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Criticism - EVANGELINE Post by :bootsie Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :1423

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Criticism - EVANGELINE

A review of Mr. Longfellow's poem.

EUREKA! Here, then, we have it at last,--an American poem, with the lack of which British reviewers have so long reproached us. Selecting the subject of all others best calculated for his purpose,--the expulsion of the French settlers of Acadie from their quiet and pleasant homes around the Basin of Minas, one of the most sadly romantic passages in the history of the Colonies of the North,--the author has succeeded in presenting a series of exquisite pictures of the striking and peculiar features of life and nature in the New World. The range of these delineations extends from Nova Scotia on the northeast to the spurs of the Rocky Mountains on the west and the Gulf of Mexico on the south. Nothing can be added to his pictures of quiet farm-life in Acadie, the Indian summer of our northern latitudes, the scenery of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the bayous and cypress forests of the South, the mocking-bird, the prairie, the Ozark hills, the Catholic missions, and the wild Arabs of the West, roaming with the buffalo along the banks of the Nebraska. The hexameter measure he has chosen has the advantage of a prosaic freedom of expression, exceedingly well adapted to a descriptive and narrative poem; yet we are constrained to think that the story of Evangeline would have been quite as acceptable to the public taste had it been told in the poetic prose of the author's Hyperion.

In reading it and admiring its strange melody we were not without fears that the success of Professor Longfellow in this novel experiment might prove the occasion of calling out a host of awkward imitators, leading us over weary wastes of hexameters, enlivened neither by dew, rain, nor fields of offering.

Apart from its Americanism, the poem has merits of a higher and universal character. It is not merely a work of art; the pulse of humanity throbs warmly through it. The portraits of Basil the blacksmith, the old notary, Benedict Bellefontaine, and good Father Felician, fairly glow with life. The beautiful Evangeline, loving and faithful unto death, is a heroine worthy of any poet of the present century.

The editor of the Boston Chronotype, in the course of an appreciative review of this poem, urges with some force a single objection, which we are induced to notice, as it is one not unlikely to present itself to the minds of other readers:--

"We think Mr. Longfellow ought to have expressed a much deeper indignation at the base, knavish, and heartless conduct of the English and Colonial persecutors than he has done. He should have put far bolder and deeper tints in the picture of suffering. One great, if not the greatest, end of poetry is rhadamanthine justice. The poet should mete out their deserts to all his heroes; honor to whom honor, and infamy to whom infamy, is due.

"It is true that the wrong in this case is in a great degree fathered upon our own Massachusetts; and it maybe said that it is afoul bird that pollutes its own nest. We deny the applicability of the rather musty proverb. All the worse. Of not a more contemptible vice is what is called American literature guilty than this of unmitigated self- laudation. If we persevere in it, the stock will become altogether too small for the business. It seems that no period of our history has been exempt from materials for patriotic humiliation and national self- reproach; and surely the present epoch is laying in a large store of that sort. Had our poets always told us the truth of ourselves, perhaps it would now be otherwise. National self-flattery and concealment of faults must of course have their natural results."

We must confess that we read the first part of Evangeline with something of the feeling so forcibly expressed by Professor Wright. The natural and honest indignation with which, many years ago, we read for the first time that dark page of our Colonial history--the expulsion of the French neutrals--was reawakened by the simple pathos of the poem; and we longed to find an adequate expression of it in the burning language of the poet. We marvelled that he who could so touch the heart by his description of the sad suffering of the Acadian peasants should have permitted the authors of that suffering to escape without censure. The outburst of the stout Basil, in the church of Grand Pre, was, we are fain to acknowledge, a great relief to us. But, before reaching the close of the volume, we were quite reconciled to the author's forbearance. The design of the poem is manifestly incompatible with stern "rhadamanthine justice" and indignant denunciation of wrong. It is a simple story of quiet pastoral happiness, of great sorrow and painful bereavement, and of the endurance of a love which, hoping and seeking always, wanders evermore up and down the wilderness of the world, baffled at every turn, yet still retaining faith in God and in the object of its lifelong quest. It was no part of the writer's object to investigate the merits of the question at issue between the poor Acadians and their Puritan neighbors. Looking at the materials before him with the eye of an artist simply, he has arranged them to suit his idea of the beautiful and pathetic, leaving to some future historian the duty of sitting in judgment upon the actors in the atrocious outrage which furnished them. With this we are content. The poem now has unity and sweetness which might have been destroyed by attempting to avenge the wrongs it so vividly depicts. It is a psalm of love and forgiveness: the gentleness and peace of Christian meekness and forbearance breathe through it. Not a word of censure is directly applied to the marauding workers of the mighty sorrow which it describes just as it would a calamity from the elements,--a visitation of God. The reader, however, cannot fail to award justice to the wrong-doers. The unresisting acquiescence of the Acadians only deepens his detestation of the cupidity and religious bigotry of their spoilers. Even in the language of the good Father Felician, beseeching his flock to submit to the strong hand which had been laid upon them, we see and feel the magnitude of the crime to be forgiven:--

"Lo, where the crucified Christ from his cross is gazing upon you!
See in those sorrowful eyes what meekness and holy compassion!
Hark! how those lips still repeat the prayer, O Father, forgive
Let us repeat that prayer in the hour when the wicked assail us;
Let us repeat it now, and say, O Father, forgive them!"

