Evangeline, Longfellow’s Epic Poem and its Remarkable French Translation

Evangeline book cover
Evangeline book cover, by John R. Neill

In recent weeks, I’ve been making my way through The Story of French, a history of the French language. In a chapter devoted to French spoken in Canada, I was reminded of the history of the Acadian people. The authors made note of an epic poem, Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that encapsulates a dramatic part of French-Canadian history. Intrigued by the reference, I decided to learn more and am so glad I did. Once again, Google turned up a treasure trove of information that I felt compelled to distill into a blog post. Below is a micro-summary of early Acadian history and a digested presentation of the English and French versions of Evangeline.

The Great Upheaval

When most Americans think of French Canada, they think of Quebec. However, Acadia, the first sizable French settlement in North America was concentrated in what is now Nova Scotia. In 1604, the area became a colony of France and remained so until 1713 when it fell under British rule. The Acadians were primarily farmers who had prospered on the region’s fertile land for more than 100 years. They had no desire to leave simply because their new sovereign spoke English. Pledging allegiance to a Protestant King, however, proved undesirable since the Acadians were Catholic. Instead, most pledged to remain neutral in the ongoing conflict between France and England.

Fast forward to 1755, when British forces fighting the French at the beginning of French and Indian War, decided they no longer trusted the Acadians. Thus, began a 9-year effort to expel them from their homes. Around 14,000 Acadians were living in Nova Scotia. Roughly 11,500 were rounded up, placed on ships, and sailed off to various parts of the world. Their homesteads were burned before their eyes, discouraging all from trying to return.

As they were loaded onto ships, little care was taken to keep families together. Parents were separated from their children, husbands from wives, and so on. Many died on board due to harsh conditions. Others drowned when the ship they were on capsized. Some were shipped back to France or prisons in Britain. The majority, however, were relocated to the American colonies. Britain hoped that the Acadian refugees would spread out, reestablish new farms, and gradually assimilate. Instead, many gravitated to large cities on the eastern seaboard. Philadelphia was one such destination due to the city’s founding principle supporting freedom of religion. Another common haven was Louisiana, as it was still a French colony. The term Cajun is actually a dialectic adaptation of the word Acadian.

Deportation of Acadians
The Deportation of Acadians, artist unknown

Longfellow’s Epic Poem

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from Project Gutenberg eText

Longfellow’s epic poem tells the story of the beautiful, young, Acadian, Evangeline, and her earnest and dashing fiancé Gabriel. The two grow up together in the town of Grand Pré. Both are the only children of fathers whose wives have died. On the evening of their engagement party, the British summon all the men of their village to the town’s church. There they learn that they will be expelled from their homes and shipped away. The young lovers are separated in the turmoil that follows. The remainder of the story portrays Evangeline’s undaunted quest to rejoin her beloved Gabriel.

Longfellow credited his friend and fellow author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, for giving him the idea for the story. It is based on a popular legend that they learned one evening at a dinner party. Longfellow was intrigued by the story. Hawthorne encouraged him to develop it further, claiming that he, Hawthorne, would be unable to use the tale in his own writing since it was “not in my vein.” A few years passed before Longfellow took up the project in earnest.

Longfellow had never been to Acadia, nor to other locations in the poem. To do the story justice, he spent several months researching the history of the Acadian deportation, which had occurred roughly one hundred years prior. One of his key sources was Abbé Raynal (who collaborated with the famous encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot). Raynal’s most important work was a 6-volume history of the European colonies in India and the Americas, first published in 1770.

Having studied literature while a student at Bowdoin College, Longfellow felt the story had the makings of a heroic odyssey. As such, he insisted on using dactylic hexameters, a form of meter used in Greek and Latin poetry, most notably Homer’s Illiad. He began composing shortly after the birth of his second child in November of 1845 and published the work roughly two years later in 1847.

Longfellow had already established a fine reputation before Evangeline was published. His readers embraced this latest effort and Evangeline became the poem that turned Longfellow into America’s most beloved nineteenth-century poet. As a writer, I take comfort in Longfellow’s characterization of the poem’s success.

“‘Evangeline is so easy for you to read because it was so hard for me to write.”

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A Remarkable Translation

Pamphile Le May
Pamphile Le May circa 1910

I have to admit that when I first started reading Longfellow’s Evangeline, I was surprised by its popularity. This is not to imply that I have any solid basis for judging poetry, but I was not crazy about the dactylic hexameter. The poem is long so I found an audio version on YouTube (running time over 2 hours) and began listening. The amateur narrator’s delivery only served to further dampen my enthusiasm.

I decided to download a Kindle version and started reading, but a third of the way through, I was losing focus and decided to look up the French version. This I found on the Project Gutenburg site and wow was I glad to have detoured. The author, French Canadian Pamphile LeMay, published his version of Evangeline in 1865. I use the term author, rather than translator, because I think LeMay’s version goes well beyond a normal translation. I prefer to call it a derivative work and give far more credit to LeMay than is due the typical translator.

