Uplifted by Longfellow

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow PD-US

I finished Longfellow’s “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” today. Admittedly, after the first few pages, I was certain I knew the trajectory of the poem—just another banal tale of romance, of lost love and subsequent suffering—and started to lose interest. But knowing Longfellow hadn’t disappointed me before, I read on, and as the rest of the story unfolded I got a sense that it was heading in an unexpected direction. That direction ultimately led to a climax that was gloomy, yet surprisingly uplifting.

Fast-forwarding to said climax (doing a great disservice to the rest of this fantastic piece for the sake of brevity): a plague descends upon the town that Evangeline and her husband, Gabriel, inhabit and kills the majority of the people. (A quick interjection: Longfellow writes, “Wealth had no power to bribe, nor beauty to charm, the oppressor,” describing how powerless the people were to fight it. Reading that made me realize that regardless of our accomplishments, station, or class, we are all still just humans—empowering yet discouraging.) Gabriel is among those unfortunate enough to contract the illness and he passes, at which point Evangeline presses her husband’s lifeless head to her bosom and prays: “Father, I thank thee.”

That expression of gratitude changed my perspective on death entirely. I used to only see it as this terrible, irreversible separation that rips your heart out and sets you on a course of suffering and lament. But in her case, it brought closure—an end to the sorrow, the uncertainty, the futile hope and yearning. I had never seen death as something that could bring relief before.

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