Study Guide

Evangeline Christianity

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


"Evangeline" is a pretty straightforward (if long and sad) poem, relying heavily on narrative to carry its themes to the reader (check out our "Themes" section for more). At the same time, Longfellow borrows heavily from Christian imagery in order to drive his points home. Really, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting some Biblical reference or other in this poem (not that we'd encourage you to engage in such awful behavior). Evangeline is encouraged by priests (see lines 724-727), comforted by thoughts of heaven (see lines 520-524 and 820-826), and sheltered by Catholic missions (check out lines 1134-1226). Ultimately, she devotes her own life to a kind of religious service, the Sisters of Mercy, which—if you've been paying attention at all—comes as no real surprise.

It's not just Evangeline who's jumping on the Christian bandwagon, though. The poem's speaker busts out Biblical allusions like he's trying to win something. (We suppose that, if they ever did hold a religious allusion contest, he'd be a strong contender.) Check it out:

And, as she gazed from the window, she saw serenely the moon pass
Forth from the folds of a cloud, and one star follow her footsteps,
As out of Abraham's tent young Ishmael wandered with Hagar!

Of course, we can all probably guess what the moon and a star look like hanging out together in the sky. But here we guess it really helps to know the Biblical story of Ishmael and Hagar? (Check it out here if you don't.) Clearly, our speaker knows about it. This is just one example of many (check out "Shout-Outs") where he weighs in with a reference to Christian scripture.

But just what about the Christian faith is so important to this poem? Why does Longfellow—though both his protagonist and his speaker—rep the faith so much? There are a few answers to this question.

Answer 1: It was probably pretty true to the times. The role of religion was pretty central to daily life, especially in the colonies, where life was often difficult and dangerous and spiritual (Christian) teachings were relied upon to set forth a common understanding of the way the world worked.

Answer 2: It lends the poem that epic dimension of spirituality. As we discuss in "Form and Meter," Longfellow was writing this poem squarely in the epic literary tradition, which called for a strong current of spiritual or mythological imagery. The Biblical passages and spiritual images do just that.

Answer 3: It heightens the effect of Evangeline's purity. By emphasizing her spiritual devotion, and casting her struggle in religious terms, Longfellow elevates his protagonist. She's not just some poor farm girl with a bad life. She's a figure whose religious purity and faithfulness stand as moral models for the rest of us to follow.