Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
and OTHER POEMS (1847)
Publisher: Dover Pubns (April 01, 1995)
Measurements: 8.25"(h) x 5.5"(w) x 0.25"(d), 0.2 lbs.
Reviewed by Patrick Killough
(A) For barnesandnoble.com 12/29/2007
Reviewer: Patrick Killough, a recent visitor to Lafayette, Louisiana.
Reviewer's Rating of Longfellow's EVANGELINE: A TALE OF ACADIE: * * * * FOUR STARS
Title of this review: God's Will Is Not Always Pleasant to Contemplate
It is 1755 in British-occupied maritime Canada on the tide-swept Bay of Fundy. On a peaceful autumn evening 17 year old Evangeline Bellefontaine was formally engaged to marry Gabriel Lajeunesse. She was the daughter of the 70 year old widower Benedict Bellefontaine, wealthiest farmer of the village of Grand-Pre. Evangeline's affianced was son of the respected blacksmith Basil Lajeunesse. The young couple had grown up together virtually as brother and sister in French, now English, Acadia/Nova Scotia.
Next morning Evangeline and her father stayed home and received the congratulations of their French-speaking neighbors. Then at noon the governor of the occupying British power summoned all the Acadian men to the village church. He told them that their lands were forfeit to the crown and, on national security grounds, the French Acadians were to be scattered South up and down the 13 British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. Families were torn apart, including Evangeline and Gabriel, and shipped to different colonies. Evangeline's father died of shock before embarking.
For the rest of her very long life Evangeline followed rumors along the trail of Gabriel and his father: to Louisiana, to the Western prairies. In the end, as a Sister of Charity, administering to cholera victims in Philadelphia, Evangeline found her lost love. After a final kiss, Gabriel died in her arms. She did not long survive him. Her last words were, "Father I thank Thee."
Decades earlier on the beach where they were about to part Evangeline had cried:
"Gabriel! be of good cheer! for if we love one another Nothing, in truth, can harm us, whatever mischances may happen!"
What was God's plan for Evangeline and Gabriel? She grew beyond sorrow over lost love into a modern Mother Teresa. He seems to have never recovered from his loss.
You can read this poem aloud from beginning to end in an hour or so. And its unusual dactylic hexameter lines (see sample above) work surprisingly well. Students of the "Cajun Revival" will read EVANGELINE as the founding myth of the French speakers of Southwestern Louisiana. Religious souls will be reminded that behind the Christian cross is the mystery of Christ crucified. -OOO-
Other Titles Recommended:
--Sir Walter Scott: THE LADY OF THE LAKE, MARMION.
--Stephen Vincent Benet: JOHN BROWN'S BODY.
(B) For amazon.com
Title of this review: EVANGELINE and The Inscrutable Will of God
The 1995 Dover paperback EVANGELINE AND OTHER POEMS is a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sampler. It contains ten poems or excerpts, both narrative and lyric. The 1847 narrative EVANGELINE takes up over 80% of the total text. This is not a critical edition. It has only one introductory note, with special attention to the dactylic hexameter verse used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in both EVANGELINE and THE COURTSHIP OF MILES STANDISH. The author's best known example of the dactylic hexameter verse in English (lifted not always happily from classical Greek and Latin) is the first line of EVANGELINE:
"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks..."
This review is about only the poem EVANGELINE: A TALE OF ACADIE.
EVANGELINE is as much a religious poem as Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" or Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland" or "Margaret, Are You Grieving." Like the ILIAD, EVANGELINE's message is that, come what may, the will of God will be done. And like Saint John's Gospel, the message of Longfellow's poem is that God's will can mean that a hero or heroine must undergo undeserved suffering.
The poem begins on the peaceful French speaking shores of Maritime Canada in the autumn of 1755. Generations earlier, rugged pioneers had emigrated from Normandy and wrested a living from Acadia (today's Nova Scotia) on difficult lands bordering the ferocious tides of the Bay of Fundy. Richest of the farmers of the little village of Grand-Pre is the 70 year old widower Benedict Bellefontaine. He has a 17-year old daughter Evangeline. In the evening her engagement to marry a childhood sweetheart is solemnly inscribed by the local notary. Next morning father and daughter open their house to receive the congratulations of neighbors.
