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Angels on Assignment–Longfellow’s Evangeline

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)Longfellow’s most renowned longer work, Evangeline, inspired by Hawthorne, has even more of the trapping of Romance than the novels that Hawthorne labeled in such a manner. What could be more sentimental than a tale of star-crossed lovers who, separated during the throes of war, finally, after years of searching, find each other just as one of them expires. It’s the sort of stuff that James Cameron grafted onto the Titanic to win a Best Picture Oscar.

Rather than focusing on the dactylic hexameter of the poem or its great liberties with the historical record, I would like to spend a bit of time considering the characters and their interplay with Biblical texts.

The main character, of course, is Evangeline Bellefontaine. The obvious Biblical tie-in with her name is with the idea of good news and the genre label applied to the first four books of the Greek New Testament. At the top level, her name evokes those books and the life of Christ, but as we dissect the word, we find the angelos part of that suggesting not just news but the messenger who brings divine news, the angel. There can be little doubt that Evangeline is portrayed as an angel. Where Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne is eventually seen as (among many other things) an Angel, Evangeline seems to be that from her first appearance in Longfellow’s work. Her surname, meaning “beautiful fountain,” also presents Biblical evocations. In Song of Solomon 4:12, a chaste young woman is called a “fountain sealed.” Elsewhere, fountains, springs, and other local water features suggest wisdom and blessing. In John 4, as Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman, he declares himself as the living water:

 “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Is it too strong a statement to suggest that Jesus is calling himself the “belle fontaine”?

Gabriel LaJeunesse, on the other hand, does not carry quite the messianic baggage as Evangeline. His first name, obviously, is taken from the most prominent angel in the Biblical tradition, tasked with announcing the impending births of both John the Baptist and Jesus. His surname refers to youth. Gabriel is almost if not equally as blameless as Evangeline. His only real fault, we could suggest, is moving around the country too quickly and thus staying just out of his beloved’s reach.

What then can we make of these two characters, both of whom seem angelic both in naming and in behavior? It takes little imagination to hear echoes in this story of Jesus’ parables of lost things in Luke 15. Evangeline, the Good News Beautiful Fountain Christ figure, seeks tirelessly for her beloved just as the shepherd leaves the 99 to pursue the 1, the woman searches for the lost coin, and the father stands outside watching for the prodigal son to return. Her response, when finally reunited with Gabriel is not to lament the lost years or the shattered dreams of a life together and family. Instead, she reflects on the moment and offers a brief prayer of thanks:

All was ended now, the hope, and the fear, and the sorrow,
All was ended 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!’

The lines before these allude to the blood around the door at the first Passover and a return to an Eden-like existence in the “forest primeval” of Acadie. I could go on in exploring the Christian themes to be found in this largely ignored poem, but their lack of profundity in expression probably makes what has been said sufficient.

A.H. Strong comments  on Longfellow’s theology,

He never reached Dante’s heights, because he had never sounded Dante’s depths. It was only the superficial aspects of Christianity which he described. He did not understand the plan of God; but he did accept its results. Let us be thankful that, even so, he could give comfort to multitudes of God’s children.

That assessment seems solid. The poet’s strength of thought did not mount to the strength of his verse, exactly the opposite that we saw with Michael Wigglesworth. Still, Evangeline has been too long relegated to the lower tiers of significance in American literature.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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