Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Oh dear. I’m sure that the poem’s very well-written, and the use of descriptive language is very impressive, but all that maudlin Victorian sentimentalism just did my head in!

This poem is, famously, set during the Great Upheaval/Great Expulsion, when British and New Englander forces deported the Acadian population from what’s now Nova Scotia and its surrounding areas, over concerns about their lack of loyalty to the British crown at a time (the Seven Years’ War) of war with France. Acadian, or Cajun, culture is now a very important part of the culture of southern Louisiana. It was a very shameful episode in the history of the British Empire and no-one’s denying that; but this poem just went way overboard!

For a kick-off, Acadia before the expulsions is portrayed as some sort of … well, Arcadia with an r. All these peaceful, upstanding “peasants” … it sounds like one of those awful early 20th century descriptions of Oberammergau which make it sound more like Shangri-La than Bavaria! Then we have Our Heroine trekking all over America, as you do, trying to find Our Hero, before she eventually locates him just in time for him to die in her arms. Most annoyingly, it portrays what’s now the USA as some sort of place of refuge, when in fact New England was just as much involved in the expulsions as Britain was and many of the Acadian refugees in the British North American colonies were treated appallingly. Also, the name “Evangeline” makes me think of someone in one of the Chalet School books complaining that it sounds like “vaseline”; but that, to be fair, isn’t really Longfellow’s fault :-).

What’s interesting is how very significantly this, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s even more sentimental Uncle Tom’s Cabin (appalling as the scourge of slavery was, that book makes me want to throw up!), have influenced history. This poem, written by someone who had no Acadian connections at all, changed both the whole view of the history of Eastern Canada and the way in which people who did have Acadian ancestry viewed both their history and their own culture. It’s got to be one of the most influential poems of all time. Yet, whilst I quite accept that this sort of thing was extremely popular at the time, from a 20th or 21st century viewpoint it’s what would be referred to in Girls’ Own literature as “sentimental bosh”. Fascinating!!

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