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Attic Shape: Dusting Off Evangeline

ISSUE:  Winter 1984

Longfellow survives largely as a bad example, not a poète maudit but a maudlin poet, afloat on the lachrymose seas of a sentimental age. Still, he does prevail even if his poetry has not endured, and few critics who even now discuss his work are able to dismiss him out of hand. He is, for one thing, so much a part of the 19th-century literary scene, reaching out of the American Renaissance an index finger pointing toward the Genteel Age and beyond, his verse providing the text, his life the example of what poetry and the poet were in America during a time when both had a popular reach. Through parody and persistence, moreover, his metric tales have attained a measure of immortality, an undeniable public memory, being artifacts in our national attic. The tom-tom beat of Hiawatha, “Speak for yourself, John,” “Let us, then, be up and doing,” and the cry, “Excelsior!” ring down the years with the force of a brand-name logo. In our collective recollection the village chestnut tree still spreads and the forest primeval still stands—national preserves and clichés.

That is the problem. Longfellow’s poems, like objects taken from dusty boxes, have a stale magic of remembrance preventing us from seeing them clear, a quality of wear more apt to produce a grimace than a sigh. His poetry belongs on the same shelf with the mass-produced statues by John Rogers, one of which was inspired by The Courtship of Miles Standish, being American themes cast in plaster not from Paris but Germany, an eclectic mix the chief example of which is Evangeline. Greeted in its day as a masterpiece, regarded today as a dated demonstration of misguided metric virtuosity, Evangeline, like Unguentine, seems a patent producer of a slow-fading past, an oleaginous balm with a sweet smell, reminiscent of the sickroom, or, worse, the schoolroom. Because of that unpleasant redolence, it is difficult to read the poem, to separate it from the odor of chalk and floor-oil, the stuffiness of classrooms immemorial and the task of memorizing, which blights recollection. Yet Evangeline does haunt us, a vague ghost adrift on the Mississippi in company with Uncle Tom and Huck Finn, those other refugee symbols of exile and disarray, sad signals that all was not well with the American dream long before it, along with the frontier, went out of business.

In dreams, Longfellow noted in his journal as he composed Evangeline, “all things are possible,” but most of the things that happen in his poem have the quality of nightmare, and even the shape of his kitsch epic is fragmented and episodic. At the center, moreover, is the episode on the Atchafalaya, where Evangeline, her boat moored amid flowers in the shelter of a bower-like isle, dreams of heaven while her betrothed, Gabriel, moves swiftly past in his pirogue, a disjunctive moment central to the meaning and movement of the poem. It is a purely literary event, a signal and tragic coincidence derived from the world of art and placed against a landscape equally artificial. Nothing could be more typical of Longfellow’s mechanic muse, yet the circumstances of the poem’s composition suggest that the episode is more than the crux of the plot, that it is a moment crucial to Longfellow’s development not only as a poet but as an American writer. A definitive register of fate’s design, certifying the heroine’s doom, the episode takes meaning also from Longfellow’s anxieties concerning his proper métier and material.

As an Acadian Ruth, a personification of alienation, the embowered yet accursed American Eve is a projection of the poet himself, enveloped in his prophetic dream, the poem. So, too, is Gabriel, the elusive lover who angel-like troubles the waters in his passing, conveying a quality of desperation born of melancholy, a romantic angst providing a counterpart to Evangeline’s constant faith. When Longfellow first conceived the poem, both it and its heroine were called “Gabrielle,” and in a sense the hero is the dark shadow of his beloved, a doppelgänger, the both containing reflections of the author’s divided consciousness. If we start with that fatal mischance—in medias res—then we can, I think, begin to see Evangeline more clearly than if we begin, once again, with the hackneyed forest primeval and its echoing rhythm pedantic. But in order to start in the middle of the poem it is necessary to begin with the writing of the poem itself, for Longfellow’s struggle with his muse is intrinsic to the terms of Evangeline’s frustrated quest.

Longfellow started to compose the poem that became Evangeline the day after Thanksgiving, 1845, but despite his resolve not “to let a day go by without adding something to it, if it be but a single line,” the “idyll in hexameters” went very slowly, even painfully. The first half of the poem, “Part the First,” took more than a year to write, composition interrupted by irksome academic chores, by the increasing demands of literary correspondence, and by the eye trouble that bothered Longfellow during the early 1840’s. Longfellow’s second marriage certainly relieved him of the sorrows of Werther—as reflected in the autobiographical Hyperion—but it compounded the tensions created by the necessity of supporting himself by teaching, adding the impediments to writing provided by a growing family, which in turn made the likelihood of supporting himself by his pen even less. Where the composition of Hiawatha, surely Longfellow’s single greatest accomplishment, is associated in his journal with the newfound freedom that followed his resignation from Harvard in 1854, the writing of Evangeline is coupled as by a chain to familial and professorial chores. The mood from which the poem so slowly emerged gained a quality of quiet desperation as Longfellow’s dreaded quarantaine approached, a feeling that he had been cheated “of some of life’s fairest hours,” but his anxiety resulted only in writer’s block: “May 20th. Tried to work on Evangeline. Unsuccessful. Gave it up. . . . May 25th. The days die and make no sign. The Castalian fount is still.” The two years following his European honeymoon, 1843—45, had been fruitful enough, but it is typical of 1846 that Longfellow spent much of his time assembling an anthology of other poets’ work, The Estray, to which he contributed his own “Pegasus in Pound,” the title and theme of which perfectly expressed his creative frustrations.

