Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: The Children's Poet -- And More

Photogaph by
Julia Margaret Cameron
in Public Domain

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing for Sacramento/San Francisco Book Review, Sydelle Pearl's lovely book, Dear Mr. Longfellow, Letters to and from the Childrens Poet.  I was particularly interested in that book (we get to choose from an extensive list) because in school I had learned "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." At home, my mother had read The Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem, to my brother and me when we were children, and I had never forgotten the tom-tom beat in the lines of Hiawatha.

Pearl's book charmed me. She interspersed bits and pieces of Longfellow's life with the letters children wrote to him and his replies. (You can read the review, now at City Book Review, HERE.) I hadn't thought of him as a "children's poet," but apparently children loved his poems.

Longfellow (February 27, 1807 - March 24, 1882), was a Victorian Era poet and has been considered one of America's greatest poets. "The Children's Hour," a poem written to his three daughters, is still one of the sweetest poems I've ever read, and you can read it HERE. A versatile poet, he also went on to write a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, published in 1867.

When my husband and I went on a cruise along the St. Lawrence River last October, I had the opportunity to purchase a copy of Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, another epic poem, this one a tragic love story, and perhaps Longfellow's most famous poem. I was intrigued, because the poem is about the historic deportations of Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755-1763, and our cruise actually stopped at two cities in Nova Scotia: Sydney and Halifax. (You can read a little more about the Nova Scotia part of our cruise HERE.)

Coincidentally, one of the women on our cruise was Cajun. Cajuns' ancestors were the Arcadians who were expelled from Arcadia by the British after the French and Indian War, primarily because they wouldn't take an oath of allegiance that might commit them to fighting the French in the future. Some went to Louisiana, some to Texas, some back to France and then Louisiana. Generations later, some families returned to Canada and live there today.

I'm a history buff, and so, after hearing the history and meeting someone with distant ties to the subject matter, of course I had to buy the book.

Evangeline is written in a very different form from either "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" or The Song of Hiawatha. The meter is "dactylic hexameter" or "heroic hexameter", a form used in the Greek epics (think the Iliad) or Latin epics (think Virgil's Aenid), neither of which I have read, because I always found those long masterpieces daunting. I do have to admit that Evangeline is a tough read. For example, compare:

        "Listen, my children, and you shall hear
         The midnight ride of Paul Revere . . ."


         "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee,
          By the shining Big-Sea-Water . . ."


          "In the Acadian land, on the shores of the Basin of Minas,
          Distant, secluded, still, the little village of Grand-Pré
          Lay in the fruitful valley. Vast meadows stretched to the eastward . . ."

          Beautiful and haunting writing, yes, but 77 pages of it was taxing at times. Still, it's an extremely moving tale of unforgettable, star-crossed lovers, the way Romeo and Juliet are unforgettable. No daggers or poison, here, only the separation of Gabrielle and Evangeline during the Arcadian expulsion. They are separated when the villagers are all rounded up and loaded onto ships. They are reunited by accident when Evangeline -- who has joined the Sisters of Mercy, after years of searching for him -- finds her beloved Gabrielle in Philiadelphia, a victim in the smallpox epidemic. He dies in her arms, and she dies soon after.

Evangeline is apparently based on a true story: The "Gabrielle" of the poem was based on Louis Areceneaux. "Evangeline" was based on an orphan named Emmaline, whose adoptive family went first to Maryland then to Louisiana.

The particular edition of Evangeline I have is a paperback, published by Nimbus Publishing, You can get a copy of the book HERE.

In the meantime, Longfellow still ranks as one of my favorite American poets.

Do you have favorite poems or poets? Please share one or two. I'm always on the look-out for a good poetic read.