A statue of Evangeline in St. Martinville, LouisianaPhoto: wikimedia
A statue of Evangeline in St. Martinville, Louisiana
Photo: wikimedia

Published in 1847, Evangeline is a poem written in English by Portland, Maine-born Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Longfellow published his first poem at the age of thirteen in the Portland Gazette, just a few years before attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine where he met Nathaniel Hawthorne (Williams 8). Longfellow would get the idea for Evangeline from Hawthorne and the Reverend Connolly who told him of a story he had heard from a French-Canadian woman about a couple who were separated on their wedding day by the deportation of the Acadians (Hirsh 17). Longfellow then decided, despite never having visited the land of the Acadians, to write a narrative poem about their history (Hirsh 18). Because he had not visited Nova Scotia, he relied heavily on non-fictional works that recounted the history and geography of the region, such as Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (Hawthorne and Dana 15).

Longfellow’s Evangeline tells the story of two young lovers who were separated during the deportation of the Acadians from the then-termed “Nova Scotia,” now the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Charles Lawrence, the Governor of Nova Scotia, demanded that the Acadians swear an oath of allegiance to the British during the rising conflicts in the New World (Chiasson and Landry). The Acadians refused at first, fearing the possibility of retaliation from the French, but later reluctantly agreed. The oath was not enough to satisfy Lawrence, however, so he ordered the deportation of the Acadians to other French and non-aligned colonies (Chiasson and Landry). The deportations began in July 1755 and resulted in over 10,000 Acadians being expelled from the region. The British took control of Acadian land and goods, dispersing those to New England Planters and Loyalists fleeing the new Republic of America (Chiasson and Landry). Acadians who were not loaded onto boats and sent into exile scattered to unpopulated and inhospitable areas of the region, mostly coastal areas of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Evangeline examines the trauma of this experience.

The poem focuses on a young Acadian girl named Evangeline Bellefontaine who is separated from her beloved Gabriel Lajeunesse during the forced exile. Much of the narrative follows Evangeline’s journey across America in her search for Gabriel. At the end of her journey, Evangeline is an old woman in Philadelphia working as a Sister of Mercy to help the poor. It is here, while tending the ill, that she is finally reunited with Gabriel, who, in a scene of heightened pathos, dies in her arms. Evangeline, then, is a poem of specific loss that reflects the more general loss felt by the Acadians at the time of their Grand Derangement.

Even though Evangeline is fictional, Longfellow incorporates much Acadian history into the poem. This in itself is significant, for by the time Longfellow was doing his research at Harvard, much of the history of the Acadian people had been forgotten, a fact which accounts for the necessity of his turn to fiction.

Longfellow’s poem found an eager audience. It was printed six times in the first few months after being published, and it was soon translated into over a dozen languages across the world (Williams 76). More remarkably, Evangeline, an English poem, brought back a voice and a history to a people who had lost theirs almost a hundred years earlier. Despite Evangeline being largely a fictional creation, the poem has come to represent the history, struggles, and triumphs of the Acadian people around the world. In fact, it has become a touchstone of resilience and hope – the name “Evangeline” translates as “bearer of good news.” The poem was readily assimilated into Acadian culture because of its sensitive portrayal of loss and hope, both of which were central to the historical memories of Acadians.

Longfellow’s poem was not available to the majority of Acadians until Pamphile Lemay wrote a French translation of it in 1867, twenty years after the English release. The translation, however, introduced changes that altered Longfellow’s original story and tone. In a preface to the translation, Lemay stated that he was aware of the changes he made to the text and that he did not intend to do an exact translation of Longfellow's original. Significant was the fact that Lemay’s translation makes the poem more political than Longfellow’s. The language used is less lyrical and romantic and depicts a more realistic and darker place. An example of this can be found at the beginning of the first section, after the prologue of the poem. Lemay writes:

Pour arrêter les flots le vigilant colon,
A force de travail et de rudes fatigues,
Eleva de ses mains de gigantesques digues
Qu’au retour du printemps on voyait s’entr’ouvrir,
Pour laisser l’océan s’élancer et courir
Sur le duvet des prés devenus son domaine. (Lemay 6)

The emphasis on the harshness of the landscape drastically contrasts the beauty that Longfellow describes throughout the opening of his poem. The difference is more than translator’s licence, of course. The difference is meant to render the experience of loss more palpable, and the reaction to that loss more direct and political.

Today, the poem’s legacy appears in many ways and forms. Towns in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Louisiana, and other Acadian jurisdictions have adopted the name Evangeline. There are also several monuments that have been erected, many of which depict Evangeline and Gabriel at either their separation or reunion, or Evangeline by herself looking into the distance for her beloved. The best example of this kind of representation can be seen in Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, which was reconstructed by the Acadians (Brasseaux 38). The story has also been adapted to many films, operas, and stage productions, the most recent of which was staged at PEI’s Confederation Centre in 2013. The earliest film adaptation is the 1929 Edwin Carewe production staring Dolores del Rio, which was filmed in Louisiana.

As importantly, the narrative form of Evangeline – that of separation and loss – has inspired many other narrative poems such as Napoléon Bourassa’s Jacques et Marie, Laurent Alhert’s Les Splendides Têtus, and Antonine Léger’s Elle et Lui. Each of these narratives follows roughly the same trajectory as Longfellow’s Evangeline, and each works to tell stories of loss and defeat while also capturing the hope and resilience of all vanquished populations. Evangeline, then, was one of the foundational cornerstones upon which New Brunswick’s Acadians remade themselves.

Katelynn Hayward, Winter 2015
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Longfellow, Henry W. The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; With Biographical and Critical Notes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1886.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Bourassa, Napoléon. “Jacques et Marie.” Les meilleurs romans du XIXe siècle. Ed. Gilles Doiron. Montréal: Fidès, 1996.

Brasseaux, Carl A. In Search of Evangeline: Birth and Evolution of the Evangeline Myth. Thibodeaux, La: Blue Heron Press, 1988.

Chase, Eliza B. Over the Border: Acadia. The Home of “Evangeline.” Boston: Osgood. 1884.

Chiasson, Père Anselme, and Nicholas Landry. “History of Acadia.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 19 Aug. 2013. Historica Canada. 5 Feb. 2015

Chovrelat, Geneviève. “Evangéline et Maria Chapdelaine, soeurs mythiques de la survivance nationale ou soeurs de légende?” Etudes Canadiennes / Canadian Studies: Revue Interdisciplinaire des Etudes en France 37 (1994): 305-322.

Doughty, Arthur G. The Acadian Exiles: A Chronicle of the Land of Evangeline. Toronto: Glasgow, Brook and Co., 1916.

Hawthorne, Manning, and Henry W.L. Dana. The Origin and Development of Longfellow’s Evangeline. Portland, ME: Anthoensen Press, 1947.

Hirsh, Edward L. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1964.

Lemay, Pamphile. Evangéline et autres poemes de Longfellow. Montréal: Lemeac, 1978.

Rogers, Grace M.L. Stories of the Land of Evangeline. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1923.

Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.