One of the most astonishing aspects of LeMay’s retelling is that he manages to deliver the entire story in rhyme. In reading the two side by side, I felt that LeMay covered nearly every aspect of Longfellow’s original verse. In places, he embellishes certain passages. In part, I imagine, to ensure that lines continue to rhyme. However, LeMay’s additions fill in gaps that clarify and bring the story to life. Or, at least they did for me. Rather than try to describe LeMay’s ingenuity further, I’ll let his work speak for itself in the section that follows.

By the time I had finished reading both versions, I had a deeper appreciation of Longfellow’s work.

Evangeline

Below is my digested summary of Evangeline, peppered with parallel passages from both Longfellow’s and LeMay’s versions of the poem. You can find links to complete transcripts at the bottom of the page. If you want to skip my summary, click here.

Part I

Canto I

The poem opens with an idyllic depiction of life in Grand Pré. Farmers, as well as merchants, prospered in the pastoral surroundings. The Acadian population banded together as a community and saw to it that no one went without.

Thus dwelt together in love these simple Acadian farmers,—
Dwelt in the love of God and of man. Alike were they free from
Fear, that reigns with the tyrant, and envy, the vice of republics.
Neither locks had they to their doors, nor bars to their windows;
But their dwellings were open as day and the hearts of their owners;
There the richest was poor, and the poorest lived in abundance.

Où l’on goûtait la paix, le plus divin des biens.
Ainsi vivaient alors les simples Acadiens:
Leurs jours étaient nombreux et leur mort était sainte.
Libres de tout souci comme de toute crainte,
Leurs portes n’avaient point de clef ni de loquet;
Car dans l’ombre des nuits nul n’était inquiet;
Et, chez ces bonnes gens, on trouvait la demeure
Ouverte comme l’âme, à chacun, à toute heure.
Là le riche vivait avec frugalité,
Le pauvre n’avait point de nuits d’anxiété.

Evangeline and her father, Benedict, lived on a prosperous farm outside the village of Grand-Pré. Longfellow describes the many aspects of their bucolic existence. Evangeline is now 17 and has many suitors but her heart belongs to Gabriel, the son of Basil, the town’s blacksmith. Their fathers are good friends and the young lovers have played together since early childhood.

Oft in the barns they climbed to the populous nests on the rafters,
Seeking with eager eyes that wondrous stone, which the swallow
Brings from the shore of the sea to restore the sight of its fledglings;
Lucky was he who found that stone in the nest of the swallow!
Thus passed a few swift years, and they no longer were children.

Souvent sur les chevrons ou le toit de la grange
Ils montaient hardiment, cherchant la pierre étrange
Que l’hirondelle apporte à son nid, tous les ans,
Quand elle l’a trouvée au bord des océans.
Pour de ses chers petits dessiller la paupière.
Heureux qui la trouverait cette étonnante pierre!
Ainsi leurs premiers jours sans pleurs et sans ennuis,
Comme un songe doré s’étaient bien vite enfuis!

Evangeline tending the cattle
Evangeline, National Park Service photo
Canto II

Autumn comes. The harvest is plentiful. Evangeline tends her father’s herds and in evenings she weaves cloth at a loom while Benedict smokes his pipe in front of the fire and sings carols. Basil and Gabriel come to visit. Basil warns that English ships have been spotted in the harbor. He worries that they’ll be chased from their land but Benedict reassures him. Benedict feels they are safe and suggests they think only of the pending marriage of their dear children.

Map of New France
Map of New France
Canto III

Later that same night, a notary named LeBlanc arrives at Benedict’s home to prepare the nuptial papers. He’s old and bent but all the children know and love him as he’s a great teller of stories. Basil asks him if he’s heard anything regarding the English ships. The notary says he’s only heard idle gossip which is of no use to anyone. LeBlanc explains that he puts his faith in a just God. He believes that no matter what may come, justice, guided by God’s hand, will always triumph. He tells the following story to illustrate his point.

Once in an ancient city, whose name I no longer remember,
Raised aloft on a column, a brazen statue of Justice
Stood in the public square, upholding the scales in its left hand,
And in its right a sword, as an emblem that justice presided
Over the laws of the land, and the hearts and homes of the people.
Even the birds had built their nests in the scales of the balance,
Having no fear of the sword that flashed in the sunshine above them.
But in the course of time the laws of the land were corrupted;
Might took the place of right, and the weak were oppressed, and the mighty
Ruled with an iron rod. Then it chanced in a nobleman’s palace
That a necklace of pearls was lost, and erelong a suspicion
Fell on an orphan girl who lived as maid in the household.
She, after form of trial condemned to die on the scaffold,
Patiently met her doom at the foot of the statue of Justice.
As to her Father in heaven her innocent spirit ascended,
Lo! o’er the city a tempest rose; and the bolts of the thunder
Smote the statue of bronze, and hurled in wrath from its left hand
Down on the pavement below the clattering scales of the balance,
And in the hollow thereof was found the nest of a magpie,
Into whose clay-built walls the necklace of pearls was inwoven.”

