A truly romantic poem should contain the basic elements of passion: a handsome, strapping boy, a beautiful, virginal maiden, moonlit evenings, suspenseful tension, unchecked lust, smoldering desire, and an ever-present father figure. That is, of course, if the author of the poem is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his epic work Evangeline, Longfellow appears to write a heart-breaking tale of unfulfilled romance and pining true love. However, the fathers and father figures who appear repeatedly throughout the poem complicate this ideal motif. A reader expecting to by wooed by the twists and turns of a youthful love affair cannot help but question the heavy emphasis placed on paternity in the poem. Then again, a more thorough examination of the Christian overtones in the poem explains these frequent fathers. In Evangeline, Longfellow does not actually wish to tell the sympathetic story of star-crossed lovers. Instead, he creates an allegory of a soul who begins to slip into idol worship but eventually returns to a true faith. Throughout the piece, the father remains a constant symbol for God's importance in Evangeline's life. The types of fathers who surround Evangeline change as the poem progresses. Longfellow employs Evangeline's natural father in the first section to establish the allegory, the priest and Basil in the second section to show her false devotion, and the missionary in the last section to show her return to God. Thus, the evolution of the father figure in the poem reveals Longfellow's message about idolatry.
In the opening section of the poem, Evangeline represents the truest form of Christian piety. She is innocent, radiant, and pure; Longfellow describes her glowingly, going even so far as to say that "she walked with God's benediction upon her" (48.) Her close, devotional relationship to her natural father represents her intimacy with God. The portrait of Evangeline and her father is one of joy and self sufficiency. The two of them live on their farm together, happily content with one another's company and provided with all of life's necessities. It is important to note that the dutiful daughter cares for her father's household like a pious priest in a house of god. In fact, when Evangeline and her father spend quiet evenings together, they are "as in a church" where nothing interrupts Evangeline's worship(54.) Longfellow sums up this happy relationship by saying, "thus, at peace with God and the world, the farmer of Grand-Pre/ lived on his sunny farm, and Evangeline governed his household" (49.) As a child, Evangeline looked with wonder upon fathers. She and Gabriel would run home from school to stare in rapture at Basil, Gabriel's father, as he toiled at his bellows. This youthful amazement evokes a child's awe of God's powers of creation. Truly, Evangeline is initially a model for pure devotion to God, as represented by her true devotion to the father figure. Unfortunately, this peaceful state does not last forever. Evangeline grows from a child to a young lady, from rapture through God to rapture through romantic love. Longfellow says of this transition, "thus passed a swift few years, and they were no longer children...she was a woman now, with the heart and hopes of a woman" (50-51.) Her womanly heart is filled with Gabriel, the man she is soon to marry. On the cusp of this momentous occasion, Evangeline faces the transition that every young woman must handle when she is about to marry: the shift towards loving her husband more than she loves her father. Within the allegory, this period represents a time when the soul drifts from God and begins to worship another deity. Gabriel symbolizes idol worship because he is the only male in the poem who is not a father of some type; Benedicte, Basil, the notary, and even Michael the fiddler have children, while the remaining males are all priests or missionaries. Longfellow wants to show that Evangeline should not marry Gabriel and leave her father's home like a priest defecting to a false God. The plot of the invading British thus prevents the marriage and begins the message that Evangeline must return God to the forefront of her life. The invasion initially seems to drive Evangeline back to her father, as she waits for a while at her father's door while the men are away. However, she eventually becomes impatient and runs to the church, where, "overcome by emotion,/ 'Gabriel!' cried she aloud with tremulous voice"(67.) Her cries for her lover and not her father symbolize that her heart has indeed placed someone before God. The scene immediately following Evangeline's cries opens with the crowing of a cock. As the third such crow mentioned in the text, this call alludes to Peter's betrayal of Christ (or God, in keeping with the Christian trinity) and reminds readers that Evangeline has betrayed her father's love and fallen for another (48, 52, 67.) Benedicte's next appearance reinforces this image. He is haggard and tired, and the light has left his eyes like one who has lost a love as well as a homeland. The death of Evangeline's natural father completes the first phase of the allegory. Because fathers symbolize God, she emerges as flawlessly faithful, begins to place love of a person before love of God, and finally loses the light and warmth of God in her day-to- day life. The tone is now set for the second phase of the allegory, where Evangeline will wander in search of the false idol despite the fathers who call her back to God.
