by Christoph Irmscher

Published on 11/28/ 2016


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), one of the most popular poems in the history of American literature, began its life not in the “forest primeval” it so skillfully evokes, but at the dinner table in Longfellow’s stately house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow’s former classmate from Bowdoin, had come for a visit, and bringing with him a friend, the Reverend Horace Conolly. Conolly for quite a while had been trying to get Hawthorne interested in a story that one of his parishioners had shared with him: a heart-wrenching tale about the expulsion of thousands of Acadians from their homeland and, more particularly, about the desperate efforts of a young Acadian woman to be reunited with her lover.

When Longfellow heard the story that night, he was immediately captivated. It was, he said, “the best illustration of the faithfulness and constancy of woman that I have ever heard or read.” If he did not want the incident for one of his tales, Longfellow said to Hawthorne, “let me at least have it for a poem.” Hawthorne agreed, and a few years later Evangeline was published, to great acclaim.
Evangeline, By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The generous circulating and sharing of goods—of work and pleasure, of food, drink, songs, and tales—are the hallmarks of Acadian culture as Longfellow paints it in the first few pages of his poem. Our eyes travel over their vast meadows, lush orchards, and fertile fields of flax, their barns bursting with hay, the numberless flocks on their pastures. Good fences make good neighbors, we like to say, but that is not how Longfellow tells us the Acadians lived—their doors had no locks, their windows no bars, and their dwellings were as open as their hearts: “There the richest was poor, and the poorest lived in abundance.”
At night, resting from the labors of the day, the Acadians would assemble by their fireplaces and sing ancient songs while the spinning wheels clacked and the clocks ticked. Or they would listen to the tales told by Rene Leblanc, the wizened village notary, about the loup-garou (werewolf) in the forest, of goblins that brought the horses water at night, or of ghosts of unbaptized children that haunted their dreams. They would hear how the oxen suddenly started talking on Christmas Eve and how a spider shut up in a nutshell would cure a fever.

But the story that trumped all others was the one about the orphan girl who, long ago in the old country, was suspected of having stolen a pearl necklace from a nobleman’s palace and was burned to death. As her spirit ascended, the bronze statue of justice in the town square shattered and the scales it held in its left hand clattered to the ground, revealing, in the cracks of the pavement, the nest of a magpie and, in the nest’s lining, the missing necklace. The stories told and listened to by the Acadians—stories that spoke of fear and suffering, but also of miracles and healing and justice finally rendered (though too little and too late)—reflect in miniature the tale that Longfellow himself wanted to tell with his poem: a tale about loss and the hope for a recovery, however faint, insufficient, imperfect.

To be sure, the losses that Longfellow’s poem records are tremendous. The French-speaking Acadians had settled in the course of the 17th century on the eastern coast of Canada, eventually becoming pawns in the endless power struggle over that territory between the French and the English. Their expulsion—ordered by the British in 1755—turned farmers and craftsmen who had become solidly rooted in their environment into instant refugees. The “grand dérangement,” as it is appropriately known, was a brutal event that has assumed mythical dimensions in the collective memory of French Canada. Families were broken up and scattered. Longfellow’s poem describes the expulsion as what it was: a genocide that left the shores of the bay littered with the bodies of the dead. Who could forget the horrifying image of the fire consuming the village of Grand-Pré as a dark moon rose over its roofs and flames burst through the thick sheets of smoke “like the quivering hands of a martyr”?
While some Acadians—represented by Basil the Blacksmith in Longfellow’s poem—eventually settled in Louisiana, others continued to wander across the continent. Evangeline, searching for traces of her lover, Gabriel, from the swamps of the South to the prairies of the West to the cities of the East, where the only reminders of trees are the streets named after them, became the patron saint for exiles all over the world, a symbol for the terrible price that enforced displacement exacts to this day from migrants anywhere. At the foot of the Ozarks, a Shawnee woman enters Evangeline’s makeshift camp and tells her about her lost—indeed, murdered—lover, and the stories and tears both women share are among the most intensely egalitarian moments in all of American literature.

Longfellow had never seen Acadia, just as he had not been to the Ozarks or to Louisiana, with its “sluggish waters” and trees festooned with Spanish moss that he so memorably evokes in the second part of the poem. But the mind of this most cosmopolitan of American poets went wherever it wanted to go. In a bitterly ironic twist, he chose to end his poem in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, where Evangeline and Gabriel finally meet again, although too late to enjoy their union. But, as the pacific and incorrigibly optimistic Longfellow would argue, even justice that comes too late is worth the wait. The dead bodies of Evangeline and Gabriel resting in their graves in the little Catholic cemetery at the heart of Quaker City are a reminder to all of us that the best and most authentic stories we share aren’t the easier ones.

