Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Essay

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The following entry presents criticism of Longfellow's poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie. For information on Longfellow's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 2 and 45.

Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, published in 1847, was Longfellow's first long piece of narrative poetry. The poem won Longfellow much acclaim and is thought to be one of the most widely read American poems of the nineteenth century. With its sentimental tone, lyrical grace, and memorable story line, it left an indelible mark in the American literary canon.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, an acquaintance of Longfellow's, introduced the young author to the true-life story of the Acadians, a group of French colonists who had settled in Nova Scotia. The expulsion of the Acadians from their homes by the British provides the basis for Evangeline. Some historians now assail the accuracy of the facts presented by Longfellow, but the narrative became the accepted version of events for the Acadians and much of the world.

Biographical Information

At the time of writing Evangeline, Longfellow was already well known for several shorter poems and a novel, Hyperion, A Romance (1839). For twenty-five years, he was the Smith Professor of Modern Languages and department chairman at Harvard. He traveled extensively in Europe and was fluent in a number of languages. This lifelong passion for Europe and the writing of the Continent resulted in the tome-like Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), for which he supplied many of the translations. This work helped introduce literate America to a number of contemporary European authors previously unpublished in English.

Longfellow was forty years old when Evangeline was published. The author had watched his first wife, Mary, die in 1835 after a brief illness during an extended trip to Europe. He met his second wife, Fanny Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy Boston family, on the same trip but did not marry her until 1843.

Plot and Major Characters

Based on a true story, Evangeline takes place in the French colony of Acadie, in Nova Scotia, in 1655. The colony is predominantly made up of farmers and fishermen who live a simple and virtuous life. The citizens face a major upheaval after France cedes control of the colony to the English and the new government votes to deport the restless population. The Acadians scatter across the globe, many relocating to Louisiana, Quebec, France, and the Maritime Provinces off Canada's coast. Longfellow fictionalizes the events, and in his version, prior to the dispersion of the Acadians, Benedict Belle-Fontaine had betrothed his daughter, Evangeline, to Gabriel, the son of Basil, the blacksmith. Gabriel is forced onto a ship and set out to sea, while his beloved Evangeline is adopted by a family that settles in Maryland. Evangeline, or “God's little angel,” enlists the help of Father Felician in her search for Gabriel, but to no avail. Upon failing in her quest, she becomes a “Sister of Mercy,” dedicating her life to others. Years later, in a period of high pestilence, she finally rejoins her lost love at his deathbed.

Major Themes

The real story of the Acadians was rife with political and social issues, including discrimination, persecution, and cultural genocide. These issues served as the impetus for Longfellow's writing of Evangeline and they play a major role in the poem. The poem's primary themes, however, are romance and sentiment, as evidenced by the star-crossed and ill-fated love affair between Evangeline and Gabriel.

Critical Reception

At the time of its publication critics hailed Evangeline for its lyrical style and moving story. Hawthorne was so impressed that he said he was nearly tempted to write a history of Acadie, for the land and its people had been so vividly depicted in Longfellow's poem. Longfellow's reputation rose throughout his life, culminating during a tour of Europe during which he was received by many foreign dignitaries, including Charles Dickens, the Prince of Wales, and Queen Victoria. The crowning accolade came in 1884, when a handsome bust of Longfellow, presented by “his English admirers,” was mounted in the Poet's Corner of historic Westminster Abbey. Longfellow is still the only non-British author to be represented in that famous gallery.

After his death, Longfellow's reputation suffered, for many of the same reasons that accounted for his popularity. With the rise of realism and modernism, his Romantic and Victorian prose quickly fell from favor. Recent critics have emphasized his dedication to foreign languages and cultures and his belief that American literature should borrow from other literatures. Longfellow employs this technique in Evangeline, as Arnd Bohm and Kirsten Silva Gruesz have pointed out. Early criticism praises the style of Evangeline, while later criticism dismisses it or excuses its simplicity in favor of focusing on its themes.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Outre-Mer; A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. 2 vols. (travel sketches) 1833-34

