all retire on the banks to sleep, and out of sight, another boat passes. It is Gabriel, who has also been searching, and decides to go out west. But neither boat party sees each other.
However, when Evangeline and her friends resume their travel, they come to the home of Basil the blacksmith. What a joyful reunion! But again, Evangeline's joy changes to utter grief as she is told that Gabriel has gone fur hunting, but is not far away. Basil and Evangeline take off the next day, and each time they think they are on the trail, they are disappointed to find Gabriel has just left. She finally traces him to a mission out west, where the priest assures her he promised to return in the autumn. So she stays and Basil return home.
But Gabriel does not come in the autumn, or ever. Evangeline renews her search, then finally, now aged and weary, she goes east to Pennsylvania, where she works with the Sisters of Mercy, caring for the poor. Then a terrible plague strikes and many people are sick and dying, and Evangeline, now at peace with herself, also cares for them. And it is here that she finally holds her beloved Gabriel in her arms for the last time as he dies. She dies, too, and they are buried side by side.
As I said, this poem is the epitome of sorrow and tragedy, yet it is beautiful in its expression. Absolutely recommended reading.
Again, from Wikipedia:
Prior to the influence of Longfellow's poem, historians generally focused on the British founding of Halifax (1749) as the beginning of Nova Scotia. Longfellow's poem shed light on the 150 years of Acadian settlement that preceded the establishment of Halifax.
The poem had a powerful impact 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 obscures. For example, Longfellow's poem renders Acadie a utopia and the Acadians as simply a homogeneous, passive, peaceful, innocent people while obscuring the resistance that certain Acadians demonstrated—both politically and militarily—against the British invasion of Acadie.
Below is a sculpture of Evangeline by Louis-Philippe Hébert at the Grand-Pré National Historic Site, Nova Scotia, Canada. The French church was reconstructed by the Acadians in 1920.
All material on this site copyright © 2015 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.