In Evangeline, Longfellow wanted to write an American epic, and he succeeded. Classical hexameters don’t work well in English, but to Longfellow, occasional clumsiness seemed a risk worth taking. Forget about the details—the lines that may sound contrived and awkward today—and think instead about the challenge that the poem must have posed to the reading sensibilities of the American public in 1847: an English poem written in classical meter about the displacement of a Francophone community, featuring not a male protagonist (Gabriel might be one of the dullest characters in the history of the epic) but a powerfully determined woman whose resolve never weakens, even as she ages before our eyes.
Longfellow’s poem ends as it began, mournfully, as the murmuring forest laments the absence of those who, in better days, dwelled in its leafy shadows. The thatched-roofed comfort of the Acadians has long yielded to another culture, “with other customs and language.” But some Acadians are still there, carrying on with their lives, and now—and here Longfellow self-consciously envisions his poem’s afterlife—the stories they tell each other also include, as indeed they do to this day, the one about the resilient Evangeline.

“Sais tu, Acadie, j’ai le mal du pays Ta neige, Acadie, fait des larmes au soleil” (You know, Acadia, I am homesick for you Your snow, Acadia, makes tears in the sun) -Longfellow in Evangaline

That same sense of pain has more recently pervaded the poignant photographs of modern Acadia taken by Mark Marchesi, an unforgettable, brilliant tribute to the persistence of Longfellow’s vision even in our century. Loss and loneliness have written themselves into the crumbling paint, shattered windows, and broken roofs of abandoned houses; into the docked fishing boats and empty churches, the mist-shrouded bays and darkening clouds that Marchesi’s camera has captured.

The sun is setting over these landscapes emptied of human presence, painting them pink with soft despair—a quiet reminder that words alone cannot undo the terrible damage wrought by history. And yet, on another level, Marchesi’s work too becomes a part—an important and hopeful one—of a continuing, vibrant tradition of stories woven around a landscape that the poet Longfellow, more than 150 years ago, imagined as forever filled with a dreamy and magical light.


Evangeline and I first met in a moment of serendipity. In early 2012 I was skimming Longfellow’s collected works for passages to inspire a seemingly unrelated project about his birthplace and my adopted home, Portland, Maine. Only a few days earlier I had received notice of acceptance to an artist residency in Nova Scotia. My original intent was to photograph intertidal landscapes, but the approaching trip was about to take a much more ambitious direction.
Having no prior knowledge of Evangeline or the expulsion of the Acadians—the historical event upon which the poem is based—I stumbled upon the epic and was instantly captivated. I studied up on the deportation and read the poem repeatedly. I went to work photographing the Canadian province in June with Longfellow’s words ringing in my ears.

The mission to create a modern visual representation of the Acadia described by Longfellow in 1847 would draw me back to the region four times in as many years. The poet never visited Nova Scotia, but his vivid descriptions of the landscape could not have been more accurate. And the feelings of loss and desolation that the poem evokes still haunt the region today.

Nova Scotia is one of three provinces in eastern Canada known collectively as the Maritimes. It is a narrow peninsula almost entirely surrounded by the sea. Most of the images in this book are taken along the roadway dubbed the Evangeline Trail, the name being evidence of the importance of Longfellow’s poem to the history of the province. This road traverses the western shore from Yarmouth in the south to the hallowed site of Grand-Pré on the shore of Minas Basin, a branch of the Bay of Fundy. Here, the largest tidal range in the world transforms the coastal landscape by exposing and recovering vast expanses of the sea floor twice daily. It feels as if the whole ocean is breathing in and out, in a semi-diurnal cadence. The rich valleys and lowlands are highly cultivated, while still feeling wild.

Eagles hunt from coastal pine trees, seals lounge on sun-warmed rocks, and the wind can be unrelenting. Fog banks lurk around lush green headlands, creeping into coves and sweeping across the flats. Nestled into the scenery, a stoic culture, descended from Acadian settlers who were allowed to return from exile in the late 18th century, has adapted to living in harmony with the harsh elements.

Life for the Acadians has never been easy. They have fought and toiled for everything they have. But as one travels through Nova Scotia today, the abundance of vacant properties and waning commerce in some areas suggest that forces beyond their control are once again putting a strain on the peaceful enclave.

“The abundance of vacant properties and waning commerce in some areas suggest that forces beyond their control are once again putting a strain on the peaceful enclave.”

Longfellow’s Evangeline is based on a true story about loss and displacement. It is about a thriving village raised out of an inhospitable landscape by the hands of an industrious group of settlers, then eliminated in one abrupt event. Today along the Western Shore, a similar story is slowly unfolding. Many communities that were built with pride by the hands of a generation that banded together to take back their homeland a century ago are again declining in population as economic hardships stifle growth.
I am weaving a visual narrative implying that these conditions have brought on a new migration of Acadians away from their homeland. It is a gradual exodus compared with the Expulsion, but disturbing nonetheless. The decaying Victorian houses, deserted commercial fishing ports, and haunting primordial landscapes—these are all verses in my own modern tale of Acadia.