In the second section of the poem, Evangeline shows an incredible devotion for Gabriel but fails to respond to the influence of God as portrayed by Basil and the priest. She arrives in America feeling empty; rather than praising God for delivering her people to a continent where they can live and prosper without fear, she wanders unhappily, urged by a "fever" within her. Longfellow details that "something in her life was incomplete, imperfect...urged by the restless longing, the hunger and thirst of the spirit"(75.) The poet's diction here is important. The word 'longing' connotes romantic love or lust, signifying that Evangeline desires a physical, earthly satisfaction for her fever. On the other hand, the reference to a 'hunger of the spirit' is more biblical in tone and reminds the readers that the true cause of Evangeline's unhappiness is her distance from God. She cannot see that she seeks the wrong remedy, however, because she is blinded by her love for Gabriel and cannot feel her spiritual rift. When she proclaims that "when the heart goes before, like a lamp, and illuminates the pathway,/ many things are made clear, that else lie hidden in darkness" and the priest, "her friend and father-confessor" replies that "God thus speaketh within [her]," they understand two different meanings (76.) She thinks that she must follow her heart to Gabriel, but the priest knows that God's words prescribe a heart devoted to God in order to make things clear. Thus, he tells her that her affection is not wasted because it can refresh the heart of its giver. He sends her forth on her journey, not so that she can worship Gabriel, but so that she can learn through her trial to make God supreme in her life. His most important words are, "therefore accomplish thy labor of love, till the heart is made godlike" (76.) He does not tell her to seek until she finds her idol, but to search until her heart is united with God. As the plot of the poem bears out, this is an important distinction to make and one, which Evangeline must suffer much to learn. When she sets out with the priest, she is still entirely focused on Gabriel. Longfellow reveals God's hand in the separation of the lovers again in the swamps when he points out that "Angel of God was there none to awaken the slumbering maiden"; had God wanted the marriage to work, Longfellow seems to imply, he would have ended their separation in the drifting boats (81.) Instead, Evangeline continues on her path to Basil's farm, where the former blacksmith takes over as the father figure in her life. Longfellow refers to Basil's "patriarchal demeanor" and compares his home to Mount Olympus to reinforce his status as a symbolic father and God to Evangeline (87.) Just as Evangeline has been sent away from God's hand and forced to wander back into the fold because of her earthly worship, Basil has sent Gabriel away so that he will stop brooding so much over her. Indeed, he even calls Gabriel the prodigal son to reinforce the father/faith motif. Basil, offering pious advice, tells Evangeline to be of good cheer and calmly reunite with Gabriel. Instead, Evangeline ignores this plea for temperance and allows her idolizing emotions to consume her. She symbolically wanders away from Basil's house that night and into the garden, where she yearns for her lover. The narrative voice steps in to make the meaning of this passage clear; Evangeline is thoroughly distracted from God. While "over her head the stars, the thoughts of God in the heavens,/ shone on the eyes of man, who had ceased to marvel and worship…the soul of the maiden, between the stars and the fireflies,/ wandered alone, and she cried, 'O Gabriel!' "(90.) She fails to take notice of God's thoughts and intents because she focuses on worshiping an earthly love. When she and Basil leave the house the next day, Evangeline loses part of her religious authority because the priest stays behind. She continues to search in vain for Gabriel, but she strays farther and farther from the influence of God. A drastic shift in her faith remains the only option for the salvation of her soul.
In the third section of the poem, Evangeline reaches a turning point and returns God to the prominent place in her heart, as evidenced by her relationship with a spiritual father. While Evangeline travels with Basil, a Shawnee woman camps with the party for a night. The woman tells Evangeline tribal legends about other women who searched for lost love, and these pagan stories finally produce the necessary change in Evangeline's faith. When she tries to concentrate on thoughts of Gabriel and drift off to sleep, she feels a "secret, subtle sense…of pain and indefinite terror…it was no earthly fear. A breath from the region of spirits seemed to float in the air"(95.) In this dramatic scene, Evangeline feels for the first time the alienation of her separation from God. The breath of spirit breathes doubt and caution into Evangeline, as though God had sent an Angel to stir her thoughts. She realizes that she has been chasing a blasphemous false idol, that "she, too, like the Indian maid, was pursuing a phantom"(95.) After this revelation she falls into a peaceful sleep, noting that both the fear and the phantom are gone. The direction of Evangeline's life has changed; she now begins to center her life around God with increasing consistency. The first sign of her new faith is her decision to seek out a spiritual father. The Shawnee woman mentions a "black robe" who preaches the gospel, and Evangeline feels "a sudden and secret emotion" that drives her towards the mission (95.) At the mission, Longfellow describes the priest and kneeling with "his children" to accentuate his role as the new father figure of the poem(95.) Evangeline hears that Gabriel has continued north, but does not set off to follow him as she has done before. Instead, she decides to remain at the mission. This choice reflects the bending of her heart towards God and piety rather than earthly attachments. Her voice upon announcing her new direction is "meek and submissive" and she asks to remain with the priest because her "soul is sad and afflicted" (97). This concept of submissiveness to the father and unburdening of the soul onto God is in line with the traditional Christian teachings that Longfellow supports through his allegory. Although seasons pass and Gabriel does not appear, Evangeline remains at the mission, in the presence of God. Although she has not given up her search for Gabriel, he is no longer the center of her being. God has rooted a place in her heart. When she eventually leaves the mission and continues her journey, Gabriel is nowhere to be found. Her devotion is eventually split between the two beings that have vied for her attention throughout the poem: her God and her lover. When she decides to follow God and relinquish her search, her transition is complete.
The symbol of fathers as God figures carries through the entire poem, conveying the message that Evangeline must place no one above God in her heart. In the final scenes of the poem, she makes the choice to serve God in Pennsylvania. She has not forgotten Gabriel, but she does God's work rather than roam restlessly in search of idolatry. She has now returned to the state of grace in which she began the poem. In her old age, however, her faith is deeper and stronger than the wondering awe of a child. She is so devoted to her heavenly father that people call her the Sister of Mercy and "gleams of celestial light encircle her forehead with splendor" (101.) Now, in her most pious incarnation, God rewards her by sending Gabriel to her at last. As she cradles his dying body, her understanding is complete. She realizes that her earthly obsession with her fiancée has saddened God and that her piety now makes their reunion possible. When he dies, she thinks of "all the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing" that she once felt but now ends (104). The last image of Evangeline the reader sees is when she presses Gabriel's head to her bosom, "meekly she bowed her own, and murmured, 'Father, I thank thee!'"(104.) She thanks God for bringing an and to her earthly obsession and sinful longing by leading her to a path of meekness and piety. The fact that she addresses God as 'Father' is important; her transition from natural father to heavenly father is complete, and through father symbolism she has served as an example to all readers to keep God foremost in their hearts.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth: "Evangeline" and Selected Tales and Poems, ed. Horace Gregory (New York: Signet Classics, 1964)