Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE FOREST PRIMEVAL


When Lori, my brother Paul’s wife, sent me another e-mail image of one of Paul’s recent paintings, still drying on the easel in his yard, I recognized the title of the painting, “The Forest Primeval,” as the first line of Longfellow’s famous poem “Evangeline” – a tale of “love in Acadie, home of the happy” (otherwise known as Nova Scotia). I love the light and the mystical scenery in Paul’s painting and feel that it must have been inspired by Paul’s knowledge of our Vincent ancestors who were expelled from “Acadie” during the Grand Derangement from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.

According to noted Louisiana author Harnett Kane, the authentic story about Evangeline was passed along by the Mouton and Voorhies families in Acadiana and began with the grandmother of Judge Felix Voorhies. The grandmother had raised an orphan girl, Emmeline Labiche, in the Canadian home of the Acadians before the Grand Derangement. At sixteen, Emmeline was betrothed to Louis Arceaneux, and the marriage banns had already been published. The day before the marriage, Louis was injured and carried away; Emmeline collapsed, screaming for her lover. During the Grand Derangement, she and her guardian were taken aboard a ship and transported to Maryland. Emmeline thought that Louis would be there when she landed, but he couldn’t be found among the crowd of people who had been expelled from their homeland. After several years, the Acadians in Maryland heard about Louisiana, and Emmeline was among those who made a perilous voyage to St. Martinville in Teche country. When Emmeline stepped off the boat, she glimpsed Louis Arceneaux standing underneath a large, moss-laden live oak. However, when she reached out her arms to him, he turned away and said in a muffled voice that he had pledged himself to someone else. He had waited, but too much time had passed and he had asked another woman to marry him.

From that day on, Emmeline’s manner became, in Kane’s words, “strange… alternating between melancholy and tremulous excitement.” She wandered along the banks of Bayou Teche, picking moss and flowers, weeping and talking about Acadie and of her marriage to be consummated the next week. She would talk about Louis being killed by soldiers and often asked people what would become of her. Her health deteriorated and she died, still believing that she would reunite with Louis.

Longfellow heard about this romantic story that took place in Teche country and was intrigued with it. Actually, he had heard the tale from Nathaniel Hawthorne when they shared breakfast together one morning. Longfellow told Hawthorne he wanted to write about this “idyll in hexameter,” and Hawthorne agreed that the poet could use the story. Longfellow had never been in Louisiana, but he read histories, studied pictures, and corresponded with people who knew about St. Martinville. Longfellow was then teaching at Harvard, and a student of his who was a St. Martinville native, corroborated the story told by the Voorhies family. Longfellow began to create his epic poem and was surprised when it was published and circulated widely throughout the U.S.

The Longfellow story differs from the Voorhies account in that Louis (who is Gabriel in the poem) didn’t forget his Emmeline (Evangeline). In the poem, Evangeline arrived in Louisiana, as did the real-life Emmeline, but she wandered throughout the countryside, searching for Gabriel and found him, dying in a hospital far from Teche country. The story about this romantic pair became so popular that a statue of Emmeline was placed on her tombstone near St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church in St. Martinville, and the huge oak beside the bayou in that town has been commemorated as the place where Evangeline found Gabriel. This story has gained much prominence in the U.S., and people in Louisiana often refer to St. Martinville and environs as “Evangeline Country,” scene of “the forest primeval” depicted in Paul’s beautiful painting.
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