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Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, is an epic poem by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written in English and published in 1847. The poem follows an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for her lost love Gabriel, set during the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians.
The idea for the poem came from Longfellow's friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow used dactylic hexameter, imitating Greek and Latin classics, though the choice was criticized. It became Longfellow's most famous work in his lifetime and remains one of his most popular and enduring works.
The poem had a powerful effect in defining both Acadian history and identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recent scholarship has revealed the historical errors in the poem and the complexity of the Expulsion and those involved, which the poem ignores.
Evangeline describes the betrothal of a fictional Acadian girl named Evangeline Bellefontaine to her beloved, Gabriel Lajeunesse, and their separation as the British deport the Acadians from Acadie in the Great Upheaval. The poem then follows Evangeline across the landscapes of America as she spends years in a search for him, at some times being near to Gabriel without realizing he was near. Finally she settles in Philadelphia and, as an old woman, works as a Sister of Mercy among the poor. While tending the dying during an epidemic she finds Gabriel among the sick, and he dies in her arms.
Longfellow was introduced to the true story of the Acadians in Nova Scotia by his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne and Longfellow had attended Bowdoin College together, though they were not friends at the time. Years later, in 1837, Hawthorne contacted Longfellow for his opinion on his recently published tales in the North American Review, which Longfellow praised as works of genius; the two became lifelong friends. Hawthorne was not interested in fictionalizing it so Longfellow turned it into a poem after months of studying the histories of Nova Scotian families.
Longfellow, who had never visited the setting of the true story, relied heavily on Thomas Chandler Haliburton's An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia and other books for further background information. He noted his reliance on other sources in his journal on January 7, 1847: "Went to the library and got Watson's Annals of Philadelphia, and the Historical Collections of Pennsylvania. Also, Darby's Geographical Description of Louisiana. These books must help me through the last part of Evangeline, so far as facts and local coloring go. But for the form and the poetry,—they must come from my own brain."
Evangeline was published in book form on November 1, 1847, and by 1857 it had sold nearly 36,000 copies. During this time, Longfellow's literary payment was at its peak; for Evangeline, he received "a net of twenty-five and sixteenths per cent" royalties, believed to be an all-time high for a poet. Longfellow said of his poem: "I had the fever a long time burning in my own brain before I let my hero take it. 'Evangeline' is so easy for you to read, because it was so hard for me to write".
The poem is written in dactylic hexameter, possibly inspired by Greek and Latin classics, including Homer, whose work Longfellow was reading at the time he was writing Evangeline. He also had recently, in 1841, translated "The Children of the Lord's Supper", a poem by Swedish writer Esaias Tegnér, which also used this meter. Evangeline is one of the few nineteenth-century compositions in that meter which is still read today.
Some criticized Longfellow's choice of dactylic hexameter, including poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who said the poem would have been better in a prose style similar to Longfellow's Hyperion. Longfellow was conscious of the potential criticism. When sending a copy of the poem to Bryan Procter, Longfellow wrote: "I hope you will not reject it on account of the metre. In fact, I could not write it as it is in any other; it would have changed its character entirely to have put it into a different measure." Even Longfellow's wife Fanny defended his choice, writing to a friend: "It enables greater richness of expression than any other, and it is sonorous like the sea which is ever sounding in Evangeline's ear". As an experiment, Longfellow reassured himself that he was using the best meter by attempting a passage in blank verse. Even so, while looking over the proofs for a second edition, Longfellow briefly wished he had used a different poetic structure:
It certainly would be a relief to the hexameters to let them stretch their legs a little more at their ease; still for the sake of uniformity I believe they must still sit a while longer with their knees bent under them like travelers in a stage-coach.
The name Evangeline comes from the Latin word "evangelium" meaning "gospel". The Latin word itself is derived from the Greek words "eu"—"good"—and "angela"—"news".
Evangeline became Longfellow's most famous work in his lifetime and was widely read. Contemporary reviews were very positive. A reviewer for the The Metropolitan Magazine said, "No one with any pretensions to poetic feeling can read its delicious portraiture of rustic scenery and of a mode of life long since defunct, without the most intense delight". Longfellow's friend Charles Sumner said he had met a woman who "has read 'Evangeline' some twenty times and thinks it the most perfect poem in the language". Other admirers of the poem included King Leopold I of Belgium. It has been called the first important long poem in American literature.
Prior to the influence of Longfellow's poem, historians generally focused on the British founding of Halifax (1749) as the beginning of Nova Scotia. Longfellow's poem shed light on the 150 years of Acadian settlement that preceded the establishment of Halifax.
