American Aeneid

The Aeneid by Virgil is one of the greatest things of all time. It is the epic poem which tells the story of how Aeneas and the Trojans fled from their burning city after the attack of the Greeks. They crossed the Mediterranean to reach the place where they were destined by the gods to live: Rome. Aeneas is confronted with temptations to give up the long journey, including the lovely Dido, but he never gives in. He is driven on by his sense of destiny. Nothing is more important than his duty to reach Rome.

A likeness of the heroine
A likeness of the heroine

Earlier this week I was thinking about the Acadians. I first learned the history of the Acadian exile from a Creole seminary classmate. The Acadians were French colonists who lived in Nova Scotia. During the French and Indian War (1755-58), they were exiled by the British and their towns were burned. They were forced to return to France or to move south in North America. Many of them eventually came to Louisiana.

I am ashamed to admit that I had never read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline, so I got up early this morning to read it.

Evangeline is the most beautiful Acadian maiden in the village of Grand-Pre. Longfellow depicts Acadia as a kind of Eden; Evangeline’s greatest pleasure is to pour bowls of fresh ale for the men. She is engaged to marry the blacksmith’s son Gabriel, the love of her life. But then the British arrive and burn the town and put Evangeline and Gabriel on different ships to send them to an unknown fate.

Longfellow refers at least once directly to the Aeneid, and his style is like Virgil’s throughout the poem. But Longfellow’s Aeneas is not a swashbuckler driven by destiny but a kind, pure, long-suffering woman driven by love. She searches the rivers, plains, mountains, towns, and cities of the beautiful America of two centuries ago for her lost love. I am not going to give away the sublime ending.

Evangeline is even more a hero than the great Roman Aeneas–more admirable, more hearbreaking. The American Aeneid is a long, sad poem. But, man, oh man, is it worth reading. It will make you fall in love with our country again. It makes you feel like our country really is something–something wonderful and storied. Don’t get me wrong: the U.S.A. has many claims to fame. But to have our own Aeneid is…well, beautiful. Many things come and go, but having your own Aeneid does not easily slip away.