Why have British ships anchored offshore the past four days? At noon the men of Grand-Pre find out; they are summoned to assemble in the church by the British military governor, where they are made prisoners pending deportation. On national security grounds they are informed that every last Acadian will be shipped off to British colonies to the South. For France still controls the St. Lawrence River, Quebec, Montreal and much else and Britain regards the conquered Acadians as an alien, disloyal threat to the English-speaking colonies. All Acadian property is forfeit to the Crown. All houses are burned to the ground. Among the men held prisoner are Evangeline's fiance Gabriel Lajeunesse and his anti-British blacksmith father Basil.
The Acadians are essentially apolitical. If the British leave them and their Catholic religion in peace, they are too busy farming and fishing to go to war for or against anybody. But their priest says that somehow this forced migration is the will of God, undeserved and unjust though it be. They must accept it patiently.
A second tragedy is that the deported Acadians are hustled higgledy-piggledy onto the waiting British vessels. Father is separated from daughter, husband from wife, grandparents from grandchildren. Evangeline's father dies of shock on the beach. Like thousands of other Acadians, Evangeline and Gabriel are herded onto different ships and exiled to different colonies. Only Maryland gives any of its Catholic coreligionists something resembling Christian hospitality: not New York, not Virginia. In a few years Spanish Louisiana invites the "Cajuns" to come populate the bayoux. Gabriel and his father migrate to the humid plains of southwestern Louisiana, "the prairies of fair Opelousas." Evangeline, her guide Father Felician from Grand-Pre, and others travel later down the Mississippi following rumors that Gabriel and Basil have settled amid "the lakes of the Atchafalaya." Father and son were indeed there. But Gabriel despairs of ever finding Evangeline and hours before she arrives, sets off as helmsman on a light craft for the American northwest.
"Gabriel was it, who, weary with waiting, unhappy and restless,
Sought in the Western wilds oblivion of self and of sorrow."
He passes near an unseen Evangeline unseen.
Father Felician and Evangeline come to the comfortable house of Basil, now a wealthy Spanish herdsman. He has sent Gabriel to trade with the Spanish and then trap in the Ozarks. Though Basil promises and delivers a rapid pursuit of the just departed Gabriel, the latter is never quite found. Meanwhile Basil Lajeunesse delivers a paean to the glories of the new Acadia that is much quoted around Lafayette, Louisiana in the 21st Century's revival of all things French Canadian in those parts:
"Here no hungry winter congeals our blood like the rivers;
Here no stony ground provokes the wrath of the farmer,"
Alone in the evening Evangeline wanders along forest paths, relishing the fact that they have been so often trod by Gabriel. Here is a new Eden and she is a new Eve. All that is lacking is her Adam; and the trees whisper "tomorrow" and "patience."
Together Basil and Evangeline learn at the Spanish horse-trading town of Adayes that they had missed Gabriel by only one day. Together they struck out after him into the vast prairies. A violently widowed Indian woman told Evangeline tales of phantom lovers and Evangeline began to wonder if she, too, was pursuing a phantom. A Jesuit missionary priest informed them that Gabriel had been with him only six days earlier. He had told the sad story of himself and Evangeline then pushed on. But he promised to return to the mission in the autumn when the hunt was done. So Evangeline lingered there. Week followed week through the seasons:
"Patience!" the priest would say, "have faith, and thy prayer will be answered!"
Decades later, no longer beautiful, Evangeline consciously ceased her search. She felt the call of a new life in William Penn's Philadelphia. Love previously stored up for Gabriel she now showered on strangers.
"Patience and abnegation of self, and devotion to others,
This was the lesson a life of trial and sorrow had taught her."
Evangeline Bellefontaine next followed her Savior for many years as a Sister of Mercy. She became an angel of the poor, a precursor, if you like, of Mother Teresa. Then pestilence struck Philadelphia. On a Saturday morning in summer, Evangeline brought flowers to comfort the dying poor in the almshouse. Suddenly she cried in anguish as she recognized in a nearly dead old man the Gabriel of her youth. For one brief moment her cry and her face returned Adam to the Garden of Eden. The long search was finally over and with it ended the longing that could never be satisfied on this earth.
"And, as she pressed once more the lifeless head to her bosom,
Meekly she bowed her own, and murmured, "Father, I thank thee!"
Gabriel and Evangeline lie side by side, unnoticed, in the small Catholic graveyard of Philadelphia. Other hearts ache. Other hands toil. Thousands of feet plod by. But Gabriel and his Evangeline have completed their journey.
In Canada some few French exiles have trickled back to Acadia and Bel-Pre, including maidens
"And by the evening fire repeat Evangeline's story."
