Monday, August 18, 2014

How Did I Miss it?

Somehow, in the decades of my literate existence, I missed reading Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.Why?  Was it too long? Too old fashioned? Too boring?

Turning my research to Nova Scotia, I was reminded that there was a narrative poem dealing with a portion of the province's history  -- the period, during the 1760s, when the British expelled the Acadians during the French and Indian War.

On the back cover of the book I borrowed from our library is this sentence: "It has been said that a copy of Longfellow's narrative poem Evangeline could be found in every literate household in America in the 19th century."

Sure, the story is melodramatic and improbable. But it is still compelling. And easy to read. And even more powerful if read aloud (my cats seemed to enjoy it).

Listen to this, Longfellow's description of the Acadian village, Grand Pre:
       "Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers, --
       Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
       Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?

       Softly the Angelus sounded, and over the roofs of the village
       Columns of pale blue smoke, like clouds of incense ascending,
       Rose from a hundred hearths, the homes of peace and contentment.

 And the opening lines, which somehow each of us have heard, even if we haven't read the poem:

       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,
       Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
       Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring oceans
      Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

Ah, this is to be a sad tale. And sad it is. The lovely Evangeline, forced into exile, separated from her true love, Gabriel, wanders for years. When at last they again see each other, he dies in her arms.

And Longfellow ends this epic:

     Still stands the forest primeval, but far away from its shadow,
     Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping  . . .

Then he repeats the melancholy opening words . . .

     While from its rocky caverns the deep-voice, neighboring ocean
     Speaks, and in accents disconsolate, answers the wail of the forest.

Sometimes, old and melodramatic is splendid. (Just ask my kids.)

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