«Sous le ciel africain, dans une ville antique
«On voyait autrefois, sur la place publique,
«Une haute colonne au piédestal d’airain
«Qu’avait fait élever un puissant souverain,
«Et sur cette colonne une statue en pierre,
«Figurait la justice impartiale et fière;
«Une large balance, un glaive menaçant
«Etaient ses attributs, et disaient au passant
«Que dans cette cité la suprême justice
«De l’opprimé toujours était la protectrice.
«Cependant la balance, au fond de ses plateaux,
«Voyait chaque printemps, bien des petits oiseaux
«Bâtir leur nids moelleux en chantant sans craindre
«Le glaive flamboyant qui semblait les atteindre.
«Mais petit à petit se corrompit la loi:
«Aux misères du pauvre on n’ajouta plus foi,
«Et et le faible, sans cesse en butte à l’ironie,
«Dut subir du plus fort la lâche tyrannie.
«On afficha le vice, et chaque tribunal
«Outragea l’innocence et protégea le mal.
«Un jour il arriva que certaine duchesse
«Perdit un collier neuf d’une grande richesse:
«N’ayant pu le trouver elle voulu, du moins,
«Venger avec éclat et sa perte et ses soins.
«Elle accusa de vol, en face de la ville.
«Une pauvre orpheline, une pieuse fille,
«Qui depuis de longs séjours la servait humblement.
«Le procès, pour la forme, eut lieu bien promptement
«Et le juge pervers condamna la servante
«A mourir au gibet d’une mort infamante.
«Autour de l’échafaud on vit les curieux,
«Pressés, impatients, inonder tous les lieux.
«La jeune fille vint, calme mais abattue,
«Subir son triste sort eu pied de la statue.
«Le bourreau la saisit. Au moment solennel
«Où son coeur s’élevait vers le Juge Eternel,
«Un orage mugit; l’impitoyable foudre
«Ebranle la colonne et la réduit en poudre,
«Et la balance tombe avec un sourd fracas;
«Or dans un des plateaux qui se brisent en bas
«On voit un nid brillant… c’était un nid de pie
«Dans lequel s’enlaçait avec coquetterie
«Parmi les brins de foin, le collier précieux…
«C’est ainsi qu’éclata la justice des cieux!»

Evangeline and Gabriel
Evangeline and Gabriel, by Frank Dicksee
Canto IV

The sun is shining the following morning. People come to Benedict’s house to celebrate Evangeline and Gabriel’s engagement. Michael the fiddler plays music. Dancing and laughter abound. Suddenly, the festivities are broken by ringing church bells summoning all the men to the nave. The women and children wait outside. A British commander stands at the alter and delivers the following pronouncement.

“You are convened this day,” he said, “by his Majesty’s orders.
Clement and kind has he been; but how you have answered his kindness,
Let your own hearts reply! To my natural make and my temper
Painful the task is I do, which to you I know must be grievous.
Yet must I bow and obey, and deliver the will of our monarch;
Namely, that all your lands, and dwellings, and cattle of all kinds
Forfeited be to the crown; and that you yourselves from this province
Be transported to other lands. God grant you may dwell there
Ever as faithful subjects, a happy and peaceable people!
Prisoners now I declare you; for such is his Majesty’s pleasure!”

«Vous êtes en ce jour tous assemblés ici
«Comme l’a décrété Sa Majesté chrétienne,
«Honnêtes habitants de la terre Acadienne:
«Or vous n’ignorez pas que le roi fut clément,
«Fut généreux pour vous; mais vous autres, comment
«A de si grands bienfaits osez-vous donc répondre
«Consultez votre coeur il pourra vous confondre.
«Paysans, il me reste un devoir à remplir,
«Un pénible devoir; mais dois-je donc faiblir?
«Dois-je faire à regret ce que mon roi m’ordonne?
«Je viens pour confisquer, au nom de la couronne,
«Vos maisons et vos biens avec tous vos troupeaux.
«Vous serez transportés à bord de nos vaisseaux,
«Sur un autre rivage où vous serez, j’espère,
«Un peuple obéissant, généreux et prospère.
«Vous êtes prisonniers au nom du Souverain.»

Outraged, Basil denounces the “tyrants of England” and calls for violent resistance. The soldiers take him into custody along with Gabriel. The local priest, Father Felician, tries to subdue the rising tensions, imploring his flock to remember his lessons of love and forgiveness. A mass is held and Evangeline returns to the farm where she waits for her father to appear. The evening passes with no sign of Benedict. Evangeline lies awake worrying then remembers the notary’s story. Placing her faith in a just God, she drifts off to sleep.

British soldiers announce the deportation
British soldiers announce deportation, by Charles William Jefferys
Canto V

Four days come and go with no sign of the men. On the fifth day, woman and children busily carry trunks and sack loads of belongings to the harbor to be hauled onto the ships. Suddenly, the doors to the church open. British soldiers surround a procession of Grand Pré’s imprisoned men, marching them to the shore. Evangeline waits patiently, searching for her loved ones as the grim parade approaches.