What was God's plan for these two? Why did Evangeline follow Gabriel so faithfully while he fled ever farther away from his happiness? The poem does not say. -OOO-
TAGS: evangeline bellefontaine, gabriel lajeunesse, acadia, cajuns, opelousas, bayou teche.
(c) For epinions.com
Reviewer's Rating of EVANGELINE: * * * * Four Stars
Title of This Review: "No hungry winter congeals our blood."
Dec 31 '07
Like Cajun food, music? Read EVANGELINE. Admire women who love the poor? Read EVANGELINE.
Unrhymed dactylic hexameter verse, sometimes clumsily strung together. A gnawing sense that God deals unfairly.
The Bottom Line
Read EVANGELINE slowly and as much as time permits aloud. Meditate on man's cruelty to man and the mysterious, apparently needlessly cruel and arbitrary ways of God.
In 1847 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a long unrhymed poem about tragic events which had begun over 80 years before. The young heroine Evangeline Bellefontaine and the slightly older hero Gabriel Lajeunesse are fictional. The cruel historical background is real.
In 1755 Britain ethnically cleansed a portion of recently conquered Nova Scotia of several thousand French speaking Roman Catholics called Acadians. Think of Rome, England and Spain expelling Jews and Czechoslovakia doing the same with Sudetanland Germans. In some form or fashion "national" or imperial "security" is the common reason given. Britain herded the Acadians together by the shipload and transported them south to its 13 colonies, none of which wanted to receive the gift. After a few years Spain made many Acadians/Cajuns welcome in southwestern Louisiana.
Longfellow's EVANGELINE imagines what it would have been like for a newly affianced couple to be split up by politics and move about for many years longing for each other. Gabriel seems to have given in to despair and to have wandered aimlessly for decades pining away, pausing one spring to tell his story to a Jesuit priest out on the prairies, moving on, ever on. By contrast, Evangeline enlisted the aid of Gabriel's father when she found him in Lousiana's new Acadia and together they tracked her lover for some years until she finally resigned herself to loss and sublimated her love for one man into love for God and all his needy human creation. She became a Sister of Mercy in Philadelphia.
In a final tending of pestilence victims she found a dying, ancient Gabriel and thanked God for their brief minute of being together one last time.
EVANGELINE abounds in descriptions of nature. The two Acadias, both Canadian and Lousianian, are portrayed as virtual gardens of Eden.
I bought a copy of this inexpensive "sampler" of Longfellow earlier this month in Lafayette, Louisiana while studying the current "francophone revival" going on in the Cajun country of Louisiana. Decades ago I studied near Lafayette and the Cajuns were then widely looked down upon. Not so today. Acadians are proud of their French language and French-immersion schools, their Roman Catholicism, their warm, tight-knit families, their music and their myths, including the legend of Evangeline.
Longfellow anticipated this revival, I think, in lines such as those which Gabriel's newly prospering ranchman father speaks in praise of the new Acadia:
"Welcome once more, my friends, who so long have been friendless and homeless,
Welcome once more to a home, that is better perchance than the old one!
Here no hungry winter congeals our blood like the rivers;
Here no stony ground provokes the wrath of the farmer.
Smoothly the plowshare runs through the soil as a keel through the water.
All the year round the orange-groves are in blossom; and grass grows
More in a single night than a whole Canadian summer.
Here, too, numberless herds run wild and unclaimed in the prairies;
Here, too, lands may be had for the asking, and forests of timber
With a few blows of the axe are hewn and framed into houses."
Why should someone who has never read EVANGELINE now take it in hand?
--It is a seminal document in Cajun history, myth-making and the current revival of Cajun pride, cuisine and cultural pride.
--The poem is also written in an unusual meter for English: the dactylic hexameter favored by Homer and Vergil. By and large, Longfellow pulls these long lines off well. Judge for yourself.
--Thirdly, EVANGELINE is a distinctly and unabashedly religious poem. A wandering grizzly bear is compared to a solitary Carthusian monk. Other religion-rooted metaphors and overtones abound. Every Cajun portrayed is intensely God-oriented. Two priests exhort Evangeline to patience and to believing that God will reward her pure love for Gabriel. A reader ends, however, wondering, with Job, why God sends so much suffering to so many who have done nothing but humbly follow His rules in childlike trust.
A brief note on the Dover Thrift Edition. EVANGELINE takes up 4/5 of the slim text but is only one of ten poems or excerpts from verses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. All are worth dipping into. But be warned: there are no maps to help you understand the wanderings of Evangeline and Gabriel and only one slight "scholarly" note of introduction. This is a good inexpensive edition for the general reader.