"Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better. All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal."
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from his novel, Kavanagh (1849)
A masterpiece of American literature, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) is a narrative poem of romantic longing set against a tragic political injustice. It tells a story of the racial and religious persecution of a minority who are dispossessed by an imperial power and required to make their way in a new land. British troops forcibly relocated the French Catholics from the little Canadian village of Grand-Pré on the wedding day of two young lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel. Before they can be married, the British fleet arrives, burns the town, and forces the peace-loving Acadian farmers into ships. In the chaos, Evangeline and her fiancé become separated. Most of the poem then describes her search for Gabriel, which takes her all over America: down the Mississippi river, across the Nebraska prairie, into the Ozark Mountains, through the Michigan forests, and finally to Louisiana, where her people ultimately become the Cajuns (a name derived from the word “Acadian”). Weary from her journey, she eventually becomes a nun, giving up hope for a reunion with Gabriel. But years later as an old woman, Evangeline finds her beloved on his deathbed. After her death, they are buried side by side in a Catholic churchyard.
This tale may seem melodramatic, but it is loosely based on a true story. In 1840, Longfellow first heard it from an Episcopal priest in the company of his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. On several other occasions, this priest had already urged Hawthorne to use the story for a novel, but Longfellow asked Hawthorne if he might use it for a poem. The poet reputedly declared it “the best illustration of faithfulness and the constancy of woman that I have ever heard of or read.”
Although he was never primarily interested in precise historical accuracy, Longfellow nevertheless researched le Grand Dérangement of 1755, or The Great Upheaval, from T.C. Haliburton's History of Nova Scotia (1829). By the time of Evangeline's 1847 publication, most of the world had forgotten the deportation of some 7,000 innocent Canadians between 1755 and 1762. The poem’s sensational popularity not only told the world of the Acadians’ exile but also brought its author nationwide fame.
Evangeline is an extraordinary work of literary experimentation. Longfellow’s unprecedented mastery of versification grew from his attempts to recreate classical poetic meters in English. For about 500 years, English-language poets had been trying to make the dactylic hexameter of Latin and Greek work in English—the ancient meter in which Homer and Virgil wrote. Longfellow achieved the only conspicuous success in English. In Evangeline, he created a tune for English that had never existed before in verse.
"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest."
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from his poem, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847)