In a primeval forest once dwelt the Acadian farmers. It is in their vanished village of Grand-Pré that a great and mournful tale of Love sprung forth.
Part the First
The village is in a fruitful and beautiful valley. The houses are strongly-built amid the fields of flax. Maidens spin, the parish priest wanders pleasantly down the streets followed by children, and laborers come home from the fields on peaceful summer evenings. All love God and their fellow men; none is rich, none poor.
Benedict Bellefontaine is the wealthiest farmer and lives with his seventeen year-old daughter Evangeline. She has a “celestial beauty” and walks serenely; she seems blessed by God. Their house is stately and stout, and many young men come calling at its door for Evangeline. But she only has time for one young man: Gabriel, the son of Basil the Blacksmith, Benedict’s closest friend. Gabriel and Evangeline played together as children, and as they grew older, their love ripened.
Nature foretells a cold winter but the signs of peace are on the land. Twilight descends and the herds come home. The dog follows the cattle and the cows patiently stand to be milked. On this evening Evangeline and her father are sitting indoors, cozy and warm. Steps sound at the door and Basil and Gabriel enter.
Basil and Benedict talk about the English ships that have anchored at the bay with their cannons visible. Benedict muses that perhaps they are there for a friendly purpose, and that as the villagers are in the middle of fields and flocks they are safer than their forefathers had been.
A notary arrives. This man, Father Leblanc, is old and venerable, wisdom and patience emanating from his visage. Basil asks if he has any news about the English, and Father Leblanc tells an old and familiar tale of how God redeemed a young woman who was to die unjustly.
He ends his story and officiates the marriage of Gabriel and Evangeline, blessing the young lovers. The evening passes happily, and Basil and Gabriel depart a few hours later. After they leave Evangeline works on her dower, which is linen and other precious woven-stuffs. As she sleeps Gabriel watches below her window.
The next day the sun rises on the harmonious village. People throng the streets, laughing and talking pleasantly. They gather to celebrate the marriage; music fills the air and people dance merrily.
Suddenly a drum beats loudly and English soldiers march from their ships to the church where the revelers are gathered. The commander silences the clanging drums and speaks to the crowd, telling them that all of their lands and cattle and dwellings are henceforth forfeited to the Crown and they will be expelled from the land and transported to other provinces. Like a gathering storm, the people break out into sorrow and fury. Basil curses the English and is thrown to the ground.
Father Felician tries to calm the crowd, asking them to remember “lessons of love and forgiveness.” In the evening church service people fall to their knees and pray.
The news spreads from village to village, accompanied by wails and fears. Evangeline is affected as well, and eventually wanders back into the village and peers into the now-silent church. She calls for Gabriel but he does not answer. When she returns home she finds herself alone there as well, and everything seems terrifying and dreary. Only the thunder and lightning reminding her of God in heaven soothes her soul.
Five days after the commander’s announcement the Acadians travel down to the seashore with their possessions. Guards march along with them and the mood is sorrowful. Evangeline finds Gabriel and they clasp each other, promising to stay true.
All is disorderly and tumultuous on the shore, and family members are separated from one another. Gabriel and Basil are put on a different ship than Evangeline and her father. After they depart, those who are left on shore have to remain for the night. The priest moves from fire to fire to console the Acadians. He sits with Evangeline and the two cry together.
Suddenly a red light and curling strands of smoke appear in the distance. The wind brings bits of burning thatch down to the beach, and the Acadians realize in horror that their village is burning. A clamor arises as people wail and animals run amok. Evangeline glances at her father and sees that he has died. She swoons over him.
In the morning she tells those gathered around him that he ought to be buried here by the sea. Following this, the loading of the ships begins again.
Part the Second
Years have passed since the burning of Grand-Pré. The Acadians have landed on many separate coasts, “scattered were they, like flakes of snow.” They are friendless, wandering about lands in the north and the south.
Among them is a maiden who waits patiently. She is lovely and young but careworn. Her fever of love carries her about, sometimes leading her to churchyards and gravestones and to people who tell her that yes, they have seen Gabriel but he has gone to the prairie or has gone to Louisiana. Some counsel her to give up and find another lover, but the priest, her old friend and confessor, consoles her and tells her to continue her labor of love “till the heart is made godlike.” Evangeline thus continues to wait.