The idea for Evangeline came to Longfellow by reluctant courtesy of Hawthorne, who likewise haunts the journal throughout 1846, an ambivalent figure who, while urging his Bowdoin classmate to resign his professorship, demonstrated by his own irksome customhouse duties the price of freedom from the academic trap. As we know, this was not a productive period for Hawthorne, either, who was also with young wife and child, and who found that the everyday world of customs dissipated the moonlit mood which he depended upon for inspiration. Whatever their differences in terms of personality and artistry, the two writers shared a frustrated quest for creative ease and, equally important, milieu. Shelley may have been aroused to poetry by the odor of drying apples, but Longfellow needed something stronger, and when vacation came in June of 1846, he looked forward to drawing inspiration from sea breezes and the mountain air: “Both Nahant and Stockbridge beckon; and Niagara thunders its warnings and invitation. And now let me see if I cannot bring my mind into more poetic mood by the sweet influences of sun and air and open fields.” But a moonlight drive back from the South Boston shore the next evening, despite the beauty of the scene, brought on only a head cold, and “idly busy days” followed, which found “no advance made in my long-neglected yet dearly loved Evangeline. The cares of the world choke the good seed. But these stones must be cleared away.”


Like the pendulum of his poetic clock, Longfellow in 1846 felt suspended between “Never and Forever,” swinging between “my ideal homeworld of Poetry, and the outer, actual, tangible Prose world,” and his characteristic reaction was to experience his old longing for Europe, the scene of his youthful rambles: “Chanced to cast my eyes this morning upon a map of Italy, where my old route was marked in red,— the red vein of my young life-blood. Instantly I went mad for travel.” This wanderlust was a complex urge, an expression of Longfellow’s deep exotic streak mingled with his conception of what the literary life should be, that blend of travel and creativity which Washington Irving perfectly expressed in his writings and in the popular image of “Geoffrey Crayon,” a situation perilously close to the faerie seas of dilettantism. The only alternative to travel was reading about foreign places, and the journal for 1846 records the books which Frances read aloud to her husband in the evening, not only his old favorites, like the poetry of Keats and the fiction of Jean Paul, but Sue’s Wandering Jew (which Longfellow found tiresome) and Dickens’ current Pictures from Italy.

Dickens’ new book was read in tandem with Goethe’s Italienische Reise, arousing associations which, when coupled with a “lovely summer morning, with merry, loud carol of birds, and the odor of mock-orange streaming in at the windows,” inspired a Keatsian reverie, in which visions of Italy and the Tyrol rose “before me and seem[ed] to draw me away, away, bodily, as if in some dream, where all things are possible.” On the next day, the 16th of June, Longfellow did what he could to “slake my thirst for foreign travel by driving to town in the omnibus, and walking twice through the market, where the mingled and delicious odors of the vegetables, and the sight thereof, transported me straightaway to France. There is no more powerful medium of association than odors. On my way out, I stood awhile on the bridge, looking at the water and saying to myself that this was a portion of the same sea that washes the shores of England and of Italy. I then got into the omnibus, and found there some Spanish people—men and girls; and heard that sweet tongue again, and saw the well-known Spanish beauty of face and form, and imagined myself in Andalusia.” There is an undeniable pathos in this journal entry, and a certain quiet comedy, illustrating with a single image Longfellow’s complex feelings of alienation from his native America.

Longfellow’s mixed mood of ennui and longing for Europe accounts for the long gestation of the first part of Evangeline, for by tarrying so long in Acadia, with its distinctive Norman character and coloration, Longfellow revealed his nostalgia for the Old World and his disinclination to obey his own injunction in “A Psalm of Life” to be up and doing. That poem, which epitomizes Yankee get-up-and-go, takes its initial and most memorable line from the sayings of Poor Richard, and in Hyperion Paul Flemming compares Ben Franklin to Goethe, whose “little poetic maxims and sooth-sayings seem nothing more than the worldly wisdom of Poor Richard, versified.” On the 20th of June, four days after his vicarious Italian journey through the Boston market, Longfellow “dreamed that Goethe was alive and in Cambridge,” a curious circumstance that may have been inspired indirectly by that desperate search for things European. For during his trip into town Longfellow bumped into “Burritt, the “learned blacksmith,” who is on his way to England in the steamer today. He is no longer a blacksmith, but an editor and philanthropist. God speed him!” Though Longfellow had imperfect sympathies with the kind of Utopian schemes mounted by Elihu Burritt, the figure of the self-taught polymath, an idealistic and energetic American original, may have evoked subliminal Goethean echoes in the mind of the poet who celebrated “The Village Blacksmith.” Certainly it is the blacksmith of Grand-Pré, Basil Lajeunesse, who lends the first part of Evangeline a measure of vital force, for he is the only Acadian who advocates resistance against British tyranny, a distinctively American note.