Hyperion, a romance. By the author of “Outre-Mer” (novel) 1839

Voices of the Night (poetry) 1839

Ballads and Other Poems (poetry) 1842

Poems on Slavery (poetry) 1842

The Spanish student. A play, in three acts. (verse drama) 1843

Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (narrative poetry) 1847

Kavanagh, A Tale (novel) 1849

The Seaside and the Fireside (poetry) 1850

The Golden Legend (verse drama) 1851

The Song of Hiawatha (narrative poetry) 1855

The Courtship of Miles Standish, and Other Poems (poetry) 1858

Prose Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Complete in two volumes. 2 vols. (narrative poetry) 1858

Tales of a Wayside Inn (narrative poetry) 1863

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri / translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 3 vols. [translator] (poetry) 1865

Flower-de-Luce (poetry) 1867

The New England Tragedies … I. John Endicott; II. Giles Corey of Salem Farms (verse dramas) 1868

The Divine Tragedy (verse drama) 1871

Aftermath (poetry) 1872

*Christus, A Mystery. 3 vols. (verse dramas) 1872

Three Books of Song (poetry) 1872

The Hanging of the Crane (with illustrations) (poetry) 1875

The Masque of Pandora and Other Poems (poetry) 1875

Kéramos and Other Poems (poetry) 1878

Ultima Thule (poetry) 1880

In the Harbor, Ultima Thule, Part II (poetry) 1882

The Complete Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 11 vols. (poetry, dramas, novels, travel sketches, and translations) 1904

The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (letters) 1966

*Includes The New England Tragedies, The Divine Tragedy, and The Golden Legend.

American Literary Magazine (review date 1848)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie; by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” in American Literary Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3, March, 1848, pp. 172-83. Reprinted in Longfellow among His Contemporaries: A Harvest of Estimates, Insights, and Anecdotes from the Victorian Literary World and an Index, by Kenneth Walter Cameron, Transcendental Books, 1978, pp. 20-23.

[In the following review, the author summarizes the plot of Evangeline and provides analysis of Longfellow's use of hexameter.]

A poem from Longfellow is sure to be welcomed, and what is better, is sure to be read; unless indeed it is a drama. Evangeline is a simple story, prettily told in a novel style of verse. The incidents and the personages—we can hardly call them characters—are few. The story opens about 1655, in Nova Scotia, or Acadie. The French inhabitants of that colony were a quiet, agricultural race. They lived in great harmony together, forming a community in which simplicity, piety and friendship ruled. They were so pure in their morals that, since the foundation of their colony, there had been no instance where a woman had lost her honor. When a young man married, the colony joined to build him a house.

Thus dwelt together in love these simple Acadian farmers,
Dwelt in love to God and man. Alike were they free from
Fear that reigns with the tyrant, and envy, the vice of republics.
Neither locks had they to their doors, nor bars to their windows;
But their dwellings were open as day, and the hearts of the owners.
There the richest was poor, and the poor lived in abundance.

By the peace of Utrecht the country had been ceded by the French to the English. The Acadians, however, at their own desire, were permitted to be considered as neutrals between these powers. Still their origin, their language and their religion, all bound them to the French. It is not strange, therefore, that when hostilities again arose between these two nations, the Acadians at first secretly, and at last, at the siege of Beau Sejour, openly aided their countrymen. Irritated by this, the English government determined to remove the Acadians from their homes, and to transport them to the different English colonies. For this purpose an English fleet was sent, sufficiently powerful to prevent resistance.

While this fleet is lying in the mouth of the Gaspereau, and before the intention of the government is known, Benedict Bellefontaine, the father of Evangeline, “the wealthiest farmer of Grand Pre,” meets at his house with Basil, the blacksmith, to betroth Evangeline with Gabriel, the blacksmith's son. Gabriel and Evangeline,

                                                                                                    from earliest childhood
Grew up together as brother and sister; and Father Felician,
Priest and pedagogue both in the village, had taught them their letters,
Out of the self-same book.

Together in childhood,

          Oft on sledges in winter, as swift as the swoop of the eagle,
Down the hill-side bounding, they glided away o'er the meadow.
Oft in the barns they climbed to the populous nests on the rafters,
Seeking with eager eyes that wondrous stone, which the swallow
Brings from the shore of the sea to restore the sight of its fledglings.

