Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Longfellow's Evangeline - is this poetry?

"Thatched were the roofs, with dormer-windows; and gables projecting
Over the basement below protected and shaded the doorway."

That there is some poetry, courtesy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (1847), Part I, Canto 1. Some people say that you really have to read poetry aloud to appreciate it. Give that a shot. Any better? No?

The meter is the problem, I guess. Evangeline is in dactylic hexameter, an epic meter, used by Homer and Virgil. In English, it's just prose. Rhythmic prose, but still. Suggestions of exceptions are most welcome.

Longfellow could do a lot better than that dormer and gable stuff. Here's a blacksmith:

"There at the door they stood, with wondering eyes to behold him
Take in his leathern lap the hoof of the horse as a plaything,
Nailing the shoe in its place; while near him the tire of the cart-wheel
Lay like a fiery snake, coiled round in a circle of cinders." (I.1.)

The fiery snake is nice, as is the little flash of characterization of the blacksmith. I even hear a hint of poetry at the end. This is good rhythmic prose. Or how about this description of a Louisiana swamp:

"Lovely the moonlight was as it glanced and gleamed on the water,
Gleamed on the columns of cypress and cedar sustaining the arches,
Down through whose broken vaults it fell as through chinks in a ruin." (II.1.)

Actually, the whole section from which I took that passage is pretty good.

Evangeline ia a long (60 pages or so) narrative poem, based on a terrible event in Canadian history, when the British forcibly evicted the French settlers from part of Nova Scotia. Today, we call this ethnic cleansing. In Longfellow's poem a young woman is separated from her husband and devotes her life to searching for him. Late in the poem, her search takes on a mythic quality that effectively deepens the meaning of the story.

It's a good story. It's easy to see why it was so popular for so long. I have trouble seeing how it would have been much different in prose.


  1. Your reading list is great. I've been interested in Boston lately and started reading The Dante Club, which seems a bit cheesy--not the best, most thoughtful word for it, but I haven't gotten too far in the story--but it's backed up by substantial knowledge of the period and it's fun to see Lowell, OW Holmes, Fields, and Longfellow walking around and in their element. So I was just reading an early scene set at Longfellow's house and didn't get too far in thinking about him, but the respect that he commanded was very real, and it's a bit strange to have seen it significantly eclipsed in our day. Great stuff, nice comment about the poetry--I suppose the meter is a vessel for his poetic "spirit," but he was fighting against the current of prose and realism. I lot of people were walking around thinking they were poets (Annie Fields was one), but Longfellow was more than successful enough not to abandon the general format.

    Carlyle/Tennyson/Browning : Emerson/Longfellow/(Whitman?) Hard to even come up with the terms for comparison, and a challenge for Longfellow to match up.

  2. It's still popular. At least, to fans of Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson and Emmylou Harris. Which I am. Ah, yes, I suddenly remember that RR is Canadian. And a lightbulb goes on over my cartoony little head. That explains it.

    "Evangeline of the maritime was slowly going insane..."

  3. One reason Evangeline is in verse is that poetry had a higher status than prose. Still does, I guess, but not to the same degree. Hawthorne actually supplied Longfellow with the idea for the poem - it's in Hawthorne's American Notebooks somewhere.

    The decline of the New England Fireside Poets is a real puzzle - until you read them! Ha ha! No, I'm kidding, it's actually a pretty interesting question - it provides a lot of information about changes in literary taste, if nothing else. Same with the WD Howells books you (zhiv) have been reading.

    That's funny stuff, those old Romantic attachments to Evangeline by aged songwriters (and good for them and why not). They would still have been assigned the poem in school. What books are the current young Romantics writing about?

  4. Well, I know that the Decemberists (the band, not the Russians) have clearly read "Bee Season" because they have a song all about Myla Goldberg. I think all those indie bands are McSweeney's fiends so they're probably being inspired by Michael Chabon, Daniel Handler (in his non-Lemony incarnation), Sarah Vowell and so forth. Actually, that reminds me -- you probably knew this -- but apparently Handler is a great friend of Stephin Merritt, so at least the neo-Romantic Magnetic Fields are very very influenced by a certain ironic strain of current literature. And now that Kelly and I are putting out records under the Love Garden name, I can tell you that Ad Astra Per Aspera is quite taken with Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and the Bronte sisters.

  5. There is Poe's attempt (from The Rationale of Verse) at a "truly Greek hexameter":

    Do tell! when may we hope to make men of sense out of the Pundits

    Born and brought up with their snouts deep down in the mud of the Frog-pond?

    Why ask? who ever yet saw money made out of a fat old —

    Jew, or downright upright nutmegs out of a pine-knot?

  6. Paul, thanks, I hadn't gotten to "The Rationale of Verse" yet. Poe really lays into Longfellow and other "Frog-Pond" professors. This is after his weird plagiarism spat with Longfellow, though, so I don't quite trust Poe on the subject.

    As for Poe's hexameter, though - great stuff. Also, sort of terrible, but then ths is Poe we're talking about.