The name of the Acadian blacksmith was taken by Longfellow from John Charles Frémont’s Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, which Frances read aloud to him early in December 1846. Longfellow found the book “highly interesting and exciting,” though with his characteristic ambivalence he qualified his enthusiasm for “a wild life” and “a fresh kind of existence” by noting “the discomforts” thereof. Still, as an experience once (and snugly) removed, Fremont’s narrative “particularly touched my imagination; and I trust something may come of that.” What came of it was something more than Basil’s name, for it was in December also that Longfellow’s Castalian fount began to flow once again, a movement of the waters attending Evangeline’s expulsion from Acadia. This freeing of Pegasus from pound may have been affected also by the “great “stampede” on Parnassus” that heralded in the new year, “a furious rushing to and fro of the steeds of Apollo. Emerson’s Poems; Story’s Poems; Read’s Poems; Channing’s Poems,— all in one month.” Yet Longfellow’s use of the Americanism, “stampede,” is revealing, and suggests that Frémont’s book was already leaving its mark on the poet’s imagination.

More evidence to the same effect is found at the close of the last canto in the first part of Evangeline, where Longfellow employs distinctly American material in an extended Homeric simile describing the burning of Grand-Pré:

Then rose a sound of dread, such as startles the sleeping
Far in the Western prairies or forests that skirt the
When the wild horses affrighted sweep by with the speed
 of the whirlwind,
Or the loud bellowing herds of buffaloes rush to the
Such was the sound that arose on the night, as the herds
 and horses
Broke through their folds and fences, and madly rushed
 o’er the meadows.

That this allusion to the Platte, which flows through the prairies of both Cooper and Fremont, was not the anomaly it might seem—though fetched far from “the Gaspereau’s mouth”—is demonstrated by a sequence of like similes that follow throughout the poem. Allusions to “the emigrant’s way o’er the Western desert,” to “the shrinking mimosa” and gliding shadows of clouds “on the prairie,” act as a symphonic leitmotif that ends only when Evangeline reaches the prairies themselves, where the Ozark Mountains put a western terminus to her wanderings in search of Gabriel.

In the original anecdote that provided the narrative basis of Evangeline, as told first to Hawthorne, then to Longfellow by the Reverend H. L. Conolly, the journey of the Acadian bride in search of her bridegroom was limited to New England. Though Longfellow’s journal does not reveal his reason for extending Evangeline’s wanderings to include the (in 1846) geographical limits of the United States, the reading of Frémont’s Report seems to have been instrumental. Soon after, Longfellow began to “plan out the second part” of his poem, which he saw as containing so “much material” that the chief difficulty was “to select, and give unity to variety.” Perhaps because of his concern for “form,” his fear that the abundance of Western furniture would crowd his design, Longfellow wrote the last canto of the second part before composing the third and fourth, which contain the material taken from Frémont and other sources. By sealing the fate of Evangeline, that is, Longfellow put a curb on his response to Fremont, yet the fact remains that it was the Western prospect which inspired an imaginative release. The second part of Evangeline went so quickly that the entire poem was finished by the end of February, in time for Longfellow’s dreaded 40th birthday.

During the critical month of December, Fanny Longfellow was reading aloud to her husband from Chapman’s Homer, and though his reaction was considerably less epiphanic than Keats’, Longfellow may have been moved to give an epic design to the Western vista which Frémont’s Report opened to him. Certainly the burning of Grand Pre evokes the destruction of Troy, giving both a Homeric and Virgilian cast to Evangeline’s departure. Moreover, the expulsion of the Acadians and the loss of their farms and pastoral tranquillity recalls to mind Virgil’s first eclogue, and is symbolized by the death of Evangeline’s father, the genial, optimistic, and pacifistic Benedict Bellefontaine, who Anchises-like stands for the Old World that must be left behind. There is also a Biblical coloration given by Longfellow to the long wandering of the Acadians, with which the first canto of the second part opens, for though he declares that their “exile without end” is “without an example in story,” it most certainly evokes the Jewish diaspora—type and symbol of all “nations” which are forced “into exile. . .with all [their] household goods”:

Scattered were they, like flakes of snow, when the
  wind from the northeast
Strikes aslant through the fogs that darken the
  banks of Newfoundland.
Friendless, homeless, hopeless, they wandered
  from city to city,
From the cold lakes of the North to sultry Southern
From the bleak shores of the sea to the lands
  where the Father of Waters
Seizes the hills in his hands, and drags them down
  to the ocean,
Deep in their sands to bury the scattered bones of
  the mammoth.

