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.
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 This work helped introduce literate America to a number of contemporary European authors previously unpublished in English.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.
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.
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.