Calmly and sadly she waited, until the procession approached her,
And she beheld the face of Gabriel pale with emotion.
Tears then filled her eyes, and, eagerly running to meet him,
Clasped she his hands, and laid her head on his shoulder, and whispered,—
“Gabriel! be of good cheer! for if we love one another
Nothing, in truth, can harm us, whatever mischances may happen!”
Smiling she spake these words; then suddenly paused, for her father
Saw she slowly advancing. Alas! how changed was his aspect!
Gone was the glow from his cheek, and the fire from his eye, and his footstep
Heavier seemed with the weight of the heavy heart in his bosom.
But with a smile and a sigh, she clasped his neck and embraced him,
Speaking words of endearment where words of comfort availed not.

Elle entendit leurs pas sur la terre durcie
A leur touchant aspect son âme fut saisie
D’un pénible tourment, d’une affreuse douleur.
Elle voit Gabriel! quelle étrange pâleur
Sur sa noble figure, hélas! s’est répandue!
Elle vole vers lui, frissonnante, éperdue,
Presse ses froides mains:«Gabriel! Gabriel!
«Ne te désole point! soumettons-nous au ciel:
«Il veillera sur nous! Et que peuvent les hommes,
«Que peuvent leur desseins contre nous si nous sommes
«L’un et l’autre toujours unis par l’amitié!»
Sur ces lèvres de rose, à ces mots de pitié,
Avec grâce voltige un triste et doux sourire;
Mais voici que soudain sa chaste joie expire.
Elle tremble et pâlit. Au milieu des captifs
Elle voit un vieillard, dons les regards plaintifs
Se reposent, de loin, avec amour, sur elle:
Ce vieillard, c’est son père! Une peine mortelle,
Un profond désespoir ont altéré ses traits!
Il porte sur son front la trace des regrets:
On ne voit plus le feu jaillir de sa paupière:
Son humble vêtement est couvert de poussière.
Lui jadis si joyeux il est tout abattu!
Il parait dépouillé de force et de vertu.
Parmi ses compagnons tristement il chemine;
Il pleure en regardans sa chère Evangéline.
Puis elle, avec transport, se jette dans ses bras,
Le couvre de baisers, et s’attache à ses pas:
Mais sa voix adorable et sa tendresse
Du vieillard désolé calment peu la tristesse!

Benedict leaves the procession to join Evangeline. Meanwhile, Basil and Gabriel are loaded onto a ship that sails away. Theirs is not the only family to have been torn apart. Night falls and many are still left on the shore, waiting to embark the next day. The huddled refugees light fires to stay warm. Father Felician wanders through the crowd, comforting the frightened and heartsick. He joins Benedict and Evangeline and the three look to the stars for solace. A red bloom comes over the night and casts a fiery glow across the horizon. They turn to see Grand Pré ablaze, every rooftop consumed in flame. Transfixed and speechless they helplessly watch their city destroyed by British forces. When Evangeline finally turns from this scene of terror, she finds poor Benedict has died from the shock.

Acadians Awaiting Deportation
Acadians Awaiting Deportation, by Henri Beau

Part II

Canto I

Years pass. Evangeline is living in the American colonies. She travels up and down the eastern seaboard, looking for Gabriel. Sometimes she encounters those who claim to have met him and his father, Basil. But it’s always a distant sighting. The two are thought to be trappers that have headed west to Louisiana. (At the time, France’s Louisiana colony stretched from what is now Louisiana to Minnesota’s Canadian border and as far west as the border between Idaho and Montana.) Others, make different claims and challenge the prudence of her quest.

Then would they say,—”Dear child! why dream and wait for him longer?
Are there not other youths as fair as Gabriel? others
Who have hearts as tender and true, and spirits as loyal?
Here is Baptiste Leblanc, the notary’s son, who has loved thee
Many a tedious year; come, give him thy hand and be happy!
Thou art too fair to be left to braid St. Catherine’s tresses.”
Then would Evangeline answer, serenely but sadly, “I cannot!—
Whither my heart has gone, there follows my hand, and not elsewhere.
For when the heart goes before, like a lamp, and illumines the pathway,
Many things are made clear, that else lie hidden in darkness.”

«Pourquoi toujours l’attendre et l’adorer toujours?
«Il a peut-être, lui, renié ses amours.
«Et n’est-il pas d’ailleurs, dans nos petits villages,
«Des garçons aussi beaux et même d’aussi sages?
«Combien seraient heureux de vivre auprès de toi!
«Tu charmerais leur vie: ils béniraient ta loi.
«Et Baptiste Leblanc, le fils du vieux notaire,
«A pour toi tant d’amour qu’il ne saurait le taire;
«Donne-lui le bonheur en lui donnant ta main,
«Et que dès ici-bas ta peine ait une fin.»
A ceux qui lui tenaient ce discours raisonnable,
Elle disait pourtant: «Oh! je serais coupable!
«Puis-je donner ma main à qui n’a point mon coeur?
«L’amour est un flambeau dont la vive lueur
«Eclaire et fait briller les sentiers de la vie,
«L’âme qui n’aime pas au deuil est asservie;
«Le lien qui l’enchaîne est un lien d’airain,
«Et pour elle le ciel ne peut être serein.»