Despite the place names, landscape in the first canto of the second part is very general, and the emphasis is on Evangeline’s tireless search for Gabriel in the company of Father Felician, who counsels her to be patient and to “accomplish thy labor. . .thy work of affection,” for “sorrow and silence are strong, and patient endurance is godlike.” The priest’s assurance that suffering will render the human heart “more worthy of heaven” looks forward to the last canto and the nunlike life Evangeline will lead, becoming a martyr to love who wanders “bleeding, barefooted, over the shards and thorns of existence.” This is the Christian burden of the poem, carried by the figure of a Suffering Woman, the female Christ who is central to the sentimental literature of the age— “Celestina” was another name considered by Longfellow for his woman of sorrows. But the intervening three cantos, where the Western materials taken from Frémont and other authors are particularized, contain a different and even disjunctive burden, reflecting complexities which the swiftness of their composition seems to have drawn from the poet unaware. Definitive of the problems of authorship in America, and of Longfellow’s own creative perplexities especially, they also encompass (if silently) several tensions then threatening a troubled Republic.


Early in January, as his plan for the second half of Evangeline took shape, Longfellow grumbled about the weather and his college duties: “Not that I dislike work, but that I have other work to do than this.” Such thoughts, along with the ongoing poem at hand, turned his mind to the idea of “a national literature. Does it mean anything? Such a literature is the expression of national character. We have, or shall have, a composite one, embracing French, Spanish, Irish, English, Scotch, and German peculiarities. Whoever has within himself most of these is our truly national writer.” This eclecticism, in part, is a cosmopolitan response to the Young American movement—which Longfellow despised— but in opposing the call for a “national” (i. e. , nativist) American literature by standing foursquare for the multinationalism of the United States, the poet seems to be asserting an enlightened tolerance unusual for his day. Likewise, in its sympathetic treatment of the refugee, Roman Catholic Acadians, Evangeline may be read as a pioneering work of ethnic literature. Still, Longfellow’s cosmopolitanism is a complex matter, and like his omnibus trip back from Boston, Longfellow’s Evangeliad is less an expression of tolerance toward immigrant peoples than a reflection of his own deep commitment to European culture: the poem is a thoroughly derivative work, from its Goethean overtones to its perverse hexameters.

Longfellow’s Catholicism, moreover, is a matter of metaphor more than religion, for in Evangeline he seems to be imitating what he called (in Hyperion) the “indifferentism” of Goethe: like Keats’ “negative capability,” it is a quality of distance common to romantic irony. Thus, though Evangeline obeys the advice of her priest, her patience reunites her with Gabriel only after a lifetime of suffering; and if she becomes a kind of nun, it is as a secularized “Sister of Mercy.” When the two Acadian lovers are brought together finally, it is in an almshouse within hearing of “the chimes from the belfry of Christ Church” and the “sounds of psalms, that were sung by the Swedes in their church at Wicaco.” Longfellow’s Christian message is obviously nonsectarian, evincing an inclusiveness that is matched by the geographic range of Evangeline’s wanderings. That aspect of the second part of the poem gives it an epic sweep, with the circuit of the heroine’s journey carrying her from Acadia to Louisiana, then west to the Ozarks and from there north to the Saginaw River, before ending in Philadelphia.

In an essay written in 1831, Longfellow used the occasion of a discussion of Sidney’s Apologie for Poetry to confront the question of a “national” literature and its proper subject matter. As in his later journal entry, he declared himself against nativist emphases, here expressed in terms of landscape: “The true glory of a nation consists not in the extent of its territory, the pomp of its forests, the majesty of its rivers, the height of its mountains, and the beauty of its sky; but in the extent of its mental power—the majesty of its intellect— the height and depth of its moral nature.” In Evangeline, surely, intellectual and moral matters are important, but among the most memorable passages are those descriptive of the sublimest aspects of the American landscape. Yet the boisterous, ebullient spirit of Young America is entirely missing, and though Evangeline’s travels cover the cardinal points of the American compass (in 1847), Longfellow’s geopoetics are given tone by the central figure of the sorrowful saint. A concors misericordia, the journey of the sad pilgrim imbues the American scene with a tragic aura, much as Evangeline herself becomes figured in terms of landscape, suggesting a graying Athena of Sorrows: “Then there appeared and spread faint streaks of gray o’er her earthly horizon,/ As in the eastern sky the first faint streaks of the morning.”

Where “Part the First” has a neoclassical unity of time, place, and characters, and may be defined as a pastoral tragedy that begins in peace and harmony and ends in destruction and death, the epic action to which the Acadian expulsion opens has a romantic, organic plan. In his journal, Longfellow noted that where secondary sources would supply “Part the Second” with “facts and local coloring,” “the form and the poetry … must come from my own brain.” If the one gave him a “superabundance” of material, the other anticipates the anecdotal method by which Walt Whitman gave order to his own national epic. But where Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a massive response to Young America’s summons for a national poetics, being infused throughout with the poet’s transcendental optimism, Longfellow’s poem is weighted with a Virgilian sadness. Moreover, Whitman’s epic lacks any equivalent to a heroic action, taking its unity by gathering everything to (and disseminating everything from) the omnific “I,” while Longfellow, by breaking up a conventional narrative line into disconnected segments, conveys a pervasive sense of disarray. What this means in terms of the American landscape is suggested by Longfellow’s use of the West, beginning with “the golden stream of the broad and swift Mississippi” with which the second canto opens.

