Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924
Evangeline had its origin in an anecdote. A South Boston man named Connolly urged Nathaniel Hawthorne to write the tale of a young woman who was exiled from Nova Scotia and searched for her lost love, only to find him a moment before his death. Hawthorne never picked up the subject, but Longfellow did. He believed that it was a wonderful tale of a woman’s fidelity; it was a perfect subject for his gentle sensibility. He also used historical sources, so the basic tale and the historical frame were given to the poet.
Evangeline begins with a brief introduction in which Longfellow evokes the “forest primeval” that remains while the hearts “beneath it” have vanished. His poem has a “woman’s devotion” as its epic theme and an Eden, “Acadie, home of the happy,” as its beginning scene. The village of Grand Pre in the land of Acadie is a “fruitful valley” filled with happy peasants from Normandy, France. Evangeline, “the pride of the village,” is a maiden of seventeen living with her aged farmer father, Benedict. Her life is a pastoral one; she helps the workers in the field and directs the household of her father.
The first scene in the poem is the visit of Basil the blacksmith and his son, Gabriel, to Benedict. Their purpose is to sign a contract of betrothal between Evangeline and Gabriel. The joyous occasion is threatened, however, by news of a British warship in the bay. Father LeBlanc believes that they are safe because they are “at peace.” Basil, however, objects, saying that in this world “might is the right of the strongest!” The old notary reconciles these positions with a tale about a maid unjustly accused of stealing a necklace of pearls; as she is on the scaffold about to be hanged, a bolt of thunder reveals the “necklace of pearls interwoven” in a magpie’s nest. The tale obviously mirrors that of Evangeline: An innocent girl is freed from an her unjust oppression, although only at the end of a long trial.
The next day is one of feasting, especially in the house of Benedict, but this is broken by the arrival of British troops. The language changes from the soft descriptions of nature to legal language: “By his Majesty’s orders . . . all your lands, and dwellings, and cattle of all kinds/ Forfeited be to the Crown.” The settlers are to be “transported to other lands.” In the rush to depart, Gabriel is separated from Evangeline. Evangeline has other problems, however; her father cannot bear the thought of being separated from his land and dies of age and sorrow.
The second part of the poem deals with Evangeline’s search for Gabriel. She descends the established settlements of early America to the Mississippi River and the bayous of Louisiana. She hears news of Gabriel, but she always seems to miss him. She has a guide, Father Felician, who attempts to assuage her sorrow and lead her to her beloved. Longfellow effectively conveys the mysteriousness of America at this time in the resonant names of places, rivers, and Indian tribes. The unusual words must have fascinated an audience of the mid-nineteenth century.
Evangeline finds Basil the blacksmith in Louisiana, but Gabriel “is only this day” departed. Basil is happy in Louisiana, as it is a more fertile land than Acadie and there is no winter; however, Evangeline yearns for Gabriel. Basil leads her into Indian country to search for Gabriel; they come upon a Shawnee maiden who leads them to the Mission of the Black Robe. The Shawnee maiden, after hearing the tale of Evangeline, tells her of Indian myths that mirror her tale. Longfellow uses the Indian tales as parallels and contrasts to Evangeline’s tale. However, the fatalism of the Indian myths is very different from the Christian providence that dominates the main tale.
The priest at the mission tells Evangeline that Gabriel had been there six days before. He had departed, saying he would return to the mission. Evangeline decides to wait. When the seasons pass and he does not return, however, she goes in search of him in the “Michigan forests.” Evangeline finds another refuge in a Moravian community and finally settles in Philadelphia, where the gentle Quakers are dominant. She becomes a Sister of Mercy, nursing the sick and comforting the dying. In the hospital, she notices a man dying of fever. Suddenly, the decrepit man assumes “once more the forms of [his] earlier manhood.” She cries “Gabriel! O my beloved!” and he calls to his mind:
Green Acadian meadows, with sylvan rivers among them,Village, and mountain, and woodlands; and walking under their shadow,As in the days of her youth, Evangeline rose in his vision.
While Evangeline has the power to convey Gabriel back to his earlier and happy life, she does not have the power to save him. He dies in her arms. Evangeline does not complain about this cruel trick of fate, but “meekly” accepts it: “Father, I thank thee!” Evangeline does find her beloved, even if it is at the moment of his death. Longfellow’s world is one of affirmation, not doubt.
One reason that Evangeline is no longer popular is the passivity of the main character. She undergoes terrible trials but never seems to lose her optimism. The reader does not see any internal conflict, only a chain of accidents that separate the pair. Her affirmation at the seeming irony of discovering Gabriel on his deathbed rings hollow in the twenty-first century.