How does this simple prayer of the Acadians contrast with the "deep damnation of their taking off!"

The true history of the Puritans of New England is yet to be written. Somewhere midway between the caricatures of the Church party and the self-laudations of their own writers the point may doubtless be found from whence an impartial estimate of their character may be formed. They had noble qualities: the firmness and energy which they displayed in the colonization of New England must always command admiration. We would not rob them, were it in our power to do so, of one jot or tittle of their rightful honor. But, with all the lights which we at present possess, we cannot allow their claim of saintship without some degree of qualification. How they seemed to their Dutch neighbors at New Netherlands, and their French ones at Nova Scotia, and to the poor Indians, hunted from their fisheries and game-grounds, we can very well conjecture. It may be safely taken for granted that their gospel claim to the inheritance of the earth was not a little questionable to the Catholic fleeing for his life from their jurisdiction, to the banished Baptist shaking off the dust of his feet against them, and to the martyred Quaker denouncing woe and judgment upon them from the steps of the gallows. Most of them were, beyond a doubt, pious and sincere; but we are constrained to believe that among them were those who wore the livery of heaven from purely selfish motives, in a community where church-membership was an indispensable requisite, the only open sesame before which the doors of honor and distinction swung wide to needy or ambitious aspirants. Mere adventurers, men of desperate fortunes, bankrupts in character and purse, contrived to make gain of godliness under the church and state government of New England, put on the austere exterior of sanctity, quoted Scripture, anathematized heretics, whipped Quakers, exterminated Indians, burned and spoiled the villages of their Catholic neighbors, and hewed down their graven images and "houses of Rimmon." It is curious to observe how a fierce religious zeal against heathen and idolaters went hand in hand with the old Anglo-Saxon love of land and plunder. Every crusade undertaken against the Papists of the French colonies had its Puritan Peter the Hermit to summon the saints to the wars of the Lord. At the siege of Louisburg, ten years before the onslaught upon the Acadian settlers, one minister marched with the Colonial troops, axe in hand, to hew down the images in the French churches; while another officiated in the double capacity of drummer and chaplain,--a "drum ecclesiastic," as Hudibras has it.

At the late celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims in New York, the orator of the day labored at great length to show that the charge of intolerance, as urged against the colonists of New England, is unfounded in fact. The banishment of the Catholics was very sagaciously passed over in silence, inasmuch as the Catholic Bishop of New York was one of the invited guests, and (hear it, shade of Cotton Mather!) one of the regular toasts was a compliment to the Pope. The expulsion of Roger Williams was excused and partially justified; while the whipping, ear- cropping, tongue-boring, and hanging of the Quakers was defended, as the only effectual method of dealing with such devil-driven heretics, as Mather calls them. The orator, in the new-born zeal of his amateur Puritanism, stigmatizes the persecuted class as "fanatics and ranters, foaming forth their mad opinions;" compares them to the Mormons and the crazy followers of Mathias; and cites an instance of a poor enthusiast, named Eccles, who, far gone in the "tailor's melancholy," took it into his head that he must enter into a steeple-house pulpit and stitch breeches "in singing time,"--a circumstance, by the way, which took place in Old England,--as a justification of the atrocious laws of the Massachusetts Colony. We have not the slightest disposition to deny the fanaticism and folly of some few professed Quakers in that day; and had the Puritans treated them as the Pope did one of their number whom he found crazily holding forth in the church of St. Peter, and consigned them to the care of physicians as religious monomaniacs, no sane man could have blamed them. Every sect, in its origin, and especially in its time of persecution, has had its fanatics. The early Christians, if we may credit the admissions of their own writers or attach the slightest credence to the statements of pagan authors, were by no means exempt from reproach and scandal in this respect. Were the Puritans themselves the men to cast stones at the Quakers and Baptists? Had they not, in the view at least of the Established Church, turned all England upside down with their fanaticisms and extravagances of doctrine and conduct? How look they as depicted in the sermons of Dr. South, in the sarcastic pages of Hudibras, and the coarse caricatures of the clerical wits of the times of the second Charles? With their own backs scored and their ears cropped for the crime of denying the divine authority of church and state in England, were they the men to whip Baptists and hang Quakers for doing the same thing in Massachusetts?

Of all that is noble and true in the Puritan character we are sincere admirers. The generous and self-denying apostleship of Eliot is, of itself, a beautiful page in their history. The physical daring and hardihood with which, amidst the times of savage warfare, they laid the foundations of mighty states, and subdued the rugged soil, and made the wilderness blossom; their steadfast adherence to their religious principles, even when the Restoration had made apostasy easy and profitable; and the vigilance and firmness with which, under all circumstances, they held fast their chartered liberties and extorted new rights and privileges from the reluctant home government,--justly entitle them to the grateful remembrance of a generation now reaping the fruits of their toils and sacrifices. But, in expressing our gratitude to the founders of New England, we should not forget what is due to truth and justice; nor, for the sake of vindicating them from the charge of that religious intolerance which, at the time, they shared with nearly all Christendom, undertake to defend, in the light of the nineteenth century, opinions and practices hostile to the benignant spirit of the gospel and subversive of the inherent rights of man.

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