Along with Leutze’s heroic depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware, Evangeline’s descent of the Father of Waters in a boat manned by Acadian oarsmen is an immemorial and impossible icon, for both actions are more closely related to the conventions of art than to the circumstances of history and the conditions of real life. Like the clumsy barge in Deerslayer, ridiculed by Mark Twain in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” the “cumbersome boat” of Evangeline and her countrymen is capable of most wonderful feats of navigation, “glid[ing] down the turbulent river” as in a dream, without a thought for snags and sawyers. We may attribute this in part to the fact that Longfellow’s evocation of the Mississippi was a tour de force of secondhand inspiration, derived from several sources. Still, among these was Timothy Flint’s Recollections of the Last Ten Years, with its account of “the multitudes of carcasses of boats, lying at the points, or thrown up high and dry on the wreck-heaps, [which] demonstrate most palpably how many boats are lost on this wild, and, as the boatmen always denominate it, “wicked river.”“

Longfellow’s version of the Mississippi seems to have been inspired chiefly by Banvard’s “diorama,” which he described as “three miles of canvas, and a great deal of merit,” and whose arrival in Boston, late in 1846, the poet regarded as timely: “This comes very à propos,” he noted in his journal, for “the river comes to me instead of my going to the river, and as it is to flow through the pages of my poem, I look upon this as a special benediction.” Thus the ease of Longfellow’s own vicarious journey “down the great stream,” past “the boats and the sandbanks crested with cottonwood, and the bayous by moonlight” was transferred to Evangeline’s downriver trip, the flotation of her craft past hazards being accomplished by the suspension of natural laws as well as disbelief. Moreover, despite the memorability of that amazing voyage, only ten lines of the poem are descriptive of the great river itself, for Evangeline’s boat leaves the Mississippi where it “sweeps with majestic curve . . .away to the eastward” to enter the Bayou of Plaquemine. It left Banvard’s panorama for the dark terrain described by Charles Sealsfield, the “terrible cypress-swamp” in Life in the New World, which Longfellow read in January, 1847, for its “delicious description of natural scenery. . . .His descriptions of the South West are very striking.”

Counterpoise to the idyllic Mississippi is provided by Plaquemine’s “maze of sluggish and devious waters,” an ominous region of “deathlike” silence, introducing a Gothic mood emphasized by Longfellow’s extended analogy, comparing the cypress swamp to an “ancient cathedral,” the great trees overhead resembling “broken vaults” through which moonlight falls “as through chinks in a ruin.” The swamp is a bewitched zone, “dreamlike and indistinct,” arousing “a feeling of wonder and sadness” and “strange forebodings of ill, unseen and that cannot be compassed.” But Evangeline is “sustained by a vision,” a thought which “assumed the shape of a phantom,” that “through those shadowy aisles Gabriel wandered before her,/ And every stroke of the oar now brought him nearer and nearer.” In time, also, the boat emerges “from the shades” of the cypress underworld into “the golden sun” of the “lakes of the Atchafalaya,” a scene suggesting a terrestrial paradise:

Water-lilies in myriads rocked on the slight
Made by the passing oars, and resplendent in
  beauty, the lotus
Lifted her golden crown above the heads of the
Faint was the air with the odorous breath of
  magnolia blossoms,
And with the heat of noon; and numberless sylvan
Fragrant and thickly enbowered with blossoming
  hedges of roses,
Near to whose shores they glided along, invited to

Though warranted by Sealsfield’s description of bayou flora, the presence in Longfellow’s poem of the lotus seems an allusion also to Tennyson’s “The Lotus-Eaters,” for the “invitation to slumber” proves resistless to the boatmen. Mooring to one of the islands of the Atchafalaya, they take a noontime nap, and it is at this critical moment that there passes by “a light, swift boat. . .urged on its course by the sinewy arms of hunters and trappers.” Seated at the helm of this northward-bound craft is Gabriel, “with countenance thoughtful and careworn,” the very picture of Byronic melancholy: “Dark and neglected locks overshadowed his brow, and a sadness/ Somewhat beyond his years on his face was legibly written.” Legibly written also is the influence of Younger Werther, for “weary with waiting, unhappy and restless,” Gabriel hopes to commit geographical suicide, to find “in the Western wilds oblivion of self and of sorrow.” As he passes, “close under the lee of the island,” Evangeline has found oblivion of a much different kind, the solace of life everlasting.

