We’re reading Longfellow’s Evangeline for American literature class this week. I wonder if my high school students will appreciate it; i wonder if they’ll even get through it. Maybe if I tie the story to somethng or someone nowadays . . . (Just kidding, guys.)
But a celestial brightness—a more ethereal beauty—
Shone on her face and encircled her form, when, after confession,
Homeward serenely she walked with God’s benediction upon her.
When she had passed, it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.
Hawthorne had a different reaction to the illustrations (1860 Edition of Evangeline, illustrated by Jane Bentham). After Fields sent him a copy of the deluxe edition, he wrote back to say that Benham’s “representations of the heroine have suggested to me a new theory” about the poem: “Evangeline is so infernally awkward and ugly . . . that Gabriel was all the time running away from her, . . . when she at last caught him, it was naturally and inevitably the instant death of the poor fellow.”
I think Hawthorne’s interpretation unlikely in light of the plain words of the poem itself, but I also can’t imagine anyone so beautiful that when she passed by it would seem as if exquisite music had ceased. Wouldn’t that be a delightful effect to create? Exhausting, perhaps, but fun for a while.
Benedict Bellefontaine, thou hast ever thy jest and thy ballad!
Ever in cheerfullest mood art thou, when others are filled with
Gloomy forebodings of ill, and see only ruin before them.
Happy art thou, as if every day thou hadst picked up a horseshoe.
Now I do know people who seem to be unfailingly cheerful. Not me.
Feeling is deep and still; and the word that floats on the surface
Is as the tossing buoy that betrays where the anchor is hidden.
Therefore trust to thy heart, and to what the world calls illusion.
Evangeline, like Don Quixote or Abraham in the Bible, has only faith to sustain her, faith in God and faith in her quest to find Gabriel. I was discussing characters like Abraham and Don Quixote, characters of faith, with someone yesterday. We couldn’t think of any female literary characters who qualified as “White Knights of Faith.” Perhaps Evangeline, Bellefontaine, not Lilly, qualifies. No one on LOST, it seems so far, has a true faith, faith in something real that “the world calls illusion,” faith that’s not tinged with superstition and romanticism. Maybe Mr. Eko—or Rose.