Statue of Evangeline in Grand Pré
Statue of Evangeline in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia
Canto II

Evangeline, accompanied by Father Felician, decides to join an expedition that his heading to the southern shores of Louisiana. They travel by boat down the great Mississippi River, camping along the banks at night. Eventually they reach the wide lagoons of the Louisiana swamps. The atmosphere is heavy and unfamiliar. As they wind their way through brackish and reptile-infested waters, trees covered with Spanish moss hover over their path.

Dreamlike, and indistinct, and strange were all things around them;
And o’er their spirits there came a feeling of wonder and sadness,—
Strange forebodings of ill, unseen and that cannot be compassed.
As, at the tramp of a horse’s hoof on the turf of the prairies,
Far in advance are closed the leaves of the shrinking mimosa,
So, at the hoof-beats of fate, with sad forebodings of evil,
Shrinks and closes the heart, ere the stroke of doom has attained it.
But Evangeline’s heart was sustained by a vision, that faintly
Floated before her eyes, and beckoned her on through the moonlight.
It was the thought of her brain that assumed the shape of a phantom.
Through those shadowy aisles had Gabriel wandered before her,
And every stroke of the oar now brought him nearer and nearer.

Voguant silencieux les malheureux proscrits
Sentirent un grand trouble entrer dans leurs esprits;
Le noir pressentiment d’un mal inévitable
Leur fit paraître encore ce lieu plus redoutable;
Et leurs coeurs, effrayés des menaces du sort,
Se serrèrent soudain et tremblèrent plus fort;
De même que l’on voit la frêle sensitive
Replier sa corolle et se pencher craintive,
Quand, au loin dans la plaine, un coursier au galop,
Fait retentir le sol de son poudreux sabot.
Mais une vision gracieuse et divine
Vint distraire et charmer l’âme d’Evangéline.
Sa brûlante pensée avait pris un beau corps:
Un fantôme brillant devant ses yeux alors,
Flottait, avec mollesse aux rayons de la lune,
Et semblait lui sourire en sa longue infortune.
Celui qu’elle voyait dans cette vision,
Que la lune d’argent portait sur un rayon,
C’était le fiancé que demandait son âme!
Il lui tendait les bras, et chaque coup de rame
Semblait le rapprocher du fragile bateau
Qui glissait lentement, en silence, sur l’eau.

The oarsmen row through the night while Evangeline doses in the boat. The next day they emerge from the shadows and enter the Atchafalaya River basin. The sun is shining and Longfellow describes the flowering beauty that surrounds them. The heat of the day and the scent of roses, magnolias, and water lilies, drive the oarsmen to rest. They moor their boat to a tree and all sleep beneath its boughs which are covered with flowering vines that extend to the water like a protective drape.

As they nap, a party of trappers passes nearby, rowing northward. At the helm of their boat is Gabriel who fails to spot the hidden slumberers. Once Gabriel’s boat has drifted out of earshot, Evangeline’s party awakes. Evangeline is convinced that she is close to Gabriel and her party continues their journey southward.

Illustration from Evangeline
Illustration from Longfellow’s Evangeline
Canto III

Evangeline and Father Felician come upon the house of a herdsman, located close to the shore. Again, Longfellow paints an idyllic picture of a simple but prosperous existence, this time describing the life of the herdsman.

Then, as the herdsman turned to the house, through the gate of the garden
Saw he the forms of the priest and the maiden advancing to meet him.
Suddenly down from his horse he sprang in amazement, and forward
Rushed with extended arms and exclamations of wonder;
When they beheld his face, they recognized Basil the blacksmith.

Mais comme il arrivait sur son cheval superbe
En suivant le sentier qui serpentait dans l’herbe,
Il vit venir vers lui, marchant avec lenteur,
La vierge souriante et l’auguste pasteur,
Saisi d’étonnement et transporté d’ivresse,
Il saute de cheval avec grâce et prestesse,
Et court au-devant d’eux en leur ouvrant ses bras.
Les voyageurs, d’abord, ne le connaissant pas;
Se demandent entre eux quel est cet aimable hôte,
Et sont heureux d’avoir abordé cette côte.
Mais leur incertitude au plaisir a cédé;
Comme un vase trop plein leur coeur a débordé!
Sous les traits rembrunis de ce vieux pâtre agile
Leurs yeux ont reconnu le forgeron Basile!

The long-separated friends are overjoyed to once again be together. Evangeline, however, is crushed to learn that Gabriel has left that very morning. Basil reassures her. He knows of Gabriel’s plans and promises that they can leave the next morning and overtake him on his journey. That night they celebrate. Michael, the fiddler from Grand Pré, arrives and serenades the gathering. While Basil and Father Felician catch up on the other’s adventures, Evangeline wanders away from the revelers.

As, through the garden gate, and beneath the shade of the oak-trees,
Passed she along the path to the edge of the measureless prairie.
Silent it lay, with a silvery haze upon it, and fire-flies
Gleaming and floating away in mingled and infinite numbers.
Over her head the stars, the thoughts of God in the heavens,
Shone on the eyes of man who had ceased to marvel and worship,
Save when a blazing comet was seen on the walls of that temple,
As if a hand had appeared and written upon them, “Upharsin.”
And the soul of the maiden, between the stars and the fire-flies,
Wandered alone, and she cried,—”O Gabriel! O my beloved!
Art thou so near unto me, and yet I cannot behold thee?
Art thou so near unto me, and yet thy voice does not reach me?
Ah! how often thy feet have trod this path to the prairie!
Ah! how often thine eyes have looked on the woodlands around me!
Ah! how often beneath this oak, returning from labor,
Thou hast lain down to rest and to dream of me in thy slumbers!
When shall these eyes behold, these arms be folded about thee?”