She lies dreaming under the “high extended cope of a cedar,” a bower with both tropical and typological connotations, a mingling of nature and supernature given liturgical intonations by droning hexameters. As the ruined cathedral of the cypress swamp gives way to the cedar chapel on the lake we can almost smell the heavy sweet odor of a burning censer:

Swinging from its great arms, the trumpet-flower
  and the grapevine
Hung their ladder of ropes aloft like the ladder of
On whose pendulous stairs the angels ascending,
Were the swift humming birds, that flitted from
  blossom to blossom.
Such was the vision Evangeline saw as she slumbered
  beneath it.
Filled was her heart with love, and the dawn of an
  opening heaven
Lighted her soul in sleep with glory of regions

The contraposition of Gabriel in motion and Evangeline arrested in sleep provides one of the most memorable disjunctions in literature, evoking and perhaps derived from the tragic climax of Romeo and Juliet. These, too, are star-crossed lovers, their fate precipitated by Gabriel’s Romeo-like impulsiveness. Had he, like Evangeline, been patient, the pair would have soon been reunited, but like ships passing at night, this noontime mischance puts a fated seal on their relationship, realizing the intimations of doom felt in the cypress swamp.

But if Gabriel’s restlessness is the direct cause of the fated circumstance, Evangeline’s passivity contributes to it also, her lotus-scented bower a symbol of Roman Catholicism familiar to the sons of the Puritans. Gabriel suffers from impatience, Evangeline from its contrariety, from too much willingness to obey the injunctions of Father Felician that she wait and see, advice that proves to be an equivalent to the drug administered to Juliet by Friar Lawrence. Longfellow’s tolerance of Roman Catholicism may be more apparent than real, and there are other, equally intriguing readings that can be derived from this famous passage. For the dichotomy between the active lover and the love who lies dreaming embodies the division defined by Irving Babbitt in Rousseau and Romanticism, the Weltschmerz of Gabriel balanced by Evangeline’s tranquil vision, which lends its Christian grace to the sensuous/sonorous sounds of the Keatsian/Tennysonian line. The contrast between the two lovers illustrates also Longfellow’s deep psychic schism, the vitiating languorousness that held back the composition of Evangeline and the active spirit that sought inspiration through vicarious travel.

Given the change that came over Longfellow following his encounter with Frémont’s account of Western exploration, it is interesting that the prow of Gabriel’s boat is turned toward “the land of the bison and beaver,” that his desperate search for oblivion in “Western wilds” will draw Evangeline after him in her own quiet quest. Recalling that the name of Gabriel’s father, Basil Lejeunesse, came from Frémont’s book, it is worth noting also that when Evangeline meets the blacksmith in Louisiana he has undergone a symbolic transformation and is first seen in a symbolic setting:

Just where the woodlands met the flowery surf of
  the prairie,
Mounted upon his horse, with Spanish saddle and
Sat a herdsman, arrayed in gaiters and doublet of
Broad and brown was the face that from under the
  Spanish sombrero
Gazed on the peaceful scene, with the lordly look
  of its master.

Though one would assume that the talents of a blacksmith are as needed on the bayous as on the Bay of Fundy, Basil has experienced a characteristic American metamorphosis, an atavistic return to a preindustrial pastoralism. With his “domains and his herds, and his patriarchal demeanor,” Basil “the ci-devant blacksmith” is something of an American Abraham, but in his buckskins and sombrero he is also a prefiguration of that agrarian avatar, the cowboy. Moreover, Basil describes “the Eden of Louisiana” in the hyperbole of expansionist propaganda, as a place where “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.” No longer living in a thatched and gabled farmhouse, “such as the peasants of Normandy built in the reign of the Henries,” Basil dwells in a home whose timbers were “hewn from the cypress-tree, and carefully fitted together,” which sounds very much like the unpoetic but American log cabin.

The blacksmith’s transformation is intrinsic to those changes inherent in the idea of the American West, and as it was he who alone raised his fist against British tyranny, so he now promises his fellow exiles that in Louisiana, “No King George of England shall drive you away from your homesteads.” And Basil it is who replaces Father Felician—who in Acadia had counseled Christian forgiveness of the British— serving as Evangeline’s guide during the next stage of her travels. At the westernmost point of that journey, which takes the heroine across the “wonderful land” of the prairies to the Ozarks, Evangeline meets her. Indian counterpart, a Shawnee squaw whose husband, a coureur-des-bois, has been murdered. The squaw is another suffering woman, “whose features / Wore deep traces of sorrow, and patience as great as her sorrow,” and she tells Evangeline the tale of ‘Mowis, the bridegroom of snow,” and of “the fair Lilinau, who was wooed by a phantom.” These Indian tales contain figures reminiscent of European romantic specters, the phantom lovers who as symbols of blighted love provide analogues for the story of Evangeline and Gabriel, and in them the heroine sees her own fate foretold: “like the Indian maid, she, too, was pursuing a phantom.” But recognition lasts only for a moment, for, like the foreboding mood induced by the cypress swamp, her fear is soothed by sleep.