One May a band of Acadian exiles, including Evangeline and Father Felician, travel down the Mississippi past Ohio searching for their kin. They glide by the cottages of slaves, lagoons, somber forests, and wavy mosses. The land is silent and dreamlike, and their hearts are filled with foreboding. Evangeline, though, is sustained by a vision that Gabriel is near.
The boat sails on through the gloom. One oarsman blows his bugle, breaking up the silence. No one replies except for the crane and the alligator. One day they reach the lakes of the Atchafalaya. All is heady and brilliant, with small islands filled with flowers crowding their vision. They pause to sleep, and Evangeline’s soul is filled with hope.
Near them but unseen, a youth speeds his little boat across the water. His face is thoughtful and careworn; it shows years of waiting and mourning. At this time Evangeline wakes and tells Father Felician she has a sense Gabriel is near. She apologies for her flight of fancy but he tells her “therefore trust to thy heart.”
The journey continues into Louisiana. The sun begins to set, spreading fire throughout the land. Evangeline feels a sense of sweetness steal over her. A mockingbird sings wildly, moving from lamentation to madness. They also hear a horn and cattle in the distance.
There is a herdsman's house near the river. It is surrounded by flowers and trees and fields, and is silent in the evening. Its inhabitant, whose face is “broad and brown” and who wears a deerskin doublet while perched on a horse with a Spanish saddle and stirrups, comes down to meet the Acadians. He sees the young woman and the priest as they advance, and they realize it is Basil the Blacksmith. They embrace and weep and he says that Gabriel just left. His son has been troubled and restless and no one can help him, so he went to trade with the Spaniards, then follow Indian trails into the Ozarks. He suggests they can catch up with him, so they plan to depart.
That night, though, they take refuge in Basil’s house. Michael the Fiddler plays and everyone feasts and celebrates. Basil officially welcomes his wandering friends and speaks of the merits of this new land: there is opportunity for everyone and no king to drive them out. All embrace as friends and spend the evening dancing.
Evangeline disappears into the garden, overcome by the sorrows conjured by old memories. She cries out for her beloved. Nature seems to counsel her to be patient.
The travelers begin their journey the next morning, following young Gabriel “blown by the blast of fate like a dead leaf over the desert.”
In the far West there is a land of mountains, deep ravines, winding rivers, windswept deserts, and flowing prairies. Wild animals roam and Native Americans make it their home. Gabriel is here with his hunters and trappers, and Evangeline and Basil with their Indian guides are behind him.
One evening an Indian woman, a Shawnee returning to her people, joins their campfire. She feasts with them and after the men go to bed, sits and tells Evangeline the story of her own life, loves, and pains. Evangeline weeps with empathy. The woman continues with stories of others' lives, weaving spellbinding and dreamy tales and creating a web of enchantment. A nameless fear creeps into Evangeline’s heart and she wonders if she is chasing a phantom.
The journey continues and they come across a Jesuit Mission. Evangeline is optimistic and they proceed to the rural chapel. The priest welcomes them into his wigwam and she tells them her sad story. He says he has seen Gabriel; the young man went north but plans to return to the mission. Evangeline says she will wait for him there, and Basil returns home.
The days pass, and eventually the seasons pass. Gabriel does not return. Finally Evangeline bids the mission farewell and returns home to the Michigan forests. The years now pass. The maiden is seen wandering the lands like a phantom. She is old and gray, her youth and beauty having been replaced by something graver.
Finally she comes to Pennsylvania and lives among the peaceful Quakers; they remind her of her own people and her Acadian past. Gabriel lives on in her heart and she spends her life ministering to the needs of others. She wishes only to join her Savior, and acts now as a Sister of Mercy.
One year a plague falls upon the city and it is as if “death flooded life, and, o’erflowing its natural margin / Spread to a brackish lake, the silver stream of existence.” Evangeline travels from bedside to bedside and people take heart when they gaze up into her celestial face.