Comme une main de flamme écrivant un arrêt.
L’âme d’Evangéline, humble et souffrante, errait
Dans les champs infinis où rayonne l’étoile,
Comme au milieu des mers une barque sans voile.
La vierge s’écria: «Gabriel! Gabriel!
«Où mènes-tu tes pas? Où te conduit le ciel?
«N’entends-tu pas, ami, ma voix qui se lamente?
«Ne devines-tu point que tu fuis ton amante?
«Je te cherche partout, nulle part ne te vois!
«J’écoute tous les sons et n’entends point ta voix!
«Oh! que de fois ton pied, solitaire et morose,
«A foulé ce chemin que de mes pleurs j’arrose!
«A l’ombre de ce chêne, oh! que de fois, le soir,
«Fatigué du travail, es-tu venu t’asseoir,
«Pendant que loin de toi, sur la mousse endormie,
«En rêve te voyait ta malheureuse amie!
«Que de fois sur ces prés ton anxieux regard
«Erra comme le mien, vers le soir, au hasard!
«Gabriel! Gabriel! oh! quand te reverrai-je?
«Quand donc, mon bien-aimé te retrouverai-je?»

The next day, Basil and Evangeline set off in search of Gabriel. They travel for several days with no trace of him. One evening they reach a village that Basil knows to lie on Gabriel’s path. There they learn that Gabriel has come and gone. Regrettably, they have missed him by one day. He left the previous morning, this time on horseback, heading across the prairie.

The Acadians in the Achafalaya
The Acadians in the Achafalaya, “Evangeline”, by Joseph Meeker
Canto IV

Now Evangeline and Basil are joined by Native American guides. Longfellow describes both the beauty of the prairie and the dangers that lurk there, wild animals and savage tribes. Their guides faithfully lead them along Gabriel’s path. In the mornings, they can sometimes see smoke from a distant campfire but by evening, the exhausted travelers must bed down without having attained their goal. Then one night, a Shawnee woman wanders into their camp.

Into the little camp an Indian woman, whose features
Wore deep traces of sorrow, and patience as great as her sorrow.
She was a Shawnee woman returning home to her people,
From the far-off hunting-grounds of the cruel Camanches,
Where her Canadian husband, a Coureur-des-Bois, had been murdered.
Touched were their hearts at her story, and warmest and friendliest welcome
Gave they, with words of cheer, and she sat and feasted among them
On the buffalo-meat and the venison cooked on the embers.
But when their meal was done, and Basil and all his companions,
Worn with the long day’s march and the chase of the deer and the bison,
Stretched themselves on the ground, and slept where the quivering fire-light
Flashed on their swarthy cheeks, and their forms wrapped up in their blankets
Then at the door of Evangeline’s tent she sat and repeated
Slowly, with soft, low voice, and the charm of her Indian accent,
All the tale of her love, with its pleasures, and pains, and reverses.
Much Evangeline wept at the tale, and to know that another
Hapless heart like her own had loved and had been disappointed.

C’était une Shawnée. Elle allait aux montagnes
Rejoindre ses parents et ses jeunes compagnes
Qu’elle avait dû quitter pour suivre son époux
A la chasse aux castors, aux ours, aux caribous,
Jusqu’aux lieux où l’hiver étend son aile blanche.
Mais elle avait vu, là, le féroce Comanche,
Enivré de fureur, du tomahawk armé,
Massacrer, sous ses yeux, son mari bien-aimé,
Un fier Visage-Pâle, un Canadien paisible.
Aucun des voyageurs ne parut insensible
Au récit de la femme, à son affliction;
Ils lui dirent des mots de consolation,
Et la firent asseoir à leur table modeste
Quand la braise eut doré le chevreuil gras et leste.
Lassés du poids du jour et du poids des ennuis,
Quand le repas fut fait, que le voile des nuits
Eut ouvert, sous le ciel, ses grands replis humides,
L’exilé d’Acadie et ses sauvages guides
Livrèrent au repos leurs membres fatigués.
Pendant que les reflets capricieux et gais
Du brasier allumé dans la vaste prairie
Jouaient sur leur front blême et leur joue amaigrie,
La Sauvagesse, vint, l’âme pleine de deuil,
S’asseoir sur le gazon devant l’agreste seuil
De la tente où veillait la triste Evangéline,
Puis elle fit entendre à la vierge orpheline,
Le récit douloureux de ses derniers malheurs.
Elle lui répéta, les yeux noyés de pleurs,
Et de cette voix grave, humble et mélancolique
Qui distingue partout l’enfant de l’Amérique,
Sa première espérance et ses félicités,
Son amour, son hymen et ses adversités;
Comme elle avait de joie et de peur d’être mère,
Et plaignait son enfant de n’avoir point de père!
Evangéline, émue à ces tristes discours,
Donna, pendant longtemps, à ses pleurs libre cours.
Elle voyait près d’elle une autre infortunée,
Une femme aux chagrins comme elle destinée;
Un coeur brûlant d’amour déçu, blessé, flétri,
Et privé pour jamais de son objet chéri.
Les liens du malheur unirent ces deux femmes,
Et d’intimes rapports enchaînèrent leurs âmes.