The Indian stories are clearly intended as ironic commentary on Evangeline’s doomed quest, but since Longfellow’s source for them was Schoolcraft, whose Algic Researches would provide so much material for Hiawatha, the episode is prophetic also of his search for American themes: while avoiding the spread-eagle stance of Young America, Longfellow’s muse, for all his cosmopolitanism, found himself taking flight for the farthest West, a wilderness predating the white man’s arrival. Yet his sentimental touch would transform native Indian myths into a Christianized saga that was a far cry from the “war whoop” and “bloody hatchet” of Cooper and his imitators, being a love story that helped make available to American readers the material gathered by Schoolcraft. Minnehaha, Evangeline, and Priscilla Alden are sisters under the skin, bearing witness to Longfellow’s domestic élan. But they attest likewise to the power of the wilderness over the American mind, being set against landscapes given meaning by an advancing frontier. In Evangeline’s Western encounter with the grieving Shawnee woman, Longfellow affected in his own peculiar fashion the merging of his European muse with American matters, Calliope as Pocahontas.

Yet, as an American heroine, Evangeline is hardly a frontier woman, and though we think of her as being in motion she is seldom seen that way. Rather, as aboard the boat that carries her down the Mississippi, she is as stationary as a plaster saint in some religious procession. Her progress, as she pursues Gabriel, is that metamorphic passage described by Leo Marx—out of the middle landscape, the pastoral range, into the wilderness and back—but its effect on Evangeline in terms of the American democratic character is nil. She assumes at the end the shape of her name, an Eve become Angel, following “meekly, with reverent steps, the sacred feet of her Saviour.” Basil, the “ci-devant blacksmith,” having led Evangeline to the Ozark Mountains, leaves her and the story for his patriarchal flocks, and of Gabriel’s sojourn in the wilderness, we hear only rumors and garbled reports. It is Evangeline who remains the center of sensibility, preserving intact her Judaic-Christian heritage of patient forebearance, bowing before necessity and calling it divine. Her passivity, though dictated by the religious burden, reminds us that the pursuit of Gabriel by Evangeline is an American hybridization of the marble brede on Keats’s Grecian urn, a “cold pastoral” of static shapes.

Whether called “negative capability” or “indifferentism,” romantic irony evinces a disinterestedness to coldness close allied, in Longfellow’s muse lacking Keats’ quality of passion and Goethe’s energy. We can never underestimate Longfellow’s removal from the contemporary American scene, his own Evangeline-like immaculateness, his retreat from the world of affairs to poetry and dreams. A paradigm of this insularity is provided by a journal entry for February 1848, as his epic was hurrying toward conclusion: “Find the ground covered with snow, to my sorrow; for what comes as snow departs as mud. Wrote description of the prairies for Evangeline. In the evening began with Mr. Corwin’s excellent speech against the war. Then Kendall’s Santa Fé Expedition.” The pages of Longfellow’s journal during the composition of Evangeline contain a number of references to “this shabby and to us disgraceful war with Mexico,” and to Charles Sumner’s animadversions against it, reverberations which seem not to have penetrated the pastoral center of his poem. During a troubled time, a period when Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was interrupted by a short stretch in the Concord jail, Longfellow preferred “the sweet luxury of sitting all day by the fireside and hearing some one read.”

Likewise, Longfellow in his use of Sealsfield’s Life in the New World managed to extract the exotic local color of Louisiana without touching upon the fate of the black man, an issue that is debated throughout the book and in Longfellow’s journal as well. Where his friends, like Sumner and Lowell, were ardent Abolitionists, Longfellow wrote in 1844 to Whittier that he did “not belong to the Liberty Party. Though a strong anti-slavery man, I am not a member of any society, and fight under no single banner.” The letter was occasioned by Whittier’s praise of Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery—written at sea while still under the influence of a visit to Charles Dickens in London—to which the militant Quaker had added an invitation to run for Congress as a Liberty Party candidate: “At all times,” he responded, “I shall rejoice in the progress of true liberty, and in freedom from slavery of all kinds; but I cannot for a moment think of entering the political area. Partisan warfare becomes too violent, too vindictive, for my taste; and I should be found but a weak and unworthy champion in public debate.” This is armchairism and fireside poetics epitomized, being the Longfellow we know and loathe so well, the type and symbol of genial evasiveness in the face of demands for commitment.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that the work of so sensitive and perceptive a poet was completely untouched by the issues of his day. His antislavery poems treat a number of controversial themes, from atrocity in “The Witnesses” to the tragic sexual issue in “The Quadroon Girl,” and, as in the Negro cabins that are found on the banks of Longfellow’s Mississippi, his Evangeline has its resonances. Its very form, like the figure of the solitary, suffering woman, has universal application to the times, which Lowell told Longfellow were “out of joint.” Though the Harvard Hamlet was hardly the man to set them right, he had the capacity to embody their disjunctions in his work. The excitement over Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave was contemporaneous with the composition and publication of Evangeline, which owed its popularity to the same sentimental appeal exercised by Powers’ statue, a marble protest against Turkish tyranny that Elizabeth Browning called “thunders of white silence.” Both works embodied the plight of suffering humanity in the figure of a woman, and though Evangeline as plaster statue keeps all her clothes on, as a work of art Evangeline has its white silences also.

