The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the Acadian province, in the village of Grand-Pré, live a peaceful farming people who are undisturbed by the wars between the French and British. In a land where there is enough for all, there is no covetousness and no envy, and all live at peace with their neighbors. Benedict Bellefontaine’s farm is somewhat apart from the village. His daughter, Evangeline, directs her father’s household. Although she has many suitors, she favors only one, Gabriel Lajeunesse, the son of Basil, the village blacksmith. Gabriel and Evangeline grew up together, and their fathers are friends.

One fall day, while Benedict rests by the fire and Evangeline sits at her spinning wheel, Basil brings word that the men of the village are to meet at the church the next day. They are to be told the plans of the English, whose ships are riding at anchor in the harbor. That night, Benedict and Basil sign the wedding contract that will unite their children. Then, while their fathers play checkers, Evangeline and Gabriel whisper in the darkening room until it is time to say goodnight.

The next morning everyone, including the folk from the outlying districts, comes to the village to hear the announcement the English commander is to make. They wear holiday dress, as if the occasion is one for celebration. At the Bellefontaine farm there is special joy, for with a feast and dancing the family and their guests are celebrating the betrothal of Gabriel and Evangeline. In the afternoon the church bell rings, summoning the men to the church. When they file in, they are followed by the guard from the ship. Outside, the women stand, waiting.

The news the English commander has for the little community renders a crushing blow. By order of the king, their lands, houses, and cattle are forfeited to the British crown, and the entire population of Grand-Pré is to be transported. The men are to consider themselves the king’s prisoners.

The tragic news spreads quickly through the village and to the farm where Evangeline is awaiting Benedict’s return. At sunset she starts toward the church, on her way comforting the downcast women she meets. Outside the church where the men are imprisoned, she calls Gabriel’s name, but there is no answer.

The men are held prisoner for five days. On the fifth day, the women bring their household goods to the shore to be loaded onto boats, and late that afternoon the men are led out of the church by their guards. Evangeline, standing at the side of the road, watches them coming toward her. She is able to comfort Gabriel with the assurance that their love will keep them from harm, but for her father she can do nothing. In five days he has aged greatly.

Basil and his son are put on separate ships, and Evangeline remains on the beach with Benedict. That night, the villagers of Grand-Pré watch their homes go up in flames and listen to their animals bellowing as the barns burn. Turning from the sight, Evangeline sees that her...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Acadia. French colony in eastern Canada that overlapped the regions that became Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and other areas. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem opens during the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), when many French-speaking Acadians fled or were driven out of the region by the British.

*Grand Pré

*Grand Pré. Largest Acadian village in Minas Basin, an inlet on the western shore of Nova Scotia, was the real home of the greatest number of French immigrants to Canada. The poem begins with a description of the lush, fertile valley surrounding Grand Pré, which it depicts as the home of peaceful shepherds and gentle farmers who live in thatched-roofed houses.

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. When Longfellow wrote his poem, this great river was the major highway of the United States, transporting goods and people from north to south. As Longfellow’s characters row down the Mississippi, a panorama of America unfolds. Many Acadian families actually traveled down the river searching for places to live. Many settled in southern Louisiana, where their descendants became known as Cajuns.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. A benchmark study of Longfellow as a man and writer. Devotes a full chapter to an articulate and insightful exploration of Evangeline, including narrative structure, characters, settings, symbols, themes, and verse form. Places the poem squarely in the idyllic tradition.

Chevalier, Jacques M. Semiotics, Romanticism and the Scriptures. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990. The only book-length examination of the poem. Offers a sophisticated and very detailed line-by-line analysis of the prologue and first canto of book 1. Concentrates on scriptural and romantic elements in light of the poem’s role as a variation on the myth of the lost paradise.

Hirsh, Edward L. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964. Analyzes Evangeline in the context of Longfellow’s other long narrative poems, especially Hiawatha and The Courtship of Miles Standish. Emphasis on Longfellow’s tendency to mythologize his subjects and his preference for pastoral coloring.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Poetry and Prose. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. Offers focused analyses of Longfellow’s major works, including a full chapter on Evangeline. Especially valuable in its treatment of Longfellow’s original authorial intentions and his alterations to and expansion of the text. Good notes and suggestions for further reading.

Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: Twayne, 1964. Contains one chapter on Longfellow’s verse narratives, including Evangeline. An adequate introductory treatment of the author’s sources and influences, and the poem’s meter, plot, and critical reception. Argues that Evangeline provides a sentimental journey that even a cynical modern reader may find attractive.