They learn of a nearby Jesuit mission and Evangeline directs the party to head there, feeling that her heart is pointing her in the right direction. When they arrive, the priest informs them that Gabriel has been to the mission but left 6 days ago, heading north to hunt for game. He has pledged to return in the spring, however, and Evangeline decides to wait for him. Basil goes back to Louisiana.

Summer, autumn, winter, and another spring pass. Still, Gabriel does not come. Then Evangeline gets word that Gabriel has established a lodge by the banks of the Saginaw River in Michigan. She decides to try and find him there. Unfortunately, after years of difficult travel, Evangeline finds Gabriel’s lodge burned to the ground. Her hair now contains strands of silver. Her face is worn with wrinkles of worry. She decides that she must begin a new life, one that does not include Gabriel.

Evangeline reaches Michigan
Evangeline reaches Michigan and finds only embers, illustration from Longfellow’s Evangeline
Canto V

Evangeline ends up in Philadelphia and lives among nuns, spending her days serving the poor, sick, and hungry. Yellow fever is rampant in the city and the poor are its most vulnerable victims. Decades have passed and she’s forgotten about Gabriel. Here the French version differs from the English because LeMay does not allow his heroine to forget about her true love. He adds verses describing how Evangeline still pines for Gabriel and often thinks she’s spotted him in the crowded city, only to be denied yet again.

However, both versions accord that Evangeline is a devoted servant of the Sisters of Mercy. As the pandemic worsens, she spends her days visiting the wards of the sick, soothing the dying, and gently closing the sightless eyes of the dead.

On the pallet before her was stretched the form of an old man.
Long, and thin, and gray were the locks that shaded his temples;
But, as he lay in the morning light, his face for a moment
Seemed to assume once more the forms of its earlier manhood;
So are wont to be changed the faces of those who are dying.
Hot and red on his lips still burned the flush of the fever,
As if life, like the Hebrew, with blood had besprinkled its portals,
That the Angel of Death might see the sign, and pass over.
Motionless, senseless, dying, he lay, and his spirit exhausted
Seemed to be sinking down through infinite depths in the darkness,
Darkness of slumber and death, forever sinking and sinking.
Then through those realms of shade, in multiplied reverberations,
Heard he that cry of pain, and through the hush that succeeded
Whispered a gentle voice, in accents tender and saint-like,
“Gabriel! O my beloved!” and died away into silence.
Then he beheld, in a dream, once more the home of his childhood;
Green Acadian meadows, with sylvan rivers among them,
Village, and mountain, and woodlands; and, walking under their shadow,
As in the days of her youth, Evangeline rose in his vision.
Tears came into his eyes; and as slowly he lifted his eyelids,
Vanished the vision away, but Evangeline knelt by his bedside.
Vainly he strove to whisper her name, for the accents unuttered
Died on his lips, and their motion revealed what his tongue would have spoken.
Vainly he strove to rise; and Evangeline, kneeling beside him,
Kissed his dying lips, and laid his head on her bosom.
Sweet was the light of his eyes; but it suddenly sank into darkness,
As when a lamp is blown out by a gust of wind at a casement.
All was ended now, the hope, and the fear, and the sorrow,
All the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing,
All the dull, deep pain, and constant anguish of patience!
And, as she pressed once more the lifeless head to her bosom,
Meekly she bowed her own, and murmured, “Father, I thank thee!”