The marriage contract is signed; the old men discuss the meaning of the order issued by the English commander that all the men of the village are to meet on the morrow in the church; and at last, after a friendly game at draughts, Basil and his son leave, and the farmer's household retire to rest. Morning comes and brings with it the merry feast of betrothal. At noon the unsuspecting villagers assemble in the church, and learn to their terror the stern resolve of the English government. Escape is impossible, for the church is guarded by soldiers. After a few days the women and children are assembled on the shore, and the imprisoned men are marched down from the church, still under guard. The embarkation proceeds; but grief is too much for the old farmer; he dies and is buried on the shore. The ships with the exiles sail away,

Leaving behind them the dead on the shore, and the village in ruins.

In the confusion attending this sad expulsion, families were separated; part were carried to one colony, and part to another. Husband was torn from wife, parent from child, brother from sister. Thus in many instances to the pain of exile was added deeper suffering, severing of the deeper ties of life. “It was the hardest case,” said one of the sufferers, “which had happened since our Saviour was on earth.” The colony thus torn from its native soil, and transplanted into other countries, never took root again. Broken hearted, and yet cherishing in their sorrow the hope that the chances of war would at some time restore them to their beloved Acadie, these exiles never mingled with the colonists among whom they were distributed, nor, for the most part, pursued any business. In the end, some found their way to France, and to Canada, and other French colonies; but the greater part died in poverty, in the countries to which they had been transported, “strangers in a strange land.”

Written their history stands on tablets of stone in the church yards.

To return to Evangeline. Her only support now is Father Felician and her heart's deep love. For in the embarkation, Basil and Gabriel have been separated from herself and the priest; and have been carried she knows not where. Her life's task is to seek for them. Every hope in her life has been at once blighted; and yet she cannot relinquish all hope.

          Something there was in her life incomplete, imperfect, unfinished,
As if a morning of June, with all its music and sunshine,
Suddenly paused in the sky, and fading, slowly descended
Into the east again, from whence it late had arisen.

A rumor that Gabriel and his father have found a new home in the west carries her with Father Felician, in company with some others of the Acadian exiles to the great Mississippi. They float down its turbulent waters, and at last

          Slowly they entered the Têche where it flows through the green Opelousas,
And through the amber air, above the crest of the woodland,
Saw the column of smoke that arose from a neighboring dwelling.
Sounds of a horn they heard, and the distant lowing of cattle.

Here they find Basil prosperous and contented: but Gabriel, restless as Evangeline herself, has on the very day of their arrival, set out for the town of Adayes, and thence is going to hunt among the Indians. His boat had met and passed hers, unseen, on the river. The next morning, with fresh hope, Evangeline proceeds, with Basil, to overtake Gabriel; but she meets with fresh disappointment. Everywhere she hears of Gabriel a little in advance, but she cannot overtake him.

          Sometimes they saw or thought they saw the smoke of his camp fire
Rise in the morning air from the distant plain; but at nightfall,
When they had reached the place they found only embers and ashes.

At last they reach the Catholic Mission among the Ozark mountains; and there they learn that Gabriel has been gone but a week, and that he will return in the autumn. Evangeline remains at the Mission, and Basil returns home. But Gabriel does not come; and Evangeline again sets forth to find him,—a hopeless, ever-disappointing, task.

          Fair was she and young when in hope began the long journey;
Faded was she and old when in disappointment it ended.
Each succeeding year stole something away from her beauty,
Leaving behind it broader and deeper the gloom and the shadow.
Then there appeared and spread faint streaks of gray o'er her forehead,
Dawn of another life, that broke o'er her earthly horizon,
As in the eastern sky the first faint streaks of the morning.

For her, thus heart broken, what better refuge than to become a Sister of Mercy—to carry to others the relief which she cannot find for herself? In the city of Penn, therefore,

Where the streets still reëcho the names of the trees of the forest.

she enters upon this humble and holy duty.

