Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie

Introductory Note

In Hawthorne’s American Note-Books is the following passage:—

“H. L. C. heard from a French Canadian a story of a young couple in Acadie. On their marriage-day all the men of the Province were summoned to assemble in the church to hear a proclamation. When assembled, they were all seized and shipped off to be distributed through New England,—among them the new bridegroom. His bride set off in search of him—wandered about New England all her life-time, and at last, when she was old, she found her bridegroom on his death-bed. The shock was so great that it killed her likewise.”

This is the story as set down by the romancer, which his friend, Rev. H. L. Conolly, had heard from a parishioner. Mr. Conolly saw in it a fine theme for a romance, but for some reason Hawthorne was disinclined to undertake it. One day the two were dining with Mr. Longfellow, and Mr. Conolly told the story again and wondered that Hawthorne did not care for it. “If you really do not want this incident for a tale,” said Mr. Longfellow to his friend, “let me have it for a poem.” Just when the conversation took place we cannot say, but the poem was begun apparently soon after the completion of the volume, The Belfry of Bruges and other Poems, and published October 30, 1847. Hawthorne, who had taken a lively interest in the poem, wrote a few days after, to say that he had read it “with more pleasure than it would be decorous to express.” Mr. Longfellow, in replying, thanked him for a friendly notice which he had written for a Salem paper, and added: “Still more do I thank you for resigning to me that legend of Acady. This success I owe entirely to you, for being willing to forego the pleasure of writing a prose tale which many people would have taken for poetry, that I might write a poem which many people take for prose.”

In preparing for his poem Mr. Longfellow drew upon the nearest, most accessible materials, which at that time were to be found in Haliburton’s An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia, with its liberal quotations from the Abbé Raynal’s emotional account of the French settlers. He may have examined Winslow’s narrative of the expedition under his command, in the cabinet of the Massachusetts Historical Society, not then printed but since that time made easily accessible. He did not visit Grand-Pré nor the Mississippi, but trusted to descriptions and Banvard’s diorama. At the time of the publication of Evangeline the actual history of the deportation of the Acadians had scarcely been investigated. It is not too much to say that this tale was itself the cause of the frequent studies since made, studies which have resulted in a revision of the accepted rendering of the facts.

Mr. Longfellow gave to a Philadelphia journalist a reminiscence of his first notice of the material which was used in the conclusion of the poem: “I was passing down Spruce Street one day toward my hotel, after a walk, when my attention was attracted to a large building with beautiful trees about it, inside of a high enclosure. I walked along until I came to the great gate, and then stepped inside, and looked carefully over the place. The charming picture of lawn, flowerbeds, and shade which it presented made an impression which has never left me, and when I came to write Evangeline I placed the final scene, the meeting between Evangeline and Gabriel, and the death, at the poor-house, and the burial in an old Catholic graveyard not far away, which I found by chance in another of my walks.”

From the outset Mr. Longfellow had no hesitation in the choice of a metre. He had before experimented in it in his translation of The Children of the Lord’s Supper, and in his lines To the Driving Cloud. While engaged upon Evangeline he chanced upon a specimen in Blackwood of a hexameter translation of the Iliad, and expressed himself very emphatically on its fitness. “Took down Chapman’s Homer,” he writes later, “and read the second book. Rough enough; and though better than Pope, how inferior to the books in hexameter in Blackwood! The English world is not yet awake to the beauty of that metre.” After his poem was published, he wrote: “The public takes more kindly to hexameters than I could have imagined,” and referring to a criticism on Evangeline by Mr. Felton, in which the metre was considered, he said: “I am more than ever glad that I chose this metre for my poem.” Again he notes in his diary: “Talked with Theophilus Parsons about English hexameters; and ‘almost persuaded him to be a Christian.’” While his mind was thus dwelling on the subject, he fell into the measure in his journal entries, and in these lines under date of December 18, 1847.

  • Soft through the silent air descend the feathery snow-flakes;
  • White are the distant hills, white are the neighboring fields;
  • Only the marshes are brown, and the river rolling among them
  • Weareth the leaden hue seen in the eyes of the blind.
  • Especially interesting is the experiment which he made, while in the process of his work, in another metre. “Finished second canto of Part II. of Evangeline. I then tried a passage of it in the common rhymed English pentameter. It is the song of the mocking-bird:—

  • Upon a spray that overhung the stream,
  • The mocking-bird, awaking from his dream,
  • Poured such delirious music from his throat
  • That all the air seemed listening to his note.
  • Plaintive at first the song began, and slow;
  • It breathed of sadness, and of pain and woe;
  • Then, gathering all his notes, abroad he flung
  • The multitudinous music from his tongue,—
  • As, after showers, a sudden gust again
  • Upon the leaves shakes down the rattling rain.”
  • As the story of Evangeline was the incentive to historical inquiry, so the successful use of the hexameter had much to do both with the revival of the measure and with a critical discussion upon its value.

    “Of the longer poems of our chief singer,” says Dr. Holmes, “I should not hesitate to select Evangeline as the masterpiece, and I think the general verdict of opinion would confirm my choice. The German model which it follows in its measure and the character of its story was itself suggested by an earlier idyl. If Dorothea was the mother of Evangeline, Luise was the mother of Dorothea. And what a beautiful creation is the Acadian maiden! From the first line of the poem, from its first words, we read as we would float down a broad and placid river, murmuring softly against its banks, heaven over it, and the glory of the unspoiled wilderness all around,—

    This is the forest primeval.
    The words are already as familiar as
    Arma virumque cano.

    The hexameter has been often criticised, but I do not believe any other measure could have told that lovely story with such effect, as we feel when carried along the tranquil current of these brimming, slow-moving, soul-satisfying lines. Imagine for one moment a story like this minced into octosyllabics. The poet knows better than his critics the length of step which best befits his muse.”

    The publication of Evangeline doubtless marks the period of Mr. Longfellow’s greatest accession of fame, as it probably is the poem which the majority of readers would first name if called upon to indicate the poet’s most commanding work. It was finished upon his fortieth birthday. Two days before, the following lines were written by Mr. Longfellow in his diary:—

    Par un ci-devant jeune homme en approchant de la quarantaine.
  • “Sous le firmament
  • Tout n’est que changement,
  • Tout passe;”
  • Le cantique le dit,
  • Il est ainsi écrit
  • Il est sans contredit,
  • Tout passe.
  • O douce vie humaine!
  • O temps qui nous entraine!
  • Destinée souveraine!
  • Tout change.
  • Moi qui, poète rêveur,
  • Ne fus jamais friseur.
  • Je frise,—oh, quelle horreur!
  • La quarantaine!