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Evangeline Discussion


Evangeline Lecture

Longfellow’s Evangeline breaks new ground in the epic tradition by creating an epic hero who is both female and democratic; previous epic heroes were typically male aristocrats.

The Grand Dérangement of the Acadians took place in 1755.  By the late 1830s, the passage of time and intervening events had made it a largely forgotten event, even among the descendents of the Acadians. Eventually somebody told a legend to Nathaniel Hawthorne about a young couple about to be married who were separated by the British and deported on separate ships.  The young woman spent years searching for her beloved to be reunited with him.  The story didn't have enough Puritans for Hawthorne's taste, so he forwarded the story to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Longfellow began to research the background of the story, and decided to write an epic poem about the couple and the wider events surrounding them.  Writing an epic poem is an epic task; the poem was not published until November 1, 1847.  "I had the fever a long time burning in my own brain before I let my hero take it. Longfellow said about writing it, "'Evangeline' is so easy for you to read, because it was so hard for me to write."

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Meter and Structure

Evangeline is in many ways an experimental poem for an English poet.  English epics have long used the heroic couplet, which is made up of iambic pentameter with stressed and unstressed syllables, and also with an AA, BB, CC rhyme scheme.  Longfellow dug back through history and dusted off the dactylic hexameter familiar from Greek and Latin epics. It's mix of dactyls and spondees mean that its lines can be up to 17 syllables long.  Longfellow also follows the ancients in basing his meter on long and short syllables rather than stressed vs unstressed. 

Longfellow also follows the ancients in the structure of his narrative, which goes back through the Aeneid to Homer:


Theme
 Source   
Aeneid
Evangeline
Conflict
Iliad
Books 7-12
Part I
Wandering
Odyssey Books 1-6
Part II

The theme of the Iliad is conflict during the Trojan War.  The theme of the Odyssey is the wandering of Odysseus in his search for home.  Virgil models the Aeneid on the earlier epics. His hero Aeneas wanders like Odysseus in books 1-6, and fights like Achilles in books 7-12.  In both cases, Aeneas is both like and unlike the hero who preceded him.  Remember that Achilles is marked by his wrath and Odysseus by his mental agility.  Aeneas is marked by being pius Aeneas.  His preeminent quality is that he is loyal to his gods, his nation, his family, his friends, and himself.

Evangeline too experiences conflict like Achilles when the British expel the Acadians (Part I. 1-5).  It's the reason that Part I seems to drag on for so long; there's a structural reason.  She then experiences the wanderings of Odysseus when she hunts for Gabriel (Part II. 1-5).

Neither the wrath of Achilles nor the cunning of Odysseus would be suitable to a proper lady as envisioned by the 19th Century.  But the chief characteristic of Aeneas, being pius, loyal, and steadfast, lend themselves quite well to a proper lady who is also a hero.  Pius Evangeline is loyal to her lost love Gabriel beyond any reasonable expectation that she might meet him again.  Her search also takes on some of the characteristics of the story of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius'; Golden Ass, but Psyche must search for Cupid because she violated their relationship, and he fled.  Here the separation is more analogous to Aeneas' exile from Troy because the Greeks destroyed it.

Longfellow models his epic on the Aeneid in another important way: the theme of nation founding.  The Aeneid tells how the Trojans and the Latins got together to produce the Romans.  That's what the fighting was about — Juno wanted to prevent the creation of the Roman people and the founding of Rome, almost from Book 1 line 4 through the end of Book 12.  Evangeline too is a nationalistic poem; the enemies of the Acadians were also the enemies of the colonies in their war of independence.  Longfellow has to take liberties with history at this point — the American colonists were fighting alongside the British in what became known as the French-Indian war.  The British had owned Acadia for some time, but the French-speaking inhabitants continued to side with the French, to supply them, and to launch raids from their island on the English colonies.  The British and American colonists decided to end the problem by expelling all the Acadians.  Longfellow eliminates the American role in the expulsion, as well as the Acadians' activities that resulted in it.  His goal is not to write history; it is to write an epic that will encourage national identity.  By this time, the Louisiana Purchase had joined English speakers and French speakers into one nation, but could they become one people?  What history had demonstrated in the Battle of New Orleans Longfellow now wanted to create through his poem.  Bringing back old conflicts and resentments would not help.  And his plan largely worked.  The poem was wildly popular throughout America for decades. The Acadians down in Louisiana had to some extent lost the memory of the expulsion of their ancestors; the poem Evangeline gave them a sense of identity that comes down to today.

All's Well That Ends Well

So why end up in Philadelphia?  To the mind of Louisianan, it seems strange.  What better place to have them reunited than here?  But that's until we think epically. Let's see . . . 10 years of the Trojan War, 10 years for Odysseus to return home, for a total of 20 years.  If we put the expulsion and wanderings of Evangeline at 20 years, she and Gabriel would have met up in Philadelphia in 1775, just in time for their steadfast love to provide the mythic underpinnings for the birth of America. 

Virgil and Longfellow shared a purpose in their epics; to aggrandize the role of their nations on the world stage.  Great nations need more than brute force to succeed.  They need to legitimate that greatness.  The young United States consciously copied Rome.  Like Rome, the expelled their king and set up a republic.  They made the transition from being subjects of a king to being citizens of a republic.  They taught themselves republican virtue by studying the history and legends of ancient Rome.  George Washington's favorite play was Cato; his favorite Roman was Cincinnatus, a Roman senator given the power of dictator who saved the city and immediately resigned his position to return to his farm.  Washington did this twice; after the Revolutionary War, and after his second term as President.  Cincinnatus is a large part of the reason we have a President today instead of a king.  Our constitution is modeled on that of Rome; Washington D.C. was built to look like Rome.  Our currency has Latin from Virgil inscribed on it.  The ancient Roman goddess Dea Libertas stands in the New York Harbor.   Roma in America est.  Yet Americans today live in profound ignorance of our roots.  We think our constitution was created ex nihilo by THE FOUNDERS or that it floated down from God in some kind of divine inspiration.  We've repudiated republican virtue in favor of a deluded individualism that focuses only on the self.  We've funneled the bulk of our nation's wealth and power to a few plutocrats because we've forgotten that that was what ended the Roman Republic. We need to learn the lessons of the Aeneid and Evangeline.


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