          Night after night, when the world was asleep, as the watchmen repeated
Loud through the gusty streets, that all was well in the city,
High at some lonely window he saw the light of her taper.
Day after day, in the gray of the dawn, as slow through the suburbs,
Plodded the German farmer, with flowers and fruit for the market,
Met he that meek, pale face, returning home from its watchings.

At length, in a season of pestilence, amid the dying wretches who are crowded into the almshouse, in the form of an old man with thin, gray locks, she finds her long sought Gabriel. He turns his last look upon her and dies.

          All is ended now, the hope and the fear and the sorrow,
All the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing,
All the dull, deep pain, and constant anguish of patience.

Such is the story of Evangeline; one of great beauty, however much it may suffer in this sketch of it. The poem is not of the highest class; there is no character portrayed, except that of Evangeline, and hers was nothing distinctive. But the beauty of the poem is in its graceful description, and its happy comparisons verging something on prettinesses. As an instance of these last, we venture, perhaps at some hazard with our lady readers, to give the following:

          Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.

Longfellow has, before this,

          Called the flowers, so blue and golden,
Stars, that in Earth's firmament do shine.

And, as that thought was not claimed to be his own, it was not worth while to attempt to make it his by reversing it; as a thief might turn a stolen coat wrong side out.

More beautiful, in our judgment, is the description of the Indian summer in Acadie, rich as it is with pastoral images; of the voyagers down the Mississippi; of the western residence of Basil; of the wondrous prairies.

          Billowy bays of grass ever rolling in shadow and sunshine,
Bright with luxuriant clusters of roses and purple amorphas.
Over them wander the buffalo herds, and the elk and the roebuck;
Over them wander wolves, and herds of riderless horses;
Fires that blast and blight and winds that are weary with travel.
          And over all is the sky, the clear and crystalline heaven,
Live the protecting hand of God inverted above them.

But we have not room to select more passages. We can only hope that those which we have given will prevent any one from being deterred from the perusal of the volume by the unusual metre in which it is written, the classic hexameter.

There is another view in which we wish to consider this poem; and that is as an attempt to introduce this metre into English verse. Longfellow is not the first who has made this attempt. As long ago as the Elizabethan age, Sir Philip Sydney used this metre himself, and encouraged its use in the writings of others. His hexameters, however, and those of his followers, were not, and never could have become, popular, for reasons which we will hereafter endeavor to explain. In modern times hexameters have been used by our poets with greater, but as yet not with general success. Coleridge wrote a few fragments in this measure, and Southey employed it in his Vision of Judgment. Longfellow himself, following the metre of the original, translated Teguer's Children of the Lord's Supper into, what he calls, “the inexorable hexameter.”

But the metre is not yet naturalized in our language; and it is still a hazardous experiment to make it the vehicle of poetry. To use an expressive, though not very polished, phrase, English readers have not yet “got the hang of it.” Both the Latinist and the mere English scholar are puzzled by a metre, which is unlike anything with which either of them are familiar. Indeed it is difficult to say whether an English hexameter sounds more strangely to a classical or to an unclassical ear. Regular blank verse is the only metre without rhyme, which is familiar to one, whose acquaintance with the forms of poetry is confined to our own language. Southey's Thalaba and Shelley's Queen Mab seem to him, in their forms, to be very little more than melodious prose; like, though inferior to, those noble passages of the Psalms, in which the glorious sunlight of the thought shines through the clouds of a prose translation. He is then quite bewildered, when he finds a poem, without rhyme, in which the lines are of different lengths, and each contains more than ten syllables. To add to his perplexity, he is more conversant with iambic metre than with any other. Hence he cannot readily appreciate the dactylic rhythm of the hexameter. He opens Evangeline and reads thus:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks;

and he sees at once that, thus read, it has indeed “the forced gait of a shuffling nag.” Even if, by a little perseverance, he becomes somewhat familiar with the measure, yet he is...

(The entire section is 5520 words.)

North Granville Quarterly (essay date 1865)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evangeline,” in North Granville Quarterly, January, 1865, pp. 208-09. Reprinted in Longfellow among His Contemporaries: A Harvest of Estimates, Insights, and Anecdotes from the Victorian Literary World and an Index, by Kenneth Walter Cameron, Transcendental Books, 1978, pp. 77-78.