She comes to one bedside and a sense of wonder arrests her. She shudders and a cry of anguish escapes her lips. She sees Gabriel, hot and flushed with the fever of the dying, lying on the pallet. He is sinking into death but hears her voice. A vision of the young bride fills him and he tries to utter her name. She kneels and kisses him. His eyes are sweet and light but the light suddenly vanishes.
Evangeline meekly thanks God; all of the waiting is now over.
The lovers’ graves are side-by-side. They sleep while life goes on around them. In the forest primeval and along the shores of the Atlantic only a few of the Acadians' descendants remain.
Evangeline is Longfellow’s first epic poem and the work that cemented his literary fame. It is a tragic story of parted lovers set against the backdrop of the expulsion of the Acadians from modern-day Nova Scotia by the British. The Acadians were French who had settled there beginning in 1604. There were about 12,000-18,000 by the mid-18th century and they lived peacefully. As they were considered British subjects due to England’s territorial expansion and claims, when they refused to take up arms against the French they were exiled from their lands in what was called “le Grand Dérangement.” Most of the Acadians ended up in Louisiana where they formed the basis of Cajun culture, but they went many other places as well.
It was Reverend Horace Conolly, a friend of Longfellow’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had heard of a story about parted lovers during the exile and had passed it along to both Hawthorne and Longfellow; Hawthorne had little interest in writing about it but Longfellow was intrigued and decided to work on a poem about the lovers’ plight.
After Longfellow decided to take up the story he began his research, as he’d never been to Acadia or even places like Louisiana or the West. He read Halliburton’s History of Nova Scotia as well as many other works on the Acadians. The descriptions of Acadia are somewhat misleading, for it is mostly great salt marshes rather than the now-famous “forest primeval” of his imagination. He consulted annals about the 1793 plague in Philadelphia and visited a diorama of the Mississippi. He read other books about the American landscape, such as Sealsfield’s Life in the New World and Fremont’s account of his visit to the Rocky Mountains. He even looked at Audubon’s book on birds to accurately describe the sounds of the birds in his poem. The process of writing the poem was certainly tedious for Longfellow; at one point he even told someone “Evangeline is so easy for you to read because it was so hard for me to write.”
In terms of the poem’s style, it is written in unrhymed dactylic hexameter to imitate the Greek and Latin classics of epic poetry. It is divided into two parts, the first being the characters’ experiences in Acadia and during the exile, the second being Evangeline’s wanderings and her attempts to find Gabriel. In the first section Longfellow’s goal is to create a near-utopia out of Acadia. He describes the most gorgeous, lush, and serene natural setting and then the virtuous, egalitarian residents of the village. Everyone lives in harmony with each other, with Evangeline being the exemplar of grace, virtue, faith, and beauty. She is not a particularly realistic character, mostly embodying various clichés of 19th century ideals of femininity; but well-developed, psychologically complex characters is not Longfellow's goal. Critic Naomi Griffiths writes, “There is no vibrant spark of humanity that makes any one of the cast memorable in his or her right. It is the theme and the setting, rather than the distinctiveness of the lovers, their families and friends, that creates the drama of the poem…by far the greater part of the poem centers upon the fate of the community and it is in the last sections alone that turn upon the destiny of Evangeline and Gabriel.” Evangeline is a symbol of the suffering of all the Acadians, and while her individual fate is tragic, her experiences are much more than that.
In order to develop this theme, Longfellow moves between describing the utopian, quiet, and balanced Acadian community with the tumult and volatility of the arrival and subsequent actions of the English. The people caught up in these events are not great heroes; they are people pushed and pulled by fate, by forces beyond their control. Evangeline’s acceptance of this fact and her concomitant patience, waiting, and serenity constitute the moral of the story; similarly, Basil’s speech to the exiles counsels acceptance and grace.
The amount of detailed description and the length of the poem may put off some modern readers, but Longfellow’s rich similes, metaphors, and mesmerizing, dreamlike descriptions of the valleys of Acadia, the bayous of Louisiana, and the sheer precipices of the West are what give the poem a great deal of power.