It is difficult in an unsentimental age to appreciate and understand the enormous appeal that Evangeline had for readers in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s time. It was hailed from the beginning as a truly “American” poem, and its success was virtually unlimited. This pastoral romance relates an odyssey of sorts and dwells on the ideas of searching, wandering, and Evangeline’s constancy.
Longfellow sought to imbue the poem with a classical flavor within the framework of the American landscape. It is enriched with elaborate descriptions of the historic American drive toward the West and the South. The rivers, forests, and prairies about which Longfellow wrote were the imaginative product of his reading and research, for most of the places the poem mentions he had never seen.
The basic story of Evangeline revolves around the cruel displacement of the Acadians by the British. Longfellow does not elaborate on the inequities of the British mandate to drive people from their homes; he is more interested in achieving a melancholy emotional tone by concentrating on the reality of exile and the frustration of searching. The mood is a tranquil one. Longfellow looks at his two lovers from a distance, creating a hazy image of things far away; much of the poem’s action takes place at night, or by moonlight.
There is no doubt that the constancy and patience of Evangeline were appealing to Longfellow and his readers. Evangeline’s loyalty and fidelity play a major role in the structuring of this romance. While Evangeline is the embodiment of feminine virtue, tenderness, and chastity, she does not have the dimension of a heroic figure. The poem suggests minor poetic form, certainly not epic grandeur. Evangeline and Gabriel are not realistic lovers but exponents of the romanticism of the times.
Longfellow felt that the English world was not sufficiently awakened to the beauty of the classical hexameter, so he decided from the beginning to employ this meter in Evangeline. There are difficulties with the use of this meter in English, and Longfellow was aware of them, yet he painstakingly sought to adhere to this classical measure. The meter does add an intrinsic charm that is appropriate to the tale, despite the sometimes monotonous quality of the lines. Longfellow’s use of hexameter triggered a new interest in the meter and inspired much critical evaluation of its use and value.