[In the following essay, the author gives a summary of Evangeline and examines Longfellow's love of nature as evidenced in the poem.]

Longfellow ranks among the best of our American poets. Ever since his first appearance before the public, he has been slowly growing nearer and nearer the popular heart. To-day he stands as the representative of our own poets....

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

W. Sloane Kennedy (essay date 1882)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie,” in Henry W. Longfellow: Biography, Anecdotes, Letters, Criticism, D. Lothrop Company, 1882, pp. 73-79.

[In the following essay, Kennedy gives an account of Longfellow's inspiration for Evangeline.]

Of this poem [Evangeline] upwards of thirty-seven thousand copies were sold in ten years: the whole reading world was full of enthusiasm over it. It was reviewed by The North-American Review, The American Whig Review (in which Poe had published his Raven a few years previous), The New-Englander, The Southern Literary Messenger, Brownson's Quarterly, and The Eclectic. In...

(The entire section is 1911 words.)

“Introductory Note” (essay date 1886)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evangeline: Introductory Note,” in Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886, pp. 7-18.

[In the following essay, the author discusses the impetus for Longfellow's poem Evangeline, examines passages from his diary relating to its composition, and briefly recounts the historical inquiry into actual Acadian events that followed the poem's publication.]

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...

(The entire section is 2997 words.)

John Seelye (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Attic Shape: Dusting off Evangeline,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 21-44.

[In the following essay, Seelye asserts that, despite its metric simplicity, Evangeline stands out as exemplary of its age.]

Longfellow survives largely as a bad example, not a poète maudit but a maudlin poet, afloat on the lachrymose seas of a sentimental age. Still, he does prevail even if his poetry has not endured, and few critics who even now discuss his work are able to dismiss him out of hand. He is, for one thing, so much a part of the 19th-century literary scene, reaching out of the American Renaissance an index finger...

(The entire section is 7565 words.)

Arnd Bohm (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “F. L. von Stolberg's ‘Der Harz' as a Source in the Prologue of Evangeline,” in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Vol. 7, No. 3, July, 1994, pp. 146-49.

[In the following essay, Bohm points out the implications of Longfellow's use of von Stolberg's poem ‘Der Harz’ in Evangeline.]

Shifts in the canon relegate to obscurity writers who were once prominent. Friedrich Leopold von Stolberg (1750-1819) is known today only to specialists of eighteenth-century German literary history, primarily for his participation in the “Storm and Stress” movement (Sturm und Drang), as an acquaintance of Goethe's, and for his intense, mystical...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)

Eric L. Haralson (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mars in Petticoats: Longfellow and Sentimental Masculinity,” in Nineteenth Century Literature, Vol. 51, No. 3, December, 1996, pp. 327-55.

[In the following excerpt, Haralson examines Longfellow's initial popularity and subsequent fall from the literary canon, suggesting that both are due to his “sentimental” masculinity. He also shows that Evangeline broadened Longfellow's scope as a writer.]

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

—“A Psalm of Life” (1838)

It seems strange to have to insist, but Longfellow—not Whitman or...

(The entire section is 6977 words.)

Kirsten Silva Gruesz (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “El Gran Poeta Longfellow and a Psalm of Exile,” in American Literary History, Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 395-427.

[In the following essay, Gruesz explores the politics of translation and literary canonicity in Evangeline.]

The exile given to me I have received as an honor.

Attributed to Dante

I have also been trying to follow Dante in his exile—a hopeless task.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his Journal, 17 March 1870

Amid a sea of celebratory rhetoric surrounding the impending...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Hawthorne, Hildegarde. The Poet of Craigie House: The Story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1936, 238p.

A biography of Longfellow concentrating on events surrounding his literary composition.


Chevalier, Jacques M. Semiotics, Romanticism, and the Scriptures. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990, 364p.

A semiotic approach to Evangeline centering on the biblical origin of its heroine and the history of Acadian culture.

Grant, Jeannette A. Through Evangeline's Country. Boston: Joseph Knight Company, 1894,...

(The entire section is 223 words.)