Prés d’elle sur un lit où tomba son regard
On venait de porter un grand et beau vieillard;
Mais il était mourant, et sa joue était creuse;
Des cheveux gris tombaient sur sa tempe fiévreuse.
Et dans le même instant un reflet du soleil,
En luisant sur son front le rendait plus vermeil,
Paraissait effacer les rides du vieil âge,
Et rendre la jeunesse à son pâle visage.
Il était là, gisant immobile et sans voix,
Son regard suspendu sur la petite croix
Qui se trouvait au pied de sa brûlante couche.
La fièvre d’un trait rouge environnait sa bouche.
On eût dit que la vie, ainsi que les Hébreux.
Avait mis sur sa porte un sang tout généreux
Pour que l’ange de mort retint son large glaive.
Ses pensers se perdaient dans un vague et long rêve;
Un râle fatigant, court et précipité
Soulevait sa poitrine avec rapidité;
Ses yeux étaient couverts de nuages funèbres;
Ses esprits se plongeaient en de lourdes ténèbres,
Ténèbres d’agonie et ténèbres de mort.
Au long cri que jeta la vierge en son transport,
Il sembla secouer sa morne léthargie
Et retrouver encor quelque reste de vie.
Alors il crut ouïr comme une voix du ciel,
Une voix qui disait: «Gabriel! Gabriel!
«Je te retrouve enfin, et nous mourons ensemble!»
Et cette voix vibrait, comme l’airain qui tremble.
Dans un songe, aussitôt, il fit, comme autrefois,
La terre d’Acadie et ses verdoyants bois,
Et ses ruisseaux d’argent, ses prés et ses villages,
Et le toit de son père au milieu des feuillages,
Et son Evangéline allant à son côté,
Dans toute sa jeunesse et toute sa beauté,
Sur la prairie en fleurs ou le long des rivières!…
Des pleurs viennent mouiller ses débiles paupières…
Il entr’ouvre les yeux, les porte autour de lui:
La douce vision, hélas! a déjà fui!
Mais auprès de sa couche, humble et mélancolique,
Il voit, agenouillée, une forme angélique.
Et c’est Evangéline!… Il veut dire son nom,
Mais sa langue ne peut murmurer qu’un vain son
Dans un dernier transport, il attache sur elle
Un regard où l’amour au désespoir se mêle;
Il veut lever la tête et lui tendre la main,
Aussitôt il retombe, et tout effort est vain!
Seulement un sourire éclaire sa figure
Quand de la vierge il sent la lèvre chaude et pure
Se poser sur sa lèvre et sur son front brûlant.
Son regard se ranime et devient plus brillants;
Mais ce n’est qu’un éclair! On le voit se déteindre:
C’est la lampe qui brille au moment de s’éteindre,
Le flambeau consumé que réveille un vent frais:
Il pâlit, il se voile, il se ferme à jamais!
Et tout était fini: la crainte et l’espérance,
Les fidèles amours et la longue souffrance!
Evangéline en pleurs resta pieusement
Près des restes sacrés de son fidèle amant.
Une dernière fois, dans l’angoisse abîmée,
Elle prit dans ses mains la tête inanimée,
Doucement la pressa contre son coeur transi
Et dit, penchant son front: O mon père merci!

Longfellow’s version of Evangeline ends much the way it began, describing the primeval forests of Acadia and the people that live there. This new group of homesteaders hold to a different set of traditions and speak a different language. But, far from their settlements, a few surviving stragglers from the French colonial past still quietly maintain their ancestors’ way of life and retell Evangeline’s story by the light of the evening fire.

LeMay’s ending paints a more vivid picture of life for the Acadian farmers that continue to live in the far reaches of northeastern Canada. He also adds a new detail, noting that far from the shores of Nova Scotia, lies an unmarked grave, where both Evangeline and Gabriel are buried side by side.

Evangeline finds Gabriel in the hospital
“Evangeline Discovering Her Affianced in the Hospital”, by Samuel Richards

Longfellow’s Reaction to LeMay’s Work

Longfellow must have read LeMay’s recreation shortly after publication and it appears he knew French well because he wrote to LeMay in French in October of 1865. Longfellow congratulated LeMay for his fine work and complimented his poetic talent. He expressed deep gratitude and thanked LeMay for not only choosing to labor over his long and winding verse but also for the added details that LeMay had inserted in the story.

Longfellow did, however, identify one small point of contention. In LeMay’s original version, Evangeline dies from grief in the immediate aftermath of Gabriel’s death. Longfellow politely expresses this sole reservation, but quickly adds that he in no way means to criticize the work.

“Mon but n’est pas de critiquer, mais de vous remercier et de vous dire combien je suis heureux de l’honneur que vous m’avez fait.”

“My goal is not to criticize but to thank you and to tell you how happy I am about the honor you have brought to my work.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in letter to Pamphile LeMay, October 1865

Moved by Longfellow’s praises, LeMay decided to modify the poem and remove Evangeline’s death. The version I’ve used for this post is from the second edition, published in 1870.

Endnote

I hope you have enjoyed learning the story of Evangeline and the two great writers that distilled it into verse. It bothers me immensely that to this day, LeMay is only recognized as a translator—even by the French. Indeed, his Wikipedia page lists many of his works but Evangeline is not among them! There is only a brief mention of the fact that he translated the poem after the birth of his daughter, who he’d named Evangeline.

If you’ve made it this far and can spare a few more minutes, I think you’ll enjoy this beautiful rendition of Evangeline’s story, put into song by Marie-Jo Theriot.

Other resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

10 Comments

  1. Wow, interesting! What a lot of work you put into your posts!

  2. I continue to be wowed by your blog. Every time I visit here I learn something I would never have picked up elsewhere. Thank you for the excellent work you do, and for making the world a more interesting place.

    • Thanks Laura. So far I’ve really enjoyed working on it. My family can attest to my enthusiasm which sometimes borders on nutty. I’m glad to know a few others that appreciate the subject matter. Take care.

  3. Thank you for writing this! It’s an incredible, gripping story about a piece of history I barely knew about, and deeply evokes the tragedy of the refugee experience. Sometimes “enthusiasm which sometimes borders on nutty” produces the most fascinating work. It’s an epic post.

  4. Loved the juxtaposition of the two poets’ renditions. The story was a revelation.

  5. Emma @ Words And Peace

    Fascinating. Thanks for all the in-depth information you provide here. I have never read it, sounds like I’m missing on something for sure

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