I have a low tolerance for museums and poetry, but since we are headed down to Cajun country this week, I wanted to read Longfellow's epic poem. I like some poets, and basically all love poetry (the blushing sensuality of Pablo Neruda, the devotion of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese) because I'm a sucker for love. But in general, poetry elicits the same emotions in me that traipsing through acres of museums do: agitation and impatience.
Evangeline is set during the displacement of the Acadians from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War. These French Canadians were deported to far and various ports... but a big clump of them settled in the bayou country of Louisiana and became the ethnic group known today as Cajuns. (Interesting fact: the word cajun is derived from the word acadian.) So anyway, Longfellow's poem follows the deportation of the Acadians, specifically the young maiden, Evangeline. As Evangeline is about to walk down the aisle to marry her lover, Gabriel, the British, in typical red-coat fashion, burst in upon the ceremonies and demand surrender and deportation. The lovers are wrenched apart, the village is burned, and everyone is forced on to ships that will ferry them to ports unknown.
Evangeline spends the rest of her life trying to find Gabriel; she searches the continent "pursuing a phantom," because in his grief at having lost Evangeline, Gabriel wanders aimlessly as a hunter and explorer. They even frustratingly pass within yards of each other on the misty bayous of the south. (Apparently no one ever taught Gabriel that if you get separated, stay in ONE PLACE and let
your mom Evangeline find you!)
Evangeline goes to Philadelphia, joins the Sisters of Mercy, and nurses citizens during an epidemic. One patient is an old man, jarringly familiar. It is Gabriel, at long last! They cling to each other and he dies in her arms, unable even to utter her name one final time.
OK, I wasn't impressed by this epic and popular poem. I liked the first lines:
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...
I love the word primeval and the comparison of trees to Druids. That really sets the tone for a haunting tale. But it was downhill after that lovely beginning. Maybe that's bad of me: Longfellow was one of the guys on my grandma's wall in a series of portraits called "The Great American Poets." But too bad, Longfellow. I'll stick with your much more entertaining poem "Paul Revere's Ride."
The story is beautiful, and I admit that the ending made me a wee bit emotional. But I think this story would have made a better novel... but of course, I think that a novel would be better than a poem any day.
Grade: 2/5 stars