The Expulsion was planned and executed by New Englanders and British. Longfellow omitted from the poem New England's responsibility for the event. Through his poem, Longfellow defines the British as responsible for the expulsion and America is cast as a place of refuge. This omission may explain in part why Americans were able to celebrate a poem that was based on a traumatic historic event for which they were significantly responsible. Longfellow's account was later challenged by Francis Parkman in his book Montcalm and Wolfe (1884). Rather than blaming the British, Parkman defined the real problem in expulsion as the French influence on Acadians, particularly by Abbe Jean-Louis Le Loutre. American historian John Brebner eventually wrote New England's Outpost (1927), which identified how instrumental New Englanders were in the expulsion of the Acadians.
The poem had a powerful impact in defining both Acadian history and identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recent scholarship has revealed the historical errors in the poem and the complexity of the Expulsion and those involved, which the poem obscures. For example, Longfellow's poem renders Acadie a utopia and the Acadians as simply a homogeneous, passive, peaceful, innocent people while obscuring the resistance that certain Acadians demonstrated — both politically and militarily — against the British invasion of Acadie.
The poem also led generations of Protestant anglophones to sympathize with the plight of a people whom they often demonized and persecuted for being Catholic. The poem also provided a safe symbolic space for Acadians to develop arguments for more recognition and respect.
In 1920, at Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, Acadians reconstructed the French church with a statue of Evangeline in the courtyard. Almost a decade later, in 1929, a statue of Evangeline — posed for by silent Mexican film star Dolores del Río, who starred in the 1929 film Evangeline — was donated to the town of St. Martinville, Louisiana by the film's cast and crew. In 1934, the first state park in Louisiana was named the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site.
Felix Voorhies wrote the book Acadian Reminiscences : The True Story of Evangeline and other later works of fiction expanded upon the material of the poem, claiming the "real names" of the characters had been "Emmeline LaBiche" (in Longfellow her full name is Evangeline Bellefontaine) and "Louis Arceneaux" (in the poem, Gabriel Lajeunesse). Among sites that claim a relation to these pseudohistorical figures are a house north of Lafayette, Louisiana, which supposedly belonged to Gabriel, and the grave of Emmeline in the Perpetual Adoration Garden & Historic Cemetery in St. Martin de Tours Church Square, on Main Street, St. Martinville (the site having been determined for its convenience by local boosters about the turn of the 20th century). "Evangeline Oak" trees in St. Martinville also lay claim to marking the original meeting place of Emmeline and Gabriel.
Another site claiming to have relation to the historical figures that Evangeline was based upon is the Arceneaux House in Hamshire, Texas, which is marked by a Texas Historical Marker. The house was given to Mary Gadrac Arceneaux, great-great-granddaughter of Louis Arceneaux by her husband.
Evangeline has also been the namesake of many places in Louisiana and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Evangeline is the name of a Parish in Louisiana, a rural community in Prince Edward Island, a residence hall at Louisiana State University, and a small settlement in the Acadian Peninsula in New Brunswick. It is also often used as a street name in Acadian communities. The Evangeline Trail is a historic route in Nova Scotia that traces the Annapolis Valley, ancestral home of the Acadians. Picturesque especially in Summer and Fall, the trail runs from Grand-Pré, site of the first expulsions, south to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia near the original French settlement in North America, Port Royal, Nova Scotia. More than a dozen small Acadian villages line the trail.
There have also been numerous film adaptations of the poem Evangeline. Evangeline was the first Canadian feature film, produced in 1913 by Canadian Bioscope of Halifax. It was shot in the Annapolis Valley and at Grand-Pré. In 1919 Raoul Walsh made a film based on the poem for 20th Century Fox. It was suggested by and starred his wife Miriam Cooper. The film was one of the duo's biggest hits but is now lost. In 1929 Edwin Carewe made a film version starring Dolores del Rio, shot in Louisiana and accompanied by a theme song written by Al Jolson and Billy Rose. Evangeline is also referenced in the 2009 Disney film The Princess and The Frog, wherein a Cajun firefly named Raymond falls in love with Evangeline, who appears as a star. Following his death, they are reunited, and both appear side by side in the night sky.
Evangeline has also been the subject of numerous songs. A popular French song titled "Evangeline" written in 1971 by Michel Conte and originally sung by Isabelle Pierre is based on her story. This song, performed by Annie Blanchard, won the 2006 ADISQ award for "Most popular song". A 1998 musical adaptation of the story was recorded and released on CD, and a 1999 production staged at the Strand Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana was taped and broadcast by PBS in 2000. The poem was also mentioned in the movie Angel Heart, starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro. Robbie Robertson of The Band wrote the song "Evangeline," performed with Emmylou Harris, with Longfellow's character in mind. A half-hour suite of guitar music by guitarist composer Loren MazzaCane Connors based on scenes in the Longfellow story was released as a compact disc titled, "Evangeline" (RoadCone, 1998), with the title track vocal by Suzanne Langille. Indie folk artist Tony Halchak released an EP entitled A Tale of Acadie in 2011 based on the poem but told from Gabriel's point of view.
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