In one of his Poems on Slavery, “The Good Part,” Longfellow depicts a Southern woman who has given her slaves their freedom and now “in meek humility. . .earns her daily bread” by teaching, an Evangeline-like heroine who, “following her beloved Lord / In decent poverty. . .makes her life one sweet record / And deed of charity.” But most suggestive of the universal appeal tacitly expressed by the Acadians’ plight is Longfellow’s “The Slave Singing at Midnight,” which, by describing a slave singing “The Psalm of David,” links the Negro’s condition to the fate of the Jews. It is a song of freedom not bondage, yet the black man’s sad situation inspires a final question: “Alas! What holy angel / Brings the Slave this glad evangel?” The rhyme is weak, but the echo is telling, looking forward to the much longer poem whose tones, like the slave’s song, “by turns were glad, / Sweetly solemn, wildly sad.”

Though no slaves sing in Evangeline, the heroine’s arrival at the Acadian settlement in Louisiana is greeted by the song of a mockingbird, “wildest of singers,” a signal and symbolic interlude. Inspired by Sealsfield’s account of life along the Teche, Longfellow’s birdsong has a distinctly Keatsian burden: “Plaintive at first were the notes and sad: then soaring to madness / Seemed they to follow or guide the revel of frenzied Bacchantes. / Single notes were then heard, in sorrowful, low lamentation; / Till having gathered them all, he flung them abroad in derision.” In his essay on Sidney’s Apologie, Longfellow had struck out against “native poets” who do not “write from their own feelings and impressions,” but from “preconceived notions of what poetry ought to be, caught by reading many books, and imitating many models. This is peculiarly true in descriptions of natural scenery. In these, let us have no more skylarks and nightingales. For us they only warble in books.” But as the lotus found on the Atchafalaya is a Tennysonian hybrid, so the Louisiana mockingbird is, as Sealsfield noted, an American version of the creature which for Keats was an emblem of the poetic soul, holding disparate moods in combination by means of song, “sweetly solemn,” like the hymn of the slave at midnight, “wildly sad,”

Thus the mockingbird, the black man’s song, and Evangeline’s plight may be said to combine in one complex metaphor, which like Powers’ white statue of a Venus in chains evokes the condition of the Negro in America. We cannot insist on these correspondences, as intentional or otherwise, but the thematic resonances are undeniable. Even the popularity of the poem, like that of The Greek Slave, attests to its reverberative qualities, its ability to express, indirectly, contemporary concerns and emotions. Evangeline, whitely and quietly, serves as a vicarious vehicle for emotions aroused by the plight of enslaved black people, involving the breakup of families and homeless wandering as perpetual aliens. Insulating the heat of a contemporary controversy by means of historical distance, Longfellow converted his own personal detachment into epic elevation, something akin to Goethe’s “indifferentism.” Evangeline is not about slavery in America, but it is of that peculiar institution, and, most important, it contains loomings of that apocalyptic thunderstorm, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For in the book that helped precipitate an impending conflict, Harriet Beecher Stowe combined the themes of Longfellow’s slavery poems and the landscape of Evangeline, setting her black Christ afloat on the Mississippi in the wake of the Acadian maiden, south not to a Louisiana paradise but to a green hell. In the figure of Eliza, moreover, Stowe made the perilous state of the black woman more dramatic to her white readers by bleaching her, and who can doubt the inspiration for Little Eva’s name and saintly character.

We need not make exaggerated claims for the artistry of Evangeline to recognize that as a created artifact the poem is a response to the poet’s times, most especially to the challenge that a distinctly American literature be forthcoming. Nor need we rank Evangeline with Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter to acknowledge that Longfellow’s poem has elective affinities with those greater works: When Melville set out in 1848 to mount his own first epical effort, Mardi, he chose for his narrative line the futile pursuit of a phantom lover across an allegorical landscape, prefiguring in erotic terms the tragic quest of Ahab. If the West through which Evangeline wanders is a purely literary zone, then so is the Prairie of Leatherstocking, the Boston of Hester Prynne, and most certainly Ishmael’s Pacific Ocean. Infused with symbolic meaning, Longfellow’s West is a wilderness sanctuary and preserve sacred to the national memory, a territory of the mind through which a great river flows, an American Alph emblematic of the national imagination and darkly prophetic of the national fate.

Note: I have been greatly assisted in tracing the genesis of Evangeline by Manning Hawthorne and H. W. L. Dana’s “The Origin of Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” “The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 41 (1947), 165-203.

*Note, however, that Basil’s “Welcome once more to a home, that is better perchance than the old one!” is qualified by an equivocal adverb, and he ends his encomium of the Louisiana Eden by warning his friends to “beware of the fever.” Reflective of Longfellow’s own balanced temper, these qualifiers promote his Goethean “indifference.”


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