The Defining Myth
The story of the Acadian migration has spurred many tales and myths including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s renowned poem, “Evangeline,” written in 1847. Although this mythic story was amended over the years, the epic poem told the story of a couple in love who are separated during the great expulsion and remain separated for many years until she finds her beloved on his death bed in Philadelphia. The opening stanza was once one of the most familiar in American poetry:
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 ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
Once a staple of primary school education, “Evangeline” creates a mythic epic of tragedy and lost love because of the expulsion.
. . . On the falling tide the freighted vessels departed,
Bearing a nation, with all its household goods, into exile,
Exile without an end, and without an example in story.
Far asunder, on separate coasts, the Acadians landed;
Scattered were they, like flakes of snow, when the wind from the northeast Strikes aslant through the fogs that darkened the Banks of Newfoundland. Friendless, homeless, hopeless, they wandered from city to city.
From the cold lakes of the North to sultry, Southern savannas,
From the bleak shores of the sea to the lands where the Father of Waters Seizes the hills in his hands, and drags them into the ocean.
This exile came to an end when the Acadians settled in the “Eden” of Louisiana, a place incidentally that Longfellow never visited.
On the banks of the Teche, are the towns of St. Maur and St. Martin.
There the long-wandering bride shall be given again to her bridegroom, There the long-absent pastor regain his flock and his sheepfold.
Beautiful is the land, with its prairies and forests of fruit trees;
Under the feet a garden of flowers, and the bluest of heavens Bending above, and resting its dome on the walls of the forest.
They who dwell there have named it the Eden of Louisiana!
As the poem has it, after a tireless search, Evangeline Bellefontaine eventually finds her Gabriel Lajeunesse as he lies dying. As romanticized by later Louisiana amateur historians, Evangeline instead discovers her lost love in St. Martinville. Gabriel, having despaired of ever seeing her again, had married another woman; Evangeline consequently dies of a broken heart.
“Evangeline” became culturally popularized in Louisiana as it recounts the noble demeanor of a tragic Cajun woman in the face of heartbreak and death. It is memorialized by the “Evangeline Oak” and a statue of the heroine in St. Martin de Tours Church, as well as the Acadian House, a small museum in the center of St. Martinville where she supposedly lived.
According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, the house is a symbol of the rebuilding of Cajun culture even if reflecting the architectural style of the next century.
The Acadian House played an important role in the myth, representing the successful rebuilding of Acadian culture in Louisiana while providing a domestic setting in which the rustic image of the Cajun female could be molded into one befitting the American notion of ideal womanhood.
(Wilson Encyclopedia of the Southern Culture, 1989: 221)
No longer just poetic fiction, “Evangeline” has become a cultural icon and has been integrated into Cajun cultural memory as an evocation of an idealized, bucolic past that counterbalanced the socio-economic changes brought about by the impact of external forces on the region. “Evangeline” created a memory that honors the Cajun fight for survival and the recovery of a segment of its society that symbolized the triumph of the spirit over adversity. As a practical matter, the question of the poem’s literal correctness is a distraction from its mythopoetic transcendence.
It can be argued that the poem also helped elevate the cultural status of the Cajuns by what Carl Brasseaux, at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, termed “folkloric truth” (Brasseaux 1988: 26). Brasseaux argues that the myths enshrined in “Evangeline” helped immensely in memorializing the hardships that the Cajun people experienced and in doing so valorized and enhanced